Beware of Cultural Bias By Neil Tyson


Cultural bias is the interpretation of any phenomena based on one’s own cultural standards. On the other hand, it also refers to the bias created due to the norms of the majority ethnic group.

This occurs due to variations in the patterns in which humans interact. There are systems (technical, linguistic, social, cultural, economic, and others) that are inherent to particular groups. It is when there is exchange of communication, or through any exposure to a foreign cultural environment, that people tend to develop a cultural bias.

It includes what we call misconceptions, prejudices, or beliefs that we possess towards other people, communities, or countries. Various media like books, movies, travel, food, or lifestyle introduce us to the non-familiar aspects existing in the world outside. Cultural bias, thus, is just like viewing the ‘other’ with ‘our’ glasses on.

Bias does not manifest equally among all the branches of the sciences. History has shown that the likelihood of bias, be it conscious or unconscious, is greater in the sciences that have humans as a subject. It’s a cultural bias, not a cognitive bias. It’s a cultural bias.

Take a look at the social sciences, anthropology in particular, 19th-century anthropology. This is the era– it had been going for a while, but it’s the crowning era of the colonization of that which is not Europe by Europeans. It’s Africa and South America and Asia. There’s European influence everywhere.

Built into that was an assumption, a bias that Europeans and European culture was very high, and all else was very low, right on down to the blunt assertions of we are superior to you in every way. When you have that attitude, that affects everything you do. If you think that’s true, it affects laws that you pass. It affects how you treat people who are not you. It affects what opportunities you would get them relative to you. It affects how you wage war, what weapons you would use and choose to invoke. It affects all of that.

These would be cultural biases. This group association thing is kind of unhealthy for a peaceful society. In the limit, it’s whole countries going to war because one country feels they’re better than the other, or one group enslaving another group because they think they are better in whatever metric it is they are using to decide.

I see these biases, and they rear their heads visibly to me, because as a scientist, I’m trained– I’m trained to notice them. That’s my job as a scientist. It doesn’t mean scientists can’t be biased. We’re susceptible as well. Oh, yeah. It’s even in the physical sciences. We have some susceptibilities. They just don’t necessarily affect people in policy.

But the social sciences do. The economic sciences do. The political sciences do. So that matters.

A close cousin of bias is something called assumptions. Assumptions are a little more innocent than bias because assumptions are usually just out in front. You say, I have these assumptions. Now let me test my idea based on those assumptions. I assume the moon is made of some kind of a cheese. I’m going to design experiments to test for that. Turns out that’s a really bad assumption.

Maybe you didn’t know that at the time. You can’t be faulted for that. You’ve got to start somewhere before experiments are designed to test your ideas. But it’s an example of an assumption. Before Albert Einstein and the general theory of relativity, It was an assumption that the universe was static in some way. No one had any evidence for it. It’s just, why would you think the universe could be anything but just a thing always existing?

Einstein shows that the universe is unstable against expansion or collapse, that we have a dynamical universe. That’s freaky. That’s– oh, my gosh. So the assumption that the universe was static turned …

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