On Bias

This is admittedly a big topic to take on in a blog post, but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere.

I was originally going to call this “On Prejudice,” but decided against it as I didn’t want people thinking of racial bias or bigotry, at least not right away. Then I thought, “why not use the language of the philosopher whose ideas you’re trying to present (Hans-Georg Gadamer), and say ‘On Pre-Judgment?'” That wasn’t catchy enough, so I went back to this one.

This link will take you to the article that got me thinking this morning about bias. It came to me by way of the excellent Twitter stream of Jay Rosen, which I can’t recommend highly enough for those of you interested in cutting-edge thinking about what it means to be a journalist these days.

As I read the Times piece, I was most struck by the distinction the author is trying to sell between “interpretive” and “objective” journalism. Now I was raised in such a way (you were too, probably), that such a thing isn’t such a hard sell. First I was taught to divide the world of intellectual objects into “facts” and “opinions,” with a wink and a nod that the former were good and to be sought, while the latter were bad but unavoidable. Facts represented the world “as it really is,” while opinions represented someone’s “perspective.”

Later I learned facts were good precisely because they were independent of individual perspectives. That is to say, facts are Democratic – anyone can have access to them, so long as they are presented the “right” way. And the “right” way is, of course, to preserve their perspectiveless quality.

Why? Well, because if a perspective sneaks in there, you might, without knowing it, get hoodwinked into, oh, I don’t know, communism, fascism, totalitarianism, speaking Russian (when I was a kid), or reading Heidegger (when I was in college).

So you have to be on your guard, I was taught, about those evil perspectives, and cling to your facts like a Rosary. If you’re still asking why, there’s another reason. For those who didn’t get the memo, perspectives are like fingerprints on the clear glass of reason. Perspectives come from the passions, you see, which everyone knows are the mortal enemy of reason (not its spouse).

Come on, don’t you want dispassionate measurements, attorneys, and legal judgments? Of course. Now just make that principle normative for all reason, and you’re set! (I especially dare you to try that kind of thinking in romantic relationships. Go ahead, I’ll be sitting here munching some popcorn.)

Now if you’re not sufficiently yucked out by passions or perspectives already, remember that it’s people who have these filthy things, and people have agendae, which are even tinier little germs that infect and destroy clear thinking.

I think we can all thank Descartes for our obsession with clear and distinct ideas, and Plato for getting us to gaze at poetry and rhetoric with squinted eyes and clenched fists.

Thus I was taught that our best ideas, facts, are free of perspective – just like our best legal judgments and scientific measurements.

Now if such an antiseptic view of reason strikes you as a little funny, try thinking about thoughts that have no thinker (and no cheating). Facts are headless, you see, which I suppose might also make them mindless. 😉

Once I learned about facts and values, I was off to the races. I learned there was reporting and then there was editorializing. Reporting presents the facts in a dispassionate (ie headless) way, which is what good and respectable people consume; the intellectual equivalent of whole & organic foods.

Editorializing – what they do on those yucky cable channels, presumably – is what the rascally rabble feed on: processed and fast food. Yuck.

The picture I’ve been trying to draw is what allows people like the author of the Times article (reporting? or editorializing?) to say there’s a distinction between interpretive and objective journalism with a straight face.

Best part of the trick? Getting you to think, then believe, that there’s no interpretation involved in “objective” anything. None. Why? Well, because the “facts speak for themselves,” don’t they?

Or is it because someone has already done the interpreting for you, and is now trying to get you to stop doing it for yourself?

Now bias. What is it? Biases, according to Gadamer, can impede clear thinking, but this is a brute view of bias. Looking more carefully, and philosophically, we see that no understanding is possible without a starting point. That is to say, before you can speak, you have to choose your words, and before that, choose your language (or one will be provided for you, wink wink, argument for learning another language, wink).

Why say this thing and not something else? Ready for the answer? Bias. Without bias, without investment, without passion, we’d never open our mouths to speak or open our minds to think. We just wouldn’t know where to start.

All thought starts somewhere, and every somewhere is a choice between a here and a “not there,” whether we’re aware of it or not, whether the language, history, and culture has narrowed the choices for us (it has, don’t worry), or whether we say “I choose to see this as a Democrat or as a Republican.”

We’re biased against bias honestly, I think, given the history of this past century. But I read the Shoah, the appalling history of race relations in the US, and the rise of Fox news somewhat differently than the way my teachers taught me. I see them as calls not to take on an even more sanitized, antiseptic approach to reason, but as a call to be more thoughtful about bias.

You see, Gadamer makes me think it’s our hostility to passion, rhetoric, and poetry, not those things in themselves, that gets us into trouble. If Gadamer is right in distinguishing pre-judgment from prejudice, then we only make the passions (especially evil ones) worse, and enslave ourselves to them more, by pretending we can escape them and that only (evil, dirty) others have them.

Look, if you don’t believe me, ask the scientists; they’ll tell you how messy measurement can be. No room for an antiseptic view here, at least not among those who’ve read anything of the last 100 years in the philosophy of science (hint: start here).

Or you could ask the therapists; at least the ones who still know what countertransference analysis is. They’ll tell you that bias is our gateway into the Other, not a roadblock (unless we choose to make it one). If you want to get really fancy in this regard, try reading Heinrich Racker, Darlene Ehrenberg, or Karen Maroda on the matter.

Moral of the story: if you want to master bias (and who doesn’t), find out what yours are, and be prepared to find there might not be much separating you from those you dislike or even despise. You might even find they have something to teach you (and not, it’s not “go march on Washington with firearms demanding a white President”).

And whether you’re a journalist, scientist, jurist, or lover, don’t try to sell your narratives as headless “facts” written by no one. Don’t pretend, in other words, that your finger doesn’t get caught in the camera lens every time you try to take a picture. Don’t pretend the stories you tell, no matter how much you try to sanitize them, aren’t already interpretations or “spins” of some sort.

Most of all, don’t pretend that such spins aren’t subject to the forces of history, culture, and language, don’t have a lot to tell about who you are as a person, or could very well be otherwise.

Biggest (and for me, most delicious) irony? Gadamer got his ideas on bias from Heidegger. History is kind of nice that way, don’t you think?

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7 thoughts on “On Bias

  1. Great post, and I suspect too clearly reasoned for people who are convinced that arguments are valid because of bias, or the absence thereof.

    Bias, as discussed, has multiple dimensions as well. There are the learned cultural memes that inform your patterns of thought; there are the genetic biases associated with different kinds of attitudes; and, finally, there is the current context that you are experiencing that drive bias..

    Simple example: I’m a journalist raised to believe that you get what you work for; I come from a line of tradesmen that believe mastering a skill ensures continuity in life; and I have a home that I’m behind in the mortgage and underwater in the equiit. Now, I’m assigned to go into a lower middle-class neighborhood to report in the impact of the housing crisis. Is it possible for my bias to not color my perspective?

    It’s the absence of accountability to current context that makes people so strident, I think, when they advance or refute arguments that are presented as being unbiased.

    1. Thank you, and thanks for a wonderful illustration of thoughtful, intellectually responsible (and responsive) journalism that takes bias into account.

  2. I agree? Is that a reasoned response? As a scientist, I know that bias is ever present in both my work as well as the work of others I read in scholarly journals. The trick, or skill is to report as transparently as possible what my methods were, how everything was measured and what the limitations to my study design are. Of course, the subject of my inquiry and the methods of measurement in themselves contain bias. I believe it is critical that people remember this, that we unmask bias as not evil per se, but as an inescapable part of human nature, our need to process and neatly package what we hear and see and feel.

    In terms of journalism, I fear that the existence of Fox and MSNBC (as much as I love Rachel and Keith) have created an environment where opinion is confused with fact, so posts such as this, are important to read and repeat, and think about. We have always needed to reconcile what we hear with what we believe – to think critically. Now more than ever with so many people trying to tell us what is true, it is important we do not lose our ability to think.
    Thank you for this post and for alerting me to the existence of such a blog. Please post more often.
    Sorry not as eloquent as your post, but I can’t help commenting on blogs I read. Opinion, I haz it. :o)

    1. Thanks! Makes me think that just because the difference between facts & opinions isn’t quite what we were taught, that’s no license for people to sell one as the other (or pretend there’s no such thing as facts).

  3. As I imagine you know, neuroscience has discovered that we can have all the facts in the world, but without emotions — biases — we can’t make a simple decision about what to have for lunch. From the words a journalist chooses for a story’s lead to the quotes and facts that stay in v. those that are edited out, every decision is an emotional one.

    What makes me crazy about contemporary journalism is its refusal to separate news from nonsense. Every flame-throwing loon (think Orly Taitz) gets a hearing because the media refuse to say, “No, you are an imbecile. Go away.” Is that bias? Yes. Bias against political slanderers.

    1. That’s right; in addition to giving the understanding some place to start from, I think biases allow us to make important theoretical, political, and aesthetic distinctions. Another way to be biased against bias, I suppose, is to argue that the ubiquity of bias makes every point of view as good as any other. This seems just as wrongheaded to me as insisting on headless, emotionless “facts” and “reporting.”

      1. Making every point of view as good as any other is, according to my interpretation at least, what Jay Rosen calls “the view from nowhere.”

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