UK: Challenging Bias: The Person Skilled In The Art

Last Updated: 17 September 2018
Article by Caroline Day

Research tells us that bias can be reduced by contact: meeting people who confound your biases is a highly effective way to retrain your brain to think differently. But meeting people is hard. You have to identify who it is you want to meet in the first place, and get them to agree to meet you. You have to stop billing, leave the office whatever the weather turns out to be, and may well miss lunch.

There's good news though. Simply visualising an experience can provide an emotional and motivation responses as strong as the real experience.

So I propose an experiment to challenge a common bias: that the person skilled in the art is male, and most likely white.

This is of course a hypothesis of mine, probably betraying my own bias, but surely reflecting the fact that every expert witness describing the experience of the skilled person I have ever met has been male and white, and that the skilled person may often be generically referred to as he, but only very exceptionally as she.  Then we have the predominantly male and white annals of science: not the uninspired 'skilled person', but the innovators providing the teaching to be slavishly adhered to.  If these chaps are overwhelmingly homogenous, then does this transfer a similar homogeneity on their imagined imitators? To the lazy human brain, I strongly suspect the answer is yes.

The experiment I propose is a visualisation experiment: is it possible build up a vibrant set of bias-challenging skilled persons, taken from a wide range of fields, with influencers which reflect their own diversity, and who spring to mind as easily as the generic white male?

For example, day to day, I may find myself putting words into the mouth of a person skilled in the art of computer science.  In that case, I will be thinking, as consciously and as vividly as I can, about Jane, a woman I just made up.  

Jane is a person skilled in the art of computer science. Jane, despite being a legal fiction, owns both a 13 inch and a 15 inch Macbook Pro which she would save in a house fire before a single photograph, even though everything of note is on Dropbox or GitHub anyway.  As a child, she was strongly influenced by a letter Ada Lovelace wrote to her mother full of braggadocious swagger about the power of the "vast apparatus" of her own brain, and the outrageous delight she felt in it.  Ada declared to the Mama who had insisted that she receive a scientific education, "I can throw rays from every quarter of the universe into one vast focus".  At that point, Jane wondered if perhaps she could too, although it turns out that she's better at admiring the bright spot of light which forms. Then she found out about Grace Hopper, who in 1960's America invented a tool to automatically translate between human and machine language and hung a clock on her wall that ran backwards, to remind herself that just because something had always been done one way, that didn't mean it always should.  Jane sees the point, but prefers her clocks to run clockwise. Now Jane follows the work of Limor Fried at Adafruit, who gave Jane the confidence to die her hair blue and wear clothes that work, first and foremost, for her.  Jane nods vigorously while watching Emily Chang talk about the "Brotopia" of Silicon Valley on Bloomberg TV and quotes her at parties. Jane feels like she might have invented SlideShare, because she knew it was difficult to share slides, but she only thought that after reading that Rashmi Sinha already had.

How about lasers?  I'll be picturing- and really actively picturing -  Akio, a person skilled in the art of semiconductor physics, with a special interest in lasers and pointing out science errors in science fiction movies without waiting for the film to finish. When at Nagoya University in Japan's Aichi Prefecture in the late 80s, on the same day he learnt that cartoons could be art watching My Neighbour Totoro, Aiko learnt about blue LEDs. He read that blue LEDs were the runt of the litter, a dim cousin of red and green and that whoever brought the emission efficiency of blue LEDs up would open up a wondrous world of white light, and immediately eclipse the hugely inefficient incandescent lightbulb. But he was both surprised and impressed when two of his professors, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano, did just that over the next few years. Aiko stayed in academia, watching the blue LED grow stronger and brighter from the sidelines, reading every paper in the same week it is released and regularly attending conferences all over Japan apart from when his daughters were small. He now works in the Nagoya University Akasaki Institute, which was funded by blue LED powered patent royalties to the university. He is every professor's preferred choice for marking undergraduate exams papers and setting up labs, because he never misses an error and knows every piece of workshop equipment inside and out. Both his daughters have grown out of Totoro, but he's not sure he has.

Jane and Aiko are just as fictional as any other skilled person. They have all the attributes of the skilled person, being phenomenally well-informed while reluctant to challenge the status quo, and are entirely unexceptional in their field.  However, they have added value: if, when asked to think of a person skilled in the art of computer science, or laser physics, I find myself thinking of a white dude, I have a ready-to-go alternative.  Having conjured them up, I can now order my brain- consciously, visually and loudly order it- to think of Jane, or of Aiko, or of some new fiction should I find my bias tilting too heavily towards those two. 

My proposal is that you create your own fiction to challenge the bias you fear you may have.  And having conjured that fiction, please do share - imaginations are work-shy, and could use your help.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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