5. Paradigm Bias

  • img SM Syano Musyimi
  • POSTED ON 05 Jan 2019


In 1949, two scientists called Bruner and Postman conducted a study that has been used to illustrate how deep our bias and subjectivity goes. Participants of the study were asked to go through a pack of cards and name what they saw e.g. ‘Ace of heart, 2 diamonds’, and so on. What they did not know was that the pack had two anomalies – a black hearts, and a red spade. When the participants were shown the anomalies they called the black heart a card of spades, and the red spade a card of hearts.

The point of the study was to show that what we often call subjectivity and bias is far more than just having a certain view and holding certain values. Sometimes we literally see different things if we have certain beliefs. Rather than having different lenses to see the world, which is the common analogy for bias, the truth is we may be completely blind to some things. So rather than using the words ‘subjectivity’ and ‘bias’, the word used in the debates of philosophy of science and social science is ‘paradigm’. A paradigm is not only a way of seeing the world but it also captures our unquestioned assumptions, our methods of thought, and above all, it gives us an ontology – things that the world is made of. No paradigm captures of all reality and few even have a decent number of its assumptions noticed, let alone justified. Society is full of paradigms. Our religious beliefs are paradigms, our political views, our scientific theories, our cultural values….behind almost everything that leads us to form opinions and judgements is a paradigm.

The concept of a paradigm has often left me wondering why we even bother having ideological debates (religious vs science, left vs right-wing, etc). In order to have a genuine, truth-seeking debate the two sides need to be of the same paradigm; to at least see the object of contention. I think this is asking too much. In fact, such scepticism of the meaningfulness of such debates is what led me to do philosophy because it’s the only subject with the tools to take you out of your own paradigm in a systematic way. Anyway, most people just want to get on in life and leave philosophy to the ordained few. In the absence of a philosophical training, the next best thing is to listen to people who think differently. I’m hardly expecting people to agree with each other; we should however, stop and listen. Someone who thinks differently literally sees what you can’t. This could be very helpful for you.

For example, take the growing problem in the West surrounding immigration. People on the left talk as if there’s nothing wrong with it and that its one of the best things that ever happened to society; people on the right talk as if it’s a serious threat to culture, values, the economy, and society at large. The truth is that both are right. It is sheer folly to assume that one argument is completely right and the other completely wrong…or is it folly? No – it is people seeing the world through their paradigms. When someone from the left sees a group of women wearing a burka they simply see a group of people wearing what they want, just like the rest of us; when someone from the right sees a group of women wearing a burka they see people out of sync with mainstream society bringing in values and beliefs they don’t understand and probably don’t agree with. Like the cards we literally see different things. Who is right? Both!

The notion of paradigm makes perfect sense when we consider why someone from the left would consider others as bigots and intolerant, while someone on the right would consider others impractical and deceived. The two literally see different things in reality.

The aim of debate is to benefit from both sides, not so much to convert your opponents (which hardly happens anyway). We need those who seem impractical and deceived to show us the human being behind the different race, the burka, etc; and we need those who seem intolerant and bigoted to reveal threats that we may not see for ourselves. When we failed to see the humanity behind the surface, we committed atrocities, like Hitler with the Jews; when we fail to recognise threats, we end up in a state of conflict, such as Britain’s appeasement in the 1930’s which just gave Hitler a head-start when Britain could have single-handedly prevented World War 2. What the left needs to understand is that Western society has enemies from the outside; the right needs to understand that there is an enemy within, mostly in our own hearts. Different paradigms allow us to see the different enemies.

Now let us add to the equation the influence of mass media which constantly confirms our own biases. If my argument is correct, the conclusion is more than just recognising that media creates narratives that contribute to social fraction. My conclusion is how could it not; as a matter of systematic necessity it must split society, pushing different groups further to their extremes and making them intolerant to other ways of thinking. How can this, in the end, not ultimately lead social conflict. We make MISTAKES not just through failure to see what we can’t but shutting off and shutting up those who can on our behalf.

So how do we counter paradigm bias? The first step is to acknowledge that we are all blind to something, and that people who oppose us (on the other end of the political spectrum for instance), can see what we ourselves cannot see. In other words, we can learn from them. Why should we? – because, like it or not, we are one society. Division and the conflicts that ensue are a genuine social evil. We don’t have to agree; but we must respect and listen. Let us allow ourselves to be wrong, because we all get things wrong.

The second step might involve some kind of aggregation of our sources of information. It is hard work finding out what our opponents say and it often takes time. This is severely worsened by the algorithms and artificial intelligence used on digital media which only suggests content that we would agree with. It simply does not give us a chance to think differently. We should therefore advance news aggregators, of which ThinkCitizen is one. We basically take news from the left, news from the right, and place both on the same platform. This not only makes us better informed but opens our eyes to what we would previously not have seen, let alone understood.

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