A close relative of mine and I have been having discussions about the Democratic Presidential Primaries of late. She and I both subscribe — generally speaking — to a liberal-progressive view of politics, though of course we disagree in specific instances. One such disagreement emerged recently, after the Sanders-Warren dustup about whether Bernie Sanders did or did not say to Elizabeth Warren (in a private conversation) that he thinks a woman is unelectable in 2020.
I absolutely do not wish to revisit that discussion here. That’s not the point of this post. My concern is much broader than that, and it encompasses nothing else than our very ability to engage in meaningful, rational, evidence-based conversations as a society. Without that ability, seems to me, we are doomed. So this is somewhat important.
But my conversation with my relative furnishes a good example of what I’m concerned with. At some point I sent her an article that I thought contained both pertinent factual information and a reasonable analysis of the episode, asking her to read it and let me know what she thought. To my surprise, she rejected my suggestion on the ground that “I don’t read biased news.” That led to an interesting discussion of what, exactly, constitutes “bias.”
Social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have made a career of showing, data in hand (allegedly), that everybody is biased pretty much all the time, that human discourse is not a matter of rationality but rather of rationalizing. We are continuously told that we only listen to our side, pay attention exclusively to those who agree with us, and look purely at confirmatory evidence. It’s a bleak and disheartening view of human society, but of course it cannot be rejected just because one doesn’t like it.
The first basic objection against the “bias is everywhere” crowd, of course, is that even if the behaviors described by Haidt & co. are common, they are obviously not universal. People do change their mind, they do read stuff they don’t agree with, and talk to others who do not share their opinions.
The second objection is that one needs to be careful just how much one generalizes from the findings of social psychology. After all, if they are truly so universal, then surely they apply to social psychologists themselves. Which means we shouldn’t trust them with such dire conclusions in the first place.
Third, critics have began to push back, arguing that entire disciplines heavily relying on the “bias is everywhere” framework, like behavioral economics, are themselves, ahem, biased. In particular, they suffer from the so-called bias bias: the tendency to see biases everywhere, including where they don’t exist.
Fourth, a lot of research in social psychology tends to be performed on “captive” and easily accessible populations, such as schoolchildren and undergraduate students (usually, majoring in psychology) at Western schools and universities. This is a highly biased sample, but researchers rarely see this as a significant obstacle, and proceed to generalize their findings to the entirety of the human race.
Fifth, psychology, medicine, marketing, economics, and a few other disciplines have recently been hit with a serious replication crisis, whereby a significant fraction of even classical studies — those that have found their way into textbooks — cannot be replicated independently. That’s a very good reason to maintain a healthy degree of skepticism on any latest sensational finding from social psychology.
Here, though, in classical philosophical fashion, I want to focus on what people actually mean when they say that a source, or an opinion, or whatever, is “biased.” The excellent Wiki article on the topic defines bias in the following manner:
“Bias is disproportionate weight in favor of or against an idea or thing, usually in a way that is closed-minded, prejudicial, or unfair.”
Notice several important keywords here: disproportionate, close-minded, prejudicial, and unfair. Whenever we accuse someone of “bias” we need to make a case that the target of our criticism demonstrably behaves in the above fashion. It is most definitely not enough to point out that someone holds to a particular set of political, religious, metaphysical, or whatever opinions and thereby conclude that that person is biased. Because if we do that, then everybody with a point of view is biased, which would disqualify the entirety of the human race from rational discourse.
For instance, I do not, usually, pay any attention to Fox News, especially their editorial programs. Why? Because I think they are biased. By that I do not mean that they tend to support conservative ideas with which I disagree. I mean to say that they are disproportionately in favor of those ideas; that the people who appear on those programs are close-minded, that they speak out of prejudice, and that they do so unfairly.
How do I know? Because I’ve watched enough Fox News, compared it with a number of other outlets — both centrists and leftists — and have arrived at what I think is an evidence-based, reasonable assessment of what Fox News is about. Obviously, my judgment can be impugned. But you need to do so by way of facts and reasons, not on the basis that I’m “obviously biased.”
Do I thereby discard anyone who disagrees politically with me? No. Which is why I read, for instance, David Brooks, George Will, Bill Kristol, or the later Roger Scruton. In fact, I make a point, time permitting, to read or listen to these people and others precisely because I believe in the usefulness of human discourse, above and beyond ideological tribalism.
Have I changed my mind as a result of reading people who disagree with me? Of course. Though the number of instances in the recent past are relatively few. But this is to be expected: when someone spends decades reading, thinking, and discussing certain topics they will form opinions that are sufficiently developed to withstand superficial criticism of the kind that often makes for the bread and butter of our conversations — especially on social media.
Back to my conversation with my relative. The reason I was taken aback by her outright refusal to read the source I sent her was that she wasn’t getting an article from Fox News sent to her by a member of the alt-right. She was getting a leftist source from someone with left-leaning opinions, whom she has known all her life, and whose judgment she normally trusts. To reject my suggestion offhandedly, on the basis of a generic, and entirely unsubstantiated, accusation of “bias” was, well, biased!
In general, there is no way to read unbiased news, for the simple reason that every human being has opinions. We can’t help it. And we have to make a choice about which facts to report or discuss, as well as which framework to use in order to analyze, digest, and present to others those facts and opinions. It is tempting to use the bias accusation as a simplifying heuristic, in order to sweep aside in one move a lot of stuff we don’t have time (or don’t want) to read.
Not only such outright rejection is intellectual dishonest (at least in terms of virtue epistemology), but it undermines the very notion we all claim to use as our guide: reasoned discourse. And with it, the entire foundation of any democratic society.