Week 31: Accept bias

The Parturition Chair: Diabolical Torture Device or ruthlessly efficient? |  Wellcome Collection

The Parturition Chair: Diabolical Torture Device or ruthlessly efficient? | Wellcome Collection

Years before my son was born, I spent a terrifying afternoon exploring Wellcome Collection’s extensive collection of forceps, amputation saws, and other objects from the history of medicine.

Most interesting to me was an exhibit of three chairs. Nestled in between a sinister-looking Chinese torture chair and a sinister-looking British dentistry chair was an equally sinister-looking birthing chair. I’ll show you what I saw, but remember, this was a #nofilter #noiphone time:

Did the context make me see torture? | Stephanie Loomis Pappas

Did the context make me see torture? | Stephanie Loomis Pappas

You can view much better images of parturition chairs, as well as a host of fascinating images from the history of medicine, in Wellcome’s images collection.

You may even recognize a few from earlier in this calendar, because the Wellcome images were one of the inspirations for this calendar: to provide a little historical context for pregnancy as well as helpful tools for researching modern pregnancy questions. I remember how creeped out I felt by the parturition chair, how close it felt to those other torture chairs.

But reading more about parturition, as well as the history of obstetrics, has changed my mind. If the parturition chair was a torture device, it was a diabolical one, ruthlessly efficient for parting children from their mothers’ bodies.

The lesson here isn’t necessarily that we should bring back parturition chairs. But it is that we should accept that our own biases act as filters, helping us decide what to read and how to interpret it.

We hear about bias in the news all the time. When networks or readers disagree with each other, "biased" is a charge hurled against one another. That news station is biased. When used in this way, "biased" is a code for an organization or person deliberately hiding or bending the truth, or failing to disclose its sources of funding or other conflicts of interest. Lately, "bias" has become a synonym for "lies." 

The problem with viewing bias in this narrow way is that bias is much more common than we think. All of us are biased, because all humans are biased. Some of the most obvious biases--religion, political affiliation, ethnicity--act as filters through which we view the world. Other biases stem from our experiences with the world. For example, I was biased to see parturition chairs as torture devices because I saw them next to torture chairs.

Understanding bias can help us better evaluate parenting advice. Imagine you found an article titled “How to get your two-year-old to give up his pacifier.” That title includes the assumption that pacifiers were useful or valuable to begin with. An article titled "Does your baby need a pacifier?" might not share that assumption.

It's not that either of these assumptions are wrong--there are enthusiastic supporters of both positions and no kids seem all the worse for having or not having pacifiers. But when the stakes get higher, the underlying assumptions embedded in parenting advice get more important. Let's look at a much more controversial example: the recommendation that the Gardasil vaccine, which prevents strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, be given not just to 12-year old girls, but to boys as well. The boys, who can be carriers of HPV but are often not at risk for the cancers associated with it, would thus be unable to pass HPV onto future sexual partners. 

This recommendation is loaded with assumptions. It assumes that most 12 year olds are not having sex, but that some 13 and 14 year olds are. It assumes that most 12 year old boys will age into men who will one day have sex with women. It assumes that widespread vaccination is better than individual protection. Opposition to the assumption comes with a lot of assumptions as well. Young children should not have sex. Widespread vaccination is a “free pass” for sexual intercourse. Women bear sole responsibility for their sexual health. And there’s very likely a set of religious assumptions underlying all of these other assumptions.

I’m not wading into the debate here, because parents of babies and young children have to answer a lot of other questions before they get to adolescent vaccinations. But you can see that, when the issues get bigger and more complicated, there are even more assumptions to deal with.

Instead of worrying about “fake news” or “media bias,” consider your own biases when you click on an article…or even when you type a Google search. What assumptions led you to search for that information in the first place, and how do those assumptions color your searches?