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Overton: Embrace your bias

BY JON OVERTON | SEPTEMBER 13, 2013 5:00 AM

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Inside each of us lives a small, misunderstood animal called bias that everyone seems to hate. On Tuesday, a column in The Daily Iowan gave our biases a severe beating.

The column’s author wrote about an English professor at Michigan State University who went on a tirade against Republicans and when students challenged him, he allegedly threatened to lower their grades. That professor clearly went too far and the author was right to denounce extreme actions such as his but then took her qualms too far.

“While teaching, it is incredibly important for professors to remain unbiased so as not to, however unintentionally, offend or marginalize a group of their students,” the author wrote.

Bias is universal. Every thought and decision is partially influenced by personal experiences, which form our biases. Demanding total lack of bias is demanding the impossible.

Ideology often leads people to disagree even on basic facts. Look no further than the “debates” over climate change and the Theory of Evolution. Virtually all serious scientists agree with these well-tested explanations of the world, yet the general public still hasn’t reached a consensus.

If we can’t agree on very basic science, how do you avoid offending even a single person when teaching subjects that inherently make people uncomfortable, such as sociology? This subject is a minefield of controversy: politics, religion, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and more are all bundled into one. Even its basic teachings can be unsettling.

Everyone is a sociologist. We all have ideas about how the world operates that more or less work for each of us. What frequently bothers people is that we’re influenced by social forces and situational factors. Professors can be sensitive to how people feel, but data and the scientific method don’t care about how you feel. It makes us recognize that we aren’t as powerful as we like to think. It introduces an element of uncertainty, which can threaten our worldview and that upsets us.

Are professors supposed to simply omit basic yet controversial principles from their lessons because they might offend a student’s sensibilities?

This proverbial witc-hunt to eradicate bias threatens to get in the way of stating simple facts as they are. The truth is not always easy to accept. Sometimes the truth favors the political right, sometimes it favors the political left, and sometimes the truth says all are self-servingly delusional and they all desperately need a reality check.

If anything, professors should be upfront about their biases while still trying to be fair in their representation of controversies. Yes, students will be more skeptical of what professors say. That’s precisely the point: to get students to make up their own minds about how the world works instead of taking professors’ word as objective Gospel truth.

Most professors have essentially devoted their lives to researching one field of study. If they’re that passionate about their material, they will almost certainly develop opinions about it. Opinions aren’t the boogeymen they’re made out to be. Used properly, they apply available evidence to form an educated position, supplying context, explanation, and understanding. Is that really so bad?

Welcome the poor, maligned bias into your life. Show it that you love and care for it. Embrace your bias.


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