Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Fifty Shades Of Bias

Bias comes in many shades and sizes.

In the interest of time and your reading convenience, I shall broadly categorise them into two types. And start with a rhetorical question (and that's another presentation tip, kids!).

Which is the worse type of adjudicator for a moot or debate competition?

The geezers whose only constructive feedback is "You should smile more"?


The blowhards who can't stop interrupting you every few seconds and say "It's better to argue that..."?

The first is downright creepy, and demeans the spirit of the competition. (Look, RBF is a real thing. Try as we might, we can't put on Colgate-worthy smiles. It's like trying to out-smile beauty queens.)

The second is deeply misguided - your role is to hear people out, and not give them a lecture and flaunt your feathers like a peacock (Look, you can humble-brag about yourself all you want - after their presentations are over.)

Game face on

Bias Is Bad

Yes, when someone is pleading a case before your, it's their job to satisfy you.

But there's a line to be drawn between submission and subservience. There must be an objective yardstick to which the speakers are assessed on.

The width of one's smile should not be a predominant factor.

Neither should your personal opinion of how a case ought to be presented (more so when your opinion is built upon sketchy concepts you read up the night before or vague memories of your own presentations many years ago).

Yes, subjectivity is a feature (and a flaw) of the human brain. And when we put on the adjudicator hat, we must block off that screaming voice in our heads that says go "Wow, she's hot!" and "Wow, he really speaks and thinks like me!".

After all, that's the whole idea of an adjudicator in the first place - to be independent and impartial.

Bias is bias. Doesn't matter if it's the superficial or intellectual sort.

Points shouldn't be awarded or deducted based on good you look or dress up (nor how many buttons you loosen).

A winning argument is not one that best aligns with your own (half-baked) personal opinions, but one that is best supported by (well-developed but not perfect) reasons regardless of whether you agree with them or not.

I know, both types of bias are hard to shake. Humans are visual creatures, and are programmed to judge things against our own host of experiences.

That's where humility and empathy comes in.

The model judge - blind and unbiased


You don't necessarily know more about a subject matter than younger but diligent students who have researched on it for months. You shouldn't be quick to judge the answer to a subjective value judgment question (e.g. whether death penalty should be abolished), as opposed to an incontrovertible objective fact (e.g. whether the Earth circles around the sun, or vice versa). You shouldn't let personal preferences and taste cloud your judgment.

In legal parlance, you should not pre-judge a matter even before hearing parties. Sadly, it's a common flaw more prevalent in 'experienced' judges (or at least, those who think themselves as 'experienced'). Look, even with the meagre amount of 'experience' that I have, I don't go around preaching "You must.." or "Never say..." as the gospel truth.

There's an underrated quote in an overrated galaxy far, far away: "Only Siths deal in absolutes". The absolute rules in any sporting competition are few and far in between (e.g. no punching your opponent, no drugs, etc.). Ironically enough, the more fatal errors often go unnoticed and unpunished (e.g. speaking for only 10 minutes when you said you would speak for 20 minutes), because people are more focused on the trivial, made-up absolute rules they conjure in their own heads (e.g. where to put one's hands when they stand and speak).

Point is, we should not have pre-conceived notions of what's right and wrong, or at the very least, not judge others based on those notions.

Nowadays, when giving advice, I find myself often prefacing it with "This did not affect my assessment at all, but I should warn you that some other judges may not like it when you said..."

(I really wish I didn't have to give advice like that. But I have to, because it's only fair you all know what to expect in this random and chaotic galaxy we unfortunately live in.)

"STFU, I'm the one talking here."


You may be attracted to people who smile a lot (to be fair, who doesn't?). But that doesn't mean you should say it out loud - especially when you're called to judge a case, not a beauty pageant. Smiling is a sign of confidence? Please, that's lame af. Firstly, there are tons of psychological studies proving this to be inaccurate. Secondly... look, do I even need to give reasons to debunk this silly notion?

Fine, even assuming (but not conceding) that's true, surely confidence alone cannot be the primary criteria of what defines a rational mind. Trump speaks with great confidence - need I say more?

But more importantly, switch the roles around.

How would you feel if someone told you that you weren't good enough because you didn't smile enough? In a job interview (except for industries like entertainment and hospitality, of course). Or in a singing competition (that's what makes The Voice's blind audition so awesome - and fair). Not very nice, right? There's a word for it - discrimination.

How would you feel if you were judged on how good you look when you're meant to be judged on how well you present your points? Or knowing you won simply because you "had a nice smile"? Either way, if it were me, I would feel greatly insulted and disgusted.

(Ironically enough, the people who usually compliment others about smiles aren't great smilers themselves. Karma, beware...)

Spock will lose every argument by human standards

Blocking Bias

It's normal for humans to be biased. It simplifies our decision-making, and is arguably a key survival trait (e.g. avoid creatures in the grass that slither and hiss). I am biased too, in more ways than I can count and am conscious of.

But I try to stay objective, whenever I sit on an adjudication panel. I try to put pre-conceived notions aside, superficial and intellectual. I carry no expectations of what you should say and not say (except for basic things like speaking for 20 minutes like you said you would, and as the complexities of the case requires). It's the duty that's entrusted and expected of me - to be independent and impartial.

Now, I know it's not an easy feat to be free from bias. It's something I struggle with, even till today - or rather, even more so today. Ironically enough, you are more susceptible to bias the more you older and experienced you get. The more you know, the more you tend to filter and classify information into convenient (but arbitrary) boxes.

Each passing day, we build up on our bias. All the more reason why we should block them before they turn us into blowhards or creepy geezers.

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