What Came Next, Why We Fuck Up

Three sweet biases

The Sugar Conspiracy is a long article that might save the lives of the people who take thirty minutes to read it. Rather than summarize its thesis and nutritional implications, I think there are three biases that are worth setting aside to consider:

1. In-group bias and the politics of academia: It is incorrect to think of the general public as the target audience of academics. Academics write for other academics. As a result, the dynamics that pervade the psychology of any group – drive for consensus, alienation of outsiders, the convergence around charismatic leaders – subvert the supposed objectivity of the scientific process.

Further complicating this is that funding for research is tied to the results. Just as movie studios and musicians produce whatever the crowd wants to buy, academics tend to produce what will be funded and allow them to continue their careers. Hard sciences with fewer direct implications to human behavior (e.g. physics) are less affected by this than social sciences, where results influence business and politics.

2. Confirmation bias and progress via death: Changing a person’s mind through reason is impractical. Add to this the social and monetary motivations for social scientists to remain steadfast against contradictory evidence, and you have a field that generates tremendous confirmation bias. That’s why this quote by physicist Max Planck sticks out to me:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Feel free to substitute “scientific” progress for social, political, culinary, etc.

3. Authority bias and the threat of the crowd: When the printing press was first invented, there was debate within the Catholic Church about whether the Bible should be made available to the masses. Until this point, literacy was largely limited to priests in the church, whose responsibility was not only to read the Bible to the congregation, but interpret its truths. Catholic leaders were concerned that ordinary people would not be able to “correctly” interpret the word of God without an intermediary. The availability of the Bible in homes directly led to an overthrow of orthodoxy thanks to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

We have reached a familiar precipice thanks to the democratization of the internet. Over the past century, scientific process has been relegated to academics who take pride and pleasure in regulating which voices are valid. Blasphemers of academic orthodoxy have been No-True-Scotsman’d out of conferences, funding, and tenure. But once again, advances in communication technology have “flattened hierarchies everywhere they exist.” More voices does not necessarily mean better signal, but it does topple the prevailing authority bias present throughout academia. In the next couple decades, we will see a return to prominence of citizen scientists that crowdsource their validation with other non-credentialed enthusiasts.

Which, ironically, is how the scientific method first emerged.

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