Blast From the Past: Biases and Assumptions

I don’t recall when I wrote this. I still like it. 

We are all biased. I’m not only talking about right-leaning, or left-leaning, but many other flavors of assumptions as well. This was brought home to me a couple of times over the last week, and I decided I’d explore the concept here, although it might not seem immediately related to writing. Our unconscious biases affect our writing, brought out into the light of day and looked at closely, we can work around them or through them to become better at our craft.

I’ve been working my way through a highly-recommended book, A Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett, when I found a glaring error that made me step back and think about the underlying bias in the book. I knew it was there, but it had been subtle, and as I was aware of it, I could assess what was being presented in spite of the bias, something I do all the time while reading non-fiction, and particularly news media articles (I do not watch news shows, they are a waste of my time). The bias in the book is, simply, human civilization is bad.  Not a new message, we get it all too often in the books we read for pleasure and education. I’m still not sure I’ll continue with A Coming Plague, and if I do, will be very cautious of the bias and the errors.

The other bias I ran across, on my facebook page of all places, was more interesting. The person objected to what was basically a rephrasing of Hobbes’ oft-quoted statement, “ the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” and tried to argue that in the very far past, people were idyllic, peaceful, and healthy. In short, that only a life with no civilization was an ideal one, and Hobbes (and all the researchers since) had got it wrong. Now, I think he was simply referring to the far distant past that has vanished into the mists of time, leaving us with the puzzling clues of clovis points and other stone tools, but very little else. Who knows? I can only say what humanity has acted like since history has been recorded. But the blog post itself was not his specialty, so he was showing his bias by immediately leaping to a conclusion and arguing based on reading a quote out of context.

Because we are all biased, we see what we want to see in fragmentary evidence. There’s an interesting article I’d run across, discussing the perils of forming irreproducible conclusions based on the smallest of clues, “There are only a handful of fossils that represent any particular anatomical detail in any particular ancient species of hominins. That makes for small samples. But because the field is of very high interest, many paleoanthropological papers can report negative results and still be publishable in relatively high-profile journals.” It’s an easy trap to fall into, overlaying our own culture, mores, and expectations on a culture that can no longer defend itself, or when presenting to readers who are ill-informed. But readers who know will inform you, should you slip things into, say, a historical romance, that ought not be there. I know most of us who do read that genre will wince and reminisce about serious anachronisms we’ve found, especially of the liberated-femme culture, while reading such works.

The last bias I’ll mention is a cultural one that most of us lean toward, and it makes us vulnerable. We’re taught from a very early age that if someone’s considered an expert, we shouldn’t question them. They’re a professional, they have credentials, etc. While there is a certain point where you have to trust someone, anyone, you should also question what you’re reading or being told. Teacher isn’t always right. Check the sources. It’s like stepping on a bathroom scale that was set to some number other than zero, if you don’t check first, you’re going to step off again badly misinformed, even if that number did make you feel good! No one is free of bias, and when we forget that, we wind up with cases like Ward Churchill, who cuckolded untold numbers of students while committing fraudulent research, all to further promote his own biases.

So look for your own biases. Check them, once in a while, lest they sink, dusty and unnoticed, into your backbrain to affect your writing. When you are reading, look for the bias in the material at hand. For non-fiction, try taking a glance at the bio of the author, or the body of work they’ve produced, that can be eye-opening. And remember, just because you agree with what’s being said, doesn’t mean you should not scrutinize it anyway.