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Only People Who Are Biased Think They're Not Biased

Many of us like to think that we can, at least sometimes, be objective. Which is the opposite of being subjective. 

What does this mean? Something is ‘objective’ if it only depends on the world around it, and nothing else. Like the ‘perfect juror’ who is only swayed by facts and evidence when determining if he or she thinks someone is guilty of murder. Something is ‘subjective’ if it can be influenced … by itself. Like the ‘imperfect juror’ who decides to acquit a murder suspect regardless of the evidence … because the suspect is his or her brother. This is called bias. 

A courtroom gavel on a stack of books, blurred out background showing a courtroom.

Humans routinely strive towards objectivity, perhaps optimistically. Being subjective isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is a trait that animals have evolved over millions of years to essentially ‘rush’ to judgments based on their experiences and knowledge. And in matters of life and death (especially in pre-historic times), we often need to ‘rush’ to judgment to save ourselves or kill that woolly mammoth. 

But there is a lingering evolutionary hangover that even the most ‘scientific’ of us can struggle with. 

For example, the British Parliament of 1714 offered rewards of up to £ 20 thousand (around £ 3 million today) for anyone that could come up with a methodolgy that allowed ships to be able work out their longitude. Or how far east or west they were. North and south was no problem. There were any numbers of ways of using the stars or sun to work this out.  

But unfortunately because the Earth has the temerity to rotate about it’s axis to create day and night, the sun and stars keep moving from east to west, while never really moving north and south. Lots of ships had sunk because they thought they were further east (or west) than they really were, floundering on rocks they thought were somewhere else. 

Enter John Harrison, a carpenter who decided the best way to solve this problem was by coming up with a clock. Why? Because if the navigators on seafaring vessels could know the precise time in London regardless of where they were in the world, they would be able to look at the stars and know where they were supposed to be at that point in time if they were in London. And if they were east or west of London, the stars would correspondingly be east or west. And the extent to which the starts were east or west would let the navigators know how far west or east of London they were (part of this story is the concept of Greenwich Mean Time … but perhaps that needs to be a part of another article). 

So Harrison invented a clock that was remarkably accurate. It didn’t matter how rough the seas were, it kept time so well that navigators across the world could use their knowledge of what time it was in London to work out their longitude. And this methodology was used up until the 1970s. 

So what was the problem? The British parliament set up the ‘Board of Longitude,’ full of old white guys, would judge the merits of the solutions to the longitude problems that would be sent their way. Including John Harrison’s clock. And even though John Harrison’s clock kept remarkable time on a test return voyage to the Caribbean, meaning longitude could be really accurately measured, those old white guys really didn’t want to award him the prize. 

Upclose detail image of gears inside of a clock.

And why did they not want to pay up? Because the solution was not of the ‘type’ they were after. They were hoping that there could be some divine astronomical equations and models that would allow the positions of the stars to be entered into some befuddling table of numbers to then present a longitude estimate. And Isaac Newton was one of the advisors to the board who wasn’t really too keen on clocks in general. 

So after decades of argument, some money being sent to Harrison, and the board failing to get their desired ‘astronomical solution,’ Harrison got his prize. The problem was that he was 21 years old in 1714, and 80 years old when he got the last of the prize money. And by this stage his clocks were working very, very well on many, many vessels. 

The reality is we are all biased to some degree. The ‘Board of Longitude’ was made up of and advised by lots of people who had demonstrated the capacity for critical thinking, and in many cases had against the grain of history. But they were now largely the ‘same old white guy’ who had similar thoughts on navigation, and the type of solution they thought was best. 

It can be very uncomfortable for many of us to mingle with people of different nationalities, socio-economic classes, genders, sexualities, educational pedigrees and so on. I for one really struggle to respect people who don’t like dogs and/or dislike the taste of ice cream. 

But the reality is that scientific and engineering endeavours are most successful when we don’t pretend we are free of biases. And when we do this, we usually deliberately create teams with different backgrounds and thought processes to make sure there is a huge range of individual biases that can no longer individually dominate. In short, we make biases lonely. 

There are lots of ‘big corporate and government’ organizations where this is not the case.  

Look at the Manhattan Project that developed nuclear weapons in World War II. Without saying that this was a welcome development to humankind, it did represent a major scientific and engineering achievement, full of a vast array of different types of people where bias and prejudice was at least suppressed by a singular focus on the project’s clear goal.  

Now look at Robert Oppenheimer. A key part of the Manhattan Project during the war. And a victim of FBI prejudice against those with apparent ‘communist sympathies,’ having to answer questions to the House ‘Un-American Activities Committee’ almost immediately afterwards. Pick one. 

So what does this mean for you? There is a saying that you ‘never grow if you stay in your comfort zone.’ And surrounding ourselves with people who are just like us might make us comfortable. But it almost always reinforces biases that we like to think we don’t have. 

Which is a really bad thing if you haven’t picked up on that. 

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