On Biases

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Over the past few years in the USA, hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear cries and screams of “fake news” in a variety of ways. Although that phrase is primary associated to a shameful bloviator, it’s merely a substitute for another term that has been around not only my entire life of 66+ years, but long before. After all, it’s entomological roots are in the 16th century – and that word is bias.

During today’s tribalism, hyper-partisanship, and strong outward expressions of opinions, the biased person watching a biased news broadcast, reading a biased article/book, or listening to a biased radio pundit does not negate bias – but rather enhances it.

Often grounded in assumptions based on one’s culture, parents, peers, education, religion, geography, and personal experiences, biases are that filter leading one to predetermined outcomes. Biases are the neme, slant, lean, and tendency leading one to change what one observes into what they want. That is, the biased person makes the information fit for themselves. Biases unquestionably lead to misinformation and misconceptions; plus stronger biases enhance prejudice and bigotry.

Misconceptions are incorrect ideas grounded in a personal belief system serving as the foundation of incorrect knowledge. Misconceptions get in the way of learning by blocking new information. In order to justify their position, the learner will do whatever is necessary to fight against accepting the new information.

Here’s a simple example. All human blood is red, but the shade varies depending on the amount of oxygen present. Blood rich in oxygen is bright red, but blood low in oxygen is very dark red. In short, there is no blue blood.

A person believing the existence of blue blood will do whatever necessary to keep their belief. They point to the blue veins below the skin – drawings in textbooks showing showing red and blue blood vessels. They explain the skin turns blue after one dies because blood is not moving and getting oxygen. They believe in the immediacy (faster than eyes can detect) of blood changing from blue to red when bleeding from a cut vein. Years ago, an eighth grade classmate of mine even brought paper tissues (with blue food coloring) to class showing she had a nosebleed the night before. She went out of her way to argue her bias with the teacher.

Now expand this simple idea into more complex topics as evolution, vaccines, climate change – let alone complicated issues as health care, foreign policy, and the economy. The more complex the topic, a basic understanding requires more information than obtained from the first click on a single Google search. Now cloud the issue/topic with politically-driven partisan ideas that people blindly accept through a party-driven mantra.

Fighting bias challenges what one believes, so overcoming biases requires a conscious effort and can be personally humbling – even for those thinking they are unbiased. No matter how simple or complex the topic or issue, and no matter the age of the person involved, not only does everyone have misconceptions, only that person (the one holding the misconception) can remove that misconception and replace it with new information. In order to replace the misinformation, that person must either accept the new information from a person they recognize as knowledgeable or they must experience a learning event that alters their view.

Besides preventing learning and becoming knowledgeable and informed, misconceptions can humiliate a person. After all, nobody likes being wrong. Some bring it upon themselves by boasting incorrectly about a topic as if they know. After all, it’s the speed and conviction of the statement that validates the statement. Speak with confidence so others think you know.

On the other hand, misconceptions about a person can humiliate them – but in a different way because they are fightly personal misconceptions about their character, knowledge, and/or abilities. I keep thinking about a manager who told me that what others think of me is more important than who I actually am.

I’ve stated this before and here it comes again – The news media is biased by its very nature.

1) Media people are human, therefore have a filter (whether personal, corporate, or both).

2) Secondly, reports reduce the news event to an abstract. For instance, the media may reduce a one-hour speech into a 90-second report. This condensation is a natural bias; plus, generalizations are naturally less accurate and are not the complete story. Generalizations lead one away from the truth and generalizing generalizations can lead to falsehoods – therefore, misconceptions.

3) Thirdly, the selection of the soundbyte is an natural bias, as are the follow-up questions – but the media must do these actions. That’s part of reporting.

The listener’s bias also plays into the situation. Whether informed or not, the one holding deep convictions about a topic is not only biased against those with an opposing view, they are also vulnerable to getting sucked into generalizations based on misinformation and overgeneralizations that lacks details.

However, if the listener does not agree with the selected edits, abstract report, or the question asked does not mean the reporter or news organization was blatantly biased to favor a point of view – but it could.

On the listener’s side is the fact that if they work traditional morning-afternoon hours, they have limited opportunity to view national evening news by a major network. After that point in time, the 24/7 news channels offer shows featuring and promoting a particular point of view – for instance, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and others. However, television isn’t the only news source.

Technology has made more information is available to everyone than ever before. Unfortunately, that also means more misinformation is available today more than any other time in history.

Social media complicates and exacerbates personal bias by increasing misinformation, justifying false claims/conclusion, and promoting conspiracy theories. Social media, biased reporting, and talk show echo chambers disengage citizens from the truth while promoting a political agenda.

There is no question that bias plays an important role in the news – and there is plenty of blame to go around. People also carry their share of the blame – actually, in my opinion, people may be the greater problem. People must take responsibility for themselves to challenge and verify the information they receive. However, instead of being proactive citizens, too many people favor reinforcing their bias over being accurately informed.

Valuing factual information is an important aspect of being human – as is the ability to learn – as is the ability to communicate. Too bad there isn’t an anti-bias vaccine. Then again, self-imposed biases would prevent someone from taking that vaccine.

 

PS: This classic scene fits.

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On Generalizations

Generalizations are important because they are broad statements about a topic, many times involving related events. In education, making a generalization is a critical-thinking skill because the student must synthesize seemingly independent events into a generalized statement.

On the other hand and by the very nature, generalizations in themselves lack specific details, thus in life, people have the tendency to generalize generalizations, which actually takes them further and further from the truth.

Local weather reporters commonly use this generalization: Hot air rises. On its own, this statement implies that hot air moves upward on its own. Many people also commonly use this statement by focusing on the result, not the cause. For the record, hot air does not levitate. As air temperature rises, its density decreases, thus is displaced upward by denser, colder air that now occupies the space that the warmer air once occupied. Ah come on – don’t you remember the Archimedes story of being in the bathtub, and then running naked through the street yelling I found it!

Life is loaded with misconceptions based on generalizing generalizations that leads us to inaccurate and even incorrect information. Candy does not cause tooth decay, bacteria do; but sugar promotes bacteria activity. Human blood in the veins is not blue, it’s very dark red – yet the blue we see in our arms comes from the interaction of light with body tissues. Plants do release oxygen into the atmosphere as waste in one process, but plants also require oxygen for the same reason as animals.

These are just common examples of misconceptions that are rooted in generalizations. Imagine how many generalizations people misuse and misinterpret in topics as politics and religion. Politicians are masters of use broad, sweeping statements – some of which are accurate and some are not. Some are in the correct context, and some are not. Yet, whether we cheer or jeer the statement largely depends on our view of the one delivering the message, not our knowledge about the topic.

Not long ago, I listened to a pastor’s message to his congregation about creation and evolution. I know this topic is deep, yet I heard a person jumping from one generalization to another. I can only assume the pastor did this to get the message they wanted to deliver. On the other hand, the flock looks to the pastor for guidance and takes the pastor at their word, yet are unknowingly left with inaccurate information as their informational foundation.

The bottom line is simple: No matter the topic, there is a lot to learn about the world. Although new knowledge grows so fast, specialists find it difficult to keep up in their own field. It is difficult to sort through all the factoids in today’s world, thus the responsibility for learning continues to fall on the learner.