About Bias: Why we like people better when they look like us, or agree with us.

Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)

Lately, perhaps due to the politics of an impending Brexit revote, the ongoing political infighting in the United States, issues arising from the anti-VAX movement and the threats they impose to public health, and the anti-GMO movements making the rounds, perhaps a look at bias was due.

Bias, in one sense, means that we tend to agree with those who are most like us. We tend to like those who are most like us. We trust those who..you get the idea. That could mean biologically, philosophically, politically, ethnically, or academically. We all have them and when we realize this fact, we can work to prevent them from affecting our view.

In a recent study, 39% of lawyers in the UK were found to have an ethnicity bias strong enough to alter their perceptions, behavior, and their legal arguments. 28% of healthcare workers in Europe were found to have an ethnic bias strong enough to affect how they treated patients, up to and including which patients received which treatment. In the United States, 19% of law-enforcement officers were found to have an ethnic bias that affected their behavior and view of citizens, including decisions on whom to stop, search, arrest, Taser, or shoot. However, before we decide that such a bias is a new phenomenon, we need to look at history to see that it is undoubtedly a genuine part of the human condition.

Simply put, it is entirely human to see what we want to see. Roger Patterson, a rodeo rider and amateur boxer, believe wholeheartedly that Bigfoot or Sasquatch was real. So much so that he spent thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars coming through Washington state and Northern California looking for the creature. He was ridiculed and dismissed, and despite failing to see or film the creature, persisted to believe in its existence. In 1967, armed with a video camera, Patterson and a friend rode horseback into the area of Bluff Creek California for one final search for the elusive Sasquatch.

And they found it. Or at least that is the story they would want you t believe. Seemingly out of nowhere, 58 seconds of the film show the animal walk across to clearing and into the forest. Precisely what they sought, they found.

The Piltdown Man

The average person over 50 may have heard the term Piltdown Man, at some point, probably on TV or the radio (however, those under 50 probably not). However, the Piltdown hoax and the man who will forever be associated with it, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson provide us with a valuable lesson in bias, if we are interested in learning it.

Sometime around 1908, Dawson got a hold of a few parts of a human skull. While traveling around England’s Sussex region, he happened on the gravel pit was he believed some fossils might be found. Excavating in the pit, he claimed to find the skull parts, the teeth and bone fragments of a handful of Ice Age animals, and mandible that looked both ancient and nonhuman. The archaeological community of England was very interested in the fragments, given the supposed association of the mandible to the human-like skull. The mandible was placed within the approximate position on the skull to elicit a very modern looking, yet ancient human form. It should have been a red flag to see that the connection points that joined the mandible to the skull (masseter, temporalis, medial pterygoid and lateral pterygoid attachment) seem to be missing, broken off and were not with the mandible or the skull or anywhere nearby. It was easy to propose that these two fossils, found nearby, belonged together despite the missing pieces.

While we can reflect on this from the comfort of the 21st-century and ask why the difficult questions were not asked, nevertheless, at the time it was believed that the brain (cranium) had increased in size early in the homo lineage, and an ancestor with a large cranium joined with, and apelike jaw supported the belief not only in a missing link but that the missing link was not only European but British. The findings were presented to the British Archaeological Association in 1912, and while anatomists and dentists suggested that the skull was far too modern and that the jaw did not fit as it would in a real specimen, but the so-called experts were convinced that not only had a missing link been identified, he was not African, as had been suggested by earlier anthropologists. Piltdown Man satisfied the bias of the British and even European archaeological leaders. At least most of them. Moreover, any naysayers were quickly shouted down. Just like in American Politics today.

In 1953, the entire hoax was exposed. As it turned out, Dawson had been collecting bits and pieces of fossils for some time and had even created some of the flint tools he claimed to a discovered. He used various stages and dyes to make them appear far older than they were and planted them in the ground in order to later find them. He had gathered various costs from another area is across numerous game sites around the world, and placed the fossils, along with the human skull fragments, and the mandible from a modern orangutan (someone had carefully broken off the attachment points), and it too was stained to appear ancient.

It might be asked why some of the professional archaeologists of the day were so quick to accept the Piltdown hoax? Any of the skull fragments or the jaw could’ve been tested for nitrogen content, which would’ve given an age of not more than a few decades, or an examination of teeth, which would’ve shown they have been filed down to fit the jaw. Despite the opportunities over the decades to examine the fossils more closely, as of 1924, the specimens were still being used in England as substantial evidence that the large brain leads the way in human evolution, just as English anthropologists had said. And when Raymond Dart, an Australian archaeologist discovered a skull in South Africa that was older than H. Erectus, a distinct species he termed Australopithecus. Dart’s find showed a small cranium (relating to a brain no larger than a modern chimpanzee), and the face and jaw demonstrated a mid-way point between ape and human, this discovery was filled with skepticism because of the Piltdown hoax. Several years later, Darts discoveries were verified, and this began to shine a somewhat brighter light on Charles Dawson.

Apologists today still argue that this was such an elaborate hoax, no one that could have recognized it as such, at least at that time. There were many other anthropologists, scientists, and medical professionals who voiced skepticism of Piltdown Man. They were not vetted, nor carefully examined. When others, particularly skeptics requested an opportunity to inspect them, they were denied as having and alternative agenda. The simple fact remains that, at least in retrospect, English scientists wanted to believe that humanity evolved in England. The simplest explanation was that the fossils fulfilled an underlying belief and bias about both the dominion of Homo sapiens and the superiority of England.

Since German anthropologist had discovered Homo Neanderthalis in 1829, and Homo Heidelbergensis in 1907, England, as a political rival needed something scientific to hold up to the rest of the world. Moreover, if they could not find it, then they would make it. Today we see this as confirmation bias; looking for evidence that supports what we already believe. So if we are a judge or and district attorney who decides culpability or virtue, a healthcare provider who decides on the mode of treatment, or a police officer who decides on guilt or innocence, bias, and in particular confirmation bias is something we all have, and we all must be made aware. Otherwise, we merely repeat mistakes of the past and continue injustice towards others.

Our bias, like the Sasquatch of Patterson’s film or the Piltdown Man, exist only in our subjective minds.




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