For my regular visitors, if you find that this blog hasn't been updating much lately, chances are pretty good I've been spending my writing energy on my companion blog. Feel free to pop over to Home is Where the Central Cardio-pulmonary Organ Is, and see what else has been going on.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Seeing past the mirror

We, all of us, have our own personal biases.  Our upbringing, our culture, our financial situations, the experiences we've had and many things outside our own control, all colour our perceptions and interpretations of things.

Even our geography can colour our views on things.  I was recently reminded of this in a conversation with Eldest.  She had been visiting with friends who live in a high rise.  Looking out their window towards the downtown core of our city, she was struck by how very green our city is.  If it weren't for high rises and the odd bridge here and there, you would hardly know that there was a city under the canopy of trees.  There's also a major river winding its way through the city,with parks along it containing a surprising amount of wildlife, including deer and the odd cougar sighting.

View of a residential neighbourhood from our downtown home.

Our current city is hardly unique in this respect. In all the cities I've traveled to and lived in from coast to coast, even those with the highest population densities still have a lot of trees.  When a lot of our cities were built, houses tended to be smaller and taller, with larger yards.  Today, subdivisions are built with larger houses and smaller yards, but they often include man-made lakes, parks and playgrounds.  As people move in, their sometimes tiny yards are quickly decorated with trees, shrubs, and gardens. Even some of our high rises and office buildings have gardens, lawns and trees on roof tops or terraces.

My sister's husband has a lot of relatives in Poland.  Every year or so, some cousins, aunts, or uncles come out to visit.  Being the good hosts that they are, my sister and her husband try to take their visitors out to see as much as possible during their stay.  My BIL might take them fishing on the various creeks, rivers and lakes they have access to via the creek running past their home (they've taken me by boat from their house on a farm in a blink town to the downtown of the nearest city in less time than it takes to drive).  He's brought in some fish big enough to get into the record books while they were visiting, which the relatives found quite thrilling.  Other times, my sister or her husband take their guests on a road trip to places like Niagra Falls or Banff, depending on which direction they want to drive.

Despite being a fraction of Canada's size, Poland has a greater population. These road trips in particular leave them amazed at things we tend to take for granted.  Like open spaces, for hours at at time.  Taking days to cross just half the country, rather than hours.  Fields stretching from horizon to horizon, with the odd farmhouse hidden within islands of trees planted as windbreaks.  Even the size and shapes of our hay bales has been a source of awe.  They're constantly snapping pictures and taking videos of things we find quite ordinary, but to them are extraordinary.

Growing up with this sort of terrain and living in cities filled with trees has certainly coloured my perception.  Which is why, when I hear or read people talking about how cities are concrete jungles, and of people never experiencing nature, I was long confused.  I understood it to a certain extent - after all, having grown up on the farm, even a small town seemed noisy and crowded to me.  But the more I heard people complaining about the lack of green space, population density and the troubles these cause, the less I was able to understand it.  I'd see photos of city streets in Tokyo or New York, and it still didn't really sink in.  It was a long time before I realized that our green cities and wide open spaces were the oddity, not the cities so crowded that the sidewalks were filled with a seething mass of humanity.  I just can't imagine living in a place so full of people.  Or, more accurately, I can't imagine living in such conditions without going stir crazy!  I now realize that I've been spoiled by our wide open vistas and low population density.  What is normal and ordinary to me was the exception, not the rule.

Realizing that my own perception was skewed was an important step.  It has allowed me to hear or read people lamenting the lack of nature and green spaces and not project my own biased image, like some kind of mirror, over what they were talking about.  Over time, I've learned to look more closely at the conclusions I jump to about many other things and examine where I might be looking at them through the biased lens of my personal experiences.

Having a biased view of things isn't actually a bad thing, in and of itself.  It's quite normal and, I think, necessary.  After all, as a parent, being biased towards my own children led me to parenting practises quite different from what the cultural norm told me I should be doing.  There is a place and purpose to bias.

Bias can be a problem, however.  More so when people refuse to acknowledge the role bias plays in our interpretations of things.  Bias is why two researchers can look at the exact same data, yet come to completely different conclusions.  That data is neutral.  The researchers should also be neutral, but unless they are aware of their own personal biases and how those biases might colour their conclusions, they themselves can't maintain neutrality. This is not to suggest the events that shaped their personal biases are automatically wrong or bad and should be rejected, but that the researcher needs to be aware that their conclusions may be unduly affected by them.

Accusations of bias are common enough, and such accusations are often used as weapons to question the credibility of those who hold opposing opinions or draw conclusions that are not popular.  A recent example of this has been making the news when one scientist published his conclusion that water downstream from the Alberta oilsands development contains higher levels of certain toxic chemicals, and that the oilsands extractions are to blame.  A government scientist, on the other hand, looked at the same data and came to a different conclusion; that while these levels are indeed higher than "normal," they have not actually been increasing, and that the source of these toxins is not necessarily from the extraction of bitumen from the oilsands.  That area is naturally high in toxins because of the presence of bitumen, and those toxins have always leeched into the water system. 

Immediately after these counter claims hit the news, the government scientist was disparaged for bias by those who oppose oilsands development.  Which is another demonstration of bias in itself.  These are the same people who claim that non-governmental scientists or organizations are unduly biased by the source of their paychecks (hence the accusations of scientists being in the pockets of "Big Oil," or "Big Pharma," etc.), while research paid for by government grants or paid for by special interest groups that just happen to support their own views is claimed to be trustworthy due to lack of bias.  In this case, it's the government scientist that's accused of bias because the government in question is a) conservative and b) owns the oilsands on behalf of the province's citizens.  For these anti-oilsands groups, the actual data is irrelevant; they've already decided that the oilsands are evil and must be stopped, so any who don't support their views are obviously paid stooges. 

From what I understand, this government scientist is just one of many other government scientists and employees that have been monitoring the Athabasca river since the late 70's.  It may be true that this scientist does have a bias in favour of oilsands development.  What is not being acknowledged is that the scientist that drew the opposite conclusion might also be biased.  Ignoring the fact that his findings were little more than science by press release, this is someone who has been pretty public about his opinions against the use of hydrocarbons.  You would think that someone who came in out of nowhere, looked at a bunch of data and drew conclusions that supported his already known position is more likely to be unfairly biased than someone who's been following, gathering and/or working with that data as his job for years. 

While this is a rather high profile example, similar examples can be drawn from most people's daily lives.  Each of us can look at the same information and, unless we are aware and train ourselves otherwise, see what proves our preconceived notions while ignoring information that doesn't.  I recently read a post on a sociology blog talking about images used by the Republican Party.  The writer noted that in these pictures, which supposedly represented "America" and "Americans" the people were all white - completely missing several people who clearly weren't white until people in the comments pointed them out (which, in turn, got dismissed because there were so few of them).

One commenter dismissed the entire series of photos as being a sea of "angry white" people.  I had to go back and double check what the writer was talking about.  I'm still not sure.  Of the photos that clearly showed faces, their expressions were universally cheerful and pleasant, if not openly smiling.  There was just one crowd shot I can imagine this person was talking about.  It was a wide angle shot of an audience.  Most of the people seated were turned in the general direction of the camera, looking at another audience member, whose back was to the camera, speaking at a microphone.  More people in the staging area were also looking at the speaking audience member.  None of the faces looked all that clear to me.  Not enough to determine facial expressions with any accuracy, at least.  Of the ones I could see, they were focused on the speaker and their expressions, while not cheerful, seemed attentively focused, not angry.  They looked like a room full of people taking part in a lecture/Q&A on a serious topic.  This commenter, however, saw anger in these pictures.  This person was clearly allowing their personal bias against... white people?  Republicans?  Guys in cowboy hats? whatever is was specifically, to colour their interpretation of the photos.  This is only a problem because that person is also dismissing an entire group based on their personal bias.  It's one thing to look at a group of people and see anger where there is none.  Using that bias to dismiss an entire segment of the population turns it from bias to prejudice.  The Republican Party may have, knowingly or unknowingly, shown bias by using photos of predominantly white people in their publication, but does that bias represent racism?  Or did they simply choose a bunch of photos showing a variety of activities that also just happened to have very few non-Caucasians in them?

Hmmm...  As I write this, I'm noticing yet another biased view being demonstrated here.  This particular sociology blog is a big one for discussing how "white people" tend to be the default representation for "humans," while people of colour are portrayed as the "other."  There is some truth to this, but it implies that there actually is this one big, homogeneous group that fits under the umbrella of "white."  They are defined by the lack of pigmentation in their skin.  White people, of course, aren't one homogeneous group.  They come from a wide variety of cultures, traditions and ethnicity's.  Assuming that the whiteness of their skin defines them is a bias every bit as prejudicial as defining, say, all First Nations people by their skin.  They might be Salish or Cree or Mohawk or Metis or Haida Gwaii or Iroquois, etc, just as a white person might be Swiss or Swedish, Polish or British, and so on.

This is the sort of examination of bias I am talking about.  Our personal biases will colour our views of things.  That's just part of being human.  Knowing this and learning to see past the mirror of our biases is what helps keep them from being negatives that keep our minds closed to alternative views, or worse, develop into prejudices, and allows us to see and understand other points of view, even if we ultimately disagree with them.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Drop me a line...