The dangers of unconscious bias

Its around us everywhere, unconscious bias, in the media, in the government infrastructure, in academia.

I have read several articles lately about bias and inequalities in academic science – such as a blog post “What women think” by Athene Donald which highlights, amongst other things that academic women might be less likely to be supported by their line managers and have a harder time getting promoted in a male dominated environment. Similarly, Imran Kahn has written an online article in which he expresses concern about higher education cuts leading to a decrease in diversity in scientific fields which are already predominantly ‘Pale, male and stale’.

In a seemingly non-related article – the Home office has announced a new ‘stop and search’ plan allowing the police to stop people based on what really seems to amount to racial profiling.

So could the new Conservative ‘Big Society’ in the UK, which is supposed to mean we all love each other, really signify an increase in gender and racial inequalities across all government departments?

Perhaps, but I also think that the people making these decisions probably don’t think they are doing anything of the kind. They probably think that this is just ‘common sense’ and has nothing to do with racial profiling or any sort of discriminatory bent. What it more likely signifies is unconscious bias. And everybody has unconscious bias, it is part of being human.

I was born during civil rights era in the not so deep South in the US, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated when I was about 6 months old. Growing up in the post-civil rights era, I learned that racism was uniformly bad, and a thing that was apparently perpetrated by many of my ancestors. This is a horrifying realization as a kid and you vow to yourself you will NEVER be a racist and I sincerely hope that in actual fact I am not.

But the other thing I learned is that legalities certainly don’t make racism just magically disappear. Just because the Civil Rights Acts (1965 and 1968) said ALL men (and women, but here I use men as these are the historical words ) are created equal and have certain unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, didn’t necessarily mean that racism evaporated in a puff a smoke, that there were group hugs all around and it was over. It’s much more complex than that.

In many people’s minds, racism is the KKK and sexism is people who just think women are dumber than men. Even though people that think and say things like this obviously do exist (such as Professor Richard Lynn), it is not very often we hear things this overt from day to day. It is worth noting that Prof. Lynn himself thinks he is just ‘observing the facts’ and talking common sense in a sort of ‘some of my best friends are women but…’ kind of way.

It is rare for us to see bias in ourselves, and most people I think would say they are decidedly NOT racist (or any other ist). Because unconscious bias is unconscious.

I think most people that consider themselves rational, evidence-based, scientific, humanitarians believe that they are well free from any sort of unconscious bias. If you are trained as a scientist, you are trained to try and look at the facts as objectively as you can. This is easier said than done. Have you ever had to let go of a pet theory because it was wrong? This ain’t easy.

But what I find myself seeing over and over again in science blogs and rationalist thinking articles is lots of unconscious bias – against the very things that the authors believe are biased and intolerant themselves.

For instance, I saw recently in an article about atheism embedded in a science blog the following statement:

“One thing that always surprises and disgusts me about so-called christians is their willingness to hate those who have different beliefs than they; those with other faiths or (especially) no faith at all.”

In my mind, this is a pretty vitriolic statement about hatred and it is also not a universal truth, even though it is stated as if it is, which is a prime example of unconscious bias. I know plenty of Christians who do not ‘hate’ people with other beliefs but simply think that they are wrong and are rather more tolerant of different beliefs than some ‘rational-thinkers’ I know.

I have deliberately NOT included a link to this article because I don’t believe the author is being consciously overtly biased, and I am sure they don’t believe that they are. I am also certain that they have frustrations with many of the christians they have met.

I have to admit, I have a fear of fundamental foot-washing Baptists, the minute someone tells me they are a Baptist I not only want to run screaming but also have a full-set of preconceptions about what kind of person I think they are (some of it not so nice). But a healthy part of this reaction is my very own bias AGAINST people that have a particular belief I don’t agree with.

Bias is almost never overt, it is almost always covert and I think we should all take the time to stop and see where it comes from in ourselves before we condemn others for the very beliefs we have and often hate in ourselves.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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2 Responses to The dangers of unconscious bias

  1. Sylvia, you’ll know I agree with this! You don’t mention the extremely (self) illuminating tests at the Implicit site, which I referred to in an earlier post on my blog . These, such as the gender association tests, help to demonstrate what ‘baggage’ an individual carries.

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