Effective Altruism’s fact-value separation as a weapon against political bias

by Stefan_Schubert11th Sep 20151 comment



Follow up to “Political Debiasing and the Political Bias Test”. Connected to “Effective altruism is a Question (not an Ideology)"

There are a number of different psychological effects which contribute to political bias. These include the halo effect, wishful thinking and confirmation bias, all of which can cause people’s political values to colour their factual beliefs. This obviously leads to a correlation between values and factual beliefs. For instance, those who believe that the market is just will also think it’s efficient, and vice versa.

All of these psychological mechanisms operate so to say on the individual level. They cause individuals’ interpretation of evidence to be influenced by their political values, but not by other people. What makes things worse, however, is that there are social structures which underwrite bias. Once the correlation between values and factual beliefs among groups of people is established, social biases kick in.

To see that, suppose that political group X is, from the start, defined solely by its values - say “the market is just” (this is rather unusual, but let’s grant this for the sake of the argument). Because of the aforementioned biases, most X-ers soon start believing that the market also is effective. This becomes the normal belief in the group, and what’s normal usually starts becoming the norm among political groups. Hence, the definition of X is changed. Believing that the market is effective becomes part of what it means to be an X-er. It doesn’t perhaps become completely impossible to stay an X-er if you don’t believe that the market is effective, but it definitely is frowned upon by your in-group.

In fact, the normal state of affairs is that membership in a political group is defined both by certain political values and certain factual beliefs. (Also, values and factual beliefs typically aren’t clearly distinguished.) This makes it hard for group members to evaluate their factual beliefs objectively. If they do so, and come to the wrong conclusion, they may have to leave their political group. Vox.com:s Ezra Klein quotes political psychologist Dan Kahan.

[I]f [an ordinary member of the public] forms the wrong position on climate change relative to the one that people with whom she has a close affinity – and on whose high regard and support she depends on in myriad ways in her daily life – she could suffer extremely unpleasant consequences, from shunning to the loss of employment.”

Kahan calls this theory Identity-Protection Cognition: “As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.

Clearly, Identity-Protection Cognition – which is a social bias, unlike, e.g. the halo effect – is a major cause of political bias. How could we reduce it?

I think that if we retain the definition of Effective Altruism as a social movement that is trying to do good as effectively as possible, the EA movement has a good chance of reducing this particular type of political bias. This is because unlike standard political ideologies, the EA movement is not defined by any factual beliefs (beyond extremely general ones, such as “reason and evidence are good ways of finding out about the world”). The EA movement is not defined, e.g. by any particular conception of the market economy, or any other factual view. Thus you can give up more or less all of your factual beliefs and still remain an Effective altruist. This means that EAs should feel much freer to evaluate factual claims objectively.

EA members are not immune to individual biases like the halo effect and confirmation bias, however. (To reduce them, we have to use other means than those discussed in this post.) Hence, they are likely to end up with factual beliefs which match their political values to some extent, just like other people. There’s therefore a risk that these factual beliefs start becoming part of the definition of Effective altruism (this was precisely what happened with our hypothetical ideology X). To avoid this, it is important that we make a conscious effort to retain the original definition of the EA movement.

Here I think explicitness helps. Most ideologies aren’t very explicitly defined (at least not beyond the groves of the academy), which facilitates drift. Witness, e.g. the drift of the term “liberal” (which is left-wing in the US, but right-wing in Scandinavia). To avoid such drift we need to discuss and emphasize the meaning of “Effective altruism” over and over again.

Could Effective altruism also contribute to reducing political bias in society at large? One can only speculate on this. I certainly think that working to reduce political bias is a worthwhile cause for effective altruists, as I made clear in my last post on the topic. Presumably, when effective altruists do so, they could refer to the EA movement’s impartial attitude to factual issues, and suggest non-EAs to adopt it. More generally, the EA movement could do a great deal of good by making non-EA-groups adopt part of their message in this way.

Let me finish with a general historical reflection. Fundamentalist religions and oppressive political ideologies – such as Nazism or Soviet communism – prohibit people from expressing certain factual beliefs – e.g., the belief that God does not exist. Thankfully, they have little power in the Western world today. The democratic political ideologies that dominate in the West do allow you to question factual beliefs.

However, most of these ideologies still discourage you from questioning certain factual beliefs which are integral to them. In other words, they are partial on certain factual issues. This is not enough – we need to go all the way and create a level playing-field for all factual views. Effective altruism, with, its refusal to commit to any factual belief, is uniquely well-suited for that.