Issues of Bias

Webster's New World Dictionary1 defines bias as "a mental leaning or inclination; partiality; prejudice; bent." Scientists are expected to be objective, and open to learning the truth from their research. Yet, physicists are also human. Each of us has our own likes and dislikes, preferences and preconceptions, and "hot buttons" that make us feel angry, uneasy, or uncomfortable. 

Bias can damage research, if the researcher chooses to allow his bias to distort the measurements and observations or their interpretation. When faculty are biased about individual students in their courses, they may grade some students more or less favorably than others, which is not fair to any of the students. In a research group, favored students and colleagues may get the best assignments and helpful mentoring. People often prefer associating with other people who are similar to themselves, their family members, or their friends.

The net result of these biases hurts physics, because people who are different and would bring valuable new perspectives to the field have traditionally been excluded or discouraged by those already in the field.  It is not unusual for women, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans to feel unwelcome in physics and other scientific fields, because of the low expectations their professors and colleagues have for them, and because of how they are treated by the people who should be their peers and colleagues. 

While it is probably impossible to eliminate bias, each person can strive to be aware of his or her preferences and alert to situations where the bias can be damaging to the science or ones colleagues.  Also, one's can become a careful observer of others and take action to counteract the unfair or inappropriate consequences of biases, especially those that work to exclude or diminish people from different backgrounds than the majority.

1 Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, David B. Guralnik, Editor in Chief, Second College Edition, William Collins + World Publishing Co. Inc. 1978).  

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