Danny Quirk

Biases and Assumptions

Danny Quirk
What’s under the outer skin? Finding what lies beneath our assumptions can be enlightening.

We are all biased. I’m not only talking about right-leaning, or left-leaning, but many other flavors of assumptions as well. This was brought home to me a couple of times over the last week, and I decided I’d explore the concept here, although it might not seem immediately related to writing. Our unconscious biases affect our writing, brought out into the light of day and looked at closely, we can work around them or through them to become better at our craft.

I’ve been working my way through a highly-recommended book, A Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett, when I found a glaring error that made me step back and think about the underlying bias in the book. I knew it was there, but it had been subtle, and as I was aware of it, I could assess what was being presented in spite of the bias, something I do all the time while reading non-fiction, and particularly news media articles (I do not watch news shows, they are a waste of my time). The bias in the book is, simply, human civilization is bad.  Not a new message, we get it all too often in the books we read for pleasure and education. I’m still not sure I’ll continue with A Coming Plague, and if I do, will be very cautious of the bias and the errors.

The other bias I ran across, on my facebook page of all places, was more interesting. The person objected to what was basically a rephrasing of Hobbes’ oft-quoted statement, “ the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” and tried to argue that in the very far past, people were idyllic, peaceful, and healthy. In short, that only a life with no civilization was an ideal one, and Hobbes (and all the researchers since) had got it wrong. Now, I think he was simply referring to the far distant past that has vanished into the mists of time, leaving us with the puzzling clues of clovis points and other stone tools, but very little else. Who knows? I can only say what humanity has acted like since history has been recorded. But the blog post itself was not his specialty, so he was showing his bias by immediately leaping to a conclusion and arguing based on reading a quote out of context.

Because we are all biased, we see what we want to see in fragmentary evidence. There’s an interesting article I’d run across, discussing the perils of forming irreproducible conclusions based on the smallest of clues, “There are only a handful of fossils that represent any particular anatomical detail in any particular ancient species of hominins. That makes for small samples. But because the field is of very high interest, many paleoanthropological papers can report negative results and still be publishable in relatively high-profile journals.” It’s an easy trap to fall into, overlaying our own culture, mores, and expectations on a culture that can no longer defend itself, or when presenting to readers who are ill-informed. But readers who know will inform you, should you slip things into, say, a historical romance, that ought not be there. I know most of us who do read that genre will wince and reminisce about serious anachronisms we’ve found, especially of the liberated-femme culture, while reading such works.

The last bias I’ll mention is a cultural one that most of us lean toward, and it makes us vulnerable. We’re taught from a very early age that if someone’s considered an expert, we shouldn’t question them. They’re a professional, they have credentials, etc. While there is a certain point where you have to trust someone, anyone, you should also question what you’re reading or being told. Teacher isn’t always right. Check the sources. It’s like stepping on a bathroom scale that was set to some number other than zero, if you don’t check first, you’re going to step off again badly misinformed, even if that number did make you feel good! No one is free of bias, and when we forget that, we wind up with cases like Ward Churchill, who cuckolded untold numbers of students while committing fraudulent research, all to further promote his own biases.

So look for your own biases. Check them, once in a while, lest they sink, dusty and unnoticed, into your backbrain to affect your writing. When you are reading, look for the bias in the material at hand. For non-fiction, try taking a glance at the bio of the author, or the body of work they’ve produced, that can be eye-opening. And remember, just because you agree with what’s being said, doesn’t mean you should not scrutinize it anyway.

 

25 comments

  1. I just startetd a Master’s in Communications, via online through Gonzaga. We are being taught to write scholarly, and how to find credible sources and all. The peer review thing makes sense. But I had a certain sense of unease that I tried to express, in a very poor way, on my own blog earlier in the week, about how it can also be a self-reinforcing cycle of bias. Experts aren’t always right. Yes, check the experts, and check yourself.

    Thank you for an excellent and thoughtful post.

    1. And the problem lies with ‘publish or perish’ which forces academics, whether they acknowledge it, or blindly follow the trend, to publish based on anything they can come up with. Which, as the article I linked to on John Hawk’s blog points out, means that publishing on negative evidence must happen, even though it’s not as attractive as positive. Also, if the atmosphere is unfriendly to a certain hypothesis, then the papers which might support it never see the light of day. It’s a hard thing to know you must trust someone, but you also have to verify everything.

  2. I never did any reading between the lines for the longest time, and now, naturally, I’m still not very good at it, but at least I recognize now that it is a useful skill.

  3. As much as I grumble about my grad school at times, even the very political professors insisted that we learn how to spot an author’s assumptions/bias/whatever and keep it in mind when we evaluated his/her/its arguments and data. Some writers do a better job than others do about keeping their ideology out of their work, and some are just better at slipping it in under the radar.

    1. Nod.

      One of many things that annoys me are the people who talk about others being “unreasonable” or “irrational” when the truth is that the others are reasonable/rational but they are working from different “assumptions” than the people calling them unreasonable/irrational.

  4. Yes Cedar, there are people who are more interesting in “slamming others” but IMO there are those who don’t realize the assumptions that they “work from” aren’t held by everybody. So they fail to see that somebody else would come to different conclusions because the other person is working from different assumptions.

  5. Le Blanc’s Constant Battles for some reason comes to mind reading certain of your examples.

    I’m grateful to whoever it was on the bar who pointed me at that book.

  6. I’ve always found that numbers help show up biases and assumptions. And an absence of numbers in a (non-fictional) work is an immediate tip off that something is iffy.

    There’s a lot of “science” that gets basic number things wrong as the “scientist” tries to prove his beloved hypothesis and even more “science” that grossly extrapolates from anecdote and little or no actual numbers

    [Famous quote: “Data is not the plural of anecdote”]

    In fact one of the things I find most interesting about the glowball worming thing is that so many of the skeptics are techs/engineers/mathematicians etc. We’re skeptical because the science presented has horrible holes in the numbers and the sums and the scientists refuse to accept that they could have made a mistake.

    1. Of course, the presence of numbers isn’t a guarantee of authenticity either, I mean, at least 97.5% of statistics are made up on the fly! (heh) or, as I’m wont to say “That’s a mighty large statistic, it must have hurt like hell when you pulled it out of your ass.”

      1. Right but the thing about numbers is that they have to have some provenance, which is why that 97.5% statistic immediately shows up as a problem.

        You’d do better with something like:

        Over a series of 25 experiments detailed in table A, the number of statistics extracted from an anal oriface was an average 98.1% +/- 0.6%. At a confidence of p=0.05 we can say that 97.5% of all statistics are anally originated.(1)

        (1) See SI for advil budget.

      2. That was the problem I ran into with A Coming Plague. I thought 500,000 dead in NYC in 1832 sounded like an awful lot… it was. Like twice the population of the city at the time.

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