Technology bias: Can you avoid it?

Posted by Jack Fewx

Opinion - "You're biased!"  "You're prejudiced!" Not particularly nice things to be called. Labeled as such, especially in today's world, you could find yourself in hot water very quickly. However, these labels are generally not unfitting, despite their slanderous nature. The only problem is that we all exhibit bias, but no one wants to admit it. Since it is Friday, let’s explore this topic: What does that bias mean for technologists today, and can you use biased sources to form an unbiased opinion on technology?

A recent article published on Fox News sparked in me a number of questions about bias: What is it?  How does it start?  Is there anyone really neutral?  What issues does it affect?  And how do we deal with it?

A high school student is challenging the bias of an "American Government" text book.  In this particular case, the teen is alleging that the authors are presenting incorrect or unbalanced facts, with a significant conservative slant.  Without having read the book, I can't say anything about the teen's argument, but I can say without a doubt that in order to perceive bias in the text, the teen is biased against the views of the authors.  That's not to say that the teen or the authors are wrong, just that their opinions and views of the world differ.  This phenomenon is actually well researched.

Psychologists call this issue Confirmation Bias: "Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis." In other words, we see what we want to see, not necessarily because of anything intentional, but because of the influences of our past experiences. I remember back in high school science classes, when we learned about the scientific method, that my teacher was trying to "prove" that a light bulb was really a "dark sucker".  Once he presented his "facts", the argument was really quite convincing. If it weren't for a substantial knowledge of light and how it works, he could have changed my mind.

It is a well-known issue in the practice of law that eyewitnesses are a very unreliable source.  Many people, viewing the same event can come up to drastically different conclusions of what happened.  This has nothing to do with people being unable to see or hear properly, but that our minds naturally interpret everything based on our past experiences.

Social Psychologists have gone to great lengths to study this in depth; more information can be found here, here, here, and here. I personally find interesting the research done at Harvard about subconscious bias based on word association.  The authors call it "Project Implicit".  I encourage everyone to try a few of the tests on the website; you might be surprised at your subconscious biases (or your biases about the subconscious association research).

So understanding that I'm naturally biased, as everyone else is, then it makes reading studies a little brain warping.  Here is a study of studies
(meta-analysis) about bias in college professors.  Numerous studies have been done to try and prove that professors are liberally leaning.  Now, regardless of the facts of the case, it can be concluded that when I read this meta-analysis, I inject my personal bias into it, in addition to the reviewer's bias, which is in addition to the original studies biases, which is compounded with bias of the interviewed students, all about the perceived bias of college professors (Brain recursion...  Segmentation fault (core dumped)).

 

Read on the next page: Technology bias 


 

 

All of this said, what does this mean to us as technologists and other humans?  First off and simply put, "Don't believe everything you read."

Deeper than that, it means that we need to be very careful to weigh the facts, if possible.  Where we can't get all the facts, it is important to be open-minded and willing to read opinions that differ from ours.  Once the extremes of opinions are taken into account, it makes the middle ground easier to discover.  The interpretation of data is so vitally important to research, but it carries so much human baggage with it.

The issues are everywhere, and the flame wars quickly follow.  Whether it is Intel vs. AMD, HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray, Nvidia vs. ATI, Ford vs. Chevy, or even Evolution vs. Intelligent Design, there are far more opinions and egos involved than there are facts.

No more divisive issue comes to mind than Global Warming.  I've looked over the raw data and I can finally see where both sides are coming from.  On one hand, there is definitely a strong upward trend the last 100 years (hockey stick or exponential curve).  The ramifications of this change to our climate would be devastating, and some of these symptoms have already been felt with a dramatic increase in weather phenomena (hurricanes and tornados).  The carbon dioxide levels have increased globally, are very focused around population centers, and evidence points to carbon dioxide as being the number one greenhouse gas.

On the other hand, historically, we're still within the confidence bands of the computer projections for the last 1000 years.  The temperatures in 2007 retreated and the winter of 2008 set many historical low temperatures. Furthermore, green initiatives, such as the Kyoto Protocol, could have a severe economic impact in the short term, according to opponents. This would affect third world nations in particular and the toll in human suffering will be too extreme to justify its actions, we hear.

Those are the facts and opinions. What remains is how each person makes up his or her own mind to come to a conclusion. Personally, I'm still not sure, it looks like a real problem, or it could be a blip in the very long history of our planet. My bias (as an engineer) is to keep things working the best I can.  However, in my experience, tuning things to a razor edge can often break them.

What is to be done then?  Do we do everything humanly possible to fix the problem, because nothing has threatened mankind like this before?  Or is there simply no problem at all?  Is it all hype, and the earth will correct itself like it always has?  Or is it something in between?

Your personal biases will likely favor one side over the other, maybe so much so that you can't even fathom what the other side is thinking. The result may be a common sense conclusion.  In the case of global warming that may simply be to be more conscious in consuming energy resources. That bias, of course, not only applies to global warming. It applies to technology and any other topic we are dealing with.  Before you write the other side off, stop!  Hear the other side out, give their ideas some serious thought, and then draw your own conclusions.

You just might find a gold nugget in the midst of what you thought was complete drivel.