Several of my colleagues have referred me to an article on NPR by Adam Frank in which he comments on the slide from idealism to bias. The word bias goes back at least to Old Provençal, a former language of southern France, in association with the sport of lawn bowling, where it referred to the tendency of a ball to roll in one direction or the other.*
Bias is a stubborn position in which to find one’s self. It is a conclusion one has come to which is irréfutable. It has developed over time and affects the way in which a person approaches a controversial topic. In its simplest form, a bias could be something as mundane as a preference for skim milk and a refusal to drink milk with any measurable fat content. Or, maybe a person has come to the conclusion that Democrats are always right and Republicans are always wrong. Such a bias can seem reasonable, based upon personal experience, but it is crippling, in that it doesn’t allow for variation within a category.
Adams makes the point in an article about GMO, genetically modified organisms. These are agricultural products which have benefitted from scientific modification, in order to make them more prolific, more nutritionally inclusive, or less expensive to produce. The conflict between those who are excited about scientific rearrangement of the contents of agricultural products and those who demand purity in natural content is raging, with biases rampant on both sides of the issue.
In his conclusion to the article on NPR, Adam Frank refers to Nathaneal Johnson’s philosophical shift to a potential defense of GMO’s and the concept that a conflict between science and idealism can be a stumbling block.
It is, of course, important to understand the difference between science and Science. The claims of a single study published last week cannot be the basis of head-spinning revisions of our commitments. But what happens as evidence mounts? Since all policy decisions are basically bets on the future, when does the evidence revealed through scientific practice become strong enough for us to put money on the table?
There is certainly more to say about GMOs. But Johnson’s work raises a question we all have to ask ourselves. How do we balance our deeply held values and a deeply held commitment to the evidence? When do we reach a point where we see those values transform into bias?” (emphasis added)
It is easy to see how bias can emerge from a strongly-held opinion. There is little room for movement within a bias. When one has embraced a bias as “the truth” and feels the need to defend it at all cost, there is little energy to read or listen to arguments on the obverse side of things. Someplace along the line, scientific process evaporates and stubborn opinion emerges.
It is not necessary to embrace all that GMO science offers, but, as Johnson has indicated, there is a point where one must begin to recognize the overwhelming evidence which should cause re-consideration.
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