bias versus Bias

The term “biased” is often used by students to refer to an author with a clearly stated position that they disagree with.  In the mid-90s, therefore, when teaching a course on biology and society, I formulated a contrast between bias and Bias:


1.  X’s bias leads them to accept assumptions and propositions without examining alternatives.

2.  The assumptions and propositions are one set of elements in the construction of scientific knowledge from many elements building upon each other.  That is, all work is biased.  (Image: biased bowls)

vs.  Experimental tests and peer review eliminate bias in science.  (This view assumes, incorrectly, that all alternatives are raised and considered in normal science.)

3.  1=> Use the assertion that X is biased to counterpose alternative, and ask what difference it makes in examples cited, observations made, arguments addressed and conclusions reached.  That is, bias, provides an entry point for further investigation.

4.  2=> We should not expect bias to determine the outcome.

5.  2=> Changing biased work will require changing many interconnected elements.

vs. Bias

6.  Bias = accusation that X’s bias is determining; that changing it would make all the difference, because everything is built upon that.

7.  Accusations of Bias arise in two ways:

a) Status quo-ers have the power to discount their own biases — they are normal — while others who question and advocate specific change are Biased — they deviate from the normal;

b) Critics of the status quo attempt to reconstruct all the interconnected elements (see 5) — to grab attention, gain new audiences, develop constituency with shared assumptions upon which further work can build, etc.

8.      7b-ers run the risk of provoking a response from 7a-ers and of selectivity, which makes them vulnerable to 7a-ers.

Q; Which biases should we identify and work through?

Start with pervasive biases, e.g., gender (whether or not you see pervasive gender Bias).

Work through =?

Correctives, e.g., eliminating masculine generics from language.

+ ?


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

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