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Anti-Bias Procedures With Reach

Powerful people make biased decisions all the time. People make rules like “Don’t be influenced by sex, make the decision that is best for the company, e.g. promoting the most qualified person.” These rules are very hard to enforce.

How can you reduce bias? Instead of prohibitions, have people explain their reasoning and have some criteria it should use. And require them to answer a sample of criticisms/counter-arguments, including some chosen randomly and some chosen by adversaries.

This makes it harder to make a decision for sexual reasons. If you do, you still have to write about other reasons. You have to think through the other reasons. And then you have to lie and try to argue a case you know to be false. The more egregious the error (appointing someone really unqualified, say), the harder this lying will be.

Perfect system? Not at all. People will write (or say it in a speech) vague, generic, low-content bullshit about how Lacy exemplifies all the characteristics that official constitute being qualified. So don’t ask him to judge vague things like if someone is smart or hard working, make more of the decision about more measurable factors. Or just suffice it to say that if the audience is gullible then procedures don’t really matter, but if the audience can see through vague bullshitting then the guy is going to struggle with the requirement to address criticism.

If you give someone the leeway to promote anyone whose qualifications round to “qualified” in the eyes of an imprecise, gullible audience then you are not going to get the most qualified candidate promoted very reliably. Too bad. Don’t blame the guy in charge. Give people less leeway for decisions, or make them respond to arguments from more discerning audiences, or stop complaining when they are biased.

There are a million sources of bias. People are wrong to try to tackle the bias problem by focusing on a couple well known sources of bias and trying to suppress those (largely in ways that you can’t judge very objectively, so enforcement ends up being either non-existent or arbitrary/capricious and even more biased than the original problem you were trying to fix, which is especially bad cuz now the stakes are firing people and attacking their reputations, whereas the stakes before were more like someone failing to get a promotion and someone else gets it and the person who gets it is qualified within the error bars of the level of discernment of the audience. The audience is at least like the boss’s boss has to not find the behavior ridiculous, even if none of my proposals are used. And even the CEO is often accountable to the board of directors or investors).

We need anti-bias procedures that have reach/generality, that work on tons of types of bias (even ones we haven’t thought of) at once. Making a rule against sexual favoritism doesn’t do that. Maybe that particular rule is fine and worth having, anyway, given the current cultural situation and history (well, I think maybe that kind of rule was good 50 years ago, but today it’s politicized and being used to ruin a lot of lives that I don’t think merit ruining).

The big picture is we are all alike in our infinite ignorance (as Karl Popper said), we are at the beginning of infinite progress (as David Deutsch said), there are infinitely many ways to make mistakes, and prohibiting a list of known mistakes is a poor tool for addressing this. If you really want to do something about bias, you need procedures that oppose many large categories of bias at the same time. Having people say their reasoning and answer some criticisms makes bias generically more difficult because any bias could be criticized and also it makes it harder for the decision maker to be thoughtless – in order to make a halfway convincing case about why he’s making a good decision (as judged by the publicly desired decision criteria) he has to actually think about what a good decision is supposed to be. People do have some integrity, and lots of people try not to be biased and would change their decision after conscious analysis (and the larger the deviation from the truth, the more people will be unwilling to do it if they’ve actually thought it through and seen that for themselves).

Relying on the critical faculties of the decision maker and the audience may sound like weak enforcement. It is. But there's no way to get strong enforcement or guarantees. If the people involved are too dull to spot blatant errors, then those errors are going to happen. Thinking is always our defense against error. If people shared reasoning and answered criticism, it'd give critical thinking a better opportunity to be effective. It'd improve the status quo where people often hide their reasoning while knowing it'd be difficult for their reasoning to stand up to scrutiny, or don't even think things through since they won't have to share their thought process.

See also: Using Intellectual Processes to Combat Bias

PS These thoughts are partly a comment on Robin Hanson’s tweet asking about a powerful man helping a career of a woman he has sex with.


Elliot Temple on December 18, 2018

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