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On Bias: I. Disparate Bias
Various dictionaries define bias as a tendency or inclination: usually preconceived, sometimes unreasoned, and typically unfair; an inherent if not intentionally irrational preference. Partiality, expectancy, perception… where such words are synonymous, still if they meant exactly the same thing, wouldn’t we use exactly the same word? So what exactly is bias?
Sociologist Jim Mackenzie, ostensibly on behalf of teachers, introduces bias as “something we all deplore.” He associates bias with truth, in a negative way where bias leans toward its own ends, and with justice where bias unchecked is distinctly unfair. Still, his ensuing analysis of two “images” is instructive. First, bias indicates something to be gotten rid of… imagine an excess of prejudice, or a distortion or “impurity in a lens… that prevents us from seeing things as they really are” (p. 491) which, you’ll notice, leaves an alternative of being unable or unwilling to get rid of it. Second, as a void or deficit to be filled, or an insufficient consideration or partial blindness by which we’re unable to see what’s already there, or even see any alternatives, bias indicates something to be gained which, again, leaves open the inability or unwillingness to gain it.
Before going any further, I’d be remiss to overlook my own word choice, summarising Mackenzie: both times, you’ll see I wrote “… bias indicates, which leaves….” Something indicated is pointed out, presumably against criteria or else how would you know to single it out? And for leaving an open alternative from which to choose, such criteria would be definite, or else why not assert amidst ambiguity? Anyway, this is the reasoning for my word choice, and you can take it or leave it, as you will.
Considering his first image, an excess of prejudice, Mackenzie cites Edmund Husserl and the “full intellectual freedom” needed to “break down the mental barriers which [our habits of thought] have set along the horizons of our thinking” (p. 43) – by today’s messaging, ‘open-mindedness is a hard ask’. Maybe so, but set against this is Husserl’s steadfast urgency that “nothing less is required.”
Husserl’s prescription reminded me of Sir Francis Bacon, who would have us overcome what he called the four Idols of the Mind that “imbue and corrupt [our] understanding in innumerable and sometimes imperceptible ways”:
The human understanding is most excited by that which strikes and enters the mind at once and suddenly, and by which the imagination is immediately filled and inflated. It then begins almost imperceptibly to conceive and suppose that everything is similar to the few objects which have taken possession of the mind…
… although the greatest generalities in nature must be positive, just as they are found, and in fact not causable, yet the human understanding, incapable of resting, seeks for something more intelligible. Thus, however, while aiming at further progress, it falls back to what is actually less advanced, namely, final causes; for they are clearly more allied to man’s own nature, than the system of the universe, and from this source they have wonderfully corrupted philosophy.…
The human understanding resembles not a dry light, but admits a tincture of the will and passions, which generate their own system accordingly; for man always believes more readily that which he prefers. He, therefore, rejects difficulties for want of patience in investigation; sobriety, because it limits his hope; the depths of nature, from superstition; the light of experiment, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should appear to be occupied with common and varying objects; paradoxes, from a fear of the opinion of the vulgar; in short, his feelings imbue and corrupt his understanding in innumerable and sometimes imperceptible ways. (pp. 24–26)
My guess would be no love lost for Bacon, these days, which is nothing if not ironic.
Husserl also reminded me of one of my professors, Dr. William Pinar, whose concept of “reactivation” would seem to grant history just that wee bit more consideration as we set about our ideas and memories, revisiting if not revising them with more intention and, presumably, greater awareness. All these together – Bacon, Husserl, Pinar – I see reflecting Mackenzie’s second image, a deficit of alternatives, not something to be corrected or removed but rather a void to be filled, an absence noted, an allusion by Joyce to the “gnomon in the Euclid” (p. 1). What luck for Mackenzie, being so well represented (thanks of course to me).
And lucky for all of us to be surrounded by the greatest unfilled void imaginable, a universe of limitless time and space: “… a pretty big place!” to quote Dr. Arroway, and certainly big enough to surpass any no-worries belief that, nah, we have it all well in-hand. Mackenzie’s implication is that everyone’s necessarily biased for being finite. Sure, we continually develop new understandings across spaces over time, but short of real omniscience, as if we might observe the Earth’s sphere from its surface – so, make that well short – who could possibly come to know all there is to know? Our limit is our bias although I find a lot of people seem to get this reversed. Then again, pride and prejudice pair up for box office mojo that wisdom and humility would hardly dare to dream.
Our limit is our bias although I find a lot of people seem to get this reversed.
Bias arises inevitably from… call it what you want: our nature, a state of being, Dasein. We’re inescapably subject to it, beset and enamoured by it. Its cumulative effects inflect our cultural systems and institutions while remaining, as Heikes says, invisible to everyone involved, like the water to those oblivious fish. This may be why Mackenzie sets the “onus of proof” for demonstrating bias, be it misunderstanding or insufficient consideration, upon “the person who claims that something is biased, for that is provable,” i.e. hey look! something more, something else, something different. As for demonstrating that someone has fully completely understood or utterly thoroughly considered a matter, and therefore is unbiased: this remains impossible although more and more our cultural infatuation is to start your impossible and put those pesky finite limitations to the sword. Time to fly on waxen wing and silence father’s voice.
Characterising limit as the antagonist is not our only option although for raising hackles, or for squeamish sentiments like Mackenzie’s introduction, I guess bias was inevitably doomed to be the dagger of our mind. Still, somewhat less drastic is MacMullen, who casts bias as more benign prejudice “that exhibits resistance to rational criticism” wherein, I suppose, the patient must minister to himself. As it happens, I have a teacher bias that’s comfortable with MacMullen’s perspective, particularly where he cuts to the core debate that has faced biased educators through the ages: what should comprise the curriculum? what should we teach because what is worth learning? what is school for? Whatever our response to any of this, surely it’s not to cap our limits but to stretch them.
“We must decide,” MacMullen counsels, “whether, when, and how to expose children to (what we take to be) the most powerful critiques of and significant alternatives to our existing political order.” Critical thinking powers activate – that goes for you too, Critical Theorists, so I hope you brought enough for everybody.
Hey, though, one look at the pantheon of scholars and heroes in this post should be all anyone needs, as compared to MacMullen’s thing about (what we take to be) critiques and alternatives to our existing political order, or any order really… since when did the root of all debate become a mere parenthetical?
Click here to read On Bias: II. Wrong Bias?