Cognitive bias : Important topic, wrong example (a communication fail).

The Dean of my Institution frequently sends inspirational messages to the campus. It’s ususally nice, sometimes (unintendedly) funny. I always considered it a manifestation of this still-strange-to-me american way of being positive and motivational. Except this one time.  This time where the Dean -or more likely his communication team- chose to illustrate a message on cognitive bias in scientific and medical communities with the Rolling Stone UVA rape story. I KID YOU NOT. It goes :

The magazine Rolling Stone recently gave us a striking (and, I suspect, deeply regretted) illustration of just how dangerous unexamined assumptions can be. One of their articles, published late last fall, turned out to be a fabrication. The publication later retracted it.

How—in an established, respected publication—could something like that happen? There was obviously uncharacteristic carelessness and a woeful lack of professionalism in the mix. But the deepest explanation, I think, is: to everyone involved, apparently, the story seemed true, so they concluded—without checking—that it was.

A classic case, in other words, of the phenomenon known as “cognitive bias.”

One of the frailties of being human is that we tend to “see” what we’re expecting to find. Cognitive bias is what leads people to jump to conclusions or fall into the trap of stereotyping. It’s what makes prejudice such a potentially dangerous state of mind.

Whether we realize it or not, very, very few of us, I suspect, are completely free of cognitive bias. The key is to recognize that fact, especially if you’re charged with making decisions that affect other people.


Really? You wanna talk pride stereotyping and prejudice, and you pick this example??? I thus proceeded to ruin a  perfectly fine day of expected maximum productivity to carefully craft a respectful email with trembling fingers (I’m only slightly exaggerating)(yes, unexpected encounters with rape culture ruins my ability to focus)(on analysis). It goes :


While I agree with the general message conveyed by [message from Dean], I can’t help but bring to your attention that starting such a message, especially addressing cognitive bias, by citing the UVA rape Rolling Stone story is ill-advised.

The Rolling Stone alleged rape case is an intricate and complex story, for which the “truth” will never be established. The bad reporting on the story was tremendously detrimental to rape survivors, treatment of rape victims, and handling of on-campus rape cases, which is a national issue. Most importantly, “cognitive bias” actually works against the victim most of the time in rape cases.

There are numerous examples of stories published, then retracted, including in science, that could have served for illustrative purpose. Choosing as an example a story that sparked controversy across the country about a campus rape case while addressing a message to the whole [institution] campus about “truth” seems highly inappropriate. It also implicitly suggests that potential sexual assault or harrassment victims at [institution] might not be taken seriously.

I hope that the issues I’m raising will be carefully and respectfully adressed, and that in the future the implications of  [Institution’s Dean] internal communication will be considered more thoughtfully.

Substance P. (that’s not my actual name)

I received a carefully crafted and respectful email (though, I suspect, not written with trembling fingers) re-explaining me why the Rolling Stone example was the perrrfect example (because cognitive bias + everybody has heard of it, duh), and that -of course- they take sexual assault and harrassment seriously. Note my final hint that -maybe- they should remove the message from the Institution website. Guess what? It’s still there. Am I the only one shocked?

(Bonus : A Nature Editorial on cognitive bias in science : quite a different flavour…)

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