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Bias Bullying? – A Critical Examination of a Campaign to Undermine Authority

The threat of human bias and theories about how it adversely impacts society have ascended to prominence in recent years, occupying center stage in discussions concerning the trustworthiness of authoritative decision-making and opinion-formulation when the stakes are high. The warning seems to be that our trust in each other may not be as justified as we think it is.

Without question, bias is a legitimate subject of rational discussion, but the weaponization of bias often serves as a strategic tool to undermine established authorities and institutions.

For instance, political factions may accuse rivals of bias to delegitimize their stances, even when those positions are grounded in evidence and expert opinion (Sunstein, 2017). In some cases, corporate interests have been found to sponsor research that highlights potential bias in regulatory bodies, thereby casting doubt on regulations that might otherwise impact corporate profitability (Oreskes & Conway, 2010). Additionally, media outlets may selectively emphasize biases (real or perceived) of public figures to fuel polarization and drive engagement with their content.

These examples illustrate how the notion of bias can be exploited beyond a genuine concern for fairness or objectivity. By accentuating bias, often without thorough examination of context or degree, actors with specific agendas can foster mistrust and cynicism towards authorities, whether in science, government, or other sectors. This manipulation of bias not only clouds objective analysis but can erode the public’s trust in vital institutions, with potentially far-reaching societal consequences.

Bias bullying, if you’ll excuse the provocation, is the systematic and unjustified deflating of people’s confidence by exaggerating the threat of their natural tendency to make assumptions about people, things, and situations. It is often directed at people and institutions that are perceived as having excessive power or prominence. The bullying might be very subtle and even couched in a deceptive effort to seem supportive, empowering, or rooted in scientific research. But the goal is to stop people in their tracks with an argument that cannot be won, which is that bias is part of the human condition and, therefore, human judgement is always in doubt, by default.

One can expect the bullying to continue until the bullies are satisfied that sufficient self-doubt and hesitation have been injected into the psyche of their victims such that they are no longer a threat.


There’s more to this, however, than meets the eye. And a careful analysis might reveal that some bias bullying is rooted in deep traditions of power-checking as much as it might be supported by some contemporary scientific research.

For example, we know from our history that entire nations have risen from the ashes of oppression thanks to individuals whose courage liberated the oppressed. In free societies born of courageous revolt, the rights and autonomy of the individual are revered while the power to encroach on them is held in contempt.

But whether we like it or not, we owe our lives to people with power. The safety, security, and quality of life we enjoy are the results of people who’ve amassed a wealth of knowledge, skills, abilities, and influence that make them indispensable to us. They build our bridges, treat our illnesses, solve our crimes, fight our wars, lead our companies, represent us in government, and invent the technologies we use to live more comfortable lives. When these indispensables have earned our trust and we are willing to give it to them, they usually delight us.

It is at the magical moment we empower them with our trust that they become more than indispensable; they become authorities. And with that authority comes power. Given enough time and enough opportunities to demonstrate their value to us, they gain the ability to influence the most consequential of decisions and actions. Eventually entire organizations, communities, states, and nations come to depend on the contributions of these elites who’ve skillfully established themselves as our lifelines.

If the bias bullies are to be honest with themselves and us, they should turn their own arguments inward, recognizing that their campaign just might be contaminated with layers of inappropriate assumptions. Their arguments might be far less rooted in valid science and research than an underlying fear of the power they see as being in the hands of so many different kinds of authorities who exert control over us. The bias campaign, therefore, might be a reflexive response to the feeling of having lost control.

an exploration of Bias

Bias, by definition, refers to an inclination or prejudice for or against something, usually perceived as unfair, erroneous, or counterproductive. The issue becomes particularly contentious when applied to experts, leaders, and other authoritative figures having the capacity to impact the quality and duration of people’s lives. The power these authorities hold is often remarkable, which means there will always be good reason to be somewhat suspicious of them.

It is undeniable that bias waits patiently to compromise all forms of human judgment, and the individuals we regard as authorities are not immune from its effects. But in our efforts to acknowledge and mitigate bias, we must be keenly alert to self-serving exaggerations about bias, even when those exaggerations come from the mouths of highly credentialed researchers who might be regarded as authorities in their own right.

Human bias as a universal trait

Bias is a deeply embedded part of human cognition. From simple preferences to complex judgments, biases have the potential to influence our perceptions and decisions (Kahneman, 2011). Bias, however, is not an automatic predictor of erroneous conclusions or misguided actions. And what should be a nuanced and reserved understanding of bias and its effects is often lost in grandiose statements of alarm that fail to consider situational context or degree.

The danger of oversimplifying or exaggerating human bias lies in the potential to discredit legitimate expertise when it’s needed most. Bias bullies contend or suggest that since everyone, without exception, is vulnerable to bias, no one is justified in claiming true objectivity or authority – ever.

While acknowledging and understanding bias is a professional responsibility for anyone bold enough to assert their expertise and authority on others, exaggerating the threat overlooks the self-correcting mechanisms that all true experts employ to minimize their bias, and it risks diminishing the value of the expertise itself.


Expertise is a form of authority, and the argument that experts may not be aware of their biases is not entirely unfounded. Cognitive biases can affect even seasoned professionals (Tetlock, 2005). Many disciplines, however, actively engage in training and other strategies that foster awareness and mitigation of bias. For instance, the medical field has developed a number of comprehensive strategies to minimize diagnostic biases in the identification and treatment of the most serious illnesses (Croskerry, 2003).

This reveals a very important truth. The mitigation of bias is best done using the same expertise that is being protected from the bias. Grandstanding from the outside may have some value in overcoming any cultural inertia, but positive change in the application of any kind of authority almost always requires the contributions of those who actually have it.

An even closer examination of bias grandstanding seems to reveal a pattern that aligns with other social trends that also undermine expertise. Populist ideologies that resist traditional forms of authority appear to be on the rise, resulting in the erosion of trust in scientific communities, political experts, and public health authorities (Nichols, 2017). When that distrust is not justified, harm will eventually follow.

the social impact of undermining authorities

To present the potential for bias as an overriding flaw in expert judgment indeed creates and perpetuates a climate of mistrust when it is not justified. This atmosphere is not confined to individual professions but seeps into the broader social fabric, undermining democratic institutions that rely on expert guidance in areas like economics, healthcare, criminal justice, and environmental policy (Lewandowsky et al., 2012).

When a pervasive mistrust in experts leads to reliance on unqualified sources or populist opinions, the outcomes are more likely to be policies and decisions that are less informed and potentially more compromised by bias than they otherwise would have been. In the political arena, for example, the dismissal of expert economic advice can lead to short-sighted policies with long-term negative consequences that cause innocent people to lose their jobs or worse.

underlying motives

Experts of varying kinds hold sway in our modern world like never before. Long ago were the days when innovation and progress were driven by a select few such as Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. Today, our access to information and our ability to deepen our reserves of knowledge allow any individual who’s willing to put in the effort to achieve degrees of expertise that are nothing short of astonishing. We would be less than wise not to leverage the power of that expertise to improve our lives, but our growing dependence on it results in a loss of control.

Try going without your smart phone for one day.

With the loss of control comes fear, and with that fear comes resistance. Bias bullying, it can be argued, is an attempt to weaken the strength of authority. To weaken authority, a compelling case must be made that the authority can’t be trusted.

balancing our approach

Assessing the likelihood of bias in human judgment is not as simple as merely determining it’s presence or absence. It is a complex interplay of cognitive processes that can be understood, managed, and minimized through the expansion of professional knowledge and experience – or what might be described as the building of more expertise. Appreciating this complexity allows for a more balanced view that neither discounts the value of experts nor ignores the potential for bias.

Bias bullies fail to acknowledge that the collaboration and communication that takes place among most experts are the key mitigators of bias in that they expose flawed thinking in ways that solitary contemplation and unilateral judgement cannot.

Most authorities, including subject matter experts, are responsible and highly effective. Moreover, they are aware of their potential for error, whether it’s caused by bias or not. But in the overarching conversation about bias, what must not be ignored is the power of human intention to get things right. Too often, bias bullies mire themselves in a negative and cynical view of humanity, failing to recognize and appreciate the power of human will. The desire to both do good and avoid harm is not an insignificant factor in predicting the effectiveness of human performance, even in the presence of bias.

Final thoughts

Human bias and the perceived threat it poses to expert judgment and authoritative decision-making are multifaceted issues with profound societal implications. While it’s fair and reasonable to acknowledge the existence of bias, it is unfair to weaponize it. Civilized society relies heavily on the contributions of experts and other kinds of authorities who are confident, decisive, and committed to meeting their responsibilities. Vigilance is in order, of course, but exaggerating the bias threat is counterproductive at best and catastrophic at worst.

Rather than categorically dismissing or discounting authorities of all kinds, society must be fair and complete in its evaluation of authority. Balance is always a hard target to hit, but doing so reinforces our appreciation for the essential role that experts and other authorities play in guiding our society, even while we acknowledge the limitations of human judgment.

Perhaps this is among the most critical elements of a reasonable and responsible civilization, and a responsibility too important for us to ignore.


  • Croskerry, P. (2003). The Importance of Cognitive Errors in Diagnosis and Strategies to Minimize Them. Academic Medicine, 78(8), 775-780.
  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Lewandowsky, S., et al. (2012). Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), 106-131.
  • McChesney, R. W. (2013). “Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy.” The New Press.
  • Nichols, T. (2017). The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2010). Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Bloomsbury Press.
  • Sunstein, C. R. (2017). “#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.” Princeton University Press.
  • Tetlock, P. (2005). Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Princeton University Press.

John M. Collins is an Authoritative Leadership and Expertise Coach at Critical Victories in Southfield, Michigan. He specializes in supporting clients in authoritative, high-stakes occupations requiring high levels of expertise to earn and retain the trust of the public or other consequential stakeholders. John shares some of his unique philosophies and insights on high-stakes leadership in his 2022 book, THE NEW SUPERIOR – A BETTER WAY TO BE THE ONE IN CHARGE (, available in hardcover and audio. 

John works with people, teams, and organizations across the United States and oversees. If you are serious about expanding your leadership effectiveness, click below to request a free client strategy call:

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