The Real Problem with Bias

One of the most common claims made in modern discussions, including the truth of the Christian faith, is the argument of bias. This is best understood in politics, the millenials I work with universally refer to Fox News is biased propaganda; I know conservatives that say the same thing of CNN. This illustrates not only the very human tendency to define bias as a problem related to someone else, but also simething of the way it functions in acadamia, particularly in post-modernism and what some refer to as “the politicization of the humanities.” That is, claims of bias in studies involving race scholarship, feminist scholarship or other approaches identified as “critical theory” are based in an argument taken from the existence of bias; modern critical theory does not examine bias from the standpoint of seeking truth (as the search for truth or the search for justice are ultimately antithetical to critical theory, itself), it rather looks at bias as something to be weaponized, and to be used to proactively attack one’s ideological foes. Thus, discussions of bias are discussions of the “irrationality of my opponent,” it is the substitution of outrage and personal attack for argumentation.
This is not only a discussion of politics, however, but of the critic’s arguments against Christian, politics is merely an area where the principles of bias can, hopefully, be illustrated. Critics on a regular basis argue that Christian apologists are “biased” or “dishonest,” (often by those citing poorly argued works by Hitchens or Dawkins) and therefore apologists arguments do not require exploration. But one “riff” on this “dismiss apologists arguments,” argument is that it often uses the language associated with political arguments about “bias.” Thus, they will refer to Christian’s as engaging in “confirmation bias,” “cognitive dissonance,” “rhetorical tricks,” or they make the claim that apologetics is a money-making scheme (if the goal of apologetics is economics, well, I must be really unsuccessful).
It of course cannot be denied that bias or personal agendas exist and affect our thinking; even John Locke recognized the danger that bias or the personal stake one has in a theory could have a negative effect on philosophy. The problem, though, is that bias is a universal phenomenon not one limited solely to Christians, socialists, capitalists or atheists. The existence of bias ought to be recognized, but the problem with the post-modern approach to bias is that it fails to recognize that bias is a knife cutting both ways, and therefore is not a final answer to an argument. Let’s assume a feminist, we will call her Professor V (letter chosen at random), writes a book about the bias shown in biographies about George Washington. Professor V makes a central point that the love of Washington is actually a means of maintaining the patriarchy and thus power for an elite group of white males, and this is to Professor V the final arguments centering on Washington’s presidency. Some may find this take compelling, feeling that, of course, elite white males are profoundly biased and have skin in the game. Yet, this same argument can be made against Professor V’s thesis, itself. That is, Professor V’s feminist outlook is no less a bias than are more traditional approaches; feminism itself has it’s myths, such as the various theories of alleged peaceful matriarchal societies engaged in goddess worship (beliefs that are contrary to the evidence). Feminist discussions of patriarchy are, themselves founded on bias. Furthermore, Professor V has skin in the game, an academic seeking tenure or funding, the speaker seeking audience, or the author seeking book sales is not a disinterested, dispassionate observer. As this is a knife that cuts both ways, it is difficult to use it to make only one case.
So does this mean we abandon discussions of bias and the need for objectivity? No, it means we do not treat bias and objectivity as answers or significant elements of argumentation. Rather, when there is evidence of bias, we treat it as warrant for investigation, not an answer to the case. Let’s suppose a series of studies were published proposing that Zambonis caused cancer in their operators. Then three major studies are released that claim to debunk the claim; all three were funded in part by a Zamboni manufacturer. Whatever else has happened, the facts, tables, and argumentation in these three studies have not been overthrown on the basis of discoveries about funding, but it is certainly reasonable to attempt to verify and/or replicate the results because of the possibility of bias. Similarly, claims of bias cannot be treated as an answer to the question of theism or atheism, they rather provide warrant for further investigation into the cases being made. Secondarily, bias is inescapable. We are not wholly objective, and worldview formation leads to bias along the way. The solution ultimately to bias is to focus on the possibilities of bias in oneself, rather than in others, and to use it as an incentive to engage in argumentation, rather than as a reason to dismiss argumentation.