Bias and Transparency

Erik Loomis over at the LGM blog writes:

It’s fascinating to be doing completely unfundable research in the modern university. It means you don’t matter to administration. At all. You are completely irrelevant. You add no value. This means almost all humanities people and a good number of social scientists, though by no means all. Because universities want those corporate dollars, you are encouraged to do whatever corporations want. Bring in that money. But why would we trust any research funded by corporate dollars? The profit motive makes the research inherently questionable. Like with the racism inherent in science and technology, all researchers bring their life experiences into their research. There is no “pure” research because there are no pure people. The questions we ask are influenced by our pasts and the world in which we grew up. The questions we ask are also influenced by the needs of the funder. And if the researcher goes ahead with findings that the funder doesn’t like, they are severely disciplined. That can be not winning the grants that keep you relevant at the university. Or if you actually work for the corporation, being fired.

And even when I was an unfunded researcher at university collaborating with police departments this mostly still applied. The part about the research being quashed was not an issue for me personally, but the types of questions asked are certainly influenced. A PD is unlikely to say ‘hey, lets examine some unintended consequences of my arrest policy’ – they are much more likely to say ‘hey, can you give me an argument to hire a few more guys?’. I do know of instances of others people work being limited from dissemination – the ones I am familiar with honestly it was stupid for the agencies to not let the researchers go ahead with the work, but I digress.

So we are all biased in some ways – we might as well admit it. What to do? One of my favorite passages in relation to our inherent bias is from Denis Wood’s introduction to his dissertation (see some more backstory via John Krygier). But here are some snippets from Wood’s introduction:

There is much rodomontade in the social sciences about being objective. Such talk is especially pretentious from the mouths of those whose minds have never been sullied by even the merest passing consideration of what it is that objectivity is supposed to be. There are those who believe it to consist in using the third person, in leaning heavily on the passive voice, in referring to people by numbers or letters, in reserving one’s opinion, in avoiding evaluative adjectives or adverbs, ad nauseum. These of course are so many red herrings.

So we cannot be objective, no point denying it. But a few paragraphs later from Wood:

Yet this is no opportunity for erecting the scientific tombstone. Not quite yet. There is a pragmatic, possible, human out: Bare yourself.

Admit your attitudes, beliefs, politics, morals, opinions, enthusiasms, loves, odiums, ethics, religion, class, nationality, parentage, income, address, friends, lovers, philosophies, language, education. Unburden yourself of your secrets. Admit your sins. Let the reader decide if he would buy a used car from you, much less believe your science. Of course, since you will never become completely self-aware, no more in the subjective case than in the objective, you cannot tell your reader all. He doesn’t need it all. He needs enough. He will know.

This dissertation makes no pretense at being objective, whatever that ever was. I tell you as much as I can. I tell you as many of my beliefs as you could want to know. This is my Introduction. I tell you about this project in value-loaded terms. You will not need to ferret these out. They will hit you over the head and sock you in the stomach. Such terms, such opinions run throughout the dissertation. Then I tell you the story of this project, sort of as if you were in my – and not somebody else’s – mind. This is Part II of the dissertation. You may believe me if you wish. You may doubt every word. But I’m not conning you. Aside from the value-loaded vocabulary – when I think I’ve done something wonderful, or stupid, I don’t mind giving myself a pat on the back, or a kick in the pants. Parts I and II are what sloppy users of the English language might call “objective.” I don’t know about that. They’re conscientious, honest, rigorous, fair, ethical, responsible – to the extent, of course, that I am these things, no farther.

I think I’m pretty terrific. I tell you so. But you’ll make up your mind about me anyway. But I’m not hiding from you in the the third person passive voice – as though my science materialized out of thin air and marvelous intentions. I did these things. You know me, I’m

Denis Wood

We will never be able to scrub ourselves clean to be entirely objective – a pure researcher as Loomis puts its. But we can be transparent about the work we do, and let readers decide for themselves whether the work we bring forth is sufficient to overcome those biases or not.

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