Many Ways to be Biased

The issue of bias was in the news again this week as the Wall Street Journal reported that "three of the advisers [at an advisory committee meeting to discuss four Bayer birth control pills] have had ties to Bayer, serving as consultants, speakers or researchers."

Bias can be a hindrance to good decision-making. Unfortunately, most of us have some biases, whether they are religious, political, philosophical, nepotistic, analytical, or economic.

Religious bias can affect one's views on contraceptives, the termination of pregnancy, and "pulling the plug" on seriously ill patients. Political bias arises when the decision maker tries to foster a favorable image or to support a particular party or politician. Philosophical bias can affect how we think about who should be treated, or whether certain conditions should be treated at all. Or, perhaps, whether drug companies should be allowed to profit by treating illness. Or, perhaps, whether actions are best taken through public or private organizations. Nepotism means giving advantages to friends or relatives. Individuals can be analytically biased by, for instance, confusing low-risk and high-risk situations or by lacking the right analytical tools to make good decisions. Economic bias is the most common target and was the subject of the Wall Street Journal article referenced above. It arises when a person can profit from a role as a supposedly impartial judge.

If the FDA was serious about bias, it would consider all kinds of bias--religious, political, philosophical, nepotistic, analytical, and economic--and set up systems whereby the expertise of experts could still be extracted while the effects of their biases was minimized.

"A bias recognized is a bias sterilized." -- Benjamin Haydon, British painter and writer

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