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Lies, Damn Lies, and Bias   October 5th, 2006
       

 
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We've all heard the expression, "Lies, damn lies, and statistics." While the expression is popular and seldom disputed, it should be disputed. Statistics don't lie, bias lies.

Bias is "a partiality that prevents objective consideration of an issue or situation" ; a prejudice or preconception, something that impairs our ability to rationally and fairly evaluate an issue. It is based on our beliefs (both rational and irrational), our life experience, and the environment in which we've grown up and lived in. A person that is biased brings those factors as baggage into every situation they experience, and sees the situation through an ideological prism in which they see those factors of the situation their life experience allows them to see while conveniently ignoring those factors that the prism separated out but which are incompatible with the person's set of preconceived beliefs.

Bias, left unrecognized and unchecked, leads all of us to reach irrational--often erroneous--conclusions based not on real, hard facts but based on our perception of what we think should be real. After ignorance, it's quite possible that bias is the leading cause of bad decision-making in all levels of human endeavor.

Bias is clearly visible in the rank and file supporters of both political parties. Republicans accuse the media of being liberal because of what is perceived as an obsession of reporting only the bad news in Iraq that weighs heavily on the president's popularity while at the same time ignoring good news that might help the president. The Democrats, on the other hand, believe the media is conservative because it doesn't spend enough time on the bad news in Iraq, and they point to conservative ownership of many major news sources. Everyone is looking at the exact same media but their accusations of media bias, while not necessarily incorrect, speak just as loudly of their own bias.

I believe there are three significant groups of people that need to make a specific effort to keep their bias in check. The level of successfulness each group of people achieves in recognizing and limiting their bias will determine how successful we are as a country and as a world.

The first group of people are policymakers. These people are the decision-makers of the country. We elect them (directly or indirectly) to make sound decisions on our behalf, and their decisions impact all of us. Biases in policymakers is the potential death of democracy. Biases on the part of the president may lead us to a war that might not have been necessary or wasn't justified. Biases on the part of certain members of Congress may lead them to ignore economic realities of a minimum wage increase or ignore the very real threats to the sustainability of Social Security. Biases on the part of a state supreme court may lead to a continuing recount in violation of state law while bias on the part of the U.S. Supreme Court may lead to a presidential election being decided by less than a dozen judges rather than the citizens of the country. It is of utmost importance that policymakers make their decisions cooly based on the best information available, and none of that information should be ignored because of that person's bias--political or otherwise. Apart from ignorance of the facts, bias is the main reason policymakers make bad policy. Often, the "compromise" of two groups of equally (but oppositely) biased people is no better than either biased option. While the goal of compromise may be to seek a middle ground that both sides can grudgingly accept, it's often the case that the middle ground doesn't achieve any of the benefits either side wanted and results in the disadvantages both options included. We must recognize politicians that are unbiased. That doesn't mean they can't be Republican, that doesn't mean they can't be Democratic, and it doesn't mean they must be "independent." They simply must be able to keep their own preconceived notions in check so that they can make the best decision possible.

The second group of people is the media. Bias in the media is a cancer of democracy. If a reporter stops reporting the simple facts and begins inserting his own commentary, or including information that is not immediately relevant to the facts being reported, the reporter has become a preacher. An effective, honest, and unbiased media is absolutely essential so that citizens of the country have an accurate understanding of what has actually happened; the reporter's opinion of what happened is of utterly no importance. Bias by omission and bias by insertion is dangerous. When the media reports some confidential document that contradicts what the president has previously said, that's reporting. When the media then spends half the article reviewing what the president previously said, that's getting dangerously close to preaching and is arguably biased. While it could be said that the article is simply providing some history to put the current news event in context, I would argue that that's not necessarily the job of the media. It's the media's job to report events, not to connect the dots for the readers. Doing so is dangerous because the author of the article gets to choose, based on his own bias and judgement, what dots will be presented to the reader. A different author could present a different set of dots and lead the reader to an entirely different conclusion. This is the risk that the media takes every time it chooses to do anything beyond providing a factual report of a current event and it can result in either liberal or conservative "spin" depending on who the author presenting the dots is.

The final group of people is everyday citizens: you and me. Our job is probably the hardest of the three groups. While the other two groups of people should have a duty to keep their bias in check, the citizens of the country not only have the responsibility to make informed, unbiased decisions when they vote, they also have the responsibility to keep a close eye on the other two groups and recognize when they are being biased. A biased policymaker is a dangerous thing and the citizens have to recognize them so that they can either vote him out of office or vote an adequate counterweight into office to keep the first policymaker in check. The citizens must also keep close tabs on the media, to make sure they are reporting events accurately and in an unbiased fashion so that the citizens know they are receiving good information on which to base their electoral decisions. But we also must be able to recognize bias in places we'd like to believe it doesn't exist (especially within ourselves!) and make our own unbiased decisions in spite of those unpleasant realities.

We all have bias, myself included. Any human being that claims to be unbiased is lying. That person may make an extra effort to keep his bias in check, that person may try to supress the bias, the person may try to give the "other side" a fair shake, but anyone that denies that they have bias is simply blind to the bias that they claim not to have. We should be suspicious of those people that make the outrageous claim of being unbiased.

Since no-one can be entirely without bias, it is also extremely important for us to be on the lookout for bias in the media so that we can, appropriately, take what we read with a grain of salt. We need to make sure our elected officials make decisions based on the best information available to them and not based on their biases. And we need to be on the lookout for bias in ourselves.

Now, if we could just agree on what is bias, what is fact, and what are lies.

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