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Mariah's avatar

Does bias always decrease the validity of an argument? Can it ever increase its validity?

Asked by Mariah (25624points) November 3rd, 2011

A biased opinion is often discounted. “Of course he would think teachers are underpaid; he’s a teacher himself.” But does bias always make an opinion less valid?

One might think, for example, that the chronically ill are too biased to offer a fair opinion in healthcare debates. I might argue, though, that they are exactly the right people to discuss the issue. Those who have never been seriously ill may not understand just how important the issue is to some people.

Does being part of a group affected by decisions make you negatively biased or might it even make you more qualified to offer your opinion on a subject? Another example; issues of women’s rights: should women’s opinions in this arena be held more or less highly than men’s? At what point does personal experience cross over into harmful bias?

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19 Answers

Cruiser's avatar

An opinion is just that and always influenced by a bias and why IMO it should be weighed and construed as a biased personal opinion and nothing more.

Blackberry's avatar

It depends on the situation of course, but I think it can. I’m having trouble thinking of a decent example, though… maybe it’s not as clear-cut. Bias has been seen as something undesirable it seems, when it obviously isn’t. I’m kind of satisfied with my biases sometimes. For example, many people have a bias towards supporting arguments with facts, but that person could also accompany those facts with viable anecdotes to serve as examples or support the facts. The two are confused occasionally.

flo's avatar

The opinion of the people intimately aquanted to the subject needs to be included for sure as biased as it is. It can’t be exculded. That is a great question. Where do they have “Victim Impact Statement”?

lillycoyote's avatar

Well, bias is different than being in a position to make an informed opinion about something. Though a person can also be biased under those circumstance, just not necessarily so. Bias is separate from one’s knowledge and experience. And in your example “Of course he would think teachers are underpaid; he’s a teacher himself.” The hypothetical person making that hypothetical statement seems to be biased, if that person discounts the teacher’s opinion on pay merely because he or she is a teacher. That person’s bias would seem to be that teachers aren’t actually underpaid and that only a teacher would believe teachers are underpaid.

Aethelflaed's avatar

There is always bias, no matter what. There’s no such thing as an unbiased argument; arguments are designed based upon our experiences, our per-existing beliefs, and what and who influenced us before this point. Bias isn’t necessarily bad, though. While you could say that a black person who wants to further racial equality is biased, that being black has influenced their thinking about race, why is that necessarily bad? Why wouldn’t that be more, well, duh? I’m a woman, and that drastically impacts how I think about gender equality and about certain gendered issues, but why would that be a bad thing, why would someone say “well, of course you want women to be able to play sports, you’re a woman”? Saying it in a mocking, nasty tone doesn’t actually make it bad. You could easily say “Well, of course the Founding Fathers of America wanted democracy and liberty, they were fans of Enlightenment ideals”. Again, so effing what? It’s good to take notice of bias, to help you understand someone and their thoughts more fully, and to help you understand what the other sides to the argument might be, but bias itself does not mean the argument is invalid; otherwise, there are no valid arguments, ever.

SavoirFaire's avatar

“Validity” is a technical term for the relationship between an argument’s premises and its conclusion. Bias can neither increase nor decrease the validity of an argument. Moreover, the teacher example given in the OP is an instance of the circumstantial ad hominem fallacy.

woodcutter's avatar

Bias is what prompts people to dig out the story so the most information possible is gathered. Like there are news orgs who tend to report more on some subjects and not so much on others based on their biases. That way we get to hear out both sides fully and sift through the BS to draw our own conclusions.

ETpro's avatar

No, of course it doesn’t. Showing that a protagonist may hold a bias simply means we need to examine their argument for fallacies. Claiming that a teacher cannot possible have a valid opinion on teacher’s pay, for instance, is simply another fallacious argument called an ad hominem. See item 9 here.

It is claiming that because of who is making the argument, they are obviously wrong. Arguments stand on their own merits. They aren’t automatically true when one person makes the argument, but instantly false when another person says the same thing. To think that truth switches on and off depending on who states it shows a disturbing lack of critical reasoning skills. Nonetheless, “Damning the source” or ad hominem is one of the most prevalent political tools to sell fallacious ideas and attack truth.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

I am biased towards truth. My position is often invalidated for that very reason.

Now that doesn’t mean that I always know the truth… or that I’m big enough to hold it, or handle it… or that truth doesn’t scare the living shit out of me at times… It just means that I feel the truth is always the best option… even if it kicks my ass.

Mariah's avatar

@SavoirFaire @ETpro Yep, I noticed the ad hominem when I wrote the example; I think it’s used and considered valid by a lot of people because they doubt the motives of the speaker. Maybe teachers don’t really deserve better pay but that guy’s just saying they do because he wants a bigger paycheck. As @ETpro so eloquently put, though these doubts of his motives are not unwarranted, the problem is solved by examining the argument. Of course this is more difficult than just writing off his opinion so many people will choose not to do it.

I guess the root of the problem is how do we prioritize when everybody is biased? To use my prior example of healthcare, the chronically ill are going to be most familiar with such needs and so they need to be listened to, but they’re also biased in that many of them would be content to see a huge percentage of the national budget sunk into healthcare. And there are other people with other priorities out there that would rather that money go to other things, and their priorities are extremely important to them as well, and how does anyone make an objective decisions as to whose priorities are really more important and worth spending our finite resources on?

lillycoyote's avatar

@SavoirFaire “Validity” is not solely, not only, a technical term. In logic, yes, it has a precise, specific, “technical” meaning. But it is also a word in common usage; and in common usage valid means:

(of an argument or point ) having a sound basis in logic or fact; reasonable or cogent:a valid criticism.


From The Britannica Dictionary online

1: having legal efficacy or force; especially executed with the proper legal authority and formalities <a ∼ contract>
2 a: well-grounded or justifiable : being at once relevant and meaningful <a ∼ theory> b: logically correct <a ∼ argument> <∼ inference>
3: appropriate to the end in view : EFFECTIVE <every craft has its own ∼ methods>
4: of a taxon: conforming to accepted principles of sound biological classification
— va·lid·i·ty \və-ˈli-də-tē, va-\ noun
— val·id·ly \ˈva-ləd-lē\ adverb

and, again, as this entry points out, the word has a meaning in common usage and a meaning in logic.

In the context of @Mariah‘s question, hers was a perfectly acceptable use of the word validity, as validity means “the state of being valid.”

and you knew exactly, or should have known exactly, what she meant, and what she was trying to get at in this question.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@lillycoyote I realize that “valid” has colloquial uses, but the logical definition is the most relevant one when discussing rational arguments. Even the definitions you cite ground themselves in logic (the first one explicitly).

You’ll notice, also, that I did not question @Mariah‘s use of the term. My first sentence is not a critique of anyone or anything, but rather the preamble to the rest of my comment. The main point is that bias is irrelevant to how good or bad an argument is.

ETpro's avatar

@Mariah Well said. That is why our national priorities deserve a spirited and honest public debate. But in a world dominated by news, opinion and advertising by the rich for the rich, that is difficult to acheive. What we end up with is cycles when those with the financial resopurces needed to shape opinion get things so out of ballance in their favor that the rest of the nation explodes in their faces. We saw that at the end of the Gilded Age in the 1920s, and we may be witnessing abother cycle of it now with OWS protests growing.

lillycoyote's avatar

@SavoirFaire I didn’t say it was a critique, but this question is not about the validity of arguments in formal logic, it seems clear, to me at least, from the question and the details that this question is about the kind of arguments and debates that people get into every day, where bias can very much play a part. To answer the question by saying that validity is a technical term and that “Bias can neither increase nor decrease the validity of an argument” isn’t really answering this question, which is not about formal logic. You can answer questions anyway you like, and it certainly isn’t my place to decide what the answers one someone else’s thread should be. I’m just telling you how I see it.

LostInParadise's avatar

The problem with bias is that it tends to cause people to distort the facts. I am not saying that biased people are necessarily lying, although that certainly happens, but bias tends to blur and filter the perception of reality. That is why it is important to hear both sides of an argument.

Mariah's avatar

@LostInParadise Maybe I am taking this into a far too philosphical place, but your post made me think. “bias tends to blur and filter the perception of reality” I certainly understand your point but is there always an objective reality to blur? On the subject of healthcare again, for example, the reality that the chronically ill live in is one in which healthcare is about as vital as food, while for a healthy person healthcare may serve as a safety net and nothing more. Whose perception is blurred; which one is the “real” reality? The ill are biased about healthcare because they need it; could it be said that healthy people are biased about healthcare due to not needing it? Who’s to say one perception is more “real” than another?

LostInParadise's avatar

“Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
There is no doubt bias on both sides. There is always a tendency to oversimplify. For example, is the chronic illness due to poverty? Is poverty due to being on welfare, and to what extent is welfare a self-perpetuating system? I am not saying that it is, but those on the right would argue that way, and it is a hard argument to refute, because there is probably at least a little bit of truth to it.

mazingerz88's avatar

Bias decreases if not totally renders zero validity to an argument when the argument is done rather stupidly and inefficiently. When one party cannot see beyond the other’s line of reasoning, labeling it as merely bias in an effort to win the argument, then the discussion is all for naught. In a smart argument though, bias could be a great component to gain validity for that argument. There is nothing like getting accurate and qualified points of view when parties actually know what they are talking about, giving them credibility. It diminishes or totally gets rid of useless speculation.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@lillycoyote I don’t believe that it is proper to distinguish between “logical arguments” and “the arguments that we get into every day.” The fallacy I mentioned, after all, is not a formal fallacy. It is the kind of thing we find in ordinary informal reasoning. The reason it is a fallacy is because bias plays a part in how we interpret facts, but it does not play a part in determining what is a fact.

Moreover, look at the example we were given: “Of course he would think teachers are underpaid; he’s a teacher himself.” As already noted, this is a case of the circumstantial ad hominem fallacy. The fallacy works, though, by encouraging us to believe that there is something faulty about the connection between the teacher’s beliefs and the information on which he formed his beliefs—that is, about the connection between his conclusions and his premises.

Even if we do not want to see this parallel between formal and informal reasoning, however, it remains the case that bias does not effect the strength of an argument. An argument is either a good one or a bad one, and that is to be assessed independently of the person giving it. If we think someone is biased, that might provide us with a practical reason for being extra careful in assessing the information on which a conclusion is based; still, it does not change how well or poorly the argument itself works.

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