By Graham Peterson
It’s become common to judge whether or not one should trust an intellectual source based on whether or not that source is biased. It has to stop. Everyone has biases, or things they would like to believe. The sources we should trust are the ones that are transparent about their biases. Self awareness and honesty about a person’s own biases should suggest that that person is honest enough to change his biases on new information.
Bias, ideology, and so on don’t really mean what they originally meant anymore anyway. People now translate “unbiased” to mean “my beliefs,” and “biased” to mean “the opposition.” However noble the intents of “unbiased discourse” were at first, they’ve become a shitty excuse to ignore information.
One thinks one knows ahead of time the bias of the person they’re talking to, or source one is reading. But thinking you know something bad about a person — like that she’s biased — and then dismissing that person preemptively, is called prejudice. Nothing more. It’s ignorant and destructive, and no less so if you couch it in scientistic jargon about bias. It’s just a fancy way to say, “I don’t have to listen to her because I know she is biased and doesn’t listen.”
My scientific peers purport that there is a difference between people who know the answer to their question before they go looking, and those who don’t. That’s a colossal lie: scientists without hopes, faiths, wishes, and preferences do not exist. Neither do scientists exist who can turn those dreams off. We need scientists who can explain precisely and honestly what they want to believe, and how their search for evidence updates their beliefs. We need to take the “null” out of the null hypothesis — there are only competing alternative hypotheses — there are no blank slates.
Here’s what happens when people believe they are unbiased. Their biases go unexamined, and they stretch like a gymnast trying to maintain that they’re unbiased. They start calling certain things “well known facts” that are just assertions and conventions. They use scientific looking instruments to perform their unbiasedness, and then run from any real argument. They find themselves in homogenous communities and think it’s legitimate because their peers are “unbiased.” It’s toxic stuff.
Calling someone or some source biased is one of the lowest forms of argument, though it sure does feel fancy. It has to stop. Be extremely wary of people who believe they are not biased, and slap yourself if you think you’re unbiased. Everyone is biased, and we should be all the more willing to engage people who are up front about what they want to believe and why.