Ben Carson on bias in education from byrd

Politicians Defunding Based on Political Bias? Sounds Biased

“I would use the Department of Education … to monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias and deny federal funding if it exists.” –Ben Carson

1. Everyone has biases — political and otherwise.

So denying funding on the basis of any political bias would be tantamount to denying all federal education funding. That’d be problematic. So — if we assume a charitable interpretation of Carson — that’s surely not the Republican plan (…or is it?). So let’s assume that Carson is not out to defund any educational institution that exhibits just any political bias.

Instead, maybe Carson’s plan is to monitor for particular biases. The idea here would be that only institutions with certain biases should be defunded. But even that would be problematic. After all, Carson is a human. And humans are more likely to notice and take issue with others’ biases (Corner et al 2012; Lord et al 1979) or biases that merely seem like others’ biases (Trouche et al 2015, 2018). So Carson might be more attuned to and dismissive of others’ biases than his own. And that itself is a political bias.

To overcome that bias, we would need to make sure that a very large, very politically diverse group of people are in charge of deciding what counts as biased. Alas, White House administrations are — systematically — not politically diverse. So if White House administrators get to decide what counts as ‘extremely politically biased’ and defund accordingly, then you can bet that the defunding process itself will be systematically biased.

2. What does Ben Carson mean by ‘bias’?

So far, it’s not clear what Carson means by ‘extreme political bias’. And the options considered so far are not promising.

On the one hand, ‘extreme political bias’ could mean something neutral (i.e., the kinds of biases that everyone has). But that would mean that Carson is proposing to defund most, if not all, education and research. That’s clearly a bad outcome.

On the other hand, ‘extreme political bias’ could mean something non-neutral like “whatever biases Carson (or the White House administration) takes issue with”. But — as I pointed out in the first section — education and research would still be in trouble if that is the definition of ‘bias’ we’re working with.

In an effort to look for a more hopeful interpretation, we might try to see if Carson is thinking of bias in some other way. Let’s start by seeing what else Carson’s has to say. Carson wants students to “look at things from both sides” because “if you are always looking at things from one point of view, I don’t think you are well educated.” First, notice that Carson is speaking in binary terms; I.e., he thinks that there are only two political “sides” — a politically biased perspective if there ever was one. Second, and more to the point, Carson seems to be saying that ‘extreme political bias’ would be something like not teaching all of the relevant perspectives. But even on this seemingly fair notion of ‘bias’, we are still left with important questions. For instance, what counts as relevant? After all,…

3. Ben Carson Is A Young Earth Creationist

Young earth creationism, ipso facto, denies — among other things — numerous dating measures, the sciences on which these measures are based, and the other fields that rely on these sciences. In short, young earth creationism takes issue with our best physics, geology, chemistry, biology, medicine, etc. So if Carson thinks that his creationist worldview is relevant to these fields, then Carson might think (as some Republicans do) that it’s biased to not teach young earth creationism while teaching physics, geology, chemistry, biology, medicine, etc. That would be a very troubling claim for many people — including Carson’s fellow Christians and anyone who reads the constitution as prohibiting the privileging of any religion.


So Carson wants to monitor for and defund biased people and institutions. And there are a few ways to interpret this. All three interpretations considered herein include the possibility of very troubling outcomes. So I hope, for educations’ sake, that Carson has some other interpretation in mind.

But maybe Carson doesn’t have anything particular in mind. Perhaps President Obama is onto something when he says, “I have no idea what [Carson] means, and I suspect [Carson] doesn’t either.”

Interested in the psychological research on bias? I’ve written an entire series on it. Check it out: The Implicit Bias Series.


Featured image: “Ben Carson” via Gage SkidmoreCC BY 2.0 Generic

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at