Business, Science & Tech

Beware of Cultural Bias

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Lesson time 5:23 min

Cultural biases and assumptions affect how we treat one another, but they may be harder to spot than we think. Neil provides examples of conscious and unconscious cultural biases and explains how to avoid them.

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Topics include: Assumptions


[SOFT MUSIC] - Bias does not manifest equally among all the branches of the sciences. History has shown that the likelihood of bias, be it conscious or unconscious, is greater in the sciences that have humans as a subject. It's a cultural bias, not a cognitive bias. It's a cultural bias. Take a look at the social sciences, anthropology in particular, 19th-century anthropology. This is the era-- it had been going for a while, but it's the crowning era of the colonization of that which is not Europe by Europeans. It's Africa and South America and Asia. There's European influence everywhere. Built into that was an assumption, a bias that Europeans and European culture was very high, and all else was very low, right on down to the blunt assertions of we are superior to you in every way. When you have that attitude, that affects everything you do. If you think that's true, it affects laws that you pass. It affects how you treat people who are not you. It affects what opportunities you would get them relative to you. It affects how you wage war, what weapons you would use and choose to invoke. It affects all of that. These would be cultural biases. This group association thing is kind of unhealthy for a peaceful society. In the limit, it's whole countries going to war because one country feels they're better than the other, or one group enslaving another group because they think they are better in whatever metric it is they are using to decide. I see these biases, and they rear their heads visibly to me, because as a scientist, I'm trained-- I'm trained to notice them. That's my job as a scientist. It doesn't mean scientists can't be biased. We're susceptible as well. Oh, yeah. It's even in the physical sciences. We have some susceptibilities. They just don't necessarily affect people in policy. But the social sciences do. The economic sciences do. The political sciences do. So that matters. [SOFT MUSIC] A close cousin of bias is something called assumptions. Assumptions are a little more innocent than bias because assumptions are usually just out in front. You say, I have these assumptions. Now let me test my idea based on those assumptions. I assume the moon is made of some kind of a cheese. I'm going to design experiments to test for that. Turns out that's a really bad assumption. Maybe you didn't know that at the time. You can't be faulted for that. You've got to start somewhere before experiments are designed to test your ideas. But it's an example of an assumption. Before Albert Einstein and the general theory of relativity, It was an assumption that the universe was static in some way. No one had any evidence for it. It's just, why would you think the universe could be anything but just a thing always existing? Einstein shows that the universe is unstable against expansion or collapse, that we have a dynamical universe. That's freaky. That's-- oh, my gosh. So the assumption that the universe was static turned ...

About the Instructor

With a hit talk show and bestselling books, Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most popular figures in modern science. Now the influential astrophysicist teaches you how his mind works and how he connects with audiences. Learn to think like a skeptic, open your own mind through scientific literacy, distill data, and navigate bias to discover objective truths—and deliver your ideas in ways that engage, excite, and inspire.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson

Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson teaches you how to find objective truths and shares his tools for communicating what you discover.

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