In Defense of Bias

A protestor’s sign at an Occupy Portland rally in 2011 | Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman

Let’s talk about bias. I have it. You have it. As humans all of us have our own opinions towards virtually everything that comes across our plates in our daily lives, be it (literally) a menu option or (the more serious) potentially deadly first impression. And researchers, from the molecular biologist to the cultural anthropologist, are not excluded from this inherent trait.

However, there’s a perception in society that science is only legitimate when it’s absolutely objective. That is, to conduct purely scientific research is to remove yourself from the thing you’re studying in order to present the results in the most balanced light possible. Otherwise, how do we know for sure that your conclusions aren’t skewed by your internal advocacy or prejudices? Short answer: they are.

Here’s why I think it’s a good thing.

Where “normal” research consists of blind trials, randomization, multiples tests, and controlled groups, qualitative research often doesn’t afford the luxury of such static, planned environments. Social or cultural anthropologists often conduct work that is qualitative, like ethnographies, whereby we embed ourselves in a culture or location that we study purely through observation. Often our subjects are entire cultures or subcultures, definitely unable to be sorted into Group A and Group B for some statistical test, especially when they’re at-risk populations (like hookers or drug dealers for instance. Seriously!).

Our observations are made through the lens of human perception. As such, we see things that are inherently influenced not only by our education, but also by our past experiences, personal opinions, and even our demographic information. Because of this, it can be difficult for the consumer to feel that they’re getting a scientific conclusion.

Here’s an example.

Let’s say I’m studying public space issues when a protest camp springs up in a nearby city park (spoiler: this is a true story). After drawing up my research plan, I receive rushed approval through my university to conduct an ethnography on this at-risk (read: illegal) group. By slowly being accepted into their community through volunteering at the information tent, I’m able to get more information on the social hierarchy, the various subcultures and their structure, and create a comprehensive picture of the camp’s physical layout and development over its month-long occupation. Once concluded, the resulting report is released as a “draft for discussion” for commentary by the larger academic anthropology community.

But that’s not quite right. Let’s look at that again more comprehensively.

More than observation and analysis, I the researcher come to this topic from a young woman’s perspective. I also happen to be an advocate for many of the issues the protest camp stands for, but as a complex individual I am simultaneously against some of the others. And as could be expected, during my time there I inevitably get to know the people who are passionately protesting their beliefs, becoming emotionally involved and even forming lasting relationships with some of them long after the camp is gone.

The early Information Tent at Occupy Portland in 2011 | Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman

By slowly being accepted into their community through volunteering at the information tent, I’m able to get more information on the social hierarchy, the various subcultures and their structure, and create a comprehensive picture of the camp’s physical layout and development over it’s month-long occupation.

The academic impetus for this research was that by gathering this information I’m hoping to further a larger body of knowledge on subcultures (anarchists, etc.), the Right to the City in public space (how “public” is your park?), and provide a first-hand account of a 21st century protest camp (the first of its kind in years!). But as a person, I also want to tell the protesters’ story because of the lack of awareness the public has about these individuals, while simultaneously advocating for the democratic use of public space for things like civil disobedience.

Separating activism and analysis can be tricky, and it’s something that I’m constantly trying to keep in check. When I strung up tarps in the rain and marched side by side with protesters at Occupy Portland, it was difficult at times to gather data while also being so intimately involved.

When I reported my results, it was of course in my voice and limited to my own observations and experiences – as an ethnography often is. Rather than creating a simple statistical report on demographic information of the participants or a historical account of event, I came away with stories because of my close involvement with these individuals. Where onlookers saw a homeless camp, I saw a place full of mostly housed individuals with jobs who were spending every ounce of their free time on this cause. So-called “anarchist punks” were actually skilled organizers, fierce to defend those without a voice and create community where none existed before. And because of my training as an anthropologist, I was able to connect these stories to very serious academic topics of democracy, equity, and our new urban age as humans—something that would be much more difficult to accomplish if I only used quantitative data.

But in spite of this, qualitative research is often called a soft science as compared to quantitative research, which is viewed as more “solidly” conclusive hard science.

I’ll be the first to admit that this criticism hurts. While not having a microscope in your office shouldn’t make you less of a scientist, you can see where someone could get that idea. The thing is, even the “quants” out there have emotional reasons behind what they’re doing; either some personal incentive or just general enjoyment. Qualitative research just means that you aren’t able to have quantifiable data to compliment your final results—and that’s totally okay. So long as I’m aware of my role as a human-researcher and can separate my emotions from my observations or acknowledge them upfront, my results are as valid as a chemical equation or survey statistic in the quantitative scientific community (there, I said it!).

The fact is that we are all human. We make errors regardless of our biases and we allow our passions to drive the work that we do even if only tangentially. We should understand that this bias exists and celebrate it, as much as we would the scientist trying to cure a disease, preserve an endangered habitat, or shed light on women’s issues in the world. This doesn’t mean that we falsify results or make errors based on our opinions—it simply means that we acknowledge and accept the fact that we are all trying to help in the best way that we can, as scientists and as humans, with biases. I am not blind to my bias, but I embrace it. I gather and analyze data on topics that I believe can further my goal of creating better urban environments for people, and I’m not ashamed of it.

Science is not and should not be emotionless. There are so many causes in the world today that need attention from researchers everywhere. And since it is personal initiatives that lead people to study these things in the first place—I say, here’s to bias! And here’s to improving lives through (soft) science.


This article originally appeared on Peeps Forum. For more on people and culture – for people – check out their site and support their Kickstarter campaign to get them to print!

The Future of Public Space

The Urban Center Plaza at Portland State University, topic of my thesis research. Photo credit: Doug Macy of Walker Macy (used with permission)
The Urban Center Plaza at Portland State University, topic of my thesis research. Photo credit: Doug Macy of Walker Macy (used with permission)

Public space isn’t something typically on everyone’s mind on a daily basis, though of course it dictates much about how we live our lives – Where do you cross the street? Do you have sidewalks? Where’s your nearest public park or plaza? For those without private open space (apartment/condo dwellers, houseless individuals) public space is the only space they have to travel, walk their dog, have a picnic, or just plain experience the rest of their society (myself included). Considering that urban environments now contain over 50% of the world’s inhabitants, and that this is only going to increase, I believe that an emphasis on public space is necessary for the future of cities.

Continue reading The Future of Public Space

Bicycle Commuter Stats Maps

[Originally written by Allison Duncan]

A simple graduated symbol map from Governing.com shows the range of commuter rates for cities – with a roll-over for specific cities to show more detail. The map for Bike Commuters shows a comparison of commuters to total workers – so each is proportional.   The high margin of error in the data (which in the notes is attributed to 2006 and 2011 American Community Survey – ACS) means, as with all maps and data, one must take it with a grain of salt.

To compare, another map on the site shows total people who Bike to Work – which could be construed as the same thing, and obviously there would be some correlation – but is a specific question and not a comparison of bike commuters to overall workers, as shown above, so does make for a slightly different spread – for instance Eugene, Oregon – which is larger on the above map – is significantly smaller on the map below – because the plot is based on total riders – so obviously Portland would be bigger due to larger population.

It would be interesting to dig into some of the ACS data and see what the specific questions are, and hopefully the survey will still be around in future years (more on this to come) for future longitudinal studies.

Square Pegs & Round Holes

[Originally written by Allison Duncan]

A conversation that permeates any discipline involved in the social sciences is how to evaluate the rigor of research as ‘science’.  There’s a ton of baggage related to this, particularly when compared to ‘hard’ sciences and the traditional  theory > hypothesis > testing  mode of  deductive reasoning.     A recent short article, “Overcoming ‘Physics Envy'” from April 1 in the NY Times tackles this issue in the social sciences by deconstructing the science implied in scientific reasoning.

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Authored by two political science instructors from University of Rochester, the article discusses the inherent bias in scientific communities, such as the National Science Foundation as well as peer-reviewed journals in only accepting and disseminating research that fits the hypothetico-deductive model.  They disagree with the focus on this as the only valid scientific method, saying that:

“…we believe that this way of thinking is badly mistaken and detrimental to social research. For the sake of everyone who stands to gain from a better knowledge of politics, economics and society, the social sciences need to overcome their inferiority complex, reject hypothetico-deductivism and embrace the fact that they are mature disciplines with no need to emulate other sciences.”

There are countless examples of the sort of apologist writing in social science literature – with caveats on the lack of repeatability – specifically in the qualitative vs. quantitative debate – and the methods employed to imbue social research with testable, statistics based methods that give the illusion of hard science, or more annoyingly, prefacing research with long explanations of the need and validity of the qualitative methods.

There is a need for untested theoretical models in science, to shift thinking and to open up new avenues of dialogue, even in the absence of testability.  These give some pointers on how we may get to a solution, not the actual method, but the theory that guides us.  From the article:  “To borrow a metaphor from the philosopher of science Ronald Giere, theories are like maps: the test of a map lies not in arbitrarily checking random points but in whether people find it useful to get somewhere.”

The authors conclude that the overall hyper-focus on testing, rather than theorizing, limits the scope of research and our ability to understand issues.  Social science is difficult, due to myriad variables and actors interacting in tandem, to fit into a traditional hypothetico-deductive model of science, and to limit research to only that form of science limits our ability to tackle large issues.   What we need right now is the ability to do just that, not to regress into the purity of science – further distancing academia from the actual world it aims to study.  As the authors conclude:

“Unfortunately, the belief that every theory must have its empirical support (and vice versa) now constrains the kinds of social science projects that are undertaken, alters the trajectory of academic careers and drives graduate training. Rather than attempt to imitate the hard sciences, social scientists would be better off doing what they do best: thinking deeply about what prompts human beings to behave the way they do.”