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Assessment: Biases

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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In the light of the scope and methods noted above, a further influence on the design of the publication was a number of specific biases, some of which strongly influenced the length of any description. Other biases are discussed in more detail in the methodological assumptions for World Problems (see Section PZ) and for Human Development (Section HZ), and in less detail for Human Values (see Section VZ).

1. Pluralism

As mentioned above, the whole editorial process was biased against any particular set of values, especially any particular concept of truth or falsehood, or of right or wrong, or of good or evil, or of strategic relevance or irrelevance, whether or not this resulted in texts which were acceptable or ridiculous in terms of the scientific, legal, religious, cultural, political or strategic priorities of others. The task was conceived as one of "telling things as they are" in the eyes of those who identify with a particular perspective, not of highlighting only what is important according to one such perspective.

2. Favouring the less well known

There is a definite bias towards giving more space to less well-publicized perspectives than they would normally warrant. Consequently less space has been given to the standard well-documented perspectives, for example the world problems of war, famine, pollution, etc.

3. Network presentation

The above bias is partly corrected by a bias in favour of presenting any conceptual complex (as in the case of a group of problems) as an interconnected set of many sub-items rather than as one long amalgamated description. In the case of the world problems, the sub-problem descriptions may in fact be longer than that of the parent problem.

4. "Opening up" categories

When information was inadequate or too much editorial work was required to process the available material into an appropriate form, there was a bias in favour of including the entry, even without a description, rather than excluding it so as to maintain an impression of entries of higher quality. There was therefore a bias in favour of "opening up" categories to which indexes and cross-references could refer in anticipation of work in future editions. This may be viewed as a bias in favour of lists.

5. Use of low-grade information

In contrast to other efforts to document world problems, for example, there is a definite bias against dependence on "high grade" information in which each "fact" must be substantiated by an approved authority. As pointed out earlier, such "facts" are quickly disputed, denied or ignored in counter-reports by those holding alternative views, whether "authoritative" or not. Where high grade information is available from international bodies it has been used. Where the information is too controversial to be approved by an international body, or where no concerned body exists, "low grade" information circulating in the media has been used.

6. Avoidance of closure

This publication raises many questions about the use of language by the international community and the media. Whether, for example, a world problem (or a mode of awareness) denoted by a particular set of words "exists" in a manner distinct from that denoted by a related set of words (which appear to be partly synonymous) is a matter for continuing review. In this project there is a specific bias against premature resolution of such editorial/research difficulties. Obvious duplication has been avoided, but other cases have been allowed to co-exist, especially in the human development section.

7. Avoidance of country-specific focus

In documenting world problems assumed to affect a minimum of three countries, no direct effort has been made to focus on those problems as tied to, or arising from, specific countries. Obvious examples include apartheid (as a problem specific to South Africa) and the "Middle East problem" (as defined in relation to Palestine). In these cases, apartheid is treated as a more general problem (with examples from South Africa), and the "Middle East problem" is treated through many other detailed problems (occupied territories, repression, terrorism, military atrocities, and problems relating to political self-determination and living conditions) for which Palestine may provide examples. Problems are generalized across geographical regions wherever appropriate.

8. Classes of events

World problems are often associated with specific incidents and events, such as the "oil crisis" of the 1970s, a particular collapse of the stock market ("Black Monday"), or particular conflicts. Incidents here are treated as examples of the appropriate class of problems. Particular incidents are not considered as problems in their own right. Problems are generalized across periods of time wherever appropriate.

9. Mono-lingual source material

As noted earlier, the limited resources impose an unwelcome bias against material requiring translation into English (in marked contrast to the editorial practice for the Yearbook of International Organizations). The assumption was made that this was largely corrected by the extensive use of materials formulated in the multi-lingual environments of international organizations. Some exceptions were also made in the case of unique materials obtained in French. This bias has been partially corrected by a number of efforts, especially in the Human Potential sections, to present materials from other cultural perspectives, notably Buddhist and Islamic.

10. Avoidance of "definitive" classification

A final specific bias, associated with the previous point, is one against premature classification in this Encyclopedia. The task here is seen to be one of registering, describing and interrelating perspectives (in a non-linear manner, where necessary), not of classifying them in some framework which would eliminate significant inconsistencies. Hence the bias in favour of unstructured lists, complemented by indexing and cross-references. Classification, with all that it implies in terms of imposition of a particular conceptual (and often defensive) framework on data, is a separate matter. The same approach is adopted with regard to the international organizations and multilateral treaties in the Yearbook of International Organizations (vol 1). These are classified experimentally (in Volume 3) in an evolving integrated framework of some 3,000 categories, together with the world problems from this Encyclopedia.

11. Exploration of alternatives

There are many well-established schools of thought in relation to the materials documented in this Encyclopedia. Where appropriate, alternative approaches, in the form of "editorial experiments", have been used to collect, order and present information. The treatment of values is an example.

12. Enumeration

There are many other approaches to the materials of this Encyclopedia which are discursive in emphasis. It is then difficult to isolate conceptual entities such as "world problems", "values", "modes of awareness", and the like. For this project there is a strong bias in each case to endeavour to respond to the question of "how many" such entities there are in a given case. It is considered useful to insist on enumerating the elements of any universe of such entities. This bias is vital to the construction of a data base, although it is recognized that discursive approaches may be more appropriate under other circumstances.

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