Friday, June 10, 2011

Bias in reasoning and vision

I'm currently working on a comic book, but I'm just an amateur. I haven't devoted years of my life perfecting my craft. I spend hours drawing lines and shapes that I can visualise in my mind, but I'm constantly making value judgments with my eye because my fine motor skills are not developed enough to have what I want always be what I get. And sometimes what I think I see is not what's actually there. My mind easily wanders as I draw, and recently I drew a comparison between the way we see and the way we think that fits well with my last post discussing the possibility of racial bias in indie rock.

I talked about bias as if it's always this bad thing, but really, a bias is just a mental shortcut, nothing more. We need them because every minute of every day we are bombarded with information overload. If we're to get past the four-year-old stage of our lives, when we're constantly marveling "Look, a tree!" every ten seconds, then we need to form biases to help streamline the way we think. So we construct narratives out of random events, we group objects into neat categories, and we place value judgments on things that have no bearing on their actual existence.

It's no different from the way we see. When we look at a picture, we instantly recognise straight lines and sharp angles, symmetry and recurring patterns, facial expressions in moons and clouds. It all happens so instantly and automatically that it never occurs to us that what we're taking in might be anything other than what's objectively there, or that it could ever be possible to see in a fundamentally different way. This is why optical illusions are so jarring, because they provide a naked glimpse into our evolution as branch-swinging simians. So like our reasoning, our vision is primed more for efficiency, and less for accuracy, than we assume.

Of course, we can always whip out a ruler to determine whether two telephone poles that look to be of different height are indeed the same. There's no similar standard for measuring hiccoughs in our mental observations, however. I can only compare my thoughts to yours, which might be just as hopelessly subjective. It's only when we look at the bigger picture, and note that more than half of us consider ourselves above average, or that blacks are less likely to be hired for white-collar jobs than similarly qualified whites, that we can begin to detect the presence of this particular bias or that.

Which goes back to the idea of racial bias in indie rock. I don't think this scene actively creates them, but it certainly doesn't take steps to correct whatever might already be present, either. There's no centralised committee tasked with that kind of oversight. And when an indie label insists that it's run like a family and not a business, filling its roster with like-minded friends, our response is to feel warm and fuzzy inside, not to call the EEOC. But the key is to look at the bigger picture. Who gets lauded, and who gets left out?

Finally, I should point out that I myself am chock-full of racial biases. Some of my most unforgiving are those against Asian-Americans, and I'm an Asian-American! I'm also a social progressive, so I take steps to correct them, but my good intentions can only last so long before I become too tired or distracted. Because, like I said, biases are mental shortcuts, so we naturally resort to them in situations where we just don't have the time or energy to process information fairly and objectively. Like when passing a stranger in a dark alley, for example, or when slogging through a thick stack of resumes. I guess I assume that any intelligent and self-aware person would admit the same.

Of course, it's important to acknowledge that I can't ever know with absolute certainty the way anyone else thinks, so I still stand by my word that I'll believe anyone who insists on not being susceptible to any biases. But my faith ultimately lies with those who fully understand how human it is to have them.

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