Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Detecting Bias

Objectivity is a characteristic of information that adds to its credibility. An objective article or posting either avoids taking sides or represents them fairly. An objective author typically has to overcome personal biases to write objectively.

Biases are hard to avoid. We all have them. (Did you catch my bias?)

Biases creep into our writing and into our reading. This latter condition can cause confusion for students who think they see bias in an author who really intended none. The bias occurs in the eyes of the beholder. I've seen this recently in students' response to an article by Carl Sagan, believing his intent was to frighten them. I was actually surprised by their conclusion and believe the words he used could unsettle someone--or make them feel existentially small--but that interpretation is in the mind of the reader.

Using bias or objectivity as the basis for accepting or rejecting information is problematic. Foremost, there's the problem of a skewed personal perspective that changes the way information was intended to be received. How can I tell if the problem is the author or me? Without other points of reference that may be impossible to determine.

That leaves a couple of options. Don't base the worth of information solely on whether it evidences bias or not. Include this in the mix of the author's qualifications, the publisher's reputation, the accuracy of claims and what others say about it.

The last point may be the critical one. If you believe in the "wisdom of the crowd" approach, then what a lot of other people think about an author's writing may come close to the truth. There's always the specter of 'group think' where the majority is wrong, but that tends not to happen in an open exchange of information or when information is volunteered freely. This is where checking to see what pages link to an author's work is extremely valuable.

The link: operator can be used to retrieve pages found in a search engine database (Yahoo's is the most powerful in this regard). Most of the external pages that link to a site don't have to. So why did they go to the trouble to put a link to a particular page on their site? Usually, it's to point to something of value (insight, humor, news, etc.) or to warn (as in the case of hoax sites). The best thing to ask before looking at the list of pages that link to information you want to evaluate is: "if this information is legitimate, who do I expect to find linking to it?" This involves some speculation on your part, but if you expect to find experts in a topic linking to, say, the Northwest Tree Octopus site (marine biologists, etc.) and you find none (which is the case), then you have the benefit of a crowd of witnesses expressing their personal views about the information. In the case of the Tree Octopus, people who link to it tend to find the information funny while others claim it's a fabrication. Based on the consensus of views you can determine there is insufficient support that the octopus has taken to the trees or is endangered.

Evidence of bias can also be found in the words an author uses. Strong language (often adjectives such as 'stupid' or worse) are seeded among biased views. The infamous Martin Luther King Jr. site is an example of this. Teaching students to ask, "why did an author use THAT word?" helps to uncover bias. As a student, I'm not sure I recall any of my teachers addressing how to detect bias, but it would have been valuable.

So I leave you with this challenge. Below is a link to a blog by an author who cannot be identified. Since he's self-published, there's no known publisher to fall back on. Using only the author's words, you can learn a lot about the individual. What would you say are this individual's values or biases? Under what circumstances would you use the information he authors? This could be a good activity for a group of students.


For more on the link: operator and how to use it, visit this tutorial.

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