“Nature perspectives. The idea that bias distorts our
“Nature is objective, and nature is knowable, but we can only view her through a glass darkly–and many clouds upon our vision are of our own making: social and cultural biases, psychological preferences, and mental limitations.” (Gould, 8). As metaphorically expressed in the quote, bias can obscure our perception of truths. Bias is strongly influenced by personal opinions or feelings based on past experiences or cultural beliefs (Cambridge Dictionary) and can leads us to be narrow minded and ignore other perspectives. The idea that bias distorts our reality and restricts people to a world driven by only their definition of truths is what makes it the “enemy” of knowledge. One can avoid bias and make more accurate judgements by being objective – eliminating all personal values and conveying a neutral outlook (Oxford Dictionaries) Might this mean that subjective pursuits of knowledge are always invalid? Examining the effects of bias and subjectivity on knowledge derived in different areas of knowledge may provide possible answers. To what extent does bias negatively impact knowledge in the natural sciences and history?The natural sciences strive to divulge meaningful truths about the physical world and produce new knowledge that allows us to solve problems. However, bias has the potential to threaten this status for science. For example, publication bias – “the practice of selectively publishing trial results” (Mercola) in the medical sciences can threaten human health. Motivated by industry sponsorships, scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about getting their studies published and for them to appeal to the public. In the medical field, signs of publication bias are when only positive results are published while negative results which prove a drug to be ineffective or harmful, are not (Hsu). In 2012, the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline was fined three billion dollars for various criminal and civil offences, which include the “unlawful promotion of medicines, failure to report safety data, and false reporting” (Palmer). For their anti – anxiety medicine called SSRI paroxetine, the company did not disclose results from four trials which not only showed the drug to be ineffective, but that it could increase suicidal tendencies among children and teenagers as well (Hsu). Bias can influence how the rest of society responds to emerging scientific facts. The phenomenon of people denying various scientific proof such as climate change as a result of confirmation bias – “embracing information that confirms their views while rejecting information that goes against them” (Heshmat) – for example, is highly consequential. Those who believe in climate change will tend to notice and emphasize data that supports changes in temperature while skeptics will pinpoint evidence of normal climate patterns. (Shome). Yale University Psychologist Dan Kahan reveals that polarized opinions on climate change are not due to people misinterpreting facts or rejecting science as a whole, but because they are “driven by motivations, such as defending their social identity” (Pappas). A survey conducted by Pew Research in 2016 showed that “sixteen percent of conservative republicans in comparison to sixty – seven percent of liberal democrats believe that climate change will raise sea levels.” (Roberts). In America, skepticism towards climate change has become a part of the conservative identity while being open to climate change discussions as a part of the liberal identity (Roberts). Therefore, although there may be a scientific consensus on climate change, public consensus on the issue has not been achievable due to bias. Divided opinion on climate change in the United states – a major contributor of global carbon emissions – is inhibiting human progress to solving climate change. Some may argue that bias does not always harm knowledge in the natural sciences by asserting that to some extent, subjectivity is involved in the scientific process and it does not necessarily lead to invalid results. Firstly, knowers cannot know everything and thus have to initially believe in something to make predictions. This idea can be applied to the process of formulating hypotheses where scientists are referring back to their past experiences to predict the outcome of their experiment. Hypotheses can thus involve more subjective ways of knowing such as imagination. For example, it was through imagination that Darwin was able to speculate the evolutionary process in a time frame of thousands of generations, which he could not have observed in his lifetime. (Twinwing). Furthermore, in his article “Science of the Subjectivity” geologist Andrew Curtis refers to a study done with four geologists who developed different evidence – based hypotheses based on the same data. Through discussion, scientists changed their initial hypotheses and were able to come to a valid consensus point. Curtis concludes hat when biases are are identified, the variations in scientific hypotheses due to subjectivity can “properly influence scientific inferences” and give rise to ground breaking hypotheses. History is another area of knowledge that is greatly affected by bias. Historical records can be biased towards the historians’ personal interpretations and opinions of events. Historians select events and facts that they believe are prominent, resulting in the loss of facts and events that were considered less significant (McCullagh). One of the limitations of language as a way of knowing and its subjectivity in history is that depending on the language usage such as the connotation of words and tone, historians can assign “positive or negative interpretations to an event” and encourage certain perspectives or values (Romanowski). Information in our history textbook for example, is susceptible to bias influenced by nationalism or patriotism. Japanese educational textbooks have excluded details about events leading up to the Sino – Japanese war (1937), such as when Japanese troops committed mass murder and rape (“Nanking Massacre”), the Koreans and Chinese were brought to work in mines, or thousands of Korean women referred to as “comfort women” were brought to work in Japanese military brothels . In several of his best selling books, the Japanese author Nobukatsu Fujioka “down played” Japanese war atrocities, believing that the current textbooks “only foster fear and loathing of Japan” among the nation’s children (Kattoulas). While Japanese school children are reading single lines about Japan’s war crimes, Korean and Chinese learn them in great depth (Oi). As a result, multiple different perspectives on the same events exist. Thus, it is clear that people’s opinions of the past can be limited to their individual nationalistic beliefs. In conclusion, different perspectives that arise from biased historical accounts can lead to such clashes and prevent people from knowing the truth behind a past event. It is clear that there are dangers to the influence of national thoughts and feelings on historical knowledge. It is also apparent, however, that objectivity and absolute truth in history is not possible. Like all other people, historians are subject to the influence of national ideologies and political thoughts. Yet, this does not change the value of history as an area of knowledge in providing us with the understanding of change and our present ways of living. Knowing that bias is unavoidable, the next step would be to able to identify it and overcome it. Fortunately, this is possible in history. Bias can be spotted and acted upon when historians of different nationalities and thus differing opinions and prejudices criticize each other’s interpretations. Referring back to the example about biased history textbooks, the clear lack of objectivity in the portrayal of the same events by all three nations caused heated controversies. To summarize, when considering some of the far – reaching negative consequences of bias in the natural sciences and history, I do agree with the idea that experts in these areas of knowledge should aim for objectivity. More specifically, the natural sciences and history should be swayed by external motivations – such as meeting social standards or conforming to nationalistic or political ideologies. However, I believe that bias is not always the “enemy of knowledge” and that objective acquisitions of knowledge are not always superior to subjective ones. Subjectivity on an individual level in both areas of knowledge can be beneficial because they allow for a diversity of perspectives that when examined all together, can produce valid conclusions. Moreover, Benjamin Hayden’s wisely stated words “Fortunately for serious minds, a bias recognized is a bias sterilized” imply that we should always be aware of the presence of bias and work to defeat it. Upon accepting that bias is human nature and inevitable, this is the ultimate solution for enabling us to pursue knowledge despite problems fraught with bias.