Rethinking bias

There are at least two ways we use the word "bias", one of them comes with its own implicit assumptions of worldview and epistemology. But we often forget this.

This upcoming week in class we will be discussing implicit bias, the subconscious attitudes and stereotypes that affect our choices and behavior towards other people. This prompted me to finally try and write out a post about what "bias" is, and what assumptions, or even, implicit biases, are activated when we use the word "bias" in our every-day conversation. There are several definitions of "bias", the two that we use often in everyday speech are

  1. a tendency to have a particular outlook due to personal beliefs rather than "objective" facts, often considered the antonym of "impartial"
  2. treating a person or groups of people unfairly, associated with prejudiced

I think the two definitions are similar in some ways which I will explore later, first I want to dig into the first definition a bit.

Recently I've been re-reading Rethinking History, by Keith Jenkins. It's a great read if you really want to question some assumptions you might have about how it is we come to know about history, what history is, and what it isn't. To this end, Jenkins critiques the common believe that history is meant to sift out the "facts" of what "really" happened in the past, often using "evidence". I put those words in quotes because it turns out, they're actually quite problematic. The problem can be boiled down to an analogy Jenkins uses: a geographer, a sociologist, and a historian all looking out the same window at the same landscape.

A geographer, sociologist, and historian walk to a bar with a single window. What do they see?

Fist of all, we can note that none of the three can see the whole picture, the framing is in this case, quite literally, accomplished by the window frame. Second, we can imagine that each of the three will find different elements of the scene noteworthy: the geographer may note differences in agricultural vs. forested land, the sociologist my notice what family structures are common in the homes, population distributions, etc. The historian may be keen on observing how any of these other qualities change over time, what conditions might precede certain changes, etc.

The point is, all three of them are making "correct" observations, but all different observations. Though this is before Jenkins brings up the discussion of "bias", we might ask, would we consider each of those different views out the window "biased"?

A slight aside

You may see where this is going: "bias" only makes sense under the underlying assumption that there is an objective Truth out there for which any one of us could be expected to observe the same thing. This is in fact, not how we observe the world to work. But this idea that there is an objective reality out there, and we can discover it through observation forms the philosophical underpinnings of the scientific method, something that has been enjoying quite a shining reputation for providing the plethora of modern-day conveniences that we just could not live without. We could have a lively, and productive debate on whether or not science really has provided us convenience (and if so, who it has provided that convenience for... and who has it not), but for the time being let's just say that science has been successful because it "works" in the sense that if has allowed us to achieve a particular goal of understanding the properties of the world around us to the extent that we can manipulate that world to better suit our (but who is "us"?) needs.

Formally, the philosophical underpinnings of science that I eluded to earlier is known as empiricism. It defines a particular way of viewing the nature of reality and knowledge: that reality exists, and we can come to know the true nature of that existence through making observations and collecting evidence.

Back to bias

Jenkins makes a rather profound observation: "bias" is an artifact of an empiricist worldview. It functions as a mechanism to ensure internal consistency in the underlying assumptions about the way the world works. Consider this scenario: Alice and Bob both believe that a single objective reality exists that we are all living in, an we can come to know the truth of this reality by making observations. Both Alice and Bob's own sense of self and belonging in society depend on this believe, so there's a lot riding on it. A corollary to the assumption that there is an objective reality that be observed is that it doesn't matter who does the observing (baring any relativistic effects, let's assume both Alice and Bob are traveling at the same relative velocity). If evidence can be collected through observation, and that evidence tells us something about reality, then anyone collecting the same evidence should come to the same conclusions regarding reality. So Alice and Bob happen to be in the same place and the same time, making the same observation. Perhaps they are interested in the color of the sky. "My, what a nice blue sky that is," declares Alice. Bob, somewhat sheepishly and somewhat confused asks "yes, but I'm sure you mean 'celeste', not 'blue'."

Assuming Alice is about about her 'blue, not celeste' conclusion we are faced with two logical conclusions:

  1. The underpinning assumptions about the nature of reality, that it is objectively observable, are incorrect, or
  2. Reality is just as objectively real as ever, there must be something wrong with the people observing it.

Well, it wouldn't make much sense for a worldview to self-contradict itself out of existence, so 1 can't be true. That leaves us 2, something is going on in the observers to prevent them from making truthful conclusions about reality. Let's label that effect "bias".

The point, already

What I hope this point illustrates is the claim Jenkins made about "bias", that it is a construct that serves to maintain internal consistency with a particular worldview, namely an empiricist worldview. That is, rather than being a product of the world itself, "bias" is a product of the way we choose to view it. Jenkins then criticisms the use of "bias" to describe other worldviews, e.g. "feminists are biased." It makes no sense to say that, he claims, because it implies that empiricism isn't just a particular worldview but is THE way reality works. Using "bias" like this prioritizes and normalizes empiricism. Jenkins concludes

thus, the problem of bias is specifically an empiricist one but because it is the dominant approach then its problems get distributed as if they were everyone's. But they are not. Of course -- and this must be stressed -- other discourses have their own problems of internal coherence, etc., but bias is not the way they are expressed.

I particularly like Jenkins word choice: bias is an expression of an empiricist worldview. The point then, is that by casually using the word "bias" in our daily discourse, we are implicitly operating from within an empiricist frame of reference. While operating within this frame has proven to be incredibly successful (when we define 'success' in certain ways, from certain peoples perspectives) in the realm of science, it would be naive to assume this way of viewing the world should work ALL the time. This isn't to say that empiricism is bad, or other ways of conceiving of the world are "better", as Jenkins states, these other philosophies, including for example those that form the basis for feminism, have their own constructs to ensure internal consistency, they're just not called "bias".

You want the truth? Who's truth do you want?

One of Jenkins' central claims through the book is that rather than trying to answer "what is history?" we should be trying to answer "who is history for?" This idea can be extended to other fields of inquiry as well, it means changing the question "what is the truth" to "who is this truth for?". Who is science for? Who is feminism for? Who is grad school for? Who is DiversityEdu for? What this allows us to do is move beyond arguments of who is "really" correct, which tend not to end with anyone satisfied, and to embrace the idea that just like the geologist, sociologist, and historian looking out the window, we can all have different narratives describing what we see, we are all "correct", and by taking account of all those narratives we can begin to paint a more complete picture of what we all see.

Wait, so if "bias" is just a made-up thing...

I'm not saying that we should just stop using phrases like "implicit bias" when describing peoples unconscious assumptions and stereotypes, and I'm definitely not saying that because "bias" is a made-up construct that it some how makes the effects of something like "implicit bias" less real, or less legitimate.

When I first had the idea to write this post it immediately after getting frustrated at a number of political stories about which politicians lied the most. Now in many cases, I'm sure politicians do lie, in the sense they say things that they know are contrary to their own observations of the world. But I suspect many times politicians arrive a different conclusions not because some are lying and some are telling the truth (which would assume an objective reality), but that each may be truthfully describing their own reality, and it just might be that different realities conflict with one another.

And that's ok. I suspect that to make progress in the quest for social justice (who is "social justice" for?) we can not limit ourselves to empiricist views of the world. We must be open towards other ways making sense of our experiences, and how we come to see reality through them. We must be aware that just like "bias", any other worldview will have its own internal-coherence mechanism, and we need to be aware of it, and its function. Because we can't fall into the trap of assuming a particular worldview is in fact reality itself. That never ends well for anyone.