Bias on the hoof: Hanson and RU continued

Posted on October 5, 2008. Filed under: Everything you wanted to know about doctors, Personal philosophy, Self-deception |

Today’s post is a study of bias in the intellectually gifted (at least as pertains to one of the parties; I’ll let you guess which one). ūüôā

In my October 4 post on Disagreements, I used a disagreement between Robin Hanson and me as subject matter for a set of disagreement analysis questions Hanson had requested readers of his blog to use. To refresh the particulars, we disagreed on the suitability and veracity of this anecdote in an article he posted called “Doctors Kill”:

A colleague of my wife was a nurse at a local hospital, and was assigned to see if doctors were washing their hands enough.  She identified and reported the worst offender, whose patients were suffering as a result.  That doctor had her fired; he still works there not washing his hands. Presumably other nurses assigned afterward learned their lesson. 

A reader (not me) saw coverage of the post on the blog of Seth Roberts, and asked Hanson “whether you actually ever met and talked to the fired nurse, how strong her evidence was that she was fired for the reason in the story, etc.? Did your wife actually know her, or know someone who knows her (who might turn out to be someone who knows someone who knows someone), that sort of thing? ” Hanson replied: ”¬†the nurse was a close co-worker of my wife, who I’ve met.” (Nothing more.)¬†¬†

I contacted Hanson privately to express all the factors mentioned in yesterday’s post, as well as the fact¬†that the article quoted was not¬†evidence¬†against doctors¬†so much as against other hospital employees. In addition, I told him:

I cannot imagine a hospital administrator telling a nurse, “We are firing you because a doctor you reported has requested your dismissal”. If that statement were not made, the nurse could not know that it was the reason for her dismissal.

Hanson replied, making no mention of any of my evidence of inaccuracy, lack of veracity, and bias, save this:

If you think no one in a work place can know anything other than what people say through official channels, you don’t know much about ordinary workplaces. ¬†

According to his¬†curriculum vitae, Hanson has never spent time in an “ordinary workplace”. I, on the¬†other¬†hand, have been a printer, electrician’s helper, warehouseman, assistant to television repairman, gasoline station employee, yardman, laborer in an asphalt plant, infantryman in Army (PFC), university information employee,¬†delivery-man, ER doctor, breath-spray franchisee, computer technician for a beer/whiskey distributor, employee in a medical practice, owner/director of a medical practice, owner-partner of a hospital, chief of surgery at two hospitals, and laboratory research assistant in a psychiatric hospital (that I can recall; never fired, by the way, even though none involved tenure). I am particularly experienced at job relations and administration in hospitals, and especially at doctor-nurse¬†relations. This would, if nothing else, seem to give some¬†credence¬†to my claim that Hanson should take another look at the value (truth?) of the story.

I responded:¬†I have much less trouble accepting that the nurse may¬†think¬†that is the reason for her termination. Even if there were some way that it were true, how does it contribute either to you, your students, or Overcoming Bias readers having a better understanding of medical economics? Your post was fine without the story. It’s just an anecdotal, gratuitous, ad hominem snark at doctors. But it’s your blog, and your class. I’m just sayin’.

Hanson responded:¬†It seems pretty obvious to me that readers and listeners thought it was interesting and relevant. ¬†As they do television sit-coms, science fiction, comedy news shows, religious rituals, Oprah, and Roissy’s advice on game.¬†(A comment I might have added accurately, but did not.)¬†

The subject arose again in yesterday’s post, “Disagreements“, which readers may judge for themselves. Hanson commented: This is an awful lot of ‚Äúink‚ÄĚ spilled to declare your ‚Äúdisagreement‚ÄĚ when you aren‚Äôt actually very clear what your claim is you think I disagree with. I fully acknowledge that stories told by friends can be in error. Do you claim no one should repeat such a story? I really don‚Äôt know what you think we disagree about.¬†I felt there was nothing unclear about it at all, and responded:¬†

Mysteries exist in the map, not in the territory.

Ask someone whose opinion you respect, and whom you consider to be a rational thinker, to read the post; see if it seems unclear to them. You have a habit, in your comments on Overcoming Bias, of saying comments are unclear to you, using that statement as a way to signal your low regard for the writer (or the comment). You are demonstrating what Michael Shermer describes as the reason extremely intelligent people find it so difficult to recognize their own biases or beliefs in weird things: their intelligence makes them much better at defending their biases, both to themselves and to other, perhaps less intelligent, people.

This post is exactly what you requested in your original post: an examination of a disagreement, using your own questions. I would think you would be pleased that someone cared enough to do it, and give you free subject-matter for your book.

Most of all, I am pleased to see that, after reading the post, you feel we have no disagreement. I assume that means we agree about the situation as I have stated it: the story was a cheap-shot, unworthy of the rest of your analysis, and almost certainly untrue.


I want to look at this exchange in light of two forms of bias particularly applicable to “smart” people (the ones Michael Shermer says “believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons”): Intellectual Attribution Bias (IAB) and Confirmation Bias (CB). Via IAB, smart people are about nine times more likely to attribute their own position on a given subject to rational reasons than they are other people’s position, which they will attribute to emotional reasons,¬†even if that¬†position¬†is the same as theirs (Shermer). Via CB, smart people tend to seek or interpret¬†evidence¬†favorable to their already existing beliefs, and/or to ignore or reinterpret¬†evidence¬†unfavorable to their beliefs. Psychologist Raymond Nickerson (Review of General Psychology,¬†1998) states:¬†If one were to attempt to identify a single¬†problematic aspect of human reasoning that¬†deserves attention above all others, the confirmation bias would have to be among the candidates¬†for consideration. Many have written about this¬†bias, and it appears to be sufficiently strong and¬†pervasive that one is led to wonder whether the¬†bias, by itself, might account for a significant¬†fraction of the disputes, altercations, and misunderstandings that occur among individuals,¬†groups, and nations.¬†

Nickerson’s quote is particularly pertinent to this discussion, because Hanson cites it in his own post titled Can School Debias?¬†The post claims:¬†The greatest threat to the world is ideological fanaticism. …Among the most malignant biases, and those most relevant to ideological fanaticism, are:¬†Confirmation bias: the tendency to selectively seek out information consistent with one’s beliefs and to ignore, minimize, or distort information that is not (Nickerson, 1998). “The greatest threat to the world?” That’s pretty strong. Sounds like something we should try to avoid at all costs.

This¬†disagreement, on both sides, is full of CB, as well as IAB (and you may say “BS”), yet it involves the creator of a blog dedicated to “overcoming bias”. Although I’m not at all religious (but formerly intended to be a missionary), I’m reminded of a Biblical passage (Hanson, as a former religious cult member, will know it): “It is easier for a¬†camel¬†to go through the¬†eye of a needle¬†than for a rich man to enter the¬†kingdom of God.” Perhaps it is equally difficult for an expert on bias to identify (and eliminate) his own bias.

This experience, and my resulting research on bias, has caused me to resolve to look for IAB and CB in my own positions in disagreements throughout the remainder of my life.






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2 Responses to “Bias on the hoof: Hanson and RU continued”

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Quite interesting. I paid little mind to that nugget of anecdotal evidence when I read the post. Very interesting indeed how he perceived an objection raised by someone with plenty of first-hand experience.
“Do you claim no one should repeat such a story?” sounds like something a politician would say.

Thanks for noticing. I speculate that Hanson may have had a personal encounter(-s) with a doctor(-s) that has left him with a blind spot about his bias. The medical economic figures he teaches (and that I accept) seem to strengthen this bias, whatever the original cause. The more I read about “confirmation bias”, the more I see it all around (is that a confirmation bias for confirmation bias?). It undoubtedly has contributed to some of my worst decisions.

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