Life-Work with Dr. Stevenson: Are There Benefits to Bias?

I remember the first time I heard anyone speak ill of labor unions. I was with friends just outside of Pittsburgh. I don’t even remember the original topic of the conversation, just the “Well, everyone knows union workers are lazy” reply that left my mouth gaping. I thought everyone understood the value of workers’ concerns having a place at the negotiation table with management’s. I thought a place like Pittsburgh, with its industrial history, surely would be full of pro-union folk. I didn’t know what to say because nothing in my life had prepared me to engage in this argument. My father was a union president and union organizer. My dinner was paid for by his hard work at a paper mill. I understood early that the quality of that dinner depended on how well my father and his union negotiated their own salaries and benefits. My father worked hard at the mill, and then in the union office, and then anywhere he was sent to help organize a new union. Who would ever think him lazy? Intellectually, I knew that people held different perspectives based on what their experiences had taught them, but I was having difficulty analyzing this reply as such.

Thankfully, I happened to be taking a college research methodology course. I was assigned to find and analyze an article about research writing from a field other than my own. In the dusty, quiet back stacks of my university library, I found sociologist Karen Norum’s “Black (W)holes: A Researcher’s Place in Her Research.”

While the article in part tackles a common subject for sociologists—homelessness—it does so in a particular way to make a point about something else: We cannot outrun our own bias, but acknowledging this, exploring our bias, and understanding how it changes our relationship to information ultimately gets us closer to objectivity.

Norum researched and wrote about homelessness three different ways, in 3 different side-by-side columns. The middle column reads like a typical, mostly quantitative assessment—Here’s what homelessness in the USA looks like today. This percentage is under 18, and this percentage is adults, etc.

The column to the right is still common research writing for sociologists. Norum interviewed two teens in a homeless shelter. We don’t know how common their reported experiences are without that big picture data from the middle column, but with the long passages of qualitative data, their interview answers, we can understand their experiences in more depth.

The column to the left contains Norum’s first-person narrative of her own experiences in which she unexpectedly found herself homeless. How can she be an objective researcher of homelessness if she has been homeless? By examining her own bias.

Of course she asked those homeless teens certain questions because her own experiences led her to believe they were important. Of course she showcased certain parts of their answers and not others, because they seemed more significant based on her experiences. There is a strong argument to be made that she did the same with the big picture data in the middle column. If Norum explores what her experiences have taught her about homelessness, if she remains aware of what has shaped her emotions and thoughts on the topic, if she takes extra care to understand what her lived experience has led her to want to believe and not believe, she comes out more objective in the end, not less. This can be hard, uncomfortable work in our lives as everyday thinkers and researchers, but the rewards extend well beyond ourselves. If I examine what experiences have shaped my thoughts on labor unions, it’s easier to see how different experiences may have shaped different thoughts in different people.

And if my Pittsburgh friend and I had continued our conversation, we might have looked up some big picture data, like that in Norum’s middle column, to understand how common or uncommon both of our experiences had been. We could have both walked away with a stronger understanding of the issue and our places in it. We both could have won that argument.

Your Life-Work mission this time is to write your own assessment of an issue with which you have personal experience. Instead of writing 3 columns, you’ll write 3 sentences. First, a sentence describing your personal experience with the issue: For example: “I’m a vegetarian for environmental and spiritual reasons.”

Second, a fact about the topic you have found from a credible, published source: “According to the Mayo Clinic, vegetarians can meet their daily nutritional requirements without meat or dairy.”

Third, an opinion from a person you know. “My friend remains concerned about my protein intake.”

Look at your three sentences. How does your personal experience shape your feelings about the fact you researched and the opinion you asked for? Please consider sharing your three sentences and a fourth answering this question with us by emailing them to with the subject line “Lifework #3 submission.” Please indicate whether you’re comfortable being identified by name or prefer anonymity if I excerpt your work.

If we garner ample participation, Life-Work assignments will continue. I look forward to reading and learning!

Heidi Stevenson is a lifelong Yooper, save for two years earning a PhD in Pennsylvania. She is a former NMU professor, writing center director, group fitness and yoga instructor, and a current wrangler of house cats, autoimmune diseases, and ideas.

Mayo Clinic. “Vegetarian Diet: How to get the best nutrition”

Norum, Karen. “Black (w)holes: A researcher’s place in her research”

Excerpt from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Summer 2018 Issue, copyright 2018.

Life-Work with Dr. Stevenson: Your Fact-Finding Mission, by Heidi Stevenson, PhD

Welcome back! In my last column, your life-work assignment was to learn about a group of people to which you did not belong. I encouraged you to learn about a group with which you felt at odds.

The submissions I received were fascinating. I learned that ski jumpers are sometimes afraid of heights (there goes my excuse for not ski jumping!), and that there are people who contract with butterfly houses to procure the wings of the deceased for artistic purposes.

Another participant wrote this: “I read about DACA and the application process because it was being discussed a lot in the news and some are angry. I learned they are held to high standards and am still reading to understand this program better. I now want to understand its history and current status better. Thanks for the push.”

I feature this response at length because it got my gears turning, thinking about our relationships with the media and how it colors our relationships with each other. In short, it got me thinking about Facebook fights.

Many of us have felt pulled into an argument in an online space like Facebook. Sociolinguistic norms shift when we’re not face-to-face. It’s easier to be meaner, to feel attacked, and to easily lose sight of the ultimate goal, which is—or at least should be—greater understanding of a wider variety of views for all involved.

A common ploy in these bloodbaths masquerading as discussions is dismissing a source of information wholesale that someone has used to back a claim. It can feel like an efficient way to shut the whole thing down and get back to the rest of your life.

But here’s the rub: Any time you make a blanket statement discrediting an entire media outlet instead of the ideas it has expressed, you’re employing a logical fallacy called an ad hominem attack. You’re foregoing sound logic.

Let’s try an example: Your friend has posted something about the threat of nuclear war between the USA and North Korea. And then your friend’s Uncle Al adds a link to a Fox News article titled something like “Opinion: Ridiculous Snowflakes Fear Nonexistent Threat of Nuclear War with North Korea.” Please switch out the word “Fox” for “Mother Jones” above and the word “Snowflakes” for “Deplorables” if it helps you better engage with this scenario.

You know how the next part goes. Everyone—you included—piles on Uncle Al to tell him he’s an idiot for believing anything from Fox News/Mother Jones, that Fox News/Mother Jones is ill-informed, sensationalist trash.

Here’s what you’re all really trying to say to Uncle Al: “I don’t believe the content of this article is objectively accurate.”

Here’s what Uncle Al is likely hearing, though: “I don’t believe you are capable of reading through bias or fact-checking sources.”

We can all read through bias and fact check our sources, Uncle Al included. Over time spent consuming media from many different outlets, we may come to respect some more and others less. We are entitled to our preferences. We are allowed to frequent news sites that make that reading through bias and fact checking easy for us.

But we don’t get to eliminate other media outlets for other people. If we tell Uncle Al we won’t accept any information from Fox News/MJ, we are also insinuating that we are incapable of reading through bias and fact checking, and that we cannot read a Fox News/MJ article for accurate information while noting what additions, omissions, and language choices might be misleading.

Here’s what we might do instead, if we do not think Uncle Al’s Fox News/MJ article is accurate:

—Find an article disputing it from a credible source. Assume other members of the conversation are unfamiliar with the source. Explain why you find it trustworthy.

—If you don’t have a single source that compellingly refutes the Fox/MJ piece, find and present several.

—In your presentation of this information, consider establishing some common ground with Uncle Al. We all want the same big things; we just disagree about how we should achieve them. It does not take much for any of us to feel attacked. Uncle Al might be more receptive to your contribution if you don’t lead with insults.

When you are ready to begin your life-work assignment, find just this kind of conversation happening on Facebook or in an online space like it.

1. Write down a quick summary—just a sentence or two—of what you are observing. Leave names and any other identifying information out as best you can.

2. Write down what you would do to help turn it into a productive discussion. Lean as hard on my suggestions above as you’d like. Share any of your own tips. The more tools we all have, the better.

3. Lastly, and this is optional: Take your own advice from #2 above and jump in. Write down a few sentences about what happened from there. Just maybe, to paraphrase a hockey idiom, a conversation will break out during a Facebook fight.

Then submit your writing to with the subject line “Life-work #2 submission” for a chance to be featured in the next column. Designate whether you’re comfortable with your writing being shared under your name or you’d prefer anonymity.

Heidi Stevenson is a lifelong Yooper, save for two years earning a PhD in Pennsylvania. She is a former NMU professor, writing center director, group fitness and yoga instructor, and a current wrangler of house cats, autoimmune diseases, and ideas.

Reprinted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Spring 2018 Issue, copyright 2018. All rights reserved.