gerald_smallberg's picture
Practicing Neurologist, New York City; Playwright, Off-Off Broadway Productions, Charter Members; The Gold Ring
Bias Is The Nose For The Story

The exponential explosion of information and our ability to access it make our ability to validate its truthfulness not only more important but also more difficult. Information has importance in proportion to its relevance and meaning. Its ultimate value is how we use it to make decisions and put it in a framework of knowledge

Our perceptions are crucial in appreciating truth. However, we do not apprehend objective reality. Perception is based on recognition and interpretation of sensory stimuli derived from patterns of electrical impulses. From this data, the brain creates analogues and models that simulate tangible, concrete objects in the real world. Experience, though, colors and influences all of our perceptions by anticipating and predicting everything we encounter and meet. It is the reason Goethe advised that "one must ask children and birds how cherries and strawberries taste." This preferential set of intuitions, feelings, and ideas, less poetically characterized by the term bias, poses a challenge to the ability to weigh evidence accurately to arrive at truth. Bias is the non-dispassionate thumb which experience puts on the scale.

Our brains evolved having to make the right bet with limited information. Fortune, it has been said, favors the prepared mind. Bias in the form of expectation, inclination and anticipatory hunches helped load the dice in our favor and for that reason is hardwired into our thinking.

Bias is an intuition, sensitivity, receptiveness which acts as a lens or filter on all our perceptions. "If the doors of perception were cleansed," Blake said, "everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." But without our biases to focus our attention, we would be lost in that endless and limitless expanse. We have at our disposal an immeasurable assortment of biases and their combination in each of us is as unique as a fingerprint. These biases mediate between our intellect and emotions to help congeal perception into opinion, judgment, category, metaphor, analogy, theory, and ideology which frame how we see the world.

Bias is tentative. Bias adjusts as the facts change. Bias is a provisional hypothesis. Bias is normal.

Although bias is normal in the sense that it is a product of how we select and perceive information, its influence on our thinking cannot be ignored. Medical science has long been aware of the inherent bias, which occurs in collecting and analyzing clinical data. The double blind, randomized controlled study, the gold standard of clinical design, was developed in an attempt to nullify its influence.

We live in the world, however, not in a laboratory and bias cannot be eliminated. Bias critically utilized sharpens the collection of data by knowing when to look, where to look, and how to look. It is fundamental to both inductive and deductive reasoning. Darwin didn't collect his data to formulate the theory of evolution randomly or disinterestedly. Bias is the nose for the story.

Truth needs continually to be validated against all evidence, which challenges it fairly and honestly. Science with its formal methodology of experimentation and reproducibility of its findings is available to anyone who plays by its rules. No ideology, religion, culture or civilization is awarded special privileges or rights. The truth, which survives this ordeal, has another burden to bear. Like the words in a multi-dimensional crossword puzzle, it has to fit together with all the other pieces already in place. The better and more elaborate the fit, the more certain the truth. Science permits no exceptions. It is inexorably revisionary, learning from its mistakes, erasing and rewriting, even their most sacred texts, until the puzzle is complete.