The Random Comic Strip

The Random Comic Strip

Words to live by...

"How beautiful it is to do nothing, and to rest afterward."

[Spanish Proverb]

Ius luxuriae publice datum est

(The right to looseness has been officially given)

"Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders," wrote Ludwig von Mises, "no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interest, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle."

Apparently, the crossword puzzle that disappeared from the blog, came back.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bias, Part II

Some time ago I published a piece on bias, Breaking the Mold. It listed a number of words and asked you to think of the first thing that came to your mind, to see what image the word triggered in your mind. It was simple exercise designed to make you aware of your own inherent biases; to realize you had them no matter how hard you tried to suppress them.

I recalled it during an exchange with the Logistician recently. In the exchange, I had asked how knowledge might be presented without the infusion of the bias of the presenter.The context was political sophistication but the question is broad enough for almost any context.

One of the things I do on this blog is try to induce you to think about various things, some of which might have become nothing more than background scenery in your life. I think it is important to be aware of as much as you possibly can; to consider things both in and out of context. In a sense, I am trying to do what I told the Logistician in our recent exchange was virtually impossible to do:
teach objectively.

I know I have biases which cause me to prejudge. I fight them. I feel I can fight them effectively only because I am aware of them. Without that awareness, they would easily influence me. Even with the awareness, they can still do so. It is a constant battle. It is also one I do not mind waging.

However, even as I try to teach objectively I infuse a bias into the process. In this case, the belief that everyone has them and the belief that all biases must be questioned. So, how could I teach anyone to be unbiased if I am biased myself? Where is the objective position?

The answer is there is no absolutely objective position.

Therefore, it is impossible to teach how to be unbiased. I can, however (and hopefully), teach someone to strive for objectivity. But I must do that in a context that is essentially limited in its partisanship (I use that term in a broad sense, not a political one). That is, a context that is already pretty much non-subjective.

Here's an example of a poor choice of context: Mac vs PC.
Another might be Rap Music. Or politics. Or religion.

You see, the problem lies in the fact that we are creatures who have emotions. An we attach those emotions to objects and concepts. In order to become objective, we must detach our emotions from the object or concept and view it outside of the context of ourselves.

So, how do we detach our emotions, or detach from our emotions? Just how do we step outside of ourselves so we can view something truly objectively?

I think I can do it but I am not sure how I do it. I began doing it a long time ago when I started hearing that old adage about walking "a mile in someone else's shoes." I am averse to walking a mile in my own shoes, much less in shoes that probably wouldn't fit me very well. But the concept was simply "put yourself in his place" or "see it from another's perspective."

We can't really see things from someone else's perspective, can we? To do that, we'd have to know all the life experiences of that person because these form his perspective. What we can do, though, is reject our own life experiences while examining something. To do that, you must first examine your own life and determine how those experiences influence you. Once you do that, you can ignore those influences and become relatively objective. But only relatively, you can never be free of bias entirely.

11 comments:

yolanda said...

this is a really good post. when i started making documentaries i really realised what an illusion objectivity is. even our attempts to be objective are subjective, because we each have different standards of what objectivity is, based on our individual moral codes. objectivity is impossible, because deep down, every person, no matter how liberal and open-minded they are - deep down, they think that they are right, and this certainty taints perceptions.

i'd be happy enough if everyone reconognised that their opinion is just their opinion, which they are entitled to, but it is not truth or reality. our realities are totally subjective.

of course, this is just an opinion ;)

teach on.

The Logistician said...

Bravo Douglas, at least for 98% of what you say. Very nice post. The only issues on which we disagree: If you think something is impossible, it will be impossible. Additionally, if you think that something is impossible, you will cease trying to make it possible at some point.

I taught English at a community college here recently. Many of my students were reading at a 4th grade level. By the time that I got through with some of them, they were reading at an 11th and a 12th grade level. After the fact, an instructor asked me how did I manage to accomplish that. That instructor also indicated, much to my surprise, that the students had learning disabilities. I simply responded that I taught them not assuming that they could not learn.

If people want to guarantee that they will not accomplish something, all they need do is tell themselves that it is impossible.

Douglas said...

Yolanda - It is a good opinion. Probably because it agrees with mine.

Log - Ever try to stuff an elephant into a phone booth? Would you say that was impossible? Was your goal to bring them up to college level? Then you failed. If your goal was to simply improve their ability then you succeeded. If the goal is to eliminate bias altogether then we will fail. If the goal is to understand bias and, therefore, gain some control over it then we have a chance to succeed. I think we actually agree 100% if we can agree that this was about setting goals.

The Logistician said...

The physical world is different than the intangible. To equate the human mind and its capabilities with the placement of a physical collection of matter into an enclosed space is not even apples and oranges. The object of your analysis was the concept of bias. I could also say that love is impossible and that no one can interact with another and love them. Let's at least stay with fruit.

Douglas said...

Log - The elephant in a phone booth is completely intangible, a metaphor for an impossible goal. The object of my post was the goal of erasing bias within human endeavor. That is, a human behaving completely objectively. I don't even think we can agree on what that means since the concept itself might be something we cannot grasp but only surmise. I might teach math objectively, for instance, but only to a certain level... the level where theoretical becomes part of the equation. After that, well, subjectivity comes into play. As I asked, what was your goal in teaching those students? What level were you trying to achieve? Set your goal high enough to be worthy but low enough to be obtainable. Goals are goals. It's all fruit.

The Jules said...

Thoughtful post Douglas. I am also of the opinion that we should recognise our own prejudices and strive not to let them cloud our judgement.

Mind you, our emotions are part of our decision-making process, so shouldn't be discounted too much I suppose.

Jonathan Bert said...

Great point Douglas. My path in the attempt to gain objectivity is to try to look at things from all sides, then try to squeeze bias out of the equation. Hopefully a logical conclusion will develop. Usually it doesn't happen but we gotta try.

Douglas said...

Jules, I think we need to remove the emotion to properly examine any issue. Once you've done that, you can examine the emotion and see if it should be factored back in.

Jonathan - You're right. We need to at least try and to recognize that we have biases that can, and do, affect our understanding.

Michael said...

You asked me about Theory of Knowledge in our school, which I still haven't introduced to you on my blog.

Theory of Knowledge is another name for epistemology, and teaches us about how we get knowledge, how we interpret knowledge, and how our Reason, Emotion, Perception and use of Language affects the way we know. We also examine how 'knowing' is different in Maths, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, History, Art and Ethics.

One of the things that come up is objectivity and subjectivity, moral absolutism vs. cultural relativism.

One thing our whole class established is that we cannot ever have absolute objectivity because we have different emotions and cultures. Your post iterates this perfectly, using the same terms and everything, with reference to emotional bias, too! You would fit right into our class.

Michael.

Douglas said...

Jules, I think we need to remove the emotion to properly examine any issue. Once you've done that, you can examine the emotion and see if it should be factored back in.

Jonathan - You're right. We need to at least try and to recognize that we have biases that can, and do, affect our understanding.

Douglas said...

Yolanda - It is a good opinion. Probably because it agrees with mine.

Log - Ever try to stuff an elephant into a phone booth? Would you say that was impossible? Was your goal to bring them up to college level? Then you failed. If your goal was to simply improve their ability then you succeeded. If the goal is to eliminate bias altogether then we will fail. If the goal is to understand bias and, therefore, gain some control over it then we have a chance to succeed. I think we actually agree 100% if we can agree that this was about setting goals.