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The four-letter word is “bias.”

If you define a four-letter word as a brainless insult, “bias” is a great four-letter word. It’s meant to be a show-stopper slur, an end to discussion. Best of all, it can be used in polite company.

Aren’t You Biased Against Rotten Fruit?

When people want to use a bad word for personal preferences they happen to disagree with, they use the word “biased.” Personal preferences can be good, neutral, or bad. It all depends on what the subject is, whether the preference is unreasonable or not, to what degree that preference impacts on other people, and whether that preference is disclosed or not.

Of course, to figure out whether someone’s preferences are good, neutral or bad implies thinking. Much easier to just blurt out the four-letter word and try to end all discussion.

If you prefer to pay less for a TV set without a remote control because you rarely change channels and you don’t mind getting up to do so, your views are anathema to a channel surfer. If that channel surfer is your next-door neighbor, do you much care what he thinks? If you visit his house, and there’s twelve remotes, you might find that a complete waste of
money, but did he ask you to pay for them?

Now while either side may feel passionately about the subject, it’s hardly the same as saying “I love the Klan.”
But that’s the picture a person who yells “bias” is trying to paint, no matter how idiotic the comparison is.

The problem I often see when the term “bias” is tossed out in the computer hardware field is that the situation is similiar to the one mentioned above, where one person has a set of personal preferences and cannot accept that another person can have a differing but still reasonable set of different personal preferences.

I just saw a piece that talked about the “obvious bias” of PC World towards Intel machines. The primary source of the complaint was that an Athlon 1200 machine that outperformed a PIII and cost a couple hundred dollars less was rated lower than a 1Ghz PIII.

I decided to take a look at this.

In the Athlon’s favor:

It was about 9% faster in the benchmark testing
It did have 128Mb more RAM than the PIII machine.
It did have a 30GB hard drive as opposed to the PIII’s 20Gb.
A lower price tag.

Bad points for the machine:

A relatively low-quality 17″ monitor
An awkward layout.

In the PIII’s favor:

It had a higher-quality 19-inch monitor.
It included a CD-RW for the price.
The software bundle was better.
Dell’s support and reliability considered good to excellent.

Bad points for the PIII:

Somewhat slower than the Athlon.
Less RAM (particularly important for a Windows 2000 setup).
A smaller hard drive.
A higher price tag.

Looking at these two machines, can I say that one is obviously better than the other under all circumstances? No. Could I find one machine better for Person A and another better for Person B? Absolutely. Why? Because different people have different preferences, and value different attributes differently.

His Bias Bad, My Bias Good

You cannot judge without preferences, simply because you can’t say something is better than another without a concept of what’s better and what’s worse. Period.

Then you have to separate out those preferences which are objectively reasonable, and those which are a matter of personal preference.

A lot of people have enormous difficulty with this, because they resist the notion that there are TWO kinds of reality, objective and subjective, and they don’t want to take the time and effort figuring out which is which. If they ever did, at least half the flames on the Internet would end instantly.

Put more simply, if you’re a rabid gaming overclocker, you have certain needs. If you’re Grandma sending a couple emails, you have different needs.

There’s no doubt that your machine is “objectively” better than Grandma’s. Is Grandma an evil penny-pinching fool for not wanting a machine just like yours? Are you an evil wastrel for not wanting a machine just like Grandma’s?

Does PCWorld have “biases?” Sure, and they’re closer to Grandma’s than yours. But they state them. They give a numerical rating to each of a number of factors, and from that, you can see their preferences.

The PCWorld ranking put what would be relatively low values on price (17%) and performance (18%) for the typical overclocker.
They put relatively high values on bundled features (10%), reliability (15%) and support/warranty (15%). They may not be your values, but for the typical computer user, that’s not unreasonable.

If you want to find an area of potential true “bias” there is one, but it’s subtle.

Dell does get excellent marks, year-in, year-out, for reliability. They get them from a reliability survey PCWorld conducts. That’s not the problem. It’s the (usually) smaller competitors that have a problem. For most of them, this is what gets stated about them:

“Insufficient data to give a rating, or the rating is derived from the vendor’s Reliability and Service survey scores for its home PCs. For tech support quality, this rating may also depend on our anonymous support-quality calls.”

The surveys conducted usually don’t get statistically meaningful numbers from any but the big OEMs. The little guys may or may not be wonderful; they just don’t show up on the radar screen.

I’m sure PCWorld doesn’t automatically give these guys “outstanding” ratings. On the other hand, most OEMs don’t get outstanding ratings, either, you do have to earn them.

Another area of potential “bias” is phone support. PCWorld has a near-obsession with measuring the number of hours of phone support, and a little guy is going to find it really tough to provide 24/7 like Dell.

So if you’re a little guy who makes excellent boxes, Dell probably gets enough extra points over you in those two areas to make it almost impossible (especially given Dell’s volume buying and relatively low weight given to performance) for you to beat them in PCWorld. If there’s any bias, that’s where it is, not Intel vs. AMD.

If you’re somebody like Gateway, Dell is and has been beating you pretty handily on reliability, so they’ve got an inherent advantage which will be very difficult to overcome for the same reasons. It’s even harder to argue that this “bias” is horribly unreasonable.

If you’re a performance-is-everything junkie, then PCWorld’s “number” is probably not for you. But then, it was never meant to be. PCWorld’s preferences are clearly stated, and it’s not an unreasonable measurement for a lot people with differing, but not unreasonable, preferences than you. If all you’re interested in is performance, they provide a number for you to judge that.

To holler that their standards are no good and that they are horrible and corrupt for using them is like being the guy who insists on the remote control for the TV set. It’s one thing to want one, it’s another to insist everyone else get one whether they want one or not, and that they are evil if they don’t.

And that’s the problem with those who yell “bias.” They usually don’t separate out their personal preferences from objective standards, so what they’re usually really saying is, “Only my personal preferences are good, and nobody else should think otherwise.” That’s what’s often hiding behind that four-letter word, and “only my views are good ” is at least a distant relative to how another grossly-abused four-letter word is used nowadays: Nazi.

I find intolerance hiding in tolerance’s clothing pretty funny in a brainless sort of way, and I’m not laughing with the person who does it, I’m laughing at him.

So think twice before using that word all by itself as a magic slur. To anybody with half-a-brain, you’re insulting somebody, alright, but it’s yourself.

If you see the word being used, see if the person even explains why the target is “biased,” or is just using it as a magic word. Even if he or she does explain, see if the denouncer doesn’t have have his or her own set.

Think about it.

Email Ed

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