2013-03-16

Why Bias is Impossible to Avoid and So Hard to Detect

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by Neil Godfrey

Coincidentally just after posting my last article attempting to demonstrate how bias is inevitable in any research, I started reading an expansion of the same idea in Dennis Nineham’s The Use and Abuse of the Bible.

I will try to minimize the high conceptual jargon and focus on Nineham’s illustrations as he leads the reader step by step into an understanding of the source of our must fundamental and hidden biases. (In all quotations the paragraphing and bolded font is mine. Italics are original.)

To illustrate the way people have rarely been able to distinguish between data or phenomena in the world and their own culturally determined interpretations of it (compare my point in the previous post that some scholars cannot distinguish between raw data and their interpretation of it), Dennis Nineham writes:

Suppose a man lives in a society in which all illness is understood as due to demon-possession. The only questions he will be able to ask about his health — or, mutatis mutandis, about other people’s health — will be: Am I possessed by a demon; and if so, what sort of a demon is it and how can it be expelled?

Because no alternative understanding is available in his community, the symptoms, real of imaginary, which lead him to ask the question will actually be experienced as demonic activity. The pains will feel like a demon biting at his vitals, the rash will be seen as a demon’s claw-marks, and so on. (pp. 4)

Nineham then imagines a slightly more sophisticated situation where the same man lives in a community that permits the existence of an alternative religion that ascribes all sickness to witchcraft.

Even then the understandings of illness available to the man will be limited to these two. He will still not be able, for example, to interpret his symptoms as the end result of a chain of natural causes and effects after the manner of a modern doctor.

What do we mean by “understanding” something?

Nineham then moves to the next point:

The next point to be made is that when in this context we speak of ‘understanding’ something, the word means, as it does in most other contexts, relating the thing in question by a chain of cause and effect (which may often be far from scientific) to some fact regarded as ultimate and as needing no further explanation.

For example, if a child asks me why a coin which is pushed out of a window always moves downward and never upward, I refer him to the law of gravity and do my best to describe the mutual attraction bodies exert on one another. If my account is clear enough, the child is satisfied. We have taken the matter as far as we can in our society. We have understood it. (p. 5)

This definition of understanding is important

This definition of understanding is important because it is becoming generally recognized that one of the main things which separates the outlook of one culture from that of another is precisely the different things each takes for granted and regards as self-evident — neither requiring nor permitting any further explanation. . . .

The same idea has been expressed a number of ways. Thus T.E. Hume:

There are certain doctrines which for a particular period appear not doctrines, but inevitable categories of the human mind. Men do not look at them merely as correct opinion, for they have become so much a part of the mind, and lie so far back, that they are never really conscious of them at all. They do not see them, but other things through them.

It is these abstract ideas at the centre, the things which they take for granted, that characterise a period. There are in each period certain doctrines, the denial of which is looked on by the men of that period just as we might look on the assertion that two and two make five. It is these abstract things at the centre, these doctrines felt as facts, which are the source of all other more material characteristics of the period.

Nineham also likes the way R.G. Collingwood put it:

To cite another example, R.G. Collingwood speaks of every civilisation being dominated by someconstellation of absolute propositions‘, which determine the types of questions, both practical and theoretical, all its members ask, and the types of answers they give, and find satisfying, without any of them being aware what their absolute presuppositions are. (p. 6)

And finally through the eyes of Professor Basil Willey:

A further aspect of the matter is well brought out by Professor Basil Willey who points out that different periods are dominated by different interests, and that these interests control not only the sort of questions people ask and the subjects about which they ask them but, even more significantly, the sort of answers that content them and the sort of explanations by which they are satisfied.

If there is a change of interest, people begin to ask different questions — both questions about subjects previously neglected as uninteresting and also questions of a different sort about every subject, questions that is, which require a different sort of answer to satisfy the questioner. (p. 6)

A familiar example may help

A familiar example may help. The Middle Ages were a period dominated by religious interests. People tended, therefore, to be satisfied with answers to their questions which clarified in some way the relation of the subject under discussion to the divine.

Thus, if questions were raised about the motions of things, even the most acute thinkers were satisfied with answers which spoke, for example, of things in a state of potentiality seeking to actualise themselves, that is, to exercise fully a divinely implanted potency; or they spoke of things seeking the place or direction proper to them — ‘proper’, that is, according to God’s intention for them.

Such explanations satisfied because they were consistent with the contemporary outlook with its strongly religious orientation.

Copernicus and Galileo typified the growing changes of interest characteristic of their period when they ignored such explanations in their study of movement, because, however true, they shed no light on the manner in which bodies move in space and time, how, that is to say, one natural state precedes, and leads up to, another; and that was precisely what interested Copernicus and Galileo.

In order to answer their questions and satisfy their type of interest it was necessary to devise experimental techniques and this in turn led to a further set of interests and enquiries. All this in its turn could easily lead to the discovery of many more ‘secondary’ causes, some of which might account completely at the natural level for phenomena previously thought to require special divine activity for their explanation. (pp. 6-7)

And this is just the beginning of the book that goes on to relate this to our society’s approach to the Bible and the origins of the Christian myth. Till I return to this book in other posts, I hope this clarifies one significant aspect of what it means to say “no one simply follows the facts”. There is much, much more going on in any human inquiry. I have tended to assume professional scholars would understand and take all of this for granted. It seems I have been mistaken in the case of some biblical academics.

Surely it is arrogance to write and speak as if our views today will be still valid a hundred years from now. This is why dogmatism and arrogance have no place in genuine intellectual inquiry and debates.

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3 Comments

  • Ken
    2013-03-16 23:14:19 UTC - 23:14 | Permalink

    There’s a great video on YouTube of physicist Richard Feynman taking an interviewer’s “simple” question about how magnets work and turning it into a discussion of how the context of the inquiry determines what will count as as an explanation. (I hope this is on topic. You might skip the first 53 seconds; it takes Feynman a bit to get going).

    • 2013-03-17 08:14:27 UTC - 08:14 | Permalink

      Wouldn’t you hate him if he were your junior high school science teacher! 😉 But yes, it’s spot on. And in part it shows why the physical sciences are able to make more progress in their fields than something like biblical studies. Those working in the former are more aware of the nature of the tools, the answers, they questions they are working with. Traditional cultural answers kick in from the very start in the case of our ideological biblical studies and make many of their practitioners — the Hoffmanns, the Caseys, the McGraths, the Hurtados, the Ehrmans, (and a host of other names I won’t mention because a good number of them are nicer people) — look like infants ignorantly playing with matches and going into tantrums (or polite resistance in the case of the nicer people) when told they are misbehaving.

  • pearl
    2013-03-17 03:23:23 UTC - 03:23 | Permalink

    “And this is just the beginning of the book that goes on to relate this to our society’s approach to the Bible and the origins of the Christian myth. Till I return to this book in other posts, I hope this clarifies one significant aspect of what it means to say “no one simply follows the facts”. There is much, much more going on in any human inquiry. I have tended to assume professional scholars would understand and take all of this for granted. It seems I have been mistaken in the case of some biblical academics.

    Surely it is arrogance to write and speak as if our views today will be still valid a hundred years from now. This is why dogmatism and arrogance have no place in genuine intellectual inquiry and debates.”

    Neil, you’re approaching this rationally. 😉

    Dogmatism and arrogance might be inevitable if those in the conversation don’t agree on some key “doctrines” held to be acceptable. Without this shared agreement, even interest on both sides in rational, “intellectual inquiry” very well might be offset by an underlying equally-charged emotional component.

    As T. E. Hume says:

    “There are certain doctrines which for a particular period appear not doctrines, but inevitable categories of the human mind. Men do not look at them merely as correct opinion, for they have become so much a part of the mind, and lie so far back, that they are never really conscious of them at all. They do not see them, but other things through them.”

    And these deep-seated doctrines are not necessarily at all easily changed. But I much appreciate your discussing these very important insights.

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