Sunday, 3 January 2016

Implicit Bias and Scepticism

I listened to a fascinating lecture given by Jennifer Saul at the Royal Institute of Philosophy in the UK which brought up an excellent link between the psychological study of implicit bias (for which she gave numerous examples) and its implications for epistemology, in particular, scepticism. I recommend giving the talk a listen (YouTube link here) because it goes into much greater detail than I will here. I am going to focus on the fascinating link Saul made between the fact that we know we have these ingrained biases with our inability to overcome them by willpower and its implications for knowledge and rational thought.

Saul tentatively defines the term implicit bias as the collection of largely unconscious associations which people are prone to which affect how we perceive and interact with the world. The biases are not quite beliefs, they are not conscious, and yet they affect our thought processes. They are not mitigated by stated beliefs: for instance, the famous African-American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson said:
There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody White and feel relieved.” (citation)
That is implicit bias in action, and the painful experience of Jackson is not only common, it is practically universal. Unlike in Jackson's case, it is almost always sub-conscious. This presents an unfortunate sceptical problem: we have good reason to believe that our faculties are deficient when it comes to decisions that we believe are made rationally.

Jackson's example is one of a feeling produced, but others may bring out the force of the problem more clearly if they highlight how it is our conscious decision making that is affected by these ingrained biases against people of particular races, genders, sexual orientations and so forth. But the research is clear that there are pervasive and insidious cases of discrimination among self-labelled egalitarians who, try as they may to make calm, reflective decisions when choosing between biased options, still tend to make the biased on - whether it be gender, racial or even height discrimination, among countless other features to discriminate upon.

The social problem is clear in that these implicit biases produce stagnant structures of discrimination. However, there is a more philosophical problem that Saul highlights:

"I will be arguing that what we know about implicit biases shows us that we have very good reason to believe that we cannot properly trust our knowledge-seeking faculties. This does not mean that we might be mistaken about everything, or even everything in the external world (so it is weaker than traditional scepticism). But it does mean that we have good reason to believe that we are mistaken about a great deal (so it is stronger than traditional forms of scepticism). A further way in which bias-related doubt is stronger than traditional scepticism: this is doubt that demands action. With traditional scepticism, we feel perfectly fine about setting aside the doubts we have felt when we leave the philosophy seminar room. But with bias-related doubt, we don’t feel fine about this at all. We feel a need to do something to improve our epistemic situation." (citation)
I recommend giving a long and hard think to the paper she delivered (cited just above) because unfortunately, this is not a problem that exists external to us as individuals: the problem is me, the problem is you.

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