In the course of my scientific training, I spent a lot of time receiving instruction about bias. Bias is, simply, something that influences the relationship between the elements of interest, but isn’t due to a “real” association between those elements. We’ve discussed the concept of “confounding” on this blog before. Confounding is a type of bias, wherein the relationship between X and Y is actually explained (at least in part) by the presence of a third variable, Z. The facile example is the apparent relationship between ice cream sales and drownings, when what is actually happening is that both of those things are associated with warmer temperatures rather than each other.
Bias, as a scientific phenomenon, is a serious issue. Scientists put in a lot of time and effort to eliminate bias to get an estimate of the ‘true’ relationship between different things. Some types of bias, like confounding, can be eliminated through the use of statistical methods. Other types of bias, like selection bias, can only be removed through proper study design. Other forms of bias, like publication bias (which is a serious issue for meta-analysis), cannot be controlled for at all.
Scientific inquiry requires us to consider not only the type of bias that might exist in any given study, but also the direction and magnitude of that bias. We often cannot get a precise measure of bias, but we are required to consider the ways in which our work may have been affected by structural or other biases. The best among us will discuss the way in which we could control for such biases in subsequent work, and perhaps even provide explanations of what a removal of bias might look like. This is pretty standard fodder for the ‘Discussion’ section of peer-reviewed manuscripts. It shows that we are actively thinking about and critiquing our own work, and presenting the best form of our argument that acknowledges the limitation of our data and design. Acknowledging bias is, for the most part, an indication of how strongly you should ‘believe’ the findings.
The crucial thing to keep in mind is that it is almost never possible to completely remove or even account for bias. Even the most tightly controlled studies will have some bias. We try to eliminate personal biases through blinding and randomization, we try to eliminate confounding and selection biases through study methods, but we recognize there’s a limit to the extent of our powers.
And so it grates whenever I hear someone talk about someone or something being “biased” as though that is the beginning and end of the argument. “The biased media won’t talk about…” whatever Newt Gingrich is mad about that day. People will attack the author of an argument for being “biased”, which would be bad enough for the simple fact that it’s an ad hominem (although not necessarily a fallacious one). The presence of bias, in this attack, is a reason to reject any or all of the argument under examination as being irredeemable and dismissable.
The reason this annoys me is that literally everything has bias. There is no such thing as “unbiased” outside of statistics. Science is “biased”, insofar as there is some kind of uncontrolled bias in every scientific paper ever. The media is “biased” insofar as they have an editorial bent, and individual reporters can only assemble a certain number of facts before publication deadline. Even outside the realm of science or journalism, human beings are not omniscient – everything we do is “biased” by our prior experiences and beliefs. Saying that something is “biased” is like saying that a substance is “toxic” – the dosage matters.
The second half of the “biased” argument, if you’re interested in actually making a persuasive and conscientious point, is an explanation of the size and direction of the bias. It’s not enough to simply identify the existence of bias – you have to be able to say how the bias is tainting the position under scrutiny. So we can absolutely talk about “media bias”, but we have to demonstrate how that bias is going to affect their reporting of the news, and what parts of their story are untrue or misleading. We can talk about personal biases, but we have to demonstrate what important facts are being ignored or amplified because of that bias. Simply saying “you’re biased” isn’t an argument – it’s the criticism equivalent of “I know you are, but what am I?”
It similarly bothers me when people use the word “privileged” in the same way, as though that is the entirety of the argument. Privilege can be understood as a type of bias, although it is perhaps better understood as a particular cluster of biases. Identifying someone as “privileged” doesn’t end the argument, nor does being privileged mean that your opinions are automatically invalid.
I want to be very emphatic in this next section: I am not saying that everyone who talks about privilege is committing an ad hominem fallacy. This is not even the most common fallacy I run into when it comes to the concept. Privilege denial is a far more prevalent issue, as is the the phenomenon of people who are getting called on their privilege making the absurd argument: “I guess my opinon just doesn’t matter because I’m a privileged white guy!”, which is almost never what people are actually saying. However, I do see quite a bit of privilege-based dismissal coming from overzealous “allies” for whom “check your privilege” is a shibboleth that isn’t necessarily followed by an actual argument. The point is this: nothing I write here should be considered as a condemnation of the concept of privilege, of the identification of privilege, or the use of the word “privilege” as a rhetorical device. It is aimed squarely at people who use it as its own argument. Do you not do that? Good. Then this doesn’t apply to you.
The use of “privilege” as the alpha and omega of an argument or refutation is as superficial and fatuous as the use of “bias” in the same way. It is the case that privilege and/or bias do corrupt arguments, in many cases making those arguments invalid. It is not, however, the case, that the existence of privilege or bias per se means an argument becomes invalid. If your goal is to demonstrate that an argument lacks validity, it is necessary to follow the privilege/bias assertion through and explain how it invalidates the argument.
Privilege as a class of bias
It is worth attempting to explain the relationship between privilege and bias, and the likely mechanics of how it operates on a given argument.
In its simplest form, privilege can be understood as a cluster of biases that make someone’s experience atypical of the ‘norm’ – that is, different from the normal set of experiences for people encountering the phenomenon under discussion. However, this totally normal and understandable fact of the heterogeneity of human experiences is accompanied by either the lack of awareness or the refusal to accept that one’s experience isn’t the norm. Under this pair of biases, we see the insistence that the lack of awareness or the ranked order of priorities for the privileged speaker is the objective standard, rather than one peculiar subset:
This whole sort of war on women thing, I’m scratching my head because if there was a war on women, I think they won. You know, the women in my family are incredibly successful. I have a niece at Cornell vet school, and 85% of the young people there are women.
A privileged argument makes the assumption that one can, from one’s own personal perspective, deduce unbiased information about the state of the world. This becomes magnified when the group you belong to has a fundamentally different set of experiences, with respect to the phenomenon under discussion, than the group discussing the phenomenon. The Rand Paul quote above contains elements of two very easily identifiable flavours of privilege:
- Male privilege: Rand Paul is not in a position, as a man, to experience the effects of a war on women. He also has a different set of priorities about what kinds of infringements he cares about – I doubt very much he’d see restriction of abortion access as a fundamental threat to his human rights to the extent that he would if he was a woman.
- Class privilege: Paul is a wealthy man. The people in his family are wealthy as well, including the women. It is an irrefutable fact that wealthy people are afforded access to things like education and other elements of success that people from non-wealthy families do not have access to with the same ease.
There are further discussions to be had about the extent to which other forms of privilege play a role – for example, does Rand Paul’s whiteness make him less able to perceive a war on women that predominantly affects women of colour? There are also discussions of intersectionality to be had – does the fact that Paul is a rich man bias him in a way that is not simply attributable to “rich” and “man” biases? How have Paul’s life experiences left him with a fundamentally non-representative view of reality, such that his interpretation of the fact of successful women in his family bears no strong relationship to the issue under discussion (whether there is, in fact, a war on women)?
The final element of bias that is the sine qua non of privilege is the element of power imbalance. In the absence of the power imbalance, this wouldn’t really be “privilege” so much as just “having an inaccurate worldview”. Male privilege exists because, traditionally and contemporaneously, men have been afforded an elevated status over women. Class privilege exists because wealthy people can not only purchase more access, but are also afforded an unearned benefit of the doubt (in direct contravention of the evidence). When your membership in a group also gives you unearned (and to be fair, in many cases unwanted) status and influence, your selective worldview not only makes your experiences less representative of the whole, but shields you from having to consider the more unjust aspects of living in an unjust world.
And so we can see privilege as a specific cluster of biases – an awareness bias, a self-normalizing bias, and a power imbalance bias. These biases, among others, carry a distinctive hallmark that can be recognized fairly easily once you know what you’re looking for.
So when someone says “check your privilege”, what they are saying is “examine how this cluster of biases are leading you to an erroneous conclusion”, but in a much snappier way. But when someone merely says “privilege” as the entirety of the argument, the specific way in which these biases are operating is left to the imagination of the privileged person. Or worse, the bias is left unidentified, with the word “privilege” left hanging in the air. Or even worse, the mere existence of privilege does not invalidate the argument being made by the privileged person, and the use of privilege identification as refutation falls flat.
The best form of the “privilege” argument is one that identifies the specific type of privilege, and points in the direction of how the existence of privilege makes the claim under dispute a product of bias rather than an accurate assessment of reality. I certainly recognize that not everyone engaged in every conversation is going to have the time, energy, and inclination to provide a blow-by-blow of every single privileged statement that crosses their path, and sometimes you are just going to recognize the existence of the bias and dismiss the accompanying claim out of hand. However, if one’s goal is to make the best possible counter-argument (and again, I am not suggesting that everyone must do this every time), one must recognize that the mere existence of privilege, like bias, is not an automatic disqualifier.
For those times when one is reflecting on one’s own privilege, our job becomes akin to that of the scientist writing the Discussion section of the manuscript. We need to critically interrogate the extent to which our own set of personal experiences will give us a false impression of reality. We must accept that our sense of ‘normal’ is influenced by a plethora of factors, some of which are intrinsic to us. Just because we don’t agree with the fairness of these factors doesn’t translate into those factors not playing a role in our decision-making. We should recognize that we exist as a member of many different groups, and that the existence of power imbalances between these groups will influence our perceptions.
Of course, as any decent scientist will be able to tell you, it is impossible to completely eliminate all bias. Similarly, it is not possible to eliminate privilege. Short of rewinding the clock and being born as a different person, our privileged worldview will persist. What we can do, however, is allow our acceptance of privilege to influence how strongly we rely on our own opinions vs. those of others who do not have the same sort of privilege that we do. We can open ourselves to the possibility that our own impression of reality is coloured by our experiences, and that we may learn to be less wrong by listening to the perspectives of those who are more directly affected, or at least more representative.
But just as we won’t get any less wrong if we ignore our biases, we won’t get anywhere by conceiving of “privilege” in a vacuum.