Objectivity and discrimination: a pernicious bias

[A gender neutral translation of the original post Men: we are not objective about sexism and know less about it than women. It also extends the argument to other forms of discrimination. Why? – see the backstory at the end of the post.]

As scientists and engineers, we all want to make decisions based on objective evidence. For many people, the need for objectivity might even take precedence over moral and political convictions. It seems that, for some scientists, peoples’s direct experiences of discrimination and the concerns they evoke can be discounted on the basis that they are subjectively involved in the issues. In particular, some people who haven’t directly experienced discrimination seem to feel, and many certainly act, as if they have a more objective view. This itself is a bias, because:

  • because it is systematically excludes highly relevant evidence from those most familiar with the phenomenon of interest
  • it implies (wrongly) that those who have do not experience discrimination are uninvolved whereas they frequently benefit from membership of privileged groups that helped define current cultural practices, and through their action or inaction are empowered to change or sustain them.

If you are truly committed to objectivity, and have not experienced discrimination yourself, you must be willing to think critically about our own objectivity and biases. Concluding after a few seconds of reflection that “I am right, it is the other’s who are wrong” doesn’t count. Has your lack of experience distorted your thinking on the topic? Do you need more evidence about the experience of others? Are you evaluating the evidence from those who have experienced discrimination inaccurately? Are you inclined to inaction which could serve to sustain a discriminatory culture or practice that benefits you?

Taken seriously, the process of examining and addressing our own biases will take a long time, but the quest for objectivity in all things should not prevent us from acting on the immediate testimony of people around us. If someone comes into the room shouting “fire!”, you don’t ask them whether the concentration of smoke particles is really significantly larger now than it was at the same time yesterday, you evacuate. It is not reasonable for people to be sceptical about the existence or extent of discrimination just because they have not experienced it themselves. This is especially true for people whose membership of privileged groups means that their experience and understanding of the negative effects of discrimination is systematically limited.

So how should people who truly believe in objectivity and equality begin to address these biases when their own lack of experience is likely to bias their thinking? The first step, in my view, is to get a clearer idea of the scope of the problem by seeking out and listening to those who are most affected, and taking their experiences seriously.


I was quite pleased with the original post, but after I published it, I was somewhat taken to task on twitter by Rachael Jack, and later offline by my daughter Isobel. The wording, they felt, could be taken to imply that one person’s view is more valid than another’s simply by virtue of their gender. Clearly there would be many grave problems with that position (which was not what I meant) the most striking of which was that (as a man) I would be in no position to rebut their arguments!

The above post, just translates the original into the terms I would have used had I been more precise, and I think it’s logic is sound and clearer, although I think it will be less persuasive to my target audience – the people with least experience of discrimination who benefit most from the status quo. Sadly many of these people do not seem to have reflected very deeply on their own biases and are still prone to speak against change from a position of ignorance.

A nice byproduct of the translation is that it extends to other forms of discrimination.

A negative feature, which I found unavoidable was the use of the term ‘privilege’ to refer to groups who have been shielded from discrimination e.g., white, male, heterosexual people. In terms of my intended audience in the original post, this is likely to be seen as jargon describing a phenomenon that they have not yet fully acknowledged.


Author: tomhartley

Neuroscientist and University Lecturer in Psychology

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