Systemic bias

From Academic Kids

"Systemic bias" is a neologism used to describe a bias which is endemic in or inherent to a system, especially a human system. The analogous problem in non-human systems is often called systemic error. The word corresponds to that used in systemic pesticide or to systemic risk, though in the latter cases systemic means something that undermines the whole system at once.

When it is used to contrast with random error, in that it is not just a matter of inaccurate results or readings, but results that are inaccurate in a particular consistent way, then the more common usage is systematic bias or systematic error. Some users try to draw a distinction between systemic and systematic corresponding to that between unplanned and planned.

Bias in human institutions

One might refer, for example, to the systemic, systematic, or institutional bias of a particular institution in devaluing contributions by women or ethnic minorities. For example, a poetry competition that was consistently won by white men would be subject to reasonable suspicion of a bias, if there was no inherent reason that white men would consistently be the best poets. Such a bias could be deliberate on the part of the participants or entirely unconscious.

For example, the poetry contest might be judged by a pool drawn from its own previous winners: after all, who better to judge a poetry contest than prize-winning poets? However, it might be that in addition to choosing for poetic skill, they are also inclined to choose people with whom they have values in common, either about poetry or about other matters, resulting in a continuous stream of prizewinning white male poets. In this case, the bias could arise from either conscious or unconscious defense of gender and racial interests or simply from their shared point of view; in either case, it results in a biased representation of the reality they are describing in terms of quality of poets and poetry.

Because cognitive bias is inherent in the experiences, loyalties, and relationships of people in their daily lives, it cannot be eliminated by education or training, but awareness of biases can be enhanced, allowing for the adoption of compensating correction mechanisms. For example, the theory behind affirmative action in the United States is precisely to counter biases in matters of gender, race, and ethnicity, by opening up institutional participation to people with a wider range of backgrounds, and hence presumably a wider range of points of view. In India the system of Scheduled Castes and Tribes was intended to address systemic bias within the caste system. Similar to affirmative action, it mandates the hiring of persons within certain designated groups.

See also


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