Saturday, March 29, 2008

Questions on Compensating for Scholarly Biases

I've been thinking a bit about the role of biases in my own scholarly work, and about what one should do to compensate for them. A case in point, and the one that started me thinking about the subject: I have a suspicious taste for underdogs, and it shows up in a number of ways. I tend to develop enthusiasms for neglected and ignored figures, for instance. It also shows up in what I tend to argue. Long years of study as a philosophy student has made me argumentative, in the sense that I keep thinking of possible objections to arguments that people make, on whatever subject. But overwhelmingly I keep those to myself; if I think they are particularly interesting, I write them down somewhere. But my inclination faced with a position, even one I think obviously false, is to say, "Interesting," and move on. I love arguments, i.e., reasonings, but I dislike arguing; and, having seen more than a few arguments in my day that were largely just intellectual bullying (and occasionally done some bullying myself), I try, as part of my (unevenly successful) attempt to hold myself to a standard of amiability, to put a sharp limit to how far I will go in arguing with anyone. But there are types of arguments in which my usual taste and all my good intentions get thrown to the wind unless I catch myself in time and forcibly restrain myself. And a number of these (again, a suspicious number), involve me defending someone from the suggestion of being easily refuted by an argument I don't think easily refutes them (whether I agree with them or not). It has put me in some weird company on occasion, let me tell you, vehemently defending views antithetical to my own. Now, this and a number of other things suggests to me that I have a bias in favor of positions that are being criticized, regardless of what they are; and that this bias is only compensated by its appearing fairly obvious to me that the criticism is deserved. But I have, as far as I can see, no reliable way of determining how far this bias distorts my judgment and good taste in any particular instance. And this would seem to be the case with a lot of the potential biases that might distort scholarly judgment. And a question I am considering now, and for which I have not yet found any clear answer, is the best way to go about refining one's scholarly practice in order to catch biases that might otherwise be undiscovered, or to compensate for biases that are likely there. The question could be put in other terms: we want to develop good taste in scholarship, but we'd rather not have to do it by trial and error. So what sort of practices of self-reflection and self-critique should scholars generally develop to compensate for hidden biases in themselves? Must they vary widely across disciplines and fields, or are there strong analogies? Do scholars generally just rely on the trial-and-error, sink-or-swim approach, or have people come up with more methodical and systematic ways to handle the problem? Are there many practices of self-reflection and self-critique in common use, or are there just a few that are common, or are any common at all? How successful are they?

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