Re: science off the unbeaten Path

From: Tennessee Leeuwenburg (
Date: Wed May 11 2005 - 18:08:55 MDT

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky wrote:

>> PINKER: Regarding bias: as I mentioned at the outset, I don't doubt
>> that bias exists. But the idea that the bias started out from some
>> arbitrary coin flip at the dawn of time and that gender differences
>> have been perpetuated ever since by the existence of that bias is
>> extremely unlikely. In so many cases, as Eagly and the
>> Stereotype-Accuracy people point out, the biases are accurate. Also,
>> there's an irony in these discussion of bias. When we test people in
>> the cognitive psychology lab, and we don't call these base rates
>> "gender," we applaud people when they apply them. If people apply the
>> statistics of a group to an individual case, we call it rational
>> Bayesian reasoning, and congratulate ourselves for getting them to
>> overcome the cognitive illusion of base rate neglect. But when people
>> do the same thing in the case of gender, we treat Bayesian reasoning
>> as a cognitive flaw and base-rate neglect as rational! Now I agree
>> that applying base rates for gender in evaluating individual men and
>> women is a moral flaw; I don't think that base rates ought to be
>> applied in judging individuals in most cases of public
>> decision-making. But the fact that the statistics of a gender are
>> applied does not mean that their origin was arbitrary; it could be
>> statistically sound in some cases.
> Not all Bayesian evidence is legal evidence. The police chief may
> know perfectly well who is the boss of organized crime in his city,
> yet be unable to prove it in court. Yet if the police chief confided
> in me who the crime boss was, I would be likely to believe him -
> because we live in a society where the police chief *cannot* have
> people jailed just on the basis of his accusation or mine. We have
> chosen to exclude certain kinds of valid Bayesian evidence from our
> legal system because of the temptation they would present to
> individuals for forgery, if the evidence were accounted legal evidence.
> Similarly, some kinds of Bayesian evidence are not scientific
> evidence. In fact, scientific evidence is a small subset of Bayesian
> evidence. Watching something happen a single time is Bayesian
> evidence - not so strong an evidence as a repeatable controlled trial,
> but not zero evidence either. But we choose not to account anecdotal
> evidence as science, because science is the knowledge of humankind,
> accessible to humankind and replicable by other scientists. I look
> down at my feet and observe that I am wearing black socks, and you
> probably believe me when I say it, but this rationally knowable fact
> is not yet part of Science.
> Similarly, we choose not to account certain kinds of base-rate
> statistics as *reputational* evidence. The purpose of tracking a
> reputation is to encourage people to accumulate good reputations.
> Therefore a person's reputation should not be evaluated from fixed
> qualities, beyond their ability to choose; this sends the wrong
> message. But this doesn't mean you have to ignore all relevant base
> rates that may de facto correlate with race, gender, or other
> un-chosen attributes. No one is forced to wear a baseball cap turned
> backwards, so assigning reputational weight to the clothes people wear
> is quite a different matter from judging them by the color of their
> skin. The point is that reputational evidence should depend on
> personal choice or witnessed performance, just as legal evidence may
> not depend on hearsay, and scientific evidence may not depend on
> anecdotes.
Pinker's argument was not Eliezer's argument, nor was it an irrational
or wrong argument.

Pinker's argument was an "as-if" argument, from a moral authority. His
claim was, in philosophical terms, that even though we know some gender
biases to be statistically accurate, we are better off behaving "as if"
there were no bias.

Reading into his sentences, he is saying that we are morally better off
treating people equally, even though they may be different in this context.

To offer some defense of this position, even though none was reported,
one might presume that highlighting the differences between people can
lead to unwarrented judgements about them, even though the differences
might be real. The argument is twofold: one is psychological, one is

Psychological: If we highlight differences between people, it will
probably lead us into treating them badly, because people tend to clump
into tribes. Non-bayesians and "stupid bayesians" will draw unwarrented
conclusions. Historically, people have not reacted well to difference.
Evidence for the downside of emphasising people's differences is plentiful.

Contextual: Such biases are often self-fulfilling prophecies. Concluding
that gender bias is genuinely *caused by* gender, as opposed to being an
incredibly complex issue, is a mistake. For example, a man who exhibits
male biases may be a genuinely biased person, but this may not be a
necessary bias. Bayesian reasoning proceeding on the evidence of the
bias alone, will fail to capture the truth of that. As such, there are
some kinds are evidence which are bad to include in your decision-making
if you don't have a proper understanding of them.

If I were to take issue with anything said by Pinker, it would be this
sentence: "But the idea that the bias started out from some arbitrary
coin flip at the dawn of time and that gender differences have been
perpetuated ever since by the existence of that bias is extremely unlikely."

What is *very* likely is that the bias started out from mutually
beneficial evolution, in which men assumed a dominant position in
relation to women as a result of their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It is
entirely likely that this balance has been perpetuated ever since on its
own basis. One only has to look back to, for example, Ancient Greece to
see how civilisational structures can propagate purely by accident of
history. It is not drawing a long bow to see many correlations, and I
would argue reasonable to infer a causal relation also. That's 2,500 odd
years of historically propagated convention, and I have no reason to
believe that convention is a powerful and dominant form of cultural


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