Of Bias and History

Bias isn’t a hard concept. It’s simply interpreting things based on preconceptions. It’s usually unconscious and a surprisingly easy trap to fall into. I saw this in action in a blog I frequented. Pointing out errors and supposition proved about as popular as pulled pork at a bar mitzvah. The most interesting thing was that the inaccuracies were clearly based on bias. Ironically, many of the posters have been targets of similar bias, but that really shouldn’t have been surprising: We’re all just folks and like it or not, we’re all subject to bias. Bias is a convenient form of mental shorthand that allows us to quickly sort through information. If a berry made us sick, we are going to be biased against similar berries. If someone had proven untrustworthy, we are going to be biased against trusting him in the future.

The problem comes when we allow bias to replace reasoning. Once that happens, we allow reasoning to serve bias instead of the other way around, and unconsciously seek to reinforce bias regardless of all information.

A classic form of bias is “We deem X to be bad; therefore all actions by X must be bad.” Statements that confirm the bias are accepted without examination; those that contradict it are rejected out of hand. We see this in all sorts of things, from politics to race relations, and, as in this case, history.

This unfortunately, comes up quite often. It can be, as in this instance, a historic figure. Ir can even be entire nations. The result is that the image we have becomes warped and cartoonish. Even very intelligent people can fall into this trap, and if they can’t avoid it, we should take particular care to avoid it.

This often requires separating what we know from what we merely think we know. It requires evaluating sources. And we have to ask if we’re cherry picking our information to support a bias, or forming a bias based on all information.

Not surprisingly, this is seldom done, which is where biased histories come from. But, more insidiously, this leads to biased research that give us biased histories in the first place.

Back in my college days, I came across an account of Civil War soldiers where none were supposed to have been. This shook out to be a scouting party, and, once their existence was known, other pieces fell into place. But I remember a man who came to tears when he learned of it, for he had heard his great-grandfather say he could see the smoke where they burned war material, and no one believed him because they thought no soldiers were ever in the area. Here was a bias that led to filtering data.

Despite this, I ended up doing the very same thing with an account of smelting iron ore. I thought that was impossible, because there was no iron ore in that area – or so I thought. Then I literally stumbled over a chunk of the stuff, and realized that yes, it was possible after all.

I could argue that since there was no known iron ore in that area, this wasn’t a bias. But neither did I try to refute the claim by looking over the site. I assumed there was no iron ore; I was acting on bias, and, like the man who turned a deaf ear to his grandfather, I came very close to missing a point of history because of it.

Such things make you wonder what other biases you have filtering information. What other things do we dismiss out of hand?

In this instance, as I watched bias in action, I immediately thought of another reviled historic figure on the blog, one that I was a little skeptical about, but it wasn’t something I’d researched and I assumed they had. But now I wondered if perhaps that opinion was as biased as the one on a historic figure I did know something about. I had formed a bias about the blog, a mental shorthand that let me say if they were wrong about X then are they wrong about Y as well. The trap is to assume that this means they are wrong. I’ve no evidence of that. What it does mean is that it’s something to look into should it come up again.

That said, the shorthand of bias does come into play. Can I trust their opinions on other things, after seeing the dug-in heels on this? Rationally, I know each must be weighed on its own merits, particularly opinions on issues other than history. But do I want to go through the effort, now that I’ve seen how one bias played out?

I don’t have an answer to that. I should, but I don’t.