• Paul D. Wilke

In Defense of Bias (sort of)

"The greater part of mankind are naturally apt to be affirmative and dogmatical in their opinions; and while they see objects only on one side, and have no idea of any counterpoising argument, they throw themselves precipitately into the principles, to which they are inclined; nor have they any indulgence for those who entertain opposite sentiments." David Hume -

Hume's eighteenth-century quote shows us that bias isn't anything new. Our media-soaked society only makes this problem more relevant. If we can't completely overcome bias, I believe there are some ways we can mitigate it. But first, let's start with a few simple ideas.

Every belief, every idea you've ever held started out in someone else's head. Each of us is a subjective being interpreting inputs we get from other subjective beings. We start with intuitions and then work backward using reason and heuristics to cobble together what seems like a reasonably coherent worldview. Opinions you have about the world beyond your head are therefore by definition biased.

Bias is merely a part of our nature, and there's no getting away from it. Our interpretations are sometimes more reliable the closer they stay to our direct sensory experience. But they also become increasingly suspect the farther we get from that direct experience and reliant on the skewed perceptions of others to interpret reality for us. Remember that.

That makes the accusation of media bias little more than a truism. Of course, the media is biased in the sense that journalists also operate under the same cognitive inclinations as the rest of us. But what is really at work here when people complain about this is an assumption that something a little more nefarious is going on behind the scenes, that there's a conscious attempt to spin deceitful narratives in ways that promote certain political and social ideologies. Are such generalizations true?

Go back to the first paragraph above: We're all subjective beings interpreting the world through the minds of other subjective beings. That includes the people putting out the information we use to explain reality. In our open, pluralistic society, "Truth" has become truths, de-centralized all the way down to the individual.

A free and open society represents the tension between competing versions of reality. There is no central Truth; instead, competing ones work feverishly to promote narratives and counter-narrative that often support broader agendas. Sometimes, that's done with malicious intent to manipulate public opinion, but quite often that is not the case. Not all 'truths' are created equal.

So it's critical to understand why just complaining about media bias is so pointless and self-defeating. Tell me, which media is biased? All of it? Or just that which you disagree with? Is that bias you observe stated maliciously or not? Where then does one get any purely "objective" view of the world? In the world of beliefs, isn't each definition of "objective" really just another subjective interpretation of that person's "truth?" Remember, we rely on others to explain the world beyond our direct experience. Bias is everywhere.

People who adopt an 'it's-all-crap" narrative about the media are actually just selectively accepting or denying facts based on whether they conflict with their established vision of the world. In this case, if your bias is that "the media is all biased," it then becomes too easy to dismiss anything out of hand you disagree with as "fake news." And yes, that’s bias too, and one that can lead to disengagement or confirmation bias. Some of the loudest voices condemning media bias come from the media itself. Here’s a short clip from Fox & Friends that makes my point.

Oh, the irony of watching the Fox & Friends trio discussing media bias! Agenda-driven journalism cuts both ways, needless to say. While we cannot escape all bias, neither in ourselves nor in others, we can at least work to minimize its impact on our thinking.

But, first, I want to emphasize that the media is not some single, monolithic entity. Think of it as what you find in a supermarket. There’s a little something for every taste. You find healthy food and junk food and everything in between. The same applies to information. We get to choose what information we consume. We can choose wisely from the healthy options in this media supermarket, or we can scarf Honey Buns (Info Wars) and Pop Tarts (Occupy Democrats) in the junk food aisle. That much is our choice.

Put another way, we get some say in choosing the nature of our own subjective reality and how far it will diverge from the real thing. We should choose wisely. There's no perfect solution, however. Divergence will always happen, despite our best efforts. After all, we are mostly viewing the vast tapestry of existence through someone else's straw. Our task is to try and minimize this limitation, to look through as many different straws as possible.

So, if you can't beat bias, at least learn to harness it to your advantage. This is not as hard as it sounds, but it requires some conscious effort. As biased beasts, we crave to have our biases confirmed in ways that validate our world-views. Doing this becomes the default setting for most people. Try to do the opposite: Search for the most compelling arguments against your cherished beliefs, and not just straw men and caricatures. Don't let your preferred media mouthpieces articulate your opinions for you. They'll be tainted by the biases you both share. This is how echo chambers form.

Also, quietly note the bias of others, not to feel superior, but to help flesh out your own. Make it a habit of trying to understand what those who disagree with you are actually thinking, and until they prove otherwise, give them the benefit of the doubt that they have good-faith reasons for believing what they do. Doing it this way will not only help clarify someone else's motivation but will also reveal the blind spots they cannot see. Seeing those blind spots can then serve as a reflection back on your own hidden biases, which may remain just as invisible to you as someone else's are to them. Assume they are there, though.

Developing this habit will then ground you in intellectual humility, which is not only one of the most essential traits of any solid thinker, but also one of the hardest to cultivate. We want to be right and tend to dig in and double down when challenged, even when we're dead wrong. Don't.

Intellectual humility should accept the premise that any belief I have is by definition mostly based on the perspective-limited interpretations of other perspective-limited interpretations. Those who learn to practice humility can become intellectually flexible and better able to change their minds when presented with more compelling explanations.

Seek those explanations from experts, from people who know more than you in their areas of expertise. Even then, intellectual humility and flexibility demand that any belief remain contingent, or valid only until a better one presents itself. A full life of the mind is punctuated with pivots, misdirections, mistakes, corrections, and sometimes frustrating cul-de-sacs.

By adopting this mindset, changing one's mind is not a sign of weakness, but of strength and liberation. While it's liberating to escape from error, it's also a tacit admission of both our human fallibility and our most noble aspirations. Both together are beautiful.