I’m independent and unbiased. Rubbish!

I’m independent and unbiased. Rubbish!

It’s podcast time when I do the cleaning and this weekend it was Political Thinking with Nick Robinson. He was interviewing Jeremy Hunt. It was a fascinating conversation – they always are.

One of the topics they covered was the independence of the scientists in SAGE. (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies). The question was can they give independent advice if they owe their position, salary and career future to politicians or officials. Jeremy Hunt admitted the risk, argued for the scientific advice to be transparent and so open to scrutiny by others but did say he believed they are independent and objective.

I’d like to challenge his answer.

I don’t believe the scientists are doing anything other than their best. They are experts in their fields and bringing their knowledge and experience to bear in the best way they can. But it’s wrong to suggest they are immune to unconscious bias, however you chose to define it. Anyone who says they are neutral and unbiased, don’t judge or never stereotype, is kidding themselves. Like it or not, we ALL bring bias, prejudice into everything we do.

And there are good reasons why. By their very definition, there is always, at the least, a grain of truth in a stereotype. Without them our brains would quickly get overloaded and we’d cease to function.

Naturally enough we also view the world from our own perspective. Rooted in our personal experience of relationship going right back to early childhood, our perspective governs everything, including the way we interact with people. I was raised in an environment that highly valued academic achievement and, unchecked, it has an impact on my perception of people. Independence was also important. I know, as an adult, I can be intolerant of people who ask for help a lot.

But admitting to being biased can feel taboo. Just writing the last few sentences has been uncomfortable. I kept wanting to qualify it so I don’t come across like a nasty bigot. When I’ve admitted it in the past I’ve been confronted by people proudly saying they’re never biased or prejudiced. They meet people as they are, not as they perceive them to be. They would never be swayed by anything other than the facts. They are objective. In one interchange they have heaped all their shame onto me and I leave the conversation feeling rubbish.

The real problems, though, grow from their denial. If we don’t recognise and accept our prejudices, we will never be open to reality. Worse, we may become rigid, fixed in our views, ‘pretending’ that because our perspective is based on objective facts, it is absolutely correct.

The challenge is in identifying and coming to terms with our biases and then understanding the way in which they impact every decision we make, every relationship we have. At the very least it can be uncomfortable and unnerving.

Going back to the SAGE scientists, I believe it’s impossible to be completely independent and unbiased. What matters is to know that. Then you can acknowledge it and work with it. If the scientists accept it’s possible, if not probable, the power the politicians and officials hold over their positions has an influence then that influences weakens.

Contact me, Cathy Connan, on 07976 669089 if you would like support in identifying and working with your unconscious bias.

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