Bias

View from Victoria Point, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views

Stereoscopic Views, from the Robert N. Dennis collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

When historians read a text, we are trained to filter what it tells us through an understanding of who wrote it, with what purposes and with what intended audience. Author, audience, and purpose are all important factors in shaping the meaning of a text, so identifying these factors can help us reconstruct what a text meant to its author, and to the people who read it when it was written. Identifying these factors can also help us to figure out what might be relevant, but missing from a text (something the author may not have be aware of, may not have thought was important, or even something the author may have wanted to deliberately suppress).

In college history classrooms, professors ask students to practice this skill, most commonly in assigning “primary source interpretation” essays, where the student takes a historical document (or 2) and tries to analyze it (them) in the way I just described.

Where many students go wrong in this process is confusing bias with point of view or reasoned opinion.

I’m probably particularly attuned to see this mistake because I spend so much time grading primary source essays, but also I see it constantly in talking heads on TV, in written media, and on internet forums. It’s a really insidious problem in our current political climate, in my view, so I offer this version of a handout I use in classes (originally relating only to writing primary sources essays).

Bias is a form of prejudice. It refers to opinions or assumptions that one holds despite or willfully in the absence of evidence.

Point of view refers to the fact that no one person can be aware of everything all at once. We all see the world from our own particular perspective.

It is possible (though difficult) to examine an issue without bias, but everyone always has a point of view. Your point of view is the way your previous experience, skills, inclinations, attention and interest limit your experience of the world.

Reasoned opinion is a conclusion, or claim, that a person comes to after examining and reasoning through relevant evidence. This is very different from bias (because it is based on objective reality — evidence and reasoning) and from point of view (because the exercise of reasoning through evidence is the practice of deliberately expanding your personal point of view to include evidence from others’ points of view, or evidence gathered through experimental observation).

When reading a historical text — or when you want to better understand any other text — you should look for bias, point of view, and reasoned opinion. But it is crucial to distinguish between these, because we can draw different interpretive conclusions about an author’s claims based on whether the author stated a given claim in willful contradiction of relevant evidence, merely out of an inability to see or comprehend new information, or lack of access to other evidence, or as a reasoned conclusion drawn directly from all available evidence.

Common mistakes students (and others!) make:

1. Looking for obvious biases (prejudices), but failing to look for “honest” limits to an author’s point of view.

2. Noting limits or absences and attributing these to point of view without first asking if the author’s point of view is actually so limited because it is based on assumptions from bias.

The way to avoid this mistake is, after identifying limits or absences in a given text, identify what underlying assumptions about the world led the author to “miss” these key points. How do those assumptions relate to the evidence available to the author?

3. Mistaking reasoned opinion based on evidence for mere bias. If an author seems to “like” a position or be “passionate” about it, they could be biased, or they may be enthusiastic about a conclusion simply because it is an excellent explanation of all known facts. Find out which it is by examining the evidence on which the author bases their conclusion.

Relative enthusiasm, or lack of enthusiasm, tells you nothing by itself.

Message to take home: Always look to the evidence. When someone makes a claim, do they follow it with evidence? Is it good evidence? Is it enough evidence? What part of the claim is an assumption (i.e., not based on evidence)? Some assumptions are reasonable (one has to start somewhere), some seem arbitrary (a bad sign!).

 

Update: Related reading

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