Bias and Distortions in Thinking
During a discussion with friends at a party, I voiced a not very original analysis that Donald Trump’s proposed economic policies posed a threat to the interests of his supporters from lower economic classes. A friend replied that was “just your opinion.” Trump’s supporters held a very different viewpoint. My viewpoint was supposedly biased against Trump and so I couldn’t see him clearly—but, of course, “we are all biased.”
If this was a class, I would ask students what exactly was an opinion, a theory, or a fact. Do these words have different, contrasting, meanings? If so, what are those differences? But this was a party and the discussion was interrupted and dissolved. This view, this meme, that we all have bias, can be ambiguous at best, and undermine critical thinking at worst. It could undermine the value of taking a position based on facts instead of opinions.
What is bias? What could it mean to say, “Everyone is biased?” Or, “all viewpoints are biased?” ‘Bias’ is sometimes used in a way that is almost synonymous with having a perspective. We always speak and act from a particular perspective and all perspectives have limits. No one is omniscient. So, in this case, yes, everyone has bias. It couldn’t be otherwise. So, why even use the word ‘bias’ instead of ‘perspective’?
One student argued in a very insightful manner that ‘bias’ can simply mean a preference. This meaning, however, could run into the same difficulties as ‘perspective.’ ‘Bias’ can also mean, according to my Encarta Dictionary, “an unfair preference for or dislike of something” or “to influence someone or something unfairly.” Bias is not simply any preference but an “unfair” one. In statistics, ‘bias’ means “a distortion of a set of results.” To be biased can also mean to be prejudiced. Why do people use ‘bias’ instead of ‘preference’? Probably because of the emotional charge, which comes not from the meaning of ‘perspective’ or ‘preference’ but from ‘distorted’ or ‘prejudiced.’ You can’t say you want the emotional charge of a word and deny the implications or connotations that come with that charge.
And the fact that all perspectives are limited does not mean that all are biased. Limited is not the same as distorted. If it were, then it would imply that everyone acts unfairly or is prejudiced, which would undermine any effort to act against distortion/unfairness/prejudice. You need humility and understanding in the face of the limited nature of your viewpoint. You need clearer observation, more careful analysis, more reliable sources of information, and possibly more self-awareness and empathy in the face of distortion.
Saying “everyone is biased” also creates logical problems. It implies an “irrefutable situation” in which non-biased viewpoints are impossible. “A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is nonscientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.” (Karl Popper, Philosopher of Science) Likewise, “If a word’s meaning includes everything, then it means nothing. If a theory can’t possibly be proven wrong, then it is actually useless.” Since meaning is a function of being able to make distinctions, to say “everyone is biased” has no meaning.
And we clearly need to make distinctions, including between opinions, distortions of facts, and demonstrable facts. We are constantly forming viewpoints and emotions based both on what we hear and how we listen. When we distort the situation around us, we tightly restrict the information we allow into our awareness. Our emotional health, and maybe our political rights and power, might depend on our learning how to spot logical gaps, check the truthfulness of statements, read our own body responses, and be aware of when we listen openly and when we close our ears and eyes—and are aware of when our thinking is distorted, unfair, biased.