Monday, June 30, 2014

The Use and Abuse of the Term Bias

I set a goal for myself this month to match my published word count from last July, about 9000 words. Rather than write a few lengthy posts, I am going to try to publish short posts each day. If necessary, I will linger on certain topics and themes for a few days, so that I can dig deeper.

Today I reread Sean Lang’s essay ‘What is bias?’. I originally found the article posted online, but I haven’t been able to access it anymore. Luckily, I did print a copy. (I am pretty sure that I have discussed this text before. I will go back and link to that post.)

Lang points out that the term bias is often used by teachers and assessment creators. The frequency that the term is used and the way the term is used is particularly troubling to Lang. In far too many contexts, it appears, the message sent to students is that bias is something that some sources possess and others do not. The message that many students seem to internalize is that biased sources are to be identified and discarded.

Lang spends at least three pages dissecting this fundamentally misguided view of historical source analysis.

I am writing this post without the text in front of me. So, in no particular order, here are some of the points that I took away from my reading of this text. (I will focus on this text for the next few posts).  

When you examine how students and teachers use the term bias, they are basically talking about point of view.

The term bias is almost always used pejoratively, as if it is something to be avoided. Is there a substantive difference between bias and point of view? Lang does not think so, though many who use the two terms appear to.

Since there does not appear to be a difference between the two terms, looking for unbiased sources amounts to looking for sources devoid of point of view. If the source has been created by someone, we know, it is shaped by that author, in obvious and subtle ways. This is point of view. And bias, or point of view, is the human imprint.

So rather than asking students *if* a source is biased, as if there is chance it is not, we should ask students a question, such as the following: What are the author's biases and what does this information reveal about the period of time we are studying? 

Tomorrow: Are biased sources inherently unreliable? No. Is bias the same as distortion? No.  

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