If No Brain Is Free Of Bias, What Can We Trust?
Biases and flaws are like foreheads — it’s easier to see others’ than your own. So our most cherished beliefs should be tested by rigorous bias-balancing processes.
If no brain is free of bias, what can we trust? Which field’s views can we rely on?
2. Meanwhile, Noah Smith matter-of-factly writes, “Traditionally, economists ... put the facts in a subordinate role [to] theory. ... Plausible-sounding theories are believed to be true unless proven false, while empirical facts are often dismissed.” Isn’t that worse than failed replication? A recipe for data-decorated faith?
3. Smith calls economics “a rogue branch of applied math” that “evolved different scientific values.” But can “scientific” rightly apply where empirical facts don’t rule? Isn’t that utter non-science? Unless facts reign, what separates the sciences from superstition?
4. Real sciences permit only shakable faiths (see Science’s Toughest Test). Only bias-balancing processes are held sacred — not inputs or outputs, not cherished assumptions or results. That isn’t the game Smith describes. No one is immune to their beloved beliefs (or “identity-protective cognition”), but the sciences organize themselves to counter such biases — they’re reality refereed.
5. Perhaps these economic quibbles are minor? Apparently principles “are by no means universally agreed.” And faith in free-market economics rests on incomplete logic and near-utopian assumptions — in no real case can free markets do what’s preached. Maybe that’s OK... if in your game plausible theory-faith beats empirical facts. But in more trustworthy games, new facts must oust old certainties (e.g., redistribution ≠ less growth).
6. Smith hopes theory-free “Big Data” means that empirical economics will soon “dominate.” But economic data suffers high “causal density.” And its “gold standard” randomized clinical trials have limits. Meanwhile, key metrics like GDP don’t capture key distinctions. Plus, without changes in professional values or theory-beats-data practices, will economics be more trustworthy? Maybe economics is safer descriptively rather than prescriptively.
8. How data works in history is different than in physics. In history, innovation happens. Patterns change. Yesterday’s impossibilities become today’s driving forces. Unlike behavior in physics, human behavior isn’t as safely generalizable. Nothing in physics chooses. Or changes how it chooses = in social sciences extrapolation is riskier (here’s a data journalism example). Perhaps market “laws” aren’t gravity-like.
9. Biases and flaws are like foreheads — it’s easier to see others’ than your own. Escaping our own biases requires tools. Before trusting experts, ask if their field is organized to challenge cherished assumptions. Is its game “reality refereed”? We should trust more in processes that rigorously balance biases, not in individuals. Confirmation bias haunts even geniuses.
10. Psychology’s ills are worrying, but economics’ beliefs are more dangerous. Markets enact our ethics, powerfully and globally. Do we want markets to make musical toilets while some starve?
In a world full of biases and risks, the wise guard against “theory-induced blindness.” And they contingency plan.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!
As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.
Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.
- Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
- For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
- Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.
Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
Did we head east or south of Eden?
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.