The Sciences

Can Education Teach People to See Their Own Biases?

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 17, 2011 3:26 PM

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Whenever I speak, write, or blog (especially blog) about reasoning biases, there's a common rejoinder. Can't we use better education to teach people to see past their own blinders? While I think some kinds of advanced training are indeed about bias control--good journalism, science--in general I'm skeptical that one can make much headway at this in the basic educational system. The reason is that the biases are activated automatically, pre-conscious thought. Indeed, there is published research showing that getting older and more educated doesn't curtail reasoning biases, and also that we see contradictions and hypocrisy in those we disagree with, not those we agree with. Yet the plea for better education still persists. Frankly, I chalk the resistance up to that old "Enlightenment ethic" (if only we could make people better educated and get them better information) that is very very hard to dislodge, even when one is citing science to dislodge it. Now, I don't know for sure that there is no way to educate away our biases. I'm simply skeptical of it. And I'm not the only one. Let me commit a logical fallacy of my own, the argument from authority. Here's the University of Virginia's Jonathan Haidt, who some think is pretty important on these matters, discussing the very point:

Why is the confirmation bias, in particular— this is the most damaging one of all—why is the confirmation bias so ineradicable? That is, why do people automatically search for evidence to support whatever they start off believing, and why is it impossible to train them to undo that? It's almost impossible. Nobody's found a way to teach critical thinking that gets people to automatically reflect on, well, what's wrong with my position?

Could there be a way? Maybe. I imagine it would less involve teaching people about various logical fallacies and more involve teaching people to be cool and zen and not respond emotionally. I'm thinking more Jedi training than Bertrand Russell training. What do you think?

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