Bias and Skepticism: How Far Is Too Far?

How do we help students fine-tune their skepticism so that it leads to knowledge-seeking and openness to new ideas? 

Editor’s note: This post is part five of a series on teaching and learning how to know in 2017. Find part one, a discussion of key terms from cognitive science and media literacy, here. Find part two, a classroom example of teaching about confirmation bias, here. Find part three, a window into a classroom discussion on trust and knowledge, here. Find part four, a review of how students learn how to know (epistemological development) hereFind part six, an argument for teaching about diverse ideologies and perspectives, here.

Teaching students to be skeptical of information sources is an essential part of teaching them how to know. Having students interrogate a source for credibility means they need to be able to determine:

  • its authority (what are its sources of expertise?);
  • its accuracy (do facts and reasonable premises support its conclusions?);
  • and its bias (does it have a slant or is it advancing a particular perspective?).

Recognizing and decoding bias in order to unpack texts and uncover agendas are a key part of critical media literacy—with some practitioners even teaching that all sources are at least somewhat biased. But fine-tuning skepticism is not always easy or free of hurdles. In my experience, students often come to see the detection of bias in a source as a reason to disqualify that source rather than as an invitation to contextualize, analyze and interpret. 

In an era of “fake news” and highly partisan media, we should be encouraged when students understand the need for skepticism. Skepticism about accuracy, however, is fundamentally different from skepticism about bias. Without discerning the difference, it can be challenging for students to grasp the expansive gray area that exists between a source so biased that it should be discredited and a source with bias that needs to be noted, understood and evaluated. Moreover, unrefined skepticism—or skepticism too widely applied—can lead students to go so far in their doubt that they believe nothing or are susceptible to extremist views.

The essential question seems to be: How do we calibrate students’ critical skepticism to lead to curiosity, open-mindedness and motivation to learn but not to lead to ease of manipulation, vulnerability to motivated reasoning or conspiracy?

For one, teachers need to be aware of and reflect on how many students get stuck in a relativist mindset, as the previous entry in this series illustrates. In this mindset, students see all sources as equally biased—equally tainted by opinion and ideology—and thus all similarly untrustworthy or, perhaps, credible. In an evaluativist mindset, students are able to separate fact from opinion and comprehend complex relationships. There’s an ability to manage bias, not necessarily using it as a disqualifier but learning to contextualize and learn with and through it. This means approaching information with skepticism but not accepting that a biased source is necessarily unreliable.

With students, it’s important to discuss the word bias itself and plumb its many meanings. Have them try to define bias without consulting a dictionary first. Are there positive and negative connotations of the word? Perhaps the word has more meanings than students might think. Is bias binary (a source is biased or not), or is it more like a spectrum or continuum? Can a source be biased but still credible? Can a source be biased but still accurate? Is it better for authors to acknowledge biases or rely on readers to be able to detect them? How can we improve our ability to recognize bias? What are some implicit biases that would benefit from more careful scrutiny?

Teachers can also invite students to consider the possibility of completely removing bias. Share the famous “They Saw a Game” study from 1954, in which Princeton and Dartmouth students watched footage of the same football game but developed different perceptions of what happened in the game. Discuss the differences between neutrality—in which no sides are taken—and objectivity—in which ideas are assessed from a common set of assumptions about truth and rationality. Is neutrality possible or even desirable? An implicit bias test is a great tool for awakening students to their own biases. Or prompt them to consider that we are capable of making rational decisions in spite of our biased brains.

Certainly, bias-as-prejudice needs to be deliberately and purposefully addressed by well-designed curricula, and we want students to recognize and work to shed the negative assumptions they make or hold about others. Students also need opportunities to understand the differences—and, at times, the overlaps—among prejudice, bias, perspective, viewpoint and slant. Not all bias is disqualifying, and bias needs to be the object of study, interrogation and critique in classrooms.

If the premise is that biases will always be present, our only option is to practice being aware of where and how we see bias. We can learn to scrutinize and evaluate it—and learn more about how we know in the process.

Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathansgold.