Fresh Ideas: We are all biased
My son, the lawyer, tells me I’m biased and he wouldn’t select me for jury duty if the case involved anything “environmental.” He’s not the only one who either knows or suspects strongly I’m predisposed to protecting wolves, bees, olive groves, coral reefs, elephants, rivers, aquifers — almost at any price.
The key here is “almost at any price.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Bias is a predisposition to favor something — to favor underdogs, or businessmen, or a certain football team, or a particular political party. It’s a special liking, it’s being partial. Bias is sometimes equated with prejudice, which can be misleading since prejudice has morphed into what my Webster’s II College Dictionary also describes as “holding unreasonable preconceived judgments or irrational hatred or suspicion of a specific group, race, or religion.”
Technically, both bias and prejudice include being “for” as well as “against” something, but to simplify, I’d say bias is more commonly used when speaking in favor of something or someone, whereas prejudice is generally against.
We often avoid using the words “bias” or “prejudice” by saying something like, “It’s just my opinion,” as if that was something neutral — which it’s not. If you look it up in the dictionary, you’ll be given five definitions, but except for “medical opinion” and “opinion” as a statement issued by a court of law, opinion is generally defined as unsubstantiated belief or idea — yet “held with confidence” — which doesn’t prove it’s true or factual.
In today’s world, everybody has an opinion — more often an uninformed one than not — on virtually anything. This is one of the negative (I admit my bias) outcomes of social media. So let’s look at history for a moment.
In 1828, the land we know as California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and part of Colorado belonged to Mexico. The foreigners (Americans as well as Europeans) who explored these lands give us an instructive picture of their cultural bias. In New Mexico Women, edited by Jensen and Miller, Mexican women are characterized by Americans in 1846 as immodest in dress: bare shoulders and legs; nursing babies under shawls; “idle” and “unchaste.”
We can revisit 1924 , the year Congress overhauled immigration, barring anyone from Asia to enter, surely an example of prejudice, and limiting but a few from Southern and Eastern Europe (where the “lowest races” were to be found). The only ones welcomed would be “resembling in national origins the persons who are already settled in our country.” (David A. Reed, Senator of PA, April 27, 1924).
In the book White Trash, professor Nancy Isenberg traces the origins of American bias in favor of a society that adheres to social class stratification in which landed gentry are at the top of the ladder and the poor landless are characterized and vilified by labels like mudsills, morons, squatters, mongrels, rednecks, crackers, and waste people.
In every instance of bias or prejudice, there’s an opportunity to learn. Ignorance is the enemy.
If you’ve been following the Russian investigation and worry about a bias against the president, let me just say courts rarely deny warrants on the grounds an informant (the FBI in this case) had some bias. They always assume some bias exists, as it frequently does, and then weigh the information in light of that assumption. So if the Democrats, including the Clinton campaign, did fund Mr. Steele’s work, it’s hardly a scandal.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., professor emerita, Western Nevada College.