Passion for the Precision of Watchmaking

Overcoming Bias with a Passion for Objectivity

Objectivity is tedious. When survival is at stake, snap decisions can confer an advantage. Friend or foe? Fight or flee? We might not have time to collect and analyze data. And thus, humans brains are wired with shortcuts for making instant judgments. But those shortcuts come at a cost when we live in a modern world of diverse peoples and complex challenges. That’s because those shortcuts make us susceptible to unconscious or implicit bias. And due to implicit bias we can make some serious mistakes.

Perhaps the only way to overcome our implicit bias is with a passion for objectivity – as contradictory as that might sound.

A Hopeful Exploration of Implicit Bias

Yassmin Abdel-Magied knows something about unconscious bias. She is a young, light-skinned, black Muslim woman. She’s an engineer, a writer, a broadcaster, and a racing enthusiast. So it’s not easy to stereotype her, but nonetheless, people do. She explained recently on the TED Radio Hour:

People generally assume that I’m a migrant. Maybe my English is not so good. Maybe – generally, there is an assumption that maybe I don’t work. But there’ll be sometimes small things that people will notice that make them think, well, maybe there’s something a bit different here.

I think it depends on my mood that morning because if I’m in kind of a typical Londoner outfit, say, people will often assume I’m like some sort of musician, right? They’re like, oh, you wear colorful clothing. You’ve got a nose ring. Oh, you must be a singer. Or you must be an artist. Like, especially because I’m a woman of color, people assume that if you’re like a kind of creatively dressed woman of color, you’re some sort of singer.

And I think it also depends on what country I’m in. If I’m in Australia, I’m seen as probably an outsider. If I’m in London, I’m probably seen as someone who’s British. But nobody assumes I’m an engineer.

Despite all of her direct experiences with unconscious bias, Abdel-Magied is hopeful. She says:

I think we spend a lot of time worrying about if we’re good or bad people. The reality is that we all have these biases. And if we are open and transparent about it, it then gives other people the opportunity to call us out or call us in kindly if those biases do occur so that we can get better. And that is the dream, right?

Harnessing a Passion for Objectivity

If our biases spring from our subjective feelings and passions, is it even possible be that passion might offer a tool for overcoming them? Can we apply a passion for objectivity to the task of overcoming unconscious bias?

In a classic philosophical essay titled “Passionate Objectivity,” Corliss Swain insists that we can have it both ways. Objectivity with passion.

We’re inclined to agree. Inspiring researchers like  Rebecca Puhl pursue an understanding of the problem of weight bias and stigma with great objectivity and great passion. Likewise, we see many nutrition and obesity researchers – such as David Allison – who have great passion for objective, scientific truth in these matters.

It is indeed passion that provides fuel for our work. But objective truth makes it worthwhile. With a passion for objectivity, overcoming our unconscious biases is almost certainly possible.

Click here for an excellent episode of the TED Radio Hour on unconscious bias and here for Swain’s essay on passionate objectivity.

Passion for the Precision of Watchmaking, photograph © Serge Barès / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


February 20, 2019