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LW systemic bias: US centrism

10 Post author: lucidfox 19 July 2011 07:21PM

Recently, I have noticed a cultural bias for the United States running through LW threads. It is perhaps to be expected of an English-language website, but for one that is about, among other things, overcoming bias, it is important to recognize one's own. 

Aspects of the bias I have observed include:

  • Using Imperial units over the SI system, which is the standard for scientific literature and discussion.
  • Presuming the US by default when it is assumed that no country name needs to be given.
  • Expecting reader familiarity with US-specific cultural concepts.
  • A tendency to focus on the US first and foremost when talking about worldwide problems and scenarios.

I'm not the first to raise such concerns, either.

By comparison, e.g. the English Wikipedia strikes me as an example of an international English-language project that's relatively successful at recognizing and fighting systemic bias, and a whole set of template messages to mark articles with identified problems.

To quote Wikipedia itself:

The average Wikipedian on the English Wikipedia is (1) a male, (2) technically inclined, (3) formally educated, (4) an English speaker (native or non-native), (5) European–descent, (6) aged 15–49, (7) from a majority-Christian country, (8) from a developed nation, (9) from the Northern Hemisphere, and (10) likely employed as a white-collar worker or enrolled as a student rather than employed as a labourer.

The reason I haven't mentioned other obvious biases, such as gender, age, education, or First World biases, is because those (in my experience) tend to be more subtle here on LW and because I'm myself subject to some of them. However, I might cook something up on them later.

Comments (58)

Comment author: Konkvistador 06 December 2011 11:54:38AM *  1 point [-]

@Lucidfox: Why are you complaining? Amerika ist wundrebar.

It is a profound, if unsurprising, irony that in order to get the message of the video, one must be Americanized to a remarkable degree, yet also resent it.

Much like the OP.

Comment author: handoflixue 28 July 2011 10:51:38PM 3 points [-]

Your examples all come from the Discussion area. Are there examples in the Sequences or Promoted posts that you feel still suffer from this? Have you run in to issues with "main" posts where the authors reaction is anything other than "oh, thanks, let me fix that"?

I don't think policing the Discussion area is a worthwhile community goal.

I'll go ahead and just quote my original response to you:

People in the US use imperial measures as their native units. I doubt anyone on this site uses arshins and sazhens as their primary day-to-day measure of objects. Asking someone in the casual discussion area to translate out of their native units, for your convenience, when probably half of this site uses those units, is selfish.

If half the site were dominated by pre-revolution Russians I would (a) be very confused and (b) once I accepted that this wasn't a hoax, I'd use Google to learn the local vernacular rather than expecting them to cater to me.

Comment author: lucidfox 30 July 2011 10:27:51AM 1 point [-]

I don't see discussion posts as being inherently of lesser value and lesser impact to readers than promoted posts. I judge posts based on their content and the points they bring up, not by their location on the site.

Comment author: diegocaleiro 21 July 2011 01:41:02PM 3 points [-]

The bias of describing earnings annually is one that always struck me as american fun. It is widespread stereotype that americans are workaholic (when they obviously needn't).

Without considering the degree of truth of the stereotype, it relates strongly in my mind with the fact that they are always speakind of income as yearly, not monthly, like most people I know, nor Daily, like Ferriss recommends, very wisely, I think.

Comment author: moridinamael 20 July 2011 08:45:04PM 2 points [-]

Might this be one of those instances where it is globally better for the annoyed party (non-US LWers) to self-modify to accept that everybody uses language from a inside a cultural framework, rather than to request that the majority self-modify to implement not-really-well-specified "universal" norms for English?

As an American engineer I personally think we should all use S.I., but it doesn't do any good to correct people who use English units, unless I take the full effort of convincing them that a consistent unit system is actually more powerful.

Comment author: dbaupp 21 July 2011 01:59:16AM *  1 point [-]

I think the problem is the definitely not the language. From the original post:

  • Presuming the US by default when it is assumed that no country name needs to be given.
  • Expecting reader familiarity with US-specific cultural concepts.
  • A tendency to focus on the US first and foremost when talking about worldwide problems and scenarios.

Expecting people to self-modify to "correct" these is wrong, although I don't think you were suggesting this.

(EDIT: read "wrong" as "unreasonable")

Comment author: lucidfox 21 July 2011 03:30:40PM 0 points [-]

How exactly is it wrong?

Comment author: dbaupp 22 July 2011 12:58:07AM 0 points [-]

Hmmm... on reflection, "wrong" is too strong.

I was thinking that it was that people would have to self-modify to adopt US culture. But, actually thinking about what was being said (thanks, MixedNuts) and what I quoted indicates that it was just self-modifying to become familiar with the concepts.

I still think this is unreasonable, due to, for example, the amount of effort it would take to get decent coverage across all areas of the culture, i.e. it's much easier for US users to make a few annotations ("in the USA", or "governor of Massachusetts", to increase googleability at least).

Comment author: MixedNuts 21 July 2011 03:38:00PM 2 points [-]

If non-US users modify not to be annoyed by these, then:

Expecting reader familiarity with US-specific cultural concepts.

Readers will keep having to look them up, which they'll still find annoying (unless the self-modification is really big).

A tendency to focus on the US first and foremost when talking about worldwide problems and scenarios.

Suggestions will keep being tailored to the US, leading to a lack of general solutions and custom solutions for other countries.

OTOH, I'm not sure what's wrong with self-modifying to not be annoyed when American users have GetDefaultCountry() return "USA".

Comment author: dbaupp 22 July 2011 12:59:30AM *  1 point [-]

OTOH, I'm not sure what's wrong with self-modifying to not be annoyed when American users have GetDefaultCountry() return "USA".

Nothing, I was thinking about the issue in the wrong way and so I have ameliorated my response accordingly.

Comment author: dbaupp 20 July 2011 02:22:37AM 5 points [-]

Another instance I recently noticed, and reacted moderately strongly against, was this post and its comments, where there is the implicit assumption that voting (for political candidates) is voluntary, and the discussion makes no consideration of compulsory voting.

The main reason I reacted against it was that the assumption was implicit, (mainly since nature of the discussion is not relevant to systems with compulsory voting).

Comment author: saturn 20 July 2011 06:07:09PM 6 points [-]

But only 12 countries have enforced compulsory voting, out of ~150 democratic countries.

Comment author: roystgnr 21 July 2011 04:03:56PM 3 points [-]

And zero countries have compulsory voter research. If you take the question "what's my rational incentive to spend an hour in line at the poll after spending several hours sieving through ads news and spin to find facts about candidates", and you remove the "hour in line" part, the decision problem is pretty similar at the personal level.

At the social level, "what is the impact of encouraging more votes from people who won't voluntarily spend time on voting" is an interesting question, but I don't think that's the discussion the linked post was trying to have.

Comment author: dbaupp 21 July 2011 01:10:49AM 3 points [-]

Oh, I had no idea that it was that low. I'd though most of europe used compulsory voting.

Although, according to the wikipedia article, there are an additional 21 countries that have compulsory voting but don't enforce it. Which suggests that there are at least 2 billion people who live in a system with some sort of compulsory voting, and a bit under 400 million have enforced compulsory voting (I checked the populations of some of the countries).

(For what it's worth, I'm in Australia (with compulsory voting), so that would have contributed to my reaction.)

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 19 July 2011 10:33:58PM *  6 points [-]

Aspects of the bias I have observed include: Presuming the US by default when it is assumed that no country name needs to be given.

Presuming the US when no country is named is statistical discrimination (not a bias).

Most Less Wrong users are from the US.

X is a Less Wrong user.

Probably, X is from the US.

What, if anything, is biased about this pattern of reasoning?

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 21 July 2011 05:54:53PM 1 point [-]

The point is that even though the majority of the audience is American, it (often) still isn't optimal to use US-centric terms and ideas.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 21 July 2011 06:53:45PM 1 point [-]

Agreed, but I was responding specifically to the assertion of bias I quoted in my comment, not the underlying point of the post.

Comment author: SilasBarta 21 July 2011 04:00:56PM 3 points [-]

Presuming a poster is male when no gender is given is statistical discrimination (not a bias).

Most Less Wrong users are male.

X is a Less Wrong user.

Probably, X is male.

What, if anything, is biased about this pattern of reasoning?

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 21 July 2011 06:30:12PM 2 points [-]

Correct, that is another instance of the same reasoning pattern with high inductive probability. I see no evidence of cognitive bias in either case.

Comment author: SilasBarta 21 July 2011 07:41:49PM 3 points [-]

My point is that the fact that the probabilistic inference is valid does not imply that you should e.g. use examples that assume the user is that way, which was the reason you were making that point to begin with. I can safely assume that an unknown user is male. Doesn't mean I should use male-experience specific examples for elucidation.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 26 July 2011 01:16:19AM *  1 point [-]

See here (minus the part about the robe). My response was about whether a certain presumption was biased, not whether it was an optimal social norm.

Comment author: MixedNuts 21 July 2011 06:55:14PM 5 points [-]

(Picture me saying this in dramatic tones, standing on a podium wearing robes and frequently howling "Fools!")

For a perfect Bayesian, it works. For humans, not so much. Just having a category exist makes us develop silly beliefs around it. If they're categories of people, we start loving our category and hating others - the ingroup/outgroup dichotomy. We treat ourselves as default and other, er, others, increasing the status differential. If a power structure already exists on top on that, forget it. It's really not innocent.

Comment author: magfrump 24 July 2011 02:50:54PM 0 points [-]

Upvoted for the flavor text and the anvilicious necessity.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 21 July 2011 07:38:28PM 3 points [-]

It seems to me that whether or not something is good social practice is distinct from whether or not it involves cognitive bias. BTW, I like the robe; it is everything I imagined it would be.

Comment author: Hyena 20 July 2011 04:00:57AM 6 points [-]

Wouldn't it be more likely that, since the majority of LessWrong users are from the US, most posts are US-centric because that's what the poster himself is familiar with?

I mean, certainly we could pose a line of reasoning to create a post hoc justification for the practice, but what seems more likely is that US-centric posts are reflective of poster, not audience, knowledge. Unless you think we'd have reason to suppose that posters would readily be plucking examples, etc. from their immense knowledge of the UK or Nepal.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 19 July 2011 09:53:52PM 2 points [-]

I often feel quite self-conscious when I spell it "maths". That's about the height of it.

Comment author: Nisan 19 July 2011 11:32:12PM 0 points [-]

I like your username.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 20 July 2011 08:26:46AM 1 point [-]

Thank you.

Comment author: cousin_it 19 July 2011 09:06:51PM *  10 points [-]

The C2 wiki has invented a beautiful name for this concept and gathered lots of examples: American Cultural Assumption. (Do Americans realize that words like "primaries", "cheerleaders" or "curveball" are incomprehensible to most of the world?) That said, as a Russian living in Switzerland, I'm not too worried about this sort of cultural bias. I generally don't even notice it until someone points it out. The only case in recent memory that really made me cringe was when Google decided to remind me about something called "Father's Day".

Comment author: SilasBarta 21 July 2011 03:59:14PM 0 points [-]

(Do Americans realize that words like "primaries", "cheerleaders" or "curveball" are incomprehensible to most of the world?)

I realized that references to "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" would be America-centric, but then I saw you do this.

Comment author: MixedNuts 19 July 2011 09:21:55PM 4 points [-]

Primaries, cheerleaders and Father's Day exist in most of Western Europe (though primaries are a recent import from the US).

Comment author: Barry_Cotter 22 July 2011 12:20:00AM 4 points [-]

I'm quite familiar with the political culture in Ireland and Britain; they don't have primaries in anything strongly resembling the American sense. I'm willing to say the same for Germany but I'm not as sure. Actually, now that I think about it, I would be incredibly surprised if any country in Europe, east or west has primaries like in the US. After all people don't register as members of a political party when they register as voters.

I would also be surprised if cheerleaders existed in anything approaching the way they do in the US in Europe, seeing as no team sports with long periods of no motion/play are popular in Europe.

Father's Day is popular in some European countries, so in my eyes you're one for three.

Comment author: MixedNuts 22 July 2011 08:03:18AM *  1 point [-]

The French Socialist Party (which is not socialist, but social-democratic) is the main left-wing party in France, and holds primaries sort of like in the US. Registering as a member of a party is independent from registering as a voter, and indeed fewer people do it, so the primary is much smaller.

Cheerleading is much less intense and developed here, but there's a cheerleading club in e.g. every major engineering school. It's not nearly as competitive, though.

Comment author: Barry_Cotter 22 July 2011 07:10:39PM *  0 points [-]

Our conceptions of what the words "primary" mean are so varied that I still disagree with you right now. My disagreement would decrease if registering to vote in the socialist "primary" did not require paying membership dues. To my knowledge all of the UK and Irish political parties require candidates to be selected by the local committee of the constituency in which they wish to stand. I do not consider this a primary.

I stand behind my careful cavilling/weaselling on cheerleaders though; when I think of cheerleading I think of American Football not Bring It On

Comment author: MrMind 21 July 2011 09:04:35AM *  1 point [-]

It's noteworthy that in Italy we know about primaries (even if only half the political world employs it) and Father's day, but we have no cheerleaders. But don't worry: Italians being what they are, we invented plenty other ways to objectify women.

Comment author: cousin_it 19 July 2011 09:34:56PM *  0 points [-]

Hm. You're technically right, but... Well, you could say that the Russian orthodox church exists in the US too. But not quite in the same way that it exists in Russia.

(comment retracted because I don't want to argue)

Comment author: Wei_Dai 19 July 2011 09:06:07PM 8 points [-]

According to Wikipedia:

Cultural bias occurs when people of a culture make assumptions about conventions, including conventions of language, notation, proof and evidence. They are then accused of mistaking these assumptions for laws of logic or nature.

It seems to me that cultural bias isn't so bad, as long as we don't make this mistake, and the examples you give do not seem to constitute evidence that this kind of mistake has been made.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 20 July 2011 09:10:42AM 0 points [-]
Comment author: wedrifid 20 July 2011 07:22:05AM 0 points [-]

According to Wikipedia:

Cultural bias occurs when people of a culture make assumptions about conventions, including conventions of language, notation, proof and evidence. They are then accused of mistaking these assumptions for laws of logic or nature.

This is precisely what I observe happening here at times.

Comment author: Konkvistador 05 March 2012 12:31:53PM 0 points [-]

I would be interested in a few examples.

Comment author: wedrifid 05 March 2012 12:39:19PM 1 point [-]

I honestly have little idea what wedrifid_2011 was talking about. At least, I can see various things which fit but I'm not really sure which of the points he was trying to make.

Comment author: Konkvistador 05 March 2012 01:26:12PM *  0 points [-]

Well I'd still be interested in what things wedrifid_2012 think might fit: :

Cultural bias occurs when people of a culture make assumptions about conventions, including conventions of language, notation, proof and evidence. They are then accused of mistaking these assumptions for laws of logic or nature.

On LessWrong. Generally speaking I'm willing to accept wedrifid 2012 March as a good approximation of wedrifid 2011July.

Comment author: wedrifid 06 March 2012 03:50:23AM 0 points [-]

I would perhaps say that while overall wedrifid is very similar to the wedrifid from the aforementioned July, the cache of things that have recently irritated him is somewhat different. I also haven't read the context here recently so as to most effectively re-prime myself. Let me take another glance.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 19 July 2011 08:44:08PM 1 point [-]

This quite often annoys me quite a bit. PLEASE fix it.

Comment author: MixedNuts 19 July 2011 08:30:50PM 17 points [-]

Re: units, I think we should act like TV Tropes with British vs American spelling: people use their native ones, they're encouraged to provide equivalents in the other common system but not punished for not doing so, and punished for complaining.

I think assuming familiarity with US culture is fair game, because it's everywhere. Then again, I also think assuming familiarity with thermodynamics, psychiatry, current world-impact affairs, or Belgian comics are fair game as long as there are enough keywords to look up.

Otherwise, IAWYC. It's even more frustrating because I exhibit it myself a lot (e.g. automatically assuming American attitudes to various minorities), and I've never even been to the US. And I'm reluctant to write "American" because what about the rest of the continent.

Possible cures include:

  • Watching out for it (well duh)
  • A handful of explicit norms - roughly, don't assume any country as default, and gently point out when other people do it; but keep your own national norms when they're not too stupid (e.g. no site-wide conversion to British spelling, SI units, or Lojban), though cultural translations are welcome
  • Increased exposure to other countries' culture (if I can become US-centric that way, why not the reverse?)
  • When talking about problems that concern a country, compare two countries (or more); this should cause you to notice you were only thinking of the US
  • When you have expertise in something, check its domain of application, including country and culture; e.g. notice by "actors" you mean "Hollywood actors"

(Also, lose the "hey, this is about overcoming bias" line. Saying something is a bias and why is enough, we know biases are bad.)

Comment author: jsalvatier 19 July 2011 07:44:06PM *  10 points [-]

Survey for LWers from outside the US: how off putting are instances of this bias?

Note that this measure will tend to underestimate how offputting it is since people who are put off will tend to participate less.

Results as of 7/20/2011:

  • 68% Little
  • 22% Moderately
  • 10% Very
Comment author: Thomas 20 July 2011 10:44:51AM 1 point [-]

I see no American bias here. See some others, but not that one. (As an EU located one.)

Comment author: FiftyTwo 19 July 2011 11:26:45PM 4 points [-]

UK reader, not noticed any particularly american bias,

Would suspect there is a 'western' english speaker bias to quite a lot of it though,

Comment author: DanielVarga 19 July 2011 10:29:27PM 0 points [-]

Not off putting at all. From Hungary.

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 19 July 2011 07:54:19PM 12 points [-]

international LWers

Intentional irony?

Comment author: wedrifid 20 July 2011 07:23:32AM 1 point [-]
international LWers

Intentional irony?

Well spotted! I didn't even notice.

Comment author: jsalvatier 19 July 2011 07:57:27PM 1 point [-]

No, I wasn't sure how to phrase that. Suggestions?

Comment author: JoshuaZ 19 July 2011 08:09:32PM 6 points [-]

"LWers from outside the US"?

Comment author: jsalvatier 19 July 2011 07:46:29PM 0 points [-]

Not off-putting.

Comment author: jsalvatier 19 July 2011 07:46:20PM *  28 points [-]

Little or not at all off-putting.

Comment author: jsalvatier 19 July 2011 07:45:08PM 13 points [-]

Moderately off-putting.

Comment author: jsalvatier 19 July 2011 07:44:47PM 4 points [-]

Very off-putting.