don’t confuse bias and judgment

“Even good and, at bottom, worthy people have, in our time, the most extraordinary fear about making judgments. The confusion about judgment can go hand in hand with fine and strong intelligence, just as good judgment can be found in those not remarkable for their intelligence.” — Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers, Dec. 29, 1963, translated by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
–W. B. Yeats

(Dayton, OH) A bias is a manifestation of cognitive limitations or weaknesses. It reveals that a person has failed to see the whole picture, to weigh evidence appropriately, to revise prior assumptions, to counter the influence of self-interest, or to grasp other perspectives. We are all subject to bias, constantly. It is wise to scrutinize our own and other people’s positions and opinions for signs of it. Certain professionals–reporters, researchers, teachers–are taught to acknowledge bias and to counter it. They are held accountable for any bias they appear to show. Anyone who writes in a public forum and purports to be a scholar or a teacher will sooner or later see the comment: “You’re biased!” (Or, just as likely, “Your bias!”, since grammar is not always the strong suit of the affronted.)

At the same time, each of us must make good judgments. Faced with almost any situation of any consequence, we can judge wisely and well, or judge badly, or fail to judge at all and thereby display negligence. Even journalists, scholars, and educators who advertise themselves as minimally biased must make constant judgments: what to cover, study, and teach, how to present information, whom to address, whom to take seriously, what counts as a legitimate position in a debate, and so on.

It’s essential to separate the language of bias from the language of judgment. They have different grammars: for instance, we say “good judgment” but not “good bias.” We accuse people of bias but not of judgment. A person can make the right judgment despite being biased; in fact, her bias may alert her to what really is the right conclusion. Or a person can somehow counter his own biases and yet make poor judgments. A typical example of the latter is a person who decides that taking a position would evidence bias and therefore fails to act–e.g., in response to a presidential candidate who is violating fundamental norms. Bias is empirically demonstrable, but demonstrating it does not prove that the speaker has reached the wrong conclusion. Judgment is wise or poor, but the difference is not empirically demonstrable in a straightforward way.

I think confusion between bias and judgment is one of the reasons that “even good and, at bottom, worthy people have, in our time, the most extraordinary fear about making judgments.” And that leaves the worst of us to display the most passionate intensity.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.