Investigating PT6 – Helpful Biases?

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This is the final of six special TOK posts to directly assist students and teachers in appreciating vital nuances associated with each of the May 2021 Prescribed Titles.  For each title, I will identify some initial key concepts and highlight some specific approaches to address them along with specific Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal resources that can concretely assist in the development of a strong TOK essay for that particular title.   

This piece discusses PT6: “Avoiding bias seems a commendable goal, but this fails to recognize the positive role that bias can play in the pursuit of knowledge.”  Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Key Concepts:  

This title, together with PT3, are my personal favourites of the six on offer for this session.  Why?  Because along with the usual requirements of carefully parsing phrases and probing subtle aspects of meaning lies an additional opportunity to rethink core aspects of what TOK-thinking really is and how it can be applied to the world around us. 

For PT3, as we’ve already discussed, lurking behind the title’s typically dense wording is the intriguing notion of whether or not it can be justifiably argued that the imposition of any organizational structure to some extent inhibits aspects of our understanding, while in this title we are forced to ponder the notion of “bias” in a much more sophisticated way than is usually the case.  

In particular, this title asks us to consider whether or not biases might sometimes serve a positive role in the knowledge process.  To most students—and perhaps even many teachers—such a notion will initially seem quite startling.  After all, aren’t we all agreed that biases are generally a bad thing, representing a combination of closed-mindedness, pre-set expectations, and a needlessly blinkered world-view?  How can biases possibly be good things to have?

Well, I don’t have “the answer”, of course, and I hardly need to stress here that the entire point of this title is for you to come up with your own view.  But unlike many PTs where the onus is on the student to elaborate subtle shades of grey associated with specific words (e.g. To what extent can we distinguish between “useful” and “most useful”? What do we mean by “element of trust”, exactly, and under what circumstances can we maintain that it is always present?), this title strikes me as one which would appeal to those whose interests are naturally oriented towards the development of broader and refined conceptual frameworks: whatever can be possibly meant by a “positive bias”?  

My own perspective follows from a thought experiment. Imagine a world where knowledge-seekers always start their investigations from a position of total ignorance, wholly uninfluenced by anything that has happened before.   Physicists would sit down to do their experiments ignorant of Newton’s Laws (or any others), historians wouldn’t have read (or at least remembered) any other text before they begin their analysis, anthropologists would judge every human society they encounter as the first one they’ve ever seen. Of course these sorts of scenarios are hardly realistic, but that’s not the point. The idea here is to flesh out two things:

  1. What would it take, exactly, for a knowledge-seeker to be completely without any biases whatever?
  2. Assuming that could somehow be arranged, would it, in fact, be a good thing in terms of their ability to produce knowledge?

Reflecting on the first point makes me appreciate that, for all practical purposes, it is inevitable that—whatever the particular area of knowledge we wish to consider—those involved in the pursuit of knowledge inevitably bring some biases to the table as they begin their inquiries.  Moreover, the more experienced and knowledgeable they are, to a very real extent the larger the number of biases they might have. 

Meanwhile, a few moment’s reflection on the second point brings me to the swift conclusion that a world where knowledge-seekers were all strictly unbiased would be tremendously inefficient from a knowledge-generation perspective. 

OK, so that’s interesting: I’ve just concluded that not only is a certain amount of bias in the knowledge process inevitable, but that seems to be a good thing.  But now what do I do?  After all, and after sitting through hours of TOK classes, I’m also firmly convinced that bias can be significantly detrimental to our development of knowledge.   

There are lots of interesting ways to proceed here. One approach might be to make a distinction between “good” and “bad” bias, or “reasonable” and “unreasonable” biases, possibly based upon some statistical arguments of how likely any initial assumption is likely to be rendered invalid. Another might be to recognize that the problem with bias in this case isn’t so much that we will approach a situation with some pre-set expectations or inclinations but to ensure that we explicitly recognize what they are so that they don’t unduly prejudice our efforts. Again, you have to find the right approach that fits with you, but as usual whatever you decide to do, you’ll likely need to find some pointed and revealing examples of when bias might both help and hinder the knowledge process.  And that’s what the next section is all about. 

Related Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal Resources

In what follows, we provide numerous examples of what I referred to above as “good” and “bad” biases from four experts in four different research areas.

In Predicting the Higgs, world-leading physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed reveals how, by assuming both the inherent correctness of our particle physics models and the common belief that “nature will avail herself of all possibilities that she has open to her”, we were able to successfully predict the existence of the Higgs boson.

In Astonishingly Simple, Prof. Arkani-Hamed again reveals his bias towards the intrinsically mathematical nature of physical laws when he describes how the conspicuously and surprisingly simple final form of a calculation is likely evidence of a deeper underlying structure. But in Distracted by Language Prof. Arkani-Hamed describes how, if we’re not careful, an undue reliance on the vagaries of language can result in a litany of unhelpful biases and assumptions that can lead physicists down the wrong path. 

Meanwhile, political scientist Mark Bevir freely admits to his guiding assumptions (to what extent, you might wish to consider, can “principles” be objectively distinguished from “biases”?) before moving on to demonstrate specific instances where the biases of many of his colleagues lead them astray. In Philosophical Thinking he adamantly expresses how he is convinced that adopting a rigorously philosophical approach is necessary to make progress in the social sciences.

In The Importance of Dialogue Prof. Bevir insists that, regardless of the particular issues at play or the prevailing public attitudes, it is always beneficial for policymakers to solicit the views of the general public before implementing any policy measure, even if it is one that most people object to. But in Descriptions vs Explanations he details how the prevailing bias that is unhesitatingly adopted by many of his colleagues—that the business of the social sciences is to uncover immutable laws just like those in the natural sciences—is both false and dangerously misleading. 

In Optimism, Confirmed, Evolving Moral Understanding and Breaking Down Barriers anthropologist Frans de Waal describes how his optimistic convictions about both human and animal nature played a central role in driving him to develop his extensive research agenda that eventually confirmed many of them, while in A Lack of Empathy, his segment in the TOK Sampler Encountering Assumptions, he relates how a socially conservative and vaguely misogynistic bias long held back biological research into the nature of human and animal empathy.

In Perfect Pitch and Tone Languages and From Song to Speech?, psychologist Diana Deutsch reveals how her personal love of music drove her towards investigating a possible link between perfect pitch and tone languages followed by the development of a broader thesis relating the origin of language to tone languages, while in Losing Control she relates how many psychologists refrain from investigating, or even sometimes recognizing, auditory illusions because it “makes them uncomfortable”.  

Additional resources that students might find helpful for this title include the TOK Samplers Battling Biases, Encountering Assumptions, Extending Experience and Investigating Values.  

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal yet or if you are interested in an individual teacher or student subscription, make sure to visit our informational website –IdeasRoadshowIBDP.com – to learn how Ideas Roadshow’s TOK resources have been fully updated to be fully aligned with the new TOK curriculum while offering strong support during the transition period for the ‘old’ TOK course.  You can watch an ‘on-demand’ recording of our New TOK Webinar, here.

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