For most economists, historians, social scientists, it is tough to avoid research bias

Blame, Bias and Belief

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Oct 5, 2012    •    493 Views

Having just begun The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, I wanted to share a wonderful excerpt. While this student is commenting on the origins of the First World War, his comments take us far beyond.

“Indeed, isn’t the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence. It seems to me that there is–was–a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame everyone else. But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

Can’t we substitute economist for historian in the excerpt? And might this student’s comments about “ascribing responsibility” refer also to our recent financial crisis?

Sources and Resources: The excerpt is from p. 13 in the paperback edition of The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize. You might also enjoy this econtalk podcast on “Truth, Science and Academic Incentives” and this one on “Science, Replication and Journalism.” Both podcasts take you to academic bias and relate to Daniel Kahneman’s discussion of confirmation bias in Thinking Fast and Slow, p. 80-81.

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