Meanings: “Bias”

December 6, 2011

As I turned on the TV this morning to watch a movie while I rowed 4000 meters on my Concept II (a regular start to each morning), I happened upon a short segment of a talk show.  “The research goes both ways,” a woman said.  “It depends on who’s doing the research.  There are some researchers who say [X].  So you heard my personal bias.”  Answers her interlocutor, “Well it’s my personal bias, too.”  X in this case was whether the use of porn is healthy, but I’m more interested in the shape of the exchange.  It sounded like a conversation I could have heard nearly anywhere about a million topics, many of them important.  (I gather, by the way, that the show was Drenda: “Author and Speaker Drenda Keesee tackles the greatest issues affecting women today,” on the ABC Family Channel.)

The woman didn’t say “Research on the topic appears to be inconclusive.”  She did not say “My best reading of the research says….”  I hear a wholesale dismissal of any attempt to gather evidence to provide the basis for a conclusion, an affirmation that we have nothing more to go on than a personal bias, and even a suggestion that I’ll want to know the speaker’s evidence-free bias.

I’m for trying hard to see what the evidence tells us, even when the research is incomplete, as it nearly always is.  I’m for trying to gather more evidence when there’s evidence on both sides of a question.  I’m for reserving judgment when the evidence is inconclusive.  I’m certainly not interested in trumpeting my own “personal biases” or hearing other people’s biases as having any sway on my own thinking.

Here’s what tells us about “bias.”

bias Look up bias at
1520s, from Fr. biais “slant, oblique,” also figuratively, “expedient, means” (13c., in O.Fr. “sideways, askance, against the grain”), from O.Prov. biais, with cognates in Old Catalan and Sardinian; possibly from V.L. *(e)bigassius, from Gk. epikarsios “athwart, crosswise, at an angle,” from epi- “upon” + karsios “oblique,” from PIE *krs-yo-, from base *(s)ker- “to cut.” A pp. adjective that became a noun in Old French. Transferred sense of “predisposition, prejudice” is from 1570s.

How did a word meaning sideways or across the grain come to suggest an evidence-free predisposition (prejudice!)?  Speaking of evidence, here’s an interesting look via the Google NGram Viewer at “bias,” “perspective” and “truth” over the past two centuries. Truth has been declining since about 1850; bias and, especially, perspective are on the ascent:



About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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