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George Orwell and the Struggle against Inevitable Bias

In the bleak post-war Britain of October 1945, an essay by George Orwell appeared in the first edition of Polemic. Edited by abstract artist and ex-Communist Hugh Slater, the new journal was marketed as a “magazine of philosophy, psychology, and aesthetics.” Orwell was not yet famous—Animal Farm had only just started appearing on shelves—but he had a high enough profile for his name to be a boon to a new publication. His contribution to the October 1945 Polemic was “Notes on Nationalism,” one of his best and most important pieces of writing. Amidst the de-Nazification of Germany, the alarmingly rapid slide into the Cold War, and the trials of German and Japanese war criminals, Orwell set out to answer a question which had occupied his mind for most of the past seven years—why do otherwise rational people embrace irrational or even contradictory beliefs about politics?

As a junior colonial official in Burma, the young Eric Blair (he had not yet adopted the name by which he would be known to posterity) had been disgusted by his peers and superiors talking up the British liberty of Magna Carta and Rule Britannia while excusing acts of repression like the massacre of Indian protestors at Amritsar in 1919. As a committed socialist in the late 1930s, he openly ridiculed those who claimed to be champions of the working class while holding actual working-class people in open contempt. And he had watched the British Communist Party insist that the Second World War was nothing more than an imperialist adventure right up until the moment when the first German soldier crossed the Soviet frontier, at which point it instantly became a noble struggle for human freedom.

Orwell’s most personally searing experience, though, had come in Barcelona in 1937. The previous year, he had travelled to Spain to fight in the Civil War on the Republican side. His poor relationship with the British Communist Party led him to enlist in the militia of an anti-Stalinist socialist party, the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, or Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification). Even while it was fighting a bitter winter campaign in the Aragon mountains, the POUM was subject to a relentless propaganda campaign by pro-Soviet Republicans who insisted it was a secret front for fascism.

Over May and June 1937, the POUM and the other independent left-wing organisations in Barcelona were brutally suppressed by the Republican Government and Soviet-backed Communists. Orwell saw his friends and comrades smeared, arrested, and in some cases shot. He only made a narrow escape back into France himself. Upon his return to Britain, he found the British Communist Party resolute in its line that the POUM was a fascist party. Admitting that there could be a difference of opinion among left-wing groups with respect to the Soviet Union, or that the Spanish Communists could have acted unjustly, was unacceptable. And when Orwell published his own account of the events in Spain, Homage to Catalonia, few were interested in reading it. The betrayal of the POUM weighed on Orwell’s mind through the Second World War, and Animal Farm provided an outlet for his anger. But those bloody spring days in Barcelona also informed “Notes on Nationalism.”

“Notes on Nationalism” is not an ideal title, as Orwell was not talking only about loyalty to country. Rather, he used nationalism as a short-hand for any type of group loyalty—to a country, but also to a religion, a political party, or an ideology itself. A nationalist may be defined by his membership of a group, or by his opposition to one, which Orwell called “negative” nationalism. Orwell used anti-Semites as an example of the latter, as well as the “minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of Western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism.” He then set out to explain how everyone—no matter how reasoned and level-headed—is capable of irrational and biased thinking when our sense of group identity is challenged.

He identified three characteristics of “‘nationalistic’ thinking.” First, obsession—the ideologue’s need to filter everything through an ideological lens. Entertainment is not entertaining unless it is orthodox. Second, instability—the ability of the ideologue to go from believing one thing to quickly believing another to follow the party line. And thirdly, indifference to reality. One of the most interesting aspects of “Notes on Nationalism” is the “inadmissible fact”—something which can be proven to be true and is generally accepted but cannot be admitted by the adherents of a particular ideology. Or, if the fact is admitted, it is explained away or dismissed as unimportant.

The ideas explored in “Notes on Nationalism” run through much of Orwell’s writing, most obviously his anti-totalitarianism and hatred of hypocritical pieties. But central to his argument is how nationalistic thinking exposes our inescapable biases. “The Liberal News Chronicle,” he wrote, “published, as an example of shocking barbarity, photographs of Russians hanged by the Germans, and then a year or two later published with warm approval almost exactly similar photographs of Germans hanged by the Russians.” This anticipated the doublethink of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which atrocities “are looked upon as normal, and, when they are committed by one’s own side and not by the enemy, meritorious.” The first step down the deceptively short road to totalitarianism is believing that our political enemies pose such a grave threat that defeating them takes precedence over truth, consistency, or common sense.

The limits of reason

Man is a rational animal, as Aristotle put it. Not that he is always rational, but that he is capable of reason. Reason, trained, leads to happiness. Orwell wasn’t the first person to observe that this didn’t always work in practice.

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it” wrote Francis Bacon in his 1620 “Novum Organum,” one of the major early works of the European Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. Today, we call this confirmation bias. We don’t form opinions based on the evidence—we often shape the evidence to suit our opinions. We attribute importance to facts which back our preferred theory and dismiss as unimportant those which do not. “It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human intellect to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives; whereas it ought properly to hold itself indifferently disposed towards both alike,” Bacon added. We continue to cling to ideas which have been discredited, a phenomenon called belief perseverance. Or worse, our faith in discredited ideas becomes even stronger when we are presented with contrary evidence—the backfire effect. Or we focus on successes and ignore failures, a phenomenon called survivorship bias. Bacon reminds us of the story of Diagoras of Melos, who was shown a picture of those who had escaped shipwreck after making vows to the gods hanging in a temple. Diagoras asked where he could find a picture of those who made vows to the gods but drowned anyway.

Bacon wrote that humans are afflicted with “idols of the mind,” and he identified four. The first are idols of the tribe, flaws in thinking common to all people that come from human nature itself. Second are idols of the cave, or den. All of us, Bacon argued, have a cave in our mind where the light of reason is dimmed, and this cave varies from person to person depending on his or her character, experiences, and environment. Third are idols of the marketplace, associated with the exchange of ideas. As language can never be perfectly precise, it’s possible for falsehoods to develop and spread as a concept as explained by one person to another. Finally come idols of the theatre, ideas which have been presented to us and taken root so deeply and firmly they’ve become hard to remove. In Bacon’s time, this was the philosophy of Aristotle, which had become so fundamental to Western thought that even parts of it which could easily be disproven remained unchallenged for centuries. To manage the effect of the idols, Bacon proposed “radical induction”—the forerunner to the modern scientific method.

Other Enlightenment thinkers commented on the same theme. “Earthly minds, like mud walls, resist the strongest batteries: and though, perhaps, sometimes the force of a clear argument may make some impression, yet they nevertheless stand firm, and keep out the enemy, truth, that would captivate or disturb them” wrote John Locke in his “Essay on Human Understanding.” “Tell a man passionately in love that he is jilted; bring a score of witnesses of the falsehood of his mistress, it is ten to one but three kind words of hers shall invalidate all their testimonies.” This applies to the falsehood of political candidates, pundits, and quacks as much as to the falsehood of mistresses. And, of course, David Hume reminded us that reason can only ever be the slave of the passions.

Understanding cognitive bias

Modern research has vindicated Bacon, Locke, Hume, and Orwell, and shone some light on why our brains are so strangely susceptible to cognitive bias. In one study, Geoffrey Cohen was able to get different levels of support for a proposed welfare policy from Republicans and Democrats depending on whether he told them it was a Republican or a Democratic policy. Funnily enough, everyone claimed they were not influenced by the party which proposed the policy, but insisted those on the other side would be.

In another study conducted by Yale Law School, subjects were asked their political views and given a short numeracy test. They were then divided into groups and asked to interpret the results of a fictional study. When the study dealt with the efficacy of a skin cream, those subjects who had the best results in the numeracy test understood the study’s results best. But when the study related to the effect of gun control on crime, ideology and partisan affiliation played a much stronger role. Self-identified conservative Republicans struggled to correctly interpret results which suggested that gun control reduced crime, while self-identified liberal Democrats were equally stumped by results suggesting it increased it. They didn’t challenge the results or complain about them—they just couldn’t make the sums work.

Among those in the top 90th percentile for numeracy, 75 percent of people got the answer right for the skin cream question, but only 57 percent for the gun control question. In fact, people who were good at maths often did worse than those without a bent for numbers. The experiment seemed to vindicate Michael Shermer’s maxim that “smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” In “Notes on Nationalism,” Orwell noted that some of the best-educated embraced some of the most bizarre ideas. “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that,” he wrote, after describing some 1940s-era conspiracy theories. “No ordinary man could be such a fool.”

Why do we have cognitive biases? They seem like a colossal failure of the evolution of the human brain. But the more we learn about them, the better we understand their purposes. One is that they save us time and effort—the frugal reasoning argument. Suppose we go into the supermarket to buy cereal. You carefully read all the boxes, figuring out whether the All-Bran or the Just Right gives you the best nutritional balance and value in dollars per kilogram or pound. I grab a box because I like the colour or because it has a sponsorship deal with my football team. You make the more rational choice, but I spend much less of my life in the cereal aisle at the supermarket and more doing other things. It’s easy to see how the same logic gets applied to, for example, voting. Assuming that the consequences of voting the “wrong” way don’t cause me to lose as much time and effort as I would have given up to carefully select the right candidate, I come out ahead in the end.

And then there’s the prospect that cognitive biases could simply be side-effects of useful and valuable short-cuts our brains have developed. Our tendency to see patterns in randomness leads to the spread of conspiracy theories. Our ability to generalise from a few points of information leads to prejudice. The knee-jerk reactions to danger which kept our ancestors from being eaten by sabre-tooth tigers can also lead to irrational decisions in the face of more abstract threats like crime, terrorism, natural disasters, or stock-market crashes. And finally, shared beliefs, even incorrect beliefs, might promote group cohesion. Our brains are imperfect at reasoning, but they may be so for good reason.

The moral effort

“For those who feel deeply about contemporary politics, certain topics have become so infected by considerations of prestige that a genuinely rational approach to them is almost impossible,” Orwell wrote. Is there any hope for us, then? Or do we need to avoid politics altogether? Notwithstanding his famous pessimism, Orwell disagreed. “I think one must engage in politics—using the word in a wide sense—and that one must have preferences: that is, one must recognize that some causes are objectively better than others, even if they are advanced by equally bad means,” he wrote. But we should be aware of our biases and be willing to confront them. This, he wrote, was a moral effort, and “contemporary English literature, so far as it is alive at all to the major issues of our time, shows how few of us are prepared to make it.”

In principle, we all admire those who are free from hypocrisy and who apply equal scrutiny to the ideas of their friends as those of their enemies. In practice, these people seem to amass far more of the latter than the former. Their opponents give them little credit unless they change sides completely, and their allies turn on them for handing ammunition to the enemy. Orwell himself was an example of this. Until Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four made him a hero to the global anti-Communist movement, he was something of a pariah, shunned by the Right for his revolutionary socialism and by the Left for his unrelenting criticism of the Soviet Union and willingness to expose hypocrisy within the mainstream socialist movement. He continued to condemn British imperialism even when Luftwaffe bombs were falling on London, and refused to soften his line on Stalin when even the most blue-blooded Conservatives were moderating their rhetoric towards Britain’s wartime ally. Consistency isn’t really all that popular. Even Orwell, an unusually clear thinker, was not without biases of his own. For example, his belief that the capitalist system was facing imminent collapse in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. “Capitalism itself has manifestly no future” he wrote confidently in Towards European Unity in 1947, holding the line almost until the end of his life.

As we approach the maelstrom of a US presidential election, we are certain to see a lot of what Orwell described as nationalistic thinking across the mainstream media, blogs, YouTube, and Twitter. It is very easy to find examples among those with whom we disagree. It is harder to find them among those with whom we agree. And it is hardest of all to find them within ourselves. But, to co-opt Paul’s letter to the Romans, we deceive ourselves if we think we are without sin when it comes to perfectly rational thinking. The challenge is to recognise that “nationalistic” prejudices are wired into our brains. They are efficient and comfortable and help us to fit in, but they can cloud our thinking by making us either hyper-critical or wilfully blind. As Orwell wrote, we must make allowance for the “inevitable bias.”

So the next time you invoke Nineteen Eighty-Four to accuse an opponent of doublethink, pause and consider if you’ve taken the advice of its author and examined and acknowledged your own nationalistic biases. It is, as Orwell said, an effort, but at least we can try.

 

Adam Wakeling is an Australian writer, lawyer, and historian. His next book, A House of Commons for a Den of Thieves: Australia’s Journey from Penal Colony to Democracy, will be published by Australian Scholarly Publishing in October. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamMWakeling.

Comments

  1. I suspect his semi-biographical 1933 work Down and Out in Paris and London helped him understand bias. He was able to see what life was like from another viewpoint.

    Question is, did he compartmentalize his lived experiences? I imagine so. I imagine that was the norm. PTSD was the norm. Hard times the norm.

    Maybe that is what we are missing.

    I liked the article.

  2. This is a very good article. Sadly, the beginning of it reminds me of all of the great thinking most students of today will never have the opportunity to study.

    I was particularly struck by Orwell’s third characteristic of “nationalist” thinking (more appropriately ideological thinking). This seems especially rampant in today’s world.

    And thirdly, indifference to reality. One of the most interesting aspects of “Notes on Nationalism” is the “inadmissible fact”—something which can be proven to be true and is generally accepted but cannot be admitted by the adherents of a particular ideology. Or, if the fact is admitted, it is explained away or dismissed as unimportant.

  3. Great article, so much to think about here and so fitting to the times.

    We have already taken the first step and are on a dangerous path.

  4. Even Orwell, an unusually clear thinker, was not without biases of his own. For example, his belief that the capitalist system was facing imminent collapse in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

    While I accept the inevitability of bias, I really miss the times when somebody could also simply be wrong.

  5. Yep, he nailed it. The other thing to consider is that it is also the underlying friction, tension and contention which exists between the softer ideologies of conservatism and liberalism, seems to not only vets bad ideas, but also promote extraordinarily good ones. I don’t think it is by accident that the areas which lag behind, such as in education or reform-based policing, also tend to be the ones where liberals and conservatives self-sort to the point that they exclude the other group.

    Viewpoint diversity really is a must, if one wants to avoid groupthink and susceptibility to really wacky ideas.

  6. I’ve flitted in and out of here in the past, commenting on the intellectual fetishization of everything that Quillette’s writers seem to share with the Prog-Marxist mob bent on destroying our society and NATION. I’m a different sort of intellectual critter from most meet as I’m a true auto-didact, having read my first real political book at age 11, The Gulag Archipelago, one of the most important political books of the 20th century. Has the author read it? There was a write up here on Solzhynetzin (sp, can’t be bothered to look it up) here but I remember it obsessing about his nationalism and supposedly horrific anti-semitism. While I don’t share his issues with Jews, I do wonder at what point all white men of Euro descent were mandated to love Jews and all other peoples of the Earth? White, Euro men are not universally loved - but that seems fine. Hating whitey is always cool I guess…

    But I digress…The entire “analysis” offered is superficial. Let’s take the idea of “cognitive bias” as problematic. Uh - why? Heuristics are very efficient ways of making decisions inside the timeframe for which many decisions can actually be made. They are necessarily shortcuts, which are very helpful in making real world decisions. They are directionally correct and often right - and sometimes wrong. Yawn - this is supposed to revelatory? I’m not being hyperbolic, I’m serious. I want much more than burping up what you’ve read elsewhere and fashioned into an “essay”. I don’t even know what the author’s POV or point is other than in the author’s mind, bias is bad. LMFAO.

    There is better science on all of this than the author seems to be aware exists. The first mistake here is conflating “in-group preference” with bias. They are not interchangeable, and in-group preference isn’t a form of cognitive bias. The best work I’ve read on the collective effects of in-group preferences on human civilization and development is The Social Conquest of Earth by E. O. Wilson. In this groundbreaking work, we see that humans are a rare species that possess “eusocial” traits in our social order. Like other rare species that are eusocial, such as termites, bees and ants which have survived 100 million years, eusociality convokes amazing adaptive and survivability benefits to the species that practice it.

    What is eusociality? Simplest example is the worker bee or ant in a hive/nest. Unlike almost all other organisms, it doesn’t seek to reproduce or better itself individually. Rather is sacrifices its ability to survive and pass on its genetics in favor the the groups success. In other words, it’s self-sacrificing. Be clear, this means humans are not game-theory optimizing bits of slime that are simply trying to eat and screw their way through life. There is an innate GOODNESS that drives aspects of our social order which gives us great advantages. And humans have taken this trait to an entirely unprecedented level of integration in our social order.

    Within in-groups, life is very different. We trust fellow members to behave in ways we don’t expect others to do. We help and give and cooperate and share. And in The Social Conquest of Earth one can see very clearly that competition between in-groups is the engine of all social progress. In fact, a very clear way to describe the social development of humanity is as resulting from in-group competition. It is not a feature or consequence of cognitive bias. Rather, it’s a social strategy that has worked amazingly for humanity and isn’t worth throwing in the garbage cuz some pseudo-intellectual is able to assemble a word salad of nonsense claiming that “bias” is the worst evil one can imagine. It’s such a daft position to take, honestly. And it’s clear to me that such dreck results from intellectual group-think, something I’ve avoided as an auto-didact.

    But it gets worse, folks. Cognitive biases are nothing new. In fact, what we’ve known for eons is that any one individual can never escape one’s own biases. That’s why the Classical Liberal, Enlightenment and Christian values that formed Western Civilization were so important to human progress. They supported respect for individual voices and the adoption of reason, and hence science, to find “truth”. What was discovered is that all truth is contingent on better reasoning and/or evidence to come along. Our open society and its veneration of reason and science, along with individual sovereignty allowed this error correcting of individual biases to occur en masse across many domains of knowledge, and this is what led to our unprecedented progress for humanity.

    So, none of what is said in this article should shock anyone. And even worse, “problematizing” it is to fall into the Prog-Marxist-CritTheory-PostModern freak show world. What we need to do is apply reason and correct errors and not whine while we do so, as you are probably wrong too and someone else will come up with better reasoning than you.

    As for nationalism being some kind of problem, this reveals a basic misunderstanding of social order. The problem is not in-groups, rather it’s solving cooperation between in-groups without resorting to force, coercion and war. This was addressed by Western Civilization hundreds of years ago with The Treaty of Westphalia after the abattoir of the 30 Years war beat Europeans into a state of reasonableness. In fact, one can see the entire classical liberal order within nations and at the international level was about finding reasoned solutions to conflict instead as an alternative to war and force. Both for individuals within a state and nations interacting with each other.

    In other words, hundreds of years ago, truly brilliant thinkers already knew all this and fashioned the classical liberal order as a way to make society work better for individuals and society as a whole. The Western nations-state order isn’t a problem, it’s a solution.

    Let’s close out on cognitive “biases”. Human being’s minds are categorization machines. We cannot interrogate nor analyze the world without categorizing. I can see the house from the trees, your eyes from your face - and gasp!!! - I can see differences in people. Height, skin color, weight, accent - etc. Human cognition is constantly assigning and re-assigning all this internally, in a constant “true up” that the mind cannot help but perform. The breakthrough came in applying collective reasoning (science) to find better truths and this is what helps correct the errors of individual cognitive biases, but also because classical liberal values protected minority and heterodox views. As an aside, the cancer of Marxism can only occur due to the protection of minorities and they succeed by rejecting the very protection of reason and dissent that allowed them to rise. That’s why I loathe them, fyi.

    We use collective reasoning to error correct individual human bias. It’s really cool. But we will never be rid of cognitive biases as we would be ridding ourselves of all ability to function in the world. Life isn’t lived watching a lecture or writing pedantic blog pieces regurgitating tedious details of bad ideas.

  7. Bias is how other people think.

  8. Oh good. You have gone from self educated intellectual to Dirty Harry’s “You feeling lucky, punk?” in less than an hour. Disappointed.

  9. I have very unruly 11 year old granddaughter, Nancy, who is a real spit fire but has not yet learned how to properly think. I took her to a women’s tennis match the other day …she is keen to play…but it all ended in disaster. The final match opened and a 5 foot 2 little lady took serve from a giant of a gal. The server was at least two feet taller that the little opponent and won the first game without a serve being touched. The match was over quickly with the little one humiliated.
    But when the big girl hoisted her trophy and began to lope around the court Nancy screamed out “That’s no girl, its just a big guy that don’t have no tits!”. A hush fell over the crowd while I grabbed Nancy and tried to cover her mouth with my hand. But she viciously bit me and screamed again "Hey big boy if you don’t have tits then you anit no girl. Your just a stinking man slinking around like a girl… " Mercifully that was when the Tennis Thought Police arrived. To the cheers of the crowd she was swept away.
    The good news is that Nancy is making good progress at the Transexual Center for Correct Thinking.
    I think she has finally and truly learned her lesson that the party line is always the truth and all we have to do is to parrot it back.
    She hopes now to become a journalist at the New York Times. Such a smart young girl.

  10. Yeah, I’m still furious at the group of early hunters who figured out how to attach a sharp rock to the end of a stick to feed themselves and their families, and didn’t immediately share this secret with competing tribes as they starved.

    I’m sure it was capitalism then too as some died off from the unfair innovation arbitrage and reallocation of ‘capital’ (such as hunting grounds) to those with the unfair advantage. I might hold a rally in Portland.

  11. Notorious— without getting too deep in pointless rock throwing, let me re-up my invitation for you to explain how, with respect to the much-belabored “crisis of capitalism” or its oft-prophesied coming collapse, “this time is different.” Marxist theoretics in the century and a half since Marx’s death is one long mudwrestle with the failures of his “scientific” analysis of capitalism to bear predictive fruit in the real world. My bookshelf of Marx and Marxist interpretations and reinterpretations, revisionist theory and history, apologetics and neobyzantine prose as excuse art is probably five foot long and still growing. Sartre spent the last half of his life in that pit. (You have to give Jameson some credit for persistence— he’s still grappling with that greased pig.) So what do you have to add to it in evidence or understanding that is anything more than the same old vulgar marxist catechism of “truths” eternal that send the working class to the trenches and the blm/antifa lumpenproletariat to the streets to break other people’s toys?

  12. Not good enough; capitalism will be the most efficient system until human beings find a way to end human desires for more than their fellows. Which will end precisely never.

    By the standards of living of 99%+ of human history, and of at least 70% or so of humanity even today, westerners live a life of unimaginable luxury. Joe Sixpack has a life with a level of comfort, security, entertainment, and health that would make the Sun King green with envy. It is not scarcity that is the problem for Joe Sixpack, but that the neighbor’s wife has a new dildo that plays “come all you faithful” with blinking lights, so his wife wants one too, damn it.

    (Or some other equally needless product which he didn’t even know existed before the commercial he watched 2 minutes ago, but now feels he cannot live without. Why advertisements work is beyond me: someone who wants to sell you something tells you it’s the best product. But even a caveman knew that if Oog says Oog makes best fire, that’s not necessarily true.)

  13. Tech firms are unusual, because nobody uses the alternative- #exceptme- when both Google and Microsoft curation means that only DuckDuckGo! will find you the reference sources that nobody want you see.

  14. I disagree. First of all Socialism is the wish to nationalise all means of production, distribution and exchange. You cannot leave out the last two and be taken seriously as a commenter on this site, my dear fella.

    Capitalism is not a political system, but a mere description of the operation of the market. It can’t be judged just as the opposite of socialism. Socialism exists to limit capitalism, but capitalism doesn’t exist to limit socialism.

  15. Marxist notions of communism as the ‘natural’ successor to capitalism haven’t aged well, and his historicism (history has a direction and telos) is also mystical or dogmatic, not scientific. Lastly, socialists are always controllers of other people’s wealth, not producers of wealth. So the ‘socialist parasite’ metaphor is well-grounded, and also describes Karl’s own life as a scrounger who produced only the foundations of totalitarian nightmare.

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