Thursday, September 01, 2005

The fallacy of bias

Bias n.
  1. A preference or an inclination, especially one that inhibits impartial judgment.
  2. An unfair act or policy stemming from prejudice.
  3. A statistical sampling or testing error caused by systematically favoring some outcomes over others.
Yet another of those pesky labels, probably one of the most pernicious ones, and one of those that have bothered me the most from people in the U.S. It has taken me a few years to realize that one of the reasons it bothers me is because of different cultures with respect to my native Venezuela. The bias label is generally used to stop a conversation, because 'everyone is biased'. Nobody can argue against this fact, but here nobody seems to take into account that there are biases and biases. In the U.S. bias is used to discredit whole segments of the media, one way or another, to ignore persons completely, to shun out conversations, to ignore pertinent information. In the U.S. the bias label has been taken to an extreme, it has a binary value that it was never meant to have, in the U.S. the bias label can be used to justify completely irrational thoughts. You can see that the same thing is reflected in the first and second definitions of bias. In venezuela our everyday language reflects that difference: "When the river rumbles there must be stones in its midst" is a very common saying in all social strata and it means that even though everything the sources say seems too exaggerated to be beleived, there might be a sliver of truth somewhere in there. Which would probably be equivalent to the U.S.'s "when there is smoke, there is fire" but when was the last time that you heard someone use that in a casual conversation?. "I don't believe in witches, but they do fly," is another common one, meaning that even though I do not believe in what they are saying about a particular peril, I better stay on the 'safe' side (does global warming come to mind?, I hope so). I have already mentioned the fair and balanced fallacy, but let me repeat myself:
In the US the fallacy of fair and balanced reporting is exulted. If you have very dissimilar strategies on two sides, one lies 95% of the time, while the other tells the truth 95% of the time, if you are fair, you cannot portray both sides in a balanced way, and if you are balanced you are obviously not being fair. During the last US presidential campaign a TV news director got extremely criticized, precisely for trying to compensate for such biases from the campaign headquarters, so here, in the US, it's much better and 'cooler' to be 'balanced' than 'fair.' Not to mention that it makes for much better entertainment 'News,' as any WWWF fan would point out.
So it was the fallacy of bias that was used to ask for the head of the news director, because his leaked internal memo was clearly not supporting balanced news, but what about being fair?. Now the same yardstick is being applied to the private Venezuelan media, as it is obviously not balanced by portraying Chavez in a certain way, however, nobody stops to ask the question, could it be that they are being 'fair'?. Because, you know, when the river rumbles there must be stones in its midst.
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