Bias and Bias Control: Poisons in any Debate

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Lately, with all the controversial material I have been reading (politics, law, autism, the World Cup, ice cream flavors..), I've started to think about bias.  Not so much about the bias of reporting, but more on the bias of those receiving the news.  It seems to be rampant, because there are so many methods of filtering out the news that was not there before. 

For instance, when a recent report about the Jobs market showing more jobs lost for the past month, but with an overall unemployment rate going down from 9.7% to 9.5%.  Politically, this was seen as a win for the Administration as they can point to the unemployment rate as a sign that their policies are working, while the opposition point to the increased job losses as a sign that the policies are not working. 

Now, set aside your own biases here, because I'm not defending or justifying either decision, but rather I want to point out that the numbers did not change for either group of observers, but rather they chose to interpret it differently.  The Administration wants to show some kind of progress in this very sensitive issue to justify their policies. The opposition want to see a win for their side in the next election, and therefore would benefit with the perception that the current Administration and ruling party are not doing what needs to be done.  There, they each show their bias in their interpretation of the numbers. 

But it doesn't stop there.  Because of our perceived need for "balanced" reporting, there are now news outlets, bloggers, and others that manage to broadcast their own biases out there, and in greater numbers than before.  Add in the fact that excellent tools like Google, Yahoo, Bing, and other news aggregate sites have the ability to filter from whom we get our news based on our own biases, we are able to keep to our own ideology and therefore reinforce our own biases with similar biases.  Hence we have conservatives that read, listen and watch the news from "conservative" news organizations and talk shows, while liberals do the same with liberal news organizations and talk shows. 

So, is there a problem with it?  Well, strictly speaking, as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would I'm sure submit, if you don't have alternative view points, you are unable to reach a reasoned decision.  Therefore decisions are made without being thought through, often without obvious flaws being discovered, and therefore huge problems can arise.  Frankly, we make mistakes enough without needing to invite them by not having a reasoned discussion with open minds. 

And then there is the problem of isolation.  While I lived in Germany, there was an awesome, sobering poster in the hall of the (if I remember right) Frankfurt-Hoechst government building.  It said "Germany for Germans, Hessen for Hesseners, Hoechst for Hoechsters, Me for Me" (rough translation).  The picture was, again if I remember right, one of increasing isolation and loneliness, and I got the impression that the poster was to illustrate how being an "isolationist" can ultimately be detrimental.

The idea is that as we start to isolate ourselves, we begin to see the "fox hole" we are in instead of the big picture.  In politics, we see only what our "party" sees.  In Autism, we see only what we want to see (vaccines vs. genetics).  In sports, we see only our team and no one else's team.  And because we isolate ourselves in this manner, we find it easy to dehumanize others.  Once someone is dehumanized, it's easy to disrespect them, which can further escalate to feeling indifferent or even violent against the opposition (which ever it is). 

So what can we do?  Try to see both sides of the issue.  Here the arguments on both sides, understand them, and then make decisions based on those arguments.  Sure, you will still be deciding with your own bias, but at least you have given the other side a chance to explain their positions, and calmly discuss the benefits and detriments that come with each position. 

Perhaps if this type of civil discourse were encouraged more in popular media, we will see it bleed into the general populace.