Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Bias, Part II

Yesterday, echoing Sean Lang's text, I started to discuss how commonly the term bias is used by students and teachers in ways that suggest they are misunderstanding the term.                         

A fundamental point made by Lang is that bias is present in all sources, so asking students *if* a source is biased is like asking students if a fish swims.  It’s the wrong the question.

Often, the terms bias and truth or reliability are linked in ways that Lang questions. Since all sources possess bias, asserting that the the existence of bias somehow tells us about the truth or reliability of a source is a leap that does not stand the test of scrutiny.  Lang asks, “in rejecting [an author’s bias] must we also reject his conclusions?”

Lang asserts that bias alone is not enough to invalidate an author’s judgement, as is so often suggested by writing prompts and teachers’ questions. Whether or not an author’s judgement is credible, needs to be assessed in other ways. After all, Lang argues, “Without bias, we would know little or nothing about anyone’s opinion of anything.”

In addition, Lang makes the point that “bias is a relative term”. He does not explicitly elaborate on this theme, but, I think, it is a powerful understanding. Let me expand.

When historians, or students who are attempting to apply the mental habits of historians, work with sources, it is important to step back and look at the big picture. No source ought to be viewed as the definitive account of the past. Sets of sources contain multiple perspectives, or biases. Cumulatively, students need to think about the various points of view expressed among the sources, comparing and contrasting them, looking for corroboration and tensions, contradictions and silences.

Fundamental to source work, and discussions of bias, is what questions are being asked of the sources. Are you looking to discover a basic timeline of events in Paris on July 14, 1789? Are you looking to discover how people reacted to these events? Are you interested in how people have remembered these events and how attitudes about the the fall of the Bastille have shifted over time, reflecting the dominant moods of the moment? All of these questions require the sources under examination to be viewed in different ways.

The type of bias, or point of view, that is relevant and given weight changes based on the questions that are posed.   

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