by Bryan G. Hopkins
"Don't make me pull this car over!" Many of us have said this or have heard it from a parent on the verge of a nervous breakdown while driving with squabbling children.
I remember wanting to stuff my ears with road maps back in the ancient days when I was a young father and we used paper maps. I disliked hearing my children shouting at each other like a murder of crows fighting over roadkill. (Yes, a group of crows is called a murder.) Their opinion was the only thing rising in their consciousness in those moments. There was little care for the comfort or opinions of the siblings sitting next to them. Each felt they were right and that nothing else mattered.
If this sounds familiar to any of you, maybe you, like me, have witnessed such squabbling, and not just in the family boat, (a term of mocking endearment bestowed on our Dodge van by our teens). You might also have noticed such conflict on social media, at home, at work—especially as we talk social issues, religion, politics, etc. Maybe . . . just maybe . . . I've been guilty of this, despite being a "mature" adult. Maybe you have too?
In my work, I especially strive to avoid bias. I'm a scientist. Part of the scientific method is to establish a hypothesis—a proposed explanation for a phenomenon. Frequently in our research, we find that our hypotheses are not correct or are only partially correct. This is more common than not.
My students are frequently disappointed in their research findings when this happens—as if somehow they have failed and all is lost in the pursuit of their degree. I remind them that this is why we're doing research. We are searching for truth, regardless of where it might lead us. I also warn them of the dangers of being biased and forming firm opinions before knowing the truth. This danger is real for all of us—scientists or not.
I'll relate a story of bias regarding a friend—I'll call him Clay Tiller to protect his true identity and because I thought that this reference to a type of soil and tillage is punny (I can just feel the eye rolls as I write this :)).
Clay owned a successful, large farm—built up out of the sagebrush by his ancestors. To say it came through "blood, sweat, and tears" is an understatement.
Clay had a friend who approached him with a new product that he said would "revolutionize" farming. Clay trusted this man, who believed strongly and sincerely in his product. The product seemed appealing because it promised that a small amount could replace much of his expensive fertilizer and pesticide inputs. Although he had some misgivings, he agreed to give it a try on half of one field as a test in place of the traditional products and practices he used on the other half and the rest of the farm.
At harvest, to his surprise, the portion of the field where the new product was used yielded ten sacks higher than the traditional side. (Those of us that did not grow up with smartphones and, instead, had gunny sack races will relate to a “sack” as a burlap bag that holds 100 lbs of potatoes or a leg from each of two people . . . young people may need to do an internet search for “gunny sack races” if you have no idea what I’m saying :)).
He was ecstatic! More gunnies of “taters” with less expense and work. He quickly abandoned his proven practices to use this miraculous tonic on the whole farm. In fact, Clay bought a distributorship of this product and began brewing and selling it to his family, friends, neighbors, and any other farmer who would listen.
The next season, to his dismay, things did not look quite as good. He lost money, especially on the half field that was now in its second year of having this product applied. However, he was so invested in his notions that he sought explanations of justification rather than having an open mind and listening to his wife, his crop consultant, and several others (including myself) urging a course correction or, at least, some caution. Conversations with him and others devolved into arguments. The more he argued, the more he became entrenched in his position. The next year was even worse, with massive nutrient deficiencies, plagues of pests, and poor yielding crops. By year five, he had lost the farm and every other physical and monetary asset.
What happened? I knew (and tried to explain to him early on) that he had not followed the proper procedures of the scientific method in his “experiment”. The reason the crop looked so good the first year was that the plants relied on a surplus of nutrients built up from previous over applications of fertilizer. Also, the pest pressure was low in that half-field trial the first year due to a combination of being surrounded by other fields where pests were controlled, as well the fact that pests come in cycles—with some years better than others. That first year happened to be a low pest pressure year.
Clay was tripped up by poor decisions and then deceived by his bias. He was set so firmly in his opinion because he drew conclusions too quickly and became entrenched in his ego so deeply that he lost his ability to have an open mind. He had put his good name on the line as he touted the benefits of this new breakthrough product that seemed to defy the laws of nature (such as, if you remove nutrients from the soil, you have to replenish them or you risk destroying the soil).
It's easy for us, with the near-perfect vision of hindsight, to see his folly. However, what about us? What is our bias? I certainly have to do battle and keep constantly aware of my own bias. This is true in science, but also in every other area of life, including products and services we purchase, social issues, politics, and so forth. And, the more we entrench ourselves through digital or verbal shouting matches the less likely we are to have an open mind.
In the history of mini-vans, has a screaming child ever successfully argued their position to an equally shrill sibling? It's easy for an adult to see their folly, but why do we act similarly on social media and in other interactions?
Too many of us are loudly advocating our position to the point that we cannot listen to our own good judgment trying to whisper truths to our minds and hearts. Are we so busy childishly screaming our perspective that we cannot hear the wisdom of others—even if we are entirely or partially correct? Are we part of a murder of crows cawing relentlessly? Possibly, we need to set aside our bias, listen a little more, and shout a little less.
Bryan Hopkins and his wife Carrie raised six children and are longtime residents of Provo. He is a Certified Professional Soil Scientist and a Plant and Wildlife Sciences Professor at Brigham Young University . His hobbies include gardening and traveling (without shouting children).