A&O – BIAS – congenital and acquired


NOTES on BIAS — Congenital and Acquired



A significant issue in ART and in ETHOLOGY is the effect of BIAS–explicit or implicit–on the quality of representing the real or perceived world. 


We are born biased (by our evolutionary history) and become further biased (by our experiences as we develop)




(“BEST” ? that means free of distortion or bias, the most valid representation of the world outside our minds–is that an individual or a group decision?)


Bias is manifest in the selectivity of perception, conception, ways of thinking, and actions.  It reflects the constitutional inability of our organs of sensation and perception to detect vast amounts of information.  We appear to be responsive only to information that has been of ecological and this evolutionary significance in our ancestral past and individual development.

Thus, biases are of congenital and acquired origin and even the best of intentions for equity and justice–even honor, love, truth, or beauty–are affected by selectivity of our organs of sensation and thought (perceptions and conceptions), intentional or not.

Elements of our nature evolved over countless generations because of their contributions to biological fitness are intertwined with those acquired throughout our development since conception.

We can compensate for inborn inadequacies–the limitations of our sense organs–with technology.  Indeed, we can now “see” atoms and the edge of our cosmos … sort of.


WE ARE BIASED. It is a condition, not an affliction.  We are not misled in opinion by fragments of experience or the opinions of others—although that can be vast and mischievous—but by birth.  And we are so buffeted by conflicting views.  Underthought, over-generalized, or simply unattended these more-or-less plague us and undermine our confidence.  In science, we test alternative views and discard those obviously in error.  In art, we seek resonances with the perceptions and feelings of other in pursuit of the deepest shared understanding which—unlike in science—can rarely be articulated, if at all.  But not all a scientist’s beliefs can be expressed and sometimes they find themselves in territory such as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg understood when speaking of atoms or quantum theory: “… language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.” (“Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science” (William Wordsworth 1802)   

Pick your bias carefully: we may be wrong, but consistency can be a virtue when it’s not a hobgoblin in changing world, so it is surely likely that our North Star is, Polonius as said, “to thine own self be true.”) ((Hamlet, Act-1, Scene-III, 78–82)





We cannot avoid biases but we can minimize them. Those first shed are generally the most recently acquired 


BIAS:  We know that no perception is identical with what it perceives: that all stimuli which impinge upon any receptor we possess is transformed by past experience, the process of transduction, and expectations—these are the unavoidable biological biases inherent on our level of organization as organisms seeking to maximize our fitness.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay, Nature (1836),[1] without speaking directly to bias, appreciates experience apart from the influences of ordinary life and society.  “In this essay, Emerson describes nature as the closest experience there is to experiencing the presence of God. To truly appreciate nature, one must not only look at it and admire it, but also be able to feel it taking over the senses. This process requires absolute “solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society”[1] to uninhabited places like the woods where— “(…) we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.[1](quoted in Wikipedia).  There are echoes here of the familiar sense that to the extent that we can become a part of the truth we seek, we are divine. 


BIAS–in SCIENCE.  “The basic scientist “must lack prejudice to a degree where he can look at the most ‘self-evident’ facts or concepts without necessarily accepting them, and, conversely, allow his imagination to play with the most unlikely possibilities” (Selye, 1959). In the more technical language supplied by other working papers ( Getzels and Jackson), this aspect of the image recurs as an emphasis upon “divergent thinking, … the freedom to go off in different directions, … rejecting the old solution and striking out in some new direction.” 

I do not at all doubt that this description of “divergent thinking” and the concomitant search for those able to do it are entirely proper. Some divergence characterizes all scientific work, and gigantic divergences lie at the core of the most significant episodes in scientific development. But both my own experience in scientific research and my reading of the history of sciences lead me to wonder whether flexibility and open-mindedness have not been too exclusively emphasized as the characteristics requisite for basic research.

I shall therefore suggest below that something like “convergent thinking” is just as essential to scientific advance as is divergent. Since these two modes of thought are inevitably in conflict, it will follow that the ability to support a tension that can occasionally become almost unbearable is one of the prime requisites for the very best sort of scientific research.”  (From TS Kuhn (1959) The Essential Tension: Tradition and Innovation in Scientific Research (from The Third (1959) University of Utah Research Conference on the Identification of Scientific Talent, ed.  C. W. Taylor (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1959), pp162-174. © 1959 by the University of Utah.)

BIAS–as PREJUDICE is amongst the principle obstacles to understanding how to solve problems:   We need a “theory of the situation” and then reliable facts to understand how best to solve challenging problems, from personal through societal. Arguably this is the most important social task facing humanity as in the course of socialization, family, tribal, community, and national influences prevail in differing proportions to influence our perceptions, ways of thinking, and actions.   

BIASES–as manifest in medicine, its structure may be seen more clearly. As often, we are best served by beginning our inquiry about the causes and consequences of our actions by starting at our position in the hierarchy of levels of organization [LINK] (we are organisms).  Then we could consider who and where we are (so much easier said than done).   Tempering our undertaking with the hierarchy of motivations (see: NEEDS) we often find ourselves most absorbed in issues of effective functioning–our health and the competence of our organs.

Medicine is ultimately anchored in the ultimate existential phenomena: life and death.  And the basic Maslovian need: health.  The belief that these are important creates an atmosphere of urgency and integrity.   So, for example, thinking in terms familiar to medicine–and the manner in which information is organized to assure the best possible validity–in our efforts to cure or cope with, mitigate, or overcome challenges to meeting our basic biological needs:  Familiar in recent decades is the historical bias that make man the measure of humanity, to the sometimes tragic neglect of woman.  Current Medical textbooks rarely make that mistake.   

RACE. But a current issue challenging the central mission of medicine is that of “Addressing racial inequities in medicine.”  Malika A Fair & Sherese B Johnson (Fair & Johnson 2021), work to address the particularly pernicious form of bias (structural racism) that plagues medicine as well as culture at large and brought more to the foreground because of the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The manner in which researchers organize their data and problem-solving strategies forces the greatest possible clarity to the language we use, defining the variables and their intersections in a particularly effective way that can clarify similar issues for all of us.   But even at best, science is largely description organized in ways the enable more-or-less accurate inferences about the connections between–particularly rue of temporal connections that suggest cause and effect.  But don’t forget one of the most pernicious logical errors:  Post_hoc_ergo_propter_hoc (‘after this, therefore because of this’)   and see How medical tests have built-in discrimination against Black people

GENDER. Another conspicuous inequity is outlined in Unwell Women by Elinor Cleghorn (Stephani Sutherland /reviewing in Science 4 Jun 2021 p 1032-1033)… “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman,” declared abolitionist and suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848 at a convention to address inequities faced by women.” Unwell Women details a history in which women were tortured, burned, and hanged for “witchcraft”; enslaved for the purpose of gynecological experimentation; and clitoridectomized for the crime of masturbation. … Despite the tremendous recent gains made in the rights of women—to vote, to work, to be educated, to control various facets of one’s own life—still, the inequities are massive. Nowhere is that gap more evident and more harshly felt than in the medical realm, where, to this day, women are disbelieved, dismissed, and gaslighted by medical professionals, particularly when their conditions prove difficult to diagnose. One glaring example is the mysterious condition called myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). When ME/CFS was “discovered” in the 1980s, it was largely dismissed as a psychosomatic illness in wealthy white women who were perhaps “bored” with their lives…”


Read: A Critic at Large column in The New Yorker September 21, 2020 Issue pp 69-73 ( https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/09/21/black-scholars-confront-white-supremacy-in-classical-music )

EVEN IF the problem being solved has no obvious implications for living a moral life, enhancing your welfare and that of those around you, the untieably tangled knot of biases affects the actions your problem-solving might lead to.  Sometimes maladaptive or dysfunctional biases may color the outcome no matter how satisfying

ESHEWAL of BIAS in ETHOLOGY is a tenet of its optimal implementation.  Avoiding or correcting errors of fact is the basis of scientific representation of the natural world and its processes. (“tell the best story possible with the best facts available”)

BIAS—NOISE, excerpts from a New Scientist Interview (2021) [i]


We are familiar with the idea that human decision-making is bedevilled by cognitive biases. Your book is about a different source of error, noise. Can you explain the difference?

Daniel Kahneman: Noise is the amount of disagreement between people who make professional judgements. …. Noise is difficult to think about. The human mind seems to be specialised for thinking about particular cases, and for thinking causally. It seems to have significant difficulties thinking statistically about ensembles of cases.

What is striking is that when you think about a single case, you can identify bias, but you will never identify noise. No single case appears to be noisy. That is one important reason why noise is so neglected.

“… naïve realism: In general, when we look at the world and make judgements about it, we feel we’re getting it right. We see the world as it is. And if you’re sitting next to me looking at the same world, and I respect your judgement, then I fully expect you to see the world exactly as I do. But probably you don’t.

“… why don’t organisations realise this problem? … We think part of the answer is that organisations are designed to suppress evidence of noise. They’re designed to sweep the problem under the rug and to create the illusion of consensus. They are not looking for the correct answer. [better to be consistent than correct?] One way to do that is never ask people for their opinions separately. You bring them into a meeting and you ask them to discuss it. Which, of course, gives a strong incentive to the second speaker to agree with the first one, and the third person to agree with the first two, and so on.  [so, a better hermeneutic circle should BEGIN with independent judgements and THEN discuss them, remaining open for called-out bias or mistakes]


“We identify three sources of noise.

·  level noise – different individuals have different average levels in their judgement.

·  occasion noise—variability within each judge … there are decisions we are making today that we wouldn’t have made on another day.

·   Pattern noise—fundamental beliefs are different. Essentially, people are different. They have different backgrounds, different histories, different preferences. They’ve learned different things; they have failed to learn other different things. Therefore, we can’t expect them to be identical. 


[i](from “The-Biggest-Flaw-In-Human-Decision-Making-And-How-To-Fix-It.”  By Graham Lawton (2021) in New Scientist 16 June 2021. (link)