Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Unperceived Bias

A lot of the discussion (which I'm glad is still happening) that's been going on about double-blind reviewing has been making assumptions that we would know if there was bias (against women, unknown authors, whatever) and that part of the reason that this discussion is coming up is because these authors perceive this bias and are cranky about it. That is not my opinion. I've never perceived any bias and have no personal grievance against the process. In fact, the reviews that I've gotten have shown that the reviewers truly read and thought about my papers and took time to write thoughtful feedback. I deeply appreciate their efforts. The problem is that bias is often unperceived. I include my own biases in this, and work hard to recognize them in myself. Still, I believe that often bias is unconscious.

When I was taking an upper level math seminar in my sophomore year of college, there were two seniors in the small class who stood out clearly above the rest - one guy and one girl. When she presented her solutions to homework problems, it was as if we were hearing a guest lecturer. Every point was covered. Her presentation was organized. Her math was flawless. She was able to answer our questions precisely and in a way so that we could understand. The guy was a different story. It was clear that he didn't always do the work beforehand. Still, when he presented, after some staring into space and thinking on his feet, the correct solution would appear on the board. He explained it clearly and answered questions, sometimes finding - and fixing - flaws along the way. I realized one day, when talking to a friend about the class, that I considered him to be the more brilliant of the two, ascribing to her the "female" qualities of organization and assuming that her flawless performances were due to advance planning and not to her mathematical ability, while his successes were a sign of his brilliance. This assumption is sexist. I recognized my bias, my internalized sexism if you will, only after most of the semester had passed.

I will not believe you if you claim that you are never biased.


Anonymous said...

I think this is a good point (but maybe I am biased...)

Anonymous said...

Anony - You are definitely biased - you think... Very dangerous and unrecommended activity.

Anonymous said...

What if the styles of presentation were reversed for the man and woman in your post? Was your bias based on a subconscious image in your mind of a brilliant mathematician being often portrayed as a male who's absent-minded, unkempt, and perhaps a bit unorganized? Our culture does not seem to tolerate the female Einstein look/style very well, unfortunately.

aravind said...

Sorelle, I very much appreciate your bringing up these issues, and even more, your mentioning (in a different blog post) of the use of consensus and how it is nurtured in a "Quaker College" (Swarthmore). I would love to read about how a place such as Swarthmore helps build this.

C said...

What I still really really don't get is why many people seem to think that any pluses of double-blind reviewing are outweighed by the minuses.

Why is it not obvious that any benefits of non-blind reviewing are small, compared to the substantial benefits of bias-minimal reviewing? Particularly when you consider the cumulative impact such bias can have on the career of someone in the biased-against group?

What's wrong with people's empathy? If you're submitting to a journal or conference and you have a lower chance of success just because your name has a certain characteristic, wouldn't you be mad? Why are the studies of bias in other fields not convincing?

Is it just that too many people like belonging to a group that the bias works for, but think of some other more lofty goal to cover their preference? I like to think that people are better than that :-(

I have found the whole bunch of comments and posts from people SUPPORTING DISCRIMINATION very disturbing. This field sucks where discrimination is concerned (not that I didn't know this already).

Anonymous said...

But don't you realize that supporting certain people is better for the community? You can trust these people more, their ideas are better--it's just better for everyone.

Seriously, I find this whole discussion very upsetting and disturbing that people thing this bias is for the "benefit" of the community.

sorelle said...

"Particularly when you consider the cumulative impact such bias can have on the career of someone in the biased-against group?"

C- I think you bring up a really important and often forgotten point here.

Everyone else - Pay attention to that point!! (:

I also still have trouble understanding the belief that the opposing arguments outweigh this one. But I recognize that it's both a difference of priorities (bias vs. open information, for example) and a difference of opinion on how DBR would actually effect these priorities. And I do think that many people still believe that they know if they're biased, you know, "I'm a good guy, I know I'm not sexist," and so they don't prioritize fixing bias that they don't believe exists.

Anon 12:03 - I think that's part of it, but it clearly doesn't negate the sexism issue.