In a conversation with a colleague yesterday, the idea of trying to remain critical and analytical, and by implication, “neutral” or unbiased came up. This parallels another recent conversation with my friend and colleague Maywa Montenegro, who is a PhD student at Berkeley, just starting her research agenda and thinking about these kinds of issues as well.
My colleague yesterday pointed out that of course there are many sources of bias, so we should do our best to divorce ourselves from them to produce the cleanest data possible. Of course, having been for a time in a Science & Technology Studies department, I am skeptical that such an endeavor is possible or fruitful. (Wikipedia’s entry on STS is brief, but not bad.) That is, to say it in a semi-STS way, trying to divorce ourselves from any potentially biasing viewpoints does more to obscure the reality that all human viewpoints are inevitably and inescapably biasing. There is no unbiased way to search for “truth”–to start with, such a thing presupposes there is a truth and that it is findable, and indeed introduces the bias that it is findable and understandable by you, the investigator. (I won’t get into it here too much, but the epistemic fallacy and the ontological fallacy are related, important concepts–essentially: presuming that because something exists, it can be known to exist, and assuming that because there is a term for something, that said something actually is real; cf. phlogiston).
I am not at all one to argue that these difficulties mean that the search for facts, science, or truth are hopeless or pointless. Far from it. But the objective to be “totally objective” is rather hopeless. It is hard not to have a “bias” that your idea is sound, that your established assumptions and deductions to that point are correct, and that your question or approach is adequately formulated. You inherently have the bias that your research deals with something that is worth knowing, else why would you be doing it? Yet none (or very few) of us engage in the meta-research of figuring out “is what I’m interested in worth doing in the first place?” Indeed, there is a strong bias in science for “curiosity-driven science”, science driven by individual investigators’ and institutions’ thirst for knowledge and information, rather than any a priori political or social agenda. Which, you know, cheers–I’m all for this. But I don’t know of anyone who has done a “study” to see if this truly is the “best way” to conduct science or advance knowledge. And I am very confident that even if such studies exist, most of “us” (scientists) don’t refer to them to prove the value of curiosity-driven science; instead, it is a belief founded on anecdotes, intuition, counterfactuals, and gut feelings. This isn’t to say it’s wrong–it’s just a relatively unexamined bias. And one that I’d say goes deep: I can imagine numerous scientists being motivated to “disprove” a study that came out saying that agenda-driven science was the best way to do things. And I imagine that most scientists would hold on to, or at least continue to be rather fond of, the idea of curiosity-driven science, even were there some preponderance of evidence that agenda-driven science were best. Yet another bias: the way I enjoy doing science is a good/valid/”best” way to do science. Again–this assumption is a necessary one for the scientific enterprise. And it’s not necessarily wrong–but proving it, or any other of these “biases” could be a ceaseless enterprise. So at some point, we must accept them and move on.
The bottom line, to me, is transparency. We should be as aware of our desires, biases, assumptions, etc. as possible, and open to debate and challenge. This is, in other forms, considered a feature, not a bug, of science–the self-correcting nature of other studies, other people challenging your ideas, your results, etc. The hope/assumption/bias is that such challenges will push us collectively closer to “truths”. It’s not that you should be unconcerned about bias, but rather that the best you can do is to be aware of your own assumptions and able to discuss them. Otherwise, you conduct science as you would normally–doing the best you can, using the methods that you judge most reasonable based on your evolving understanding of the field. Trying to “rid” yourself of your biases would be a never-ending and ultimately fruitless task. As I often say to my students (based on comments by pivotal ecological economist Herman Daly), being truly unbiased would mean having no preference for justice over injustice; freedom over slavery; truth over falsehood; life over death; equality over inequality; diversity over monotony. Acknowledging such biases, and engaging in discussions about them, is the only reasonable approach, to my mind–they will never be avoided, nor, arguably, should they be.
I’m not sure I’ve adequately expressed any of my thoughts here, but relevant pieces by people who may have said it better can be found below:
- On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How (Michael Nelson and John Vucetich)
- Political Ecology by Paul Robbins
- Population, resources, and the ideology of science (David Harvey)
- Laboratory Life, and numerous other works by Bruno Latour
- And some of the works of Sheila Jasanoff
Related but distinct: Critiques of Media Bias & He Said/She Said Journalism in the name of Neutrality (One of my largest pet peeves):