The HPedia: Bias

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Bias is a key concept not only in popular discourse but also in scientific, since the latter takes measures to reduce bias as much as humanly possible.

From Merriam-Webster:

  • an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially : a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice
  • deviation of the expected value of a statistical estimate from the quantity it estimates: systematic error introduced into sampling or testing by selecting or encouraging one outcome or answer over others

Research in cognitive psychology has yielded a vast list of cognitive biases.  Many of these appear to be inherent to the way the human mind often intuitively thinks about things using heuristics, or practical shortcuts.  These get the job done quickly and efficiently for most practical purposes, but are not always the most accurate.  Evolution favors whatever styles of thought produce the most practical results for fitness, even if they don’t necessarily yield the most factually accurate representations of the world (see “Practical reality vs. factual reality”).

Biases can generally be overcome by training and reflection.  However, people often revert back to heuristics when asked to think “on the fly.”  Considerable research has shown that religious people’s statements tend to accurately reflect their tradition’s theology when given time to think, but contradict it when pressed for time, resulting in a phenomenon called theological incorrectness (see Slone).

The phenomenon is not limited to religion.  The same proves true for college physics students asked to solve physics problems under differential time constraints, and the tendency persists even among experts working in their field of expertise (see McCauley).

These findings highlight the importance of scientific method.  While individual scientists are no less prone to bias than the average person, methods such as double-blind trials, replication of results, and peer critique systematically seek out and reduce bias as much as humanly possible.

This also illuminates a key difference between scientific and magico-religious thinking.  Believers in the latter cannot be discounted due to a supposed lack of intelligence, expertise, or rationality.  On the contrary, many such folk are highly intelligent, educated, and thoughtful.  The difference, it seems, is method.  Scientific method systematically endeavors to reduce or eliminate bias, while magico-religious methods are frequently less systematic about it.  Some even embrace an ambiguity where bias may thrive (see Luhrmann).

A bias particularly relevant to spirituality is false consensus bias.  Harvey Whitehouse writes in Aeon magazine:

The very fact that ceremonial actions are not intelligible in practical terms means that we can endow them with many possible functions and meanings. Furthermore, if we don’t know very much about what others are thinking, we tend to believe that what is personally meaningful about the experience of joining in is shared by everyone else. This is the ‘false consensus bias’, well-documented in social psychology.

See also “Ambiguity.”

Check out other entries in our HPedia.

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