Thursday, August 14, 2008

The academic bias

Assume a person who believes that testable ideas are the most interesting ones. Or (weaker form) that stuff that can be laid down in a very neat and logical way or is testable has a strong superiority.

He will devote all his time etc. to this kind of questions, thereby creating a whole body of knowledge that has been selected not on the basis of importance, utility, reality & truth, but on the basis of what meets the technical criteria.

This may create a very distorted world view. and a off the mark body of knowledge.

Even more extreme oddities will emerge in the dynamics of knowledge and learning. When there is more literature and more people talking about a minor question that happened to fit the "science" criteria. Now other people will develop their life, perception and research in this direction, deviating even more form the more relevant issues that do not fit into technical handling.

These dynamics may create a very biased world view. As examplified elsewhere, small innitial biases may contribute to great deviation in the end.

A great example can be seen with happiness research. Put aside what is "correct" for happiness, it seems plausible that even just because some happiness measures are more "neat" and handy, they become "the currency of trade" in the research community.
AFTER they have become "the currency" of the research, they have several advantages including "framing" (i.e. they are written on the wall of the mind all the time as happiness strengthning their imagined relavance). The other advantage of is that even if you disagree with the idea, you will use it just because there is so much research based on that.

On balance, we have many reasons to value technically collected research. We should as well remember that our goal is not being technically correct. We want certain things from life, and should remember that technical science and logic can handle only part of reality.

Reality is there as it is. It does not care what we want it to be. Sometimes, reality even fights back to those trying to ignore it.


Shnayor said...

Do you see your research as part personal struggle? I.E. 2 steps forward 1 step back?
Please excuse me getting personal, but it resonates and I'm curious.

Yechezkel Zilber said...

You're right.
Doing useful things in real life is not simple.

Inner struggles and all kinds of funny psychological stuff are central here.

i.c. said...

I agree about the possibility of bias and the necessity of staying aware of it.
However, I don't believe that there is "a reality" given somewhere - that is already an example of a bias (...only somehow "stable" phenomena can be picked up - but maybe other processes are more real).
And if you start assuming something like consciousness then it is quite obvious to me that any reality is constructed.

Yechezkel Zilber said...

Reality for me are all things that are - at least partly - not constructed.
If you have X probability to catch a flu from reading my blog in the rain/viruses, this is reality. You will not avoid the flu by not thinking about it (although thiking changes the probabilities, after you think you have a given fixed probability).

Even psychological things are there and alive. the concept of "self" where a person thinks and perceives himself, is a very clear reality. It changes, but it is there no matter if you beleive in it or not.

So reality, is what is there irrespective of what you think there is. The forces of nature + chance + other parameters. You can add to reality, sometimes change it, sometimes ignore it. But I do not understand why you think it is a construct.

i.c. said...

Of course, I could step back to the hairsplitting saying that any "independence" has to be confirmed by someone (?), some measurement (?) or, maybe, only agreement (?). But that's not the main point here.

Obviously the concepts you term reality are an approximation that works to some degree and in some situations (there's not much point in denying that science and technology has produced amazing regularities by assuming such things)

- but the flu is a rather good counter-example: there may be something like an unconditional probability of catching a virus but I'm not sure if this doesn't say more about the (constructed) behavior of people with respect to how healthy they are, in what state their immune system is and so on: and there is in my reading not much sense in denying that e.g. the immune system is very much dependent on being happy or depressed, positive or negative... so I wouldn't give much about this unconditional probability.

This doesn't mean that the constructions don't produce patterns, that can somehow be shared and seem to be independent of "observation", sure.

However, I think it is more important to emphasize the "construction" part because my feeling is that people tend to make more mistakes (in their constructions) by assuming fixed realities (=their own construction, and by the way, there's not much choice other than to rely on one's own construction)

Yechezkel Zilber said...

Re. reality

1) terms are indeed a problem. When you say flu you may mean many things. It does not make flu constucted. It just makes the need to be clear about the term. Once we speak about the same flu, we can speak on relity

2) life is complex. the practical side of tings depends on various details.
Flu is meaningless if your body i immune to it, etc.
The utility mening is also central.

This coplicates talking and thinking, but does not cancel the idea of reality.