Saturday, December 13, 2014


“The gentleman can see a question from all sides without bias. The small man is biased and can see a question only from one side.” - Confucius (c. 551 - c. 479 BC)
Am I biased?
Well, if I am honest with you and above all with myself, I would say, “Of course, absolutely, without a doubt, no if ands or buts about it, 100%!” (After all I do not want to be the small man – my bias there as well). You see, bias is our blind spot, a sort of a functional fixation and the curse of limited knowledge or transparency that remains a continual drag on the strivings of all human beings. This bias is enforced through parochial jargon, tortured reasoning and systematized metaconcepts of dubious integrity.

But if I am not honest about it, I would say, “Of course not. I am an expert!”

Seriously, think about this for a minute. Bias is a natural predilection to the plight of the human brain. It shimmers over every spoken word, caresses every thought with the prejudice of past experience and the phantasmagoria that is added on to that past; a bouillabaisse of ideas, thoughts and actions. The spry and tasty tart ultimately gets embalmed within the tea and toast-lost in translation.
Words that bump against the word bias include; prejudice, intent, inclination, tendency, bent, disposition, proclivity, predilection, slant, leaning, preference, bigotry and preconception. Just reading them one gets the message, loud and clear.

Take for instance the recent episode of “glibness” and  “I am sorry” from the MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, who admitted that he was prejudiced in his own statements that he made to the policy-makers. He used words that would be acceptable to the Congress to pass the healthcare legislation. He was not concerned about the American people, because they would not understand the complexity of the financial jargon within the document. Clearly Dr. Gruber’s bent was to influence. His preconception about the “stupidity” of the American population was an ideal tabula rasa upon which to imprint his masterpiece. His inclination towards the type of healthcare reform was in keeping with the official mind set, hence his slant was met with equal measure of prejudice within the beltway. Oh, I am not here to pass judgment, as it might seem to some, I am merely making a reference to the recent past events. This particular plaque of concern that reverberates within the chambers of my mind seems to stand out as a beacon of internal bias. “What was he thinking?” One might ask. The problem deeply imbedded in that “thinking” based on conjecture alone, would be the sweet, penetrating, sickly but fleeting taste of the praise from his audience.

Biases stem from reconstructed experiences. They are difficult to remove. For example, my bias to trust individuals implicitly was severely violated and thus trust comes to me with difficulty. The verification process takes time and is tedious and I am learning to employ it in full embrace.
Bias has many faces: optimistic, pessimistic, attribution, selection and a catalog full of them can be found in books, yet all seem to stem from a personal prejudice. Color bias is easy to see. Ask a child what color she likes (even in that statement, I am biased by using she, because as a society we are fighting the bias of the male dominated gender) and she will say, pink, red or blue. Ask an adult the same question and they will hesitate to answer (thinking about all the ramifications in this politically correct word not to offend others with different color likings). We might call this the “Compassionate bias.”
Optimistic bias is the mother lode of all biases in the human mind. We survive, because of our instincts to survive. Our optimism sees the future and dresses the present accordingly. There is perpetuity of hope over experience in most times, even to the detriment of the exposed reality. Tali Sharot a neuro biologist points out, 
“The capacity to envision the future relies partly on the hippocampus, a brain structure that is crucial to memory…directing our thoughts of the future toward the positive is a result of our frontal cortex's communicating with subcortical regions deep in our brain.” 
So, deep in the cognition factory of our brain, the neurons in our hippocampus faithfully encode the required information that is processed via the emotional amygdala and then rationed through the pre-frontal cortex (rostral anterior cingulate cortex). We are fed with information, we process it through the filters of our experience and the cognitive output matches our inherent bias, in other words.
Now here is a conundrum worth mentioning in full disclosure; my introspection of realizing there is a bias within me also predisposes me to think that there is a similar bias in everyone else. This meta-bias that permeates in the thinking process creates the dynamics of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma within the Game Theory.” In fact all contracts between entities are based on some form of internal bias.
Moving quietly to the scientific world, one finds an equal rudderless boat adrift in the ocean of bias. The boat is being pulled and pushed by the ebb and flow of currents divined by human thought. Interestingly in spite of the bias behind any experiment the rudderless boat continues to move and as it does, so does society as a whole changes. Our current love for all things internet is transferring a monstrous new 1,826 petabytes of digital jargon and creating 5 exabytes of new data daily (here ). That is an enormous amount of data/information. Manipulation of cherry-picked data analysis can offer a whole host of literary/financial/scientific rewards through monetization in the short term, even though in the long term these outputs are meaningless. But this world that has transformed itself from tomorrow to today to now, the future has become immaterial. Such short-term biases have brought the economies of many nations to their knees. The current account deficits and the rising national debt of $18 Trillion in the United States, is inconceivable to foster future growth and wealth. Meanwhile the spenders create charts and graphs and tables to persuade the laity about the rosy future and the savers worry and worry. The Keynesian door remains ajar and capital continues to flow… out.
 Medicine as one of the disciplines that deals strictly with human health is also filling the coffers of that digital realm with equal fervor. Alas most of the data is subject to bias. The professor/scientist/doctor wants to publish about his or her experiment. Everything is funneled through the loose sinews of statistics. If the experiment is not successful (fails) a positive spin describes the benefits. If the experiment is a success, it is raised to the highest bar of recognition. Less than half of the patients achieve similar results as are proffered in the glowing scientific literature. What gives?  Unfortunately when the rigor of caution and careful analysis is undertaken more than 54% of the scientific papers fail validation (under close scrutiny). Yet some still try to persist in their endeavor by claiming the value of the p-value as the determinant of all successes
“Here we adapt estimation methods from the genomics community to the problem of estimating the rate of false positives in the medical literature using reported P-values as the data. We then collect P-values from the abstracts of all 77,430 papers published in The Lancet, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The New England Journal of Medicine, The British Medical Journal, and The American Journal of Epidemiology between 2000 and 2010.” ---( here )

In a society that massages the numbers and clothes them in words, selects the perfect scenario, applies the arbitrary values and changes the necessary variables, the output from the digital interface will be anything but unpleasant; a boon for the doers and a bane for the followers. We are being governed by the bias of some to the detriment of the many in small and large ways. It is up to us to recognize and critically manage such misinformation overloaded biases.
Our headstrong passions shut the door of our souls against God.´ - Confucius (c. 551 - c. 479 BC)

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