January 14, 2009

Inevitable Information Imbalance

So many times when I have a disagreement with someone, I am struck by how my counterpart seems to be responding to a world that is simply different than the one in which I live. Discussion of the issue becomes strained when it seems we cannot agree on facts in common. An interesting insight on this point is offered from Tom Maguire at Justoneminute (riffing off of Ezra Klein at American Prospect and Matt Yglesias): We all have opinions on issues. Our opinions are based on facts and information that are known to us. But here's the rub -- we gather facts and information selectively, so as to support opinions that already existed.

The linked articles all apply to politics, which is perhaps the easiest way to identify this phenomenon. For instance, Freddie from L'Hôte looks at the same internet articles I do about the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza. I conclude that Hamas are a bunch of thugs using human shields, human scum who deserve to be eradicated and the civilians who get killed in the conflict are their victims. Freddie sees the exact opposite -- he sees the Israelis as cruel oppressors who are as responsible for the death and suffering of the people in Gaza as the Hamas rocketeers are for the death and suffering of Israeli civilians. Same data, opposite conclusions. Is Freddie dumb? Is he a moral simpleton? No, far from it. Am I those things? No, I don't think so. But still -- same information in, different result out.

I see it in law, too -- eyewitnesses to the same incident describe seemingly very different things happening and reach very different conclusions about who was at fault and even what happened at all. Witness A: "The blue car was driving all crazy. That guy was a drunken fool. He swerved around this other car, sped up, ran through the red light, and hit the red car. It's totally the blue car's fault." Witness B: "The red car sped up to beat a yellow light and he should have stopped instead. So then he got himself trapped when the light changed and had to come to a screeching halt. He just made himself a target out there in that intersection, and he caused that accident. What's that about the red light? No, the blue car had the green light."

Creationists appear to me to be astonishingly blind -- selectively and seemingly willfully so -- to the evidence supporting evolution by way of natural selection. They also accuse "evolutionists" like myself of being willfully blind to the purportedly overwhelming evidence of God's hand in the creation of life. And there's apparently no using facts and evidence to change someone's mind on this; whatever evidence is offered by one side will be viewed through a lens so jaundiced by the other that it effectively does not exist. I'd like to say that I would be able to consider evidence that they would offer objectvely, but in all honesty, after learning what I have about the issue, I doubt that's true because the first thing that leaps out to me from every example is the fallacy underlying it -- typically it's the argument from incredulity or a straw man, but that's getting more specific than I need to be here because this is not a post about evolution.

And most prosaically but perhaps most clearly, consider the question of children in restaraunts. Kids get bored in restaraunts when they're not eating, and they demand a high amount of attention.* On that, a lot of people will agree. But the degree to which childrens' loud play or vocalizations will be tolerated in a particular instance varies highly. Some people are apparently completely indifferent to kids acting out in restaraunts; I'm much more sensitive to it and it takes an exercise of patience and focus to make myself ignore it. It would be one thing for the parent of a child acting out in a restaraunt to say, "My kid wasn't behaving inappropriately," because that might involve a difference of opinion about what is appropriate in the first place. But the parent would more typically say something like, "My kid wasn't doing anything at all." I gather information about the kid's behavior like, "She's been shrieking in apparent terror for ten solid minutes." The parent gathers information like, "Aww, she's happy." The result is that I am irritated and tense, while the parent is happy and relaxed -- I have gathered information about the child's vocalizations that the parent has no ability to perceive; the parent, similarly, has gathered information about the child that I cannot perceive.

How this state of affairs came to be may well be something of a chicken-and-egg question. Once the cycle starts, the phenomenon is clear. Once I have formed a bias, I will then view the world through the lens of that bias and gather information which supports my opinion, and eschew information which discounts it. But where did the bias come from? I had to have had information to react to in the first place, right? I think the answer may be "no."

The reason I say that is, in all of these cases, it's not just a case of interpreting the same facts differently. It's a case of gathering facts that support the conclusion and excluding facts that discount from it. The information never gets stored in your brain in the first place. It's simply not there to interpret one way or another. It's not viewing the world through a lens, it's viewing the world through blinders. That's why one person seems to be living in a different version of reality than someone else -- despite being exposed to the same things, different memories result.

This is a difficult thing to recognize in yourself and a more difficult thing to combat within yourself. I am not immune from this, and neither are you. Good science depends on being objective about evidence and not pre-determining a result. But it's almost impossible to divorce yourself from your own opinions and preferences, things that happen irrationally, subconsciously, and in all probability, nearly instantaneously.

Where do the different reactions come from? I don't know that we can say, ultimately. But that's worthy of more reflection. For now, my insight, offered for your contemplation, is this: we don't just interpret the same events differently. Instead, we learn about events differently in order to support our pre-judged conclusions, biases which may well have nothing whatsoever to do with the facts at hand.

* I have dinner periodically with friends who bring along their two-year old son. I'm not referring to him here, at least not in particular. My friends are good about appreciating when the kid has had enough and it's time to take him home or otherwise get his behavior toned down.

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