Systemic bias is the inherent tendency of a process to support particular outcomes. The term is a neologism that generally refers to human systems such as institutions; the equivalent bias in non-human systems (such as measurement instruments or mathematical models used to estimate physical quantities) is often called systematic bias, and leads to systematic error in measurements or estimates. The issues of systemic bias are dealt with extensively in the field of industrial organization economics.
Bias in human institutions
Because cognitive bias is inherent in the experiences, loyalties, and relationships of people in their daily lives, it cannot be abolished by education or training, but awareness of biases can be increased, allowing correctional mechanisms to be institutionalised. For example, the goal of affirmative action in the United States is to counter biases concerning gender, race, and ethnicity, by opening up institutional participation to people with a wider range of backgrounds, and hence a wider range of points of view. In India, the system of scheduled castes and tribes intends to address systemic bias caused by the controversial caste system, a system centred around organised discrimination based upon one's ancestry, not unlike the system that affirmative action aims to counter. Both the scheduling system and affirmative action mandate the hiring of citizens from within designated groups. However, without sufficient restrictions based upon the actual socio-economic standing of the recipients of the aid provided, these types of system can, and allegedly do, result in the unintentional institutionalisation of a reversed form of the same systemic bias, which works against the goal of rendering institutional participation open to people with a wider range of backgrounds. It can therefore be argued that systemic bias is inevitable, and that all human institutions can do is to minimise it as much as possible, and utilise education to increase awareness of it wherever possible.
Financial Week reported May 5, 2008 (emphasis added):
But we travel in a world with a systemic bias to optimism that typically chooses to avoid the topic of the impending bursting of investment bubbles. Collectively, this is done for career or business reasons. As discussed many times in the investment business, pessimism or realism in the face of probable trouble is just plain bad for business and bad for careers. What I am only slowly realizing, though, is how similar the career risk appears to be for the Fed. It doesn't want to move against bubbles because Congress and business do not like it and show their dislike in unmistakable terms. Even Federal reserve chairmen get bullied and have their faces slapped if they stick to their guns, which will, not surprisingly, be rare since everyone values his career or does not want to be replaced à la Mr. Volcker. So, be as optimistic as possible, be nice to everyone, bail everyone out and hope for the best. If all goes well, after all, you will have a lot of grateful bailees who will happily hire you for $300,000 a pop.
Systemic versus systematic bias
The difference between the words systemic and systematic is somewhat ambiguous.
"Systemic bias" and the older, more common expression "systematic bias" are often used to refer to the same thing; some users[who?] seek to draw a distinction between them[why?], suggesting that systemic bias is most frequently associated with human systems, and related to favoritism.
In engineering and computational mechanics, the word bias is sometimes used as a synonym of systematic error. In this case, the bias is referred to the result of a measurement or computation, rather than to the measurement instrument or computational method.
Some authors try to draw a distinction between systemic and systematic corresponding to that between unplanned and planned, or to that between arising from the characteristics of a system and from an individual flaw. In a less formal sense, systemic biases are sometimes said to arise from the nature of the interworkings of the system, whereas systematic biases stem from a concerted effort to favor certain outcomes. Consider the difference between affirmative action (systematic) compared to racism and caste (systemic).
- Jaroff, Leon et al. (April 4, 1994) "Teaching Reverse Racism", Time Magazine
- "Paging Paul Volcker. The former Fed chairman was tougher and less eager to please than his successor, Alan Greenspan", Jeremy Grantham, Financial Week, 5 May 2008
- John Robert Taylor (1999). An Introduction to Error Analysis: The Study of Uncertainties in Physical Measurements. University Science Books. p. 94, §4.1. ISBN 0-935702-75-X.
- "Commerce Dept. Accused Of Systemic Bias". By John Files. October 6, 2005. New York Times.
- "Clinton Postpones Inmate's Execution. Systemic Bias To Be Studied". By Deb Riechmann, Associated Press. December 8, 2000. Miami Herald.