September 17, 2018

Doubling down on doublethink

Doubling down on doublethink

Definition of bias


  1. an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially : a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice
  2. an instance of such prejudice
  3. bent, tendency
  4. (1) deviation of the expected value of a statistical estimate from the quantity it estimates (2) systematic error introduced into sampling or testing by selecting or encouraging one outcome or answer over others

I am shocked. And I don’t get shocked easily. In fact, I’m fond of saying “the world holds no surprises for me” yet today’s headlines about Google’s internal all-hands meeting is making me rethink that.

First, let’s get it all out there:

1. I could care less what your personal views are; right, left, center. I feel strongly that all should have a voice—even stupid, racist, idiotic views. We must be able to tolerate this in a liberal democracy. If you don’t subscribe to that view, you’re in the wrong country.

2. Google has every right to be biased. They are a private company whose only master is the shareholder. I also have no issue with this.

3. HOWEVER, don’t lie to me. Don’t tell me one thing and do another. And for God’s sake, don’t try to convince me “A isn’t A.”

And therein lies my rage. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are neither “public squares” nor “public utilities.” Rather, they are private platforms, controlled by humans (for now, as far as I know…), designed to generate profit through the harvest of all of their users’ digital exhaust. Again, no issues here.

But when you pretend to a) be something you’re clearly not (e.g. a public commons for all to be heard) and b) publicly state that you don’t take sides with the content and opinions of your users, and c) deny this in the face of incontrovertible evidence, you’re not only lying to us, you’re actually being evil.

Bias is a fact of life, a biological reality. There is no such thing as “no bias.” That’s not to say we can’t achieve “balance” or “equality,” but to pretend that the beliefs we’ve cultivated over a lifetime of experience don’t somehow effect the decisions we make is just plain doublethink.

For those readers who aren’t familiar with the concept of “doublethink” and aren’t from the Soviet Union, let me explain. Wikipedia captures it best:

Doublethink is the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in distinct social contexts. Doublethink is related to, but differs from, hypocrisy and neutrality. Also related is cognitive dissonance, in which contradictory beliefs cause conflict in one’s mind. Doublethink is notable due to a lack of cognitive dissonance—thus the person is completely unaware of any conflict or contradiction.

Further down, they write:

George Orwell created the word doublethink in his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949); doublethink is part of newspeak. In the novel, its origin within the typical citizen is unclear; while it could be partly a product of Big Brother’s formal brainwashing programmes, the novel explicitly shows people learning doublethink and newspeak due to peer pressure and a desire to “fit in”, or gain status within the Party—to be seen as a loyal Party Member. In the novel, for someone to even recognize—let alone mention—any contradiction within the context of the Party line was akin to blasphemy, and could subject that person to disciplinary action and to the instant social disapproval of fellow Party Members.

Does any of that resonate with today’s world? Let’s take Google’s response.

No Bias, Google Says

In response to the leak, a Google spokesperson said staff and executives were expressing their personal opinions “in the aftermath of a long and divisive election season.”

The statement continued: “For over 20 years, everyone at Google has been able to freely express their opinions at these meetings. Nothing was said at that meeting, or any other meeting, to suggest that any political bias ever influences the way we build or operate our products.
“To the contrary, our products are built for everyone. We design them with extraordinary care to be a trustworthy source of information for everyone, without regard to political viewpoint.”

Is that credible? Does anyone think they could wear a MAGA hat to work at Google? Listen to Alex Jones or Sean Hannity? Or worse, suggest that the economic growth since DJT’s hasn’t been, by all measures, a resounding success?

To be clear, I’m neither endorsing these views or suggesting that Google has an obligation to hear them or offer a platform for them. In fact, I’m saying just the opposite: Google, or any company, for that matter, should be allowed to build their culture in the ways they see fit. However, what I am suggesting is that there is literally no way to support the view, with any credible data, that they are unbiased. Period. End of story. Just stop saying you are, Google. And Facebook, and Twitter. We’d respect you more, perhaps even trust you more, if you were honest. That’s all we’re really asking.

Wikipedia lists 166 cognitive biases…166!

Yet, somehow we’re supposed to believe that no one at Google suffers from these. That somehow, they’ve achieved “superhuman” status where the normal biological traits, passed down from thousands of years of natural selection, don’t apply to them.

B.F Skinner once wrote the following.

“Because what we feel is within our skin, we cannot escape from it.”

What he’s saying is that we’re all shaped by experience, genetics, and circumstance. To think we can somehow ignore this and feign exemption from it is utter lunacy. It’s doublethink.

Yes, of course, we can reason and ration our behavior and thoughts. We are all biased to not walk down dark alleys at night, to make decisions on the basis of the most recent information we have in memory, and to believe that fairness is goodness. The beauty of what also makes us human—and amazingly complex—is how each of us comes to the world with our opinions, outlooks, and shared or unshared views. All of this is good, fine, and the “spice of life.”

What scares me…angers me, is not that Google is biased. It’s that they pretend not to be. That they say this publicly, openly, and with a straight face. Not only is this provably false, it’s patently impossible.

Now, I’ll be attacked for this closing, but I don’t care. I’m so concerned that we’re way off the rails and that for all of us, this is a very, very bad thing. Ayn Rand, summed it up in her “Stairway to Heaven” treatise:

Are you seeking to know what is wrong with the world? All the disasters that have wrecked your world, came from your leaders’ attempt to evade the fact that A is A. All the secret evil you dread to face within you and all the pain you have ever endured, came from your own attempt to evade the fact that A is A.
― Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

You, me, all of us, need to stop deluding ourselves. Google (and everyone else) is biased. Embrace it! Be honest. Because we all know you are, have to be, and we’re not accepting your arguments to the contrary. And when you and others in the press make cases to the contrary, you’re making an argument against evolutionary biology…and even the most basic understanding of human behavior says your wrong. Not “wrong” in a “I got the answer wrong” way but in a “2+2 does in fact equal 5”

Doing, pretending, or promoting anything else is the true definition of evil.

Additional Notes