Commentary: Bias rules

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Bias can be defined as a prejudice or a preformed inclination. Bias is reflective of one’s inherent mind set about any thing, concept, ideology, claim, product, person, or group of people. Since biases are well known to be inherent in human nature, one can fairly ask how important and how widespread are they and what are their effects?

Dr. Frank J. Veith

Bias affects many fields including medicine. One example is the statin controversy. Some experts interpret existing data, which includes randomized controlled trials, to make a strong case that statins are harmful and do little good. In contrast, other qualified experts interpret precisely the same data to conclude that statins are miracle drugs that sharply diminish the mortality and morbidity from atherosclerosis. Again bias rules and leads to disagreement, controversy, and damaging public uncertainty.

A second examples in medicine – and there are many – is the current controversy over what constitutes the optimal treatment for patients with asymptomatic carotid stenosis. Some authorities believe no such patients should be treated invasively, while others hold the position that many should be. Still other experts opine that only a rare asymptomatic patient should undergo invasive treatment. All three groups use the same existing factual data to support their differing and sometimes totally opposite opinions. These contrasting views are reflected in articles in leading journals and differences among various guidelines from prestigious learned groups. The only explanation for their differing conclusions appears to be the fact that they are largely based on the bias of the authors of the articles or guidelines. Again, bias rules.

So these and many other examples exist in every phase of human endeavor. Biases are omnipresent and critically important in everything people do. They control our thinking, our opinions, our reasoning, our behavior, and most importantly, our decisions. They override most other forces that influence how we humans behave.

What can be done about this dominance of bias? The main safeguard against it is to recognize its controlling importance in all human thinking. Such recognition will help to offset the harmful effects of bias and encourage other, more laudable forces to influence behavior and actions. Logic is one such force. Even more important is objective interpretation of facts and a clear assessment of their validity.

Such objectivity may be difficult currently because of the overt bias expressed in our media and publications. If one doubts the influence of such bias, watch reports of the same event on CNN and Fox News. It is hard to believe the two sources are describing the same event. The same can be true of news reports in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Bias often overrides objective reporting.

Somewhat surprisingly, even articles in our highly rated scientific journals are subject to the influences of bias. As in the lay press, scientific authors, reviewers, and editors all function under its spell.

By recognizing the importance, the dominance, and the universality of bias, individuals and groups can move toward neutralizing its divisive, damaging, and overall negative effects. Such recognition of bias will not eliminate it, but it would help to make the world a better place.

Dr. Veith is professor of surgery at New York University Langone Medical Center and Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, as well as the William J. von Liebig Chair in Vascular Surgery at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

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