Cultural Biases Are Difficult to See

Our cultural norms, values, assumptions and beliefs are largely invisible to us beyond the mythological narratives we tell ourselves about them. To use a metaphor: We consciously tell ourselves, “I am painting this room blue.”  But after only a few minutes, we can’t even smell the paint we are using to turn the walls blue.  The unintended values, norms and realities we create are very difficult to see while we are living them.  Much like spending time in a room that smells of paint, garlic, or freesia (take your pick), while we are living inside the room, it’s harder to discern these individual smells. But at some point, we leave the room and get some fresh air for a few minutes. When we come back, the smells are easy to detect- at first, then they fade into a normalcy again.  Cultural norms are like that.

Another factor that prevents us from regularly stepping back and consciously assessing whether or not our norms make sense is that: as social animals who have been evolutionarily programed to have strong affiliative needs, it can be exceedingly difficult for us to clearly see our own covert cultural norms values and assumptions due to the need to conform to them.

In the hard sciences, theories like plate tectonics in geology, germ theory, relativity in physics, etc. all opened up new ways of understanding.  It is difficult enough to go outside the paradigms of the accepted “hard” sciences at hand.  And it is certainly difficult to do that with cultural analyses of our own cultural contexts.

However, I think there are added barriers within the social sciences to implementing changes in policies in order to set healthier courses based on our own cultural knowledges.

We ALL NEED Some Social Knowledge

Unlike chemistry, math, or geology, all lay people need have an understanding of the social worlds we live in.  I can easily go all my life without knowing that obsidian is an igneous rock.  It won’t affect my day to day living.  This is simply not true of our social sciences- we all operate within the cultural contexts around us.  We can’t survive without knowing certain things about our social worlds. Notice the word survive comes up again. It’s not hyperbole.  We will perish if we don’t recognize enough about our social worlds to get by. We need to have understandings about how to operate in our social worlds, how to treat each other, how to respond in certain environments (if I sleep at work for example, I will not have a job for very long.  A job is important to survival at this point in our cultural contexts). Recall that when our survival is at hand, it is very easy to start getting a bit guarded.

We all have theories about many, many aspects of our social worlds.  We have to have some thoughts or at least assumptions about gender roles because we all have to deal with them one way or another.  Most of us have thoughts on capitalism (or at least about what it means to work) because we all need to work within that system.  We all have thoughts about what equality is and isn’t because we are told we are living in a meritocracy. We all have some thoughts or assumptions about how our tax dollars should or shouldn’t be spent, about how much we should be taxed (wealth=power, some entity taking wealth from us can be seen as that entity taking some of our power), and the role of government. We all have opinions about how to deal with military “threats”. And again, because of the need to make sense of our social worlds in order to survive, we can sometimes become very guarded about these things.

Because we Have Some Knowledge, We Feel Like Experts

In the hard sciences, only a small percentage of people will feel qualified to challenge any new theories that come out.  Molecular biologists will feel free to debate the merits of a new discovery in that field and how it can be applied.  A math teacher will not offer their opinions as if they were facts about a new discovery in molecular biology.  A bus driver will not offer her beliefs as rebuttals to the new discovery or theory.  A mechanical engineer will not offer arguments based on his own thoughts about the discovery or theory.

Articles about molecular biology won’t raise armchair critics. I don’t have to have an opinion about molecular biology in order to survive.  No one really has to, not even molecular biologists, if the field didn’t exist, they could have gone into other ones.  But in the social sciences, this simply isn’t true. We ALL have to know something about our social worlds. So we don’t realize we don’t know as much as we think we know. It’s also obscured because we get to vote on matters related to our social knowledge, opinions, and beliefs.

Also, social science facts have the potential to have much more immediate impact on a far greater number of people. And again, since we all need to know something about our social worlds, this could trigger some guardedness. Changes to how we perceive the social world could have real implications for our day to day living. That could be pretty frightening. When we are frightened, we can become irrational. At that point, some lay people will feel their opinions are more valid than science. How does this happen?

I don’t mean this in any way to sound pejorative, and yet I fear it does. Here goes anyway: It appears the Dunning Kruger Effect is huge when we talk about the social sciences and anything related to power and control. Since we know some things about our social worlds, we assume we’re qualified to analyze anything we have opinions on.  And from there it is easy to mistake our beliefs for facts.

I can only imagine where molecular biology would be if we had to vote on facts related to that field. This “anyone’s an expert” belief about what is true and not true in the social sciences is a topic worthy of a book, but I do believe that this is a major reason why across the board, our “social worlds” are so far behind our technological advances.