Y(our) Bias is Showing

In Joe Biden’s Inaugural speech, within the first few lines, he said,

“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day. A day of history and hope. Of renewal and resolve.

“Through a crucible for the ages America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge. Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy. The will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded.

“We have learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

President Joe Biden, Inaugural Speech

In President Trump’s inaugural speech, the tone was different. He castigated the established political apparatus for being the enemy of the people. He accused them of forgetting about the American people. He set a tone of confrontation and conflict without compromise. Yet, it didn’t start out that way.

When I reread Mr. Trump’s speech, the second paragraph jumped out at me in which he said,

“Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent. Thank you.”

President Donald Trump, Inaugural Speech
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Now I could go on from this point to emphasize the differences and cast them in the light of my perceptions, but that is the point of this piece. They are my perceptions. Almost from the moment Mr. Trump announced he would run for President it caused a visceral revulsion within me to the very idea.

That reaction resulted from my experiences and education and life choices. Something inside me saw this as wrong.

There were others, millions of my fellow Americans, who saw this in a different light. They saw an outsider to the politics of the establishment. They saw little difference in Republicans and Democrats until Mr. Trump co-opted one party.

And they applauded and voted for the change.

This is not an attempt to prove them wrong in the path they chose. Nor is it an attempt to establish the Biden Presidency as the hope for healing the nation. Each of those efforts would merely underscore my point. We all harbor innate preferences for those things which confirm our beliefs and an equally innate revulsion to those that contradict our positions.

It is something one needs to understand if one is to get past all the bias reinforcing efforts of the media.

In the emerging days of television news, when there were three networks, the technology restricted the competition to breaking news—which actually meant something, not the current nightly lead for every news broadcast — within the limited availability on the airwaves. Then, reporting news based on multiple sources with a focus toward veracity rather than velocity provided a more dependable source of information. They didn’t have such an enormous volume of media time to fill. They chose quality over quantity.

Lyndon Johnson hated the press almost as much as Donald Trump—actually, every President chaffs at the media at some point—but he couldn’t point to any consistent bias because all they reported was the news with high credibility and minimal hyperbole. His problem wasn’t what they reported but that they reported it.

In today’s 7 day a week 24 hours a day news cycle, the goal is to tell the story first then fill in the facts later. It is now velocity over veracity. If one gets something wrong, it is not as bad as if one loses the race to break the story. Quantity overcame quality. The first hint of things to come happened back in 1948 when the Chicago Tribune, trying to be the first to break the news, ran a headline Dewey Defeats Truman in the 1948 Presidential election. He did not.

And this rush to be first feeds into our innate bias.

If you were to ask the average American if violence and crime are rising in the US, I would predict most would say it was. But the reality is violent crime has declined since 1992. There are periodic rises, but the current level is at historic lows. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45236.pdf

(As a matter of fact, violence world-wide has declined, as have hunger, poverty, and other critical problems. Google it!)

These misperceptions, driven by a continuous replaying of the same story repeatedly, give the impression of one continuous and growing wave of violence.  

Another misperception is the so-called war on cops. Any death of an officer in the line of duty is one too many, but the reality is line of duty deaths of officers have declined over the past several decades. As with violent crime, there have been increases in some year over year totals, but looking at historic data they are declining.

Yet, nonsense movements like Defund the Police getting almost continuous coverage gives the impression the movement has significant support. The reality is it does not. Those who oppose these movements classify it as a war on cops. Those who support it argue cops are killing more people. Neither is accurate, but the bias supplants the reality. Social media propels much of this, replacing reliable news organizations as the primary source of information.

Social media techniques targeting our interests with social media feeds exacerbates innate bias. If one searches for saltwater aquariums, as I recently did, one is inundated with not just easily identifiable ads but reports cleverly masquerading as “news.”

The almighty Google, a magnificently effective tool when used properly, made a slight but important change a few years ago. The power of information in the average person’s hands is a significant force for change when properly understood. In its original iteration, a Google search produced meaningful results interspersed with ads necessary to fund the system.

Now, the algorithm has matured to include known specific interests based on search history, website visits, product purchases, and a plethora of other data. This does not differ from the targeted ads in magazines and newspaper that once served as the principal source of news. Google no longer waits for you to ask, it force feeds you things they believe will catch your interest.

The problem is, for a significant number of people, social media and Google are their sole source of information which, playing to an inherently limited attention span and dearth of analytical skills which handicaps intelligent evaluation of the material, feeds them exactly what they want to hear and filters out that which would be contrary.

Social media, if not put in proper perspective or if used in a vacuum absent other sources of information, potentiates cognitive bias. Like the three blind men touching different parts of an elephant, their limited perpectives misses the larger picture.

We are all subject to this bias, and the only way to overcome this is through a deliberate and concerted effort to understand issues from a variety of perspectives. I’ll offer one example.

One of the most divisive issues in the United States is the death penalty. I am opposed to the death penalty because I believe it to be barbaric and, having an intimate familiarity with the inner workings of the criminal justice system and human frailties, see the risk of executing an innocent person outweighing any legitimate societal benefit in imposing of such a sentence. The risk far outweighs the benefit to society.

Now those who support the death penalty will argue one of two positions. They will point out the most horrendous case of which there is no question of the individual’s guilt as justification for execution. Or they will pose the question, suppose someone killed a member of your family, wouldn’t you want them punished?

It illustrates a bias to the reality of criminal justice and the flaws within the system. As a normal human, my reaction to someone harming a member of my family might drive me to murderous rage, and I, in all likelihood, would want them executed. It is one reason we don’t let victims determine the punishment. Emotion or vengeance can never be the motivation behind justice.

The counter argument is simple. If the death penalty is on the books, the possibility exists that we could execute an innocent person. A developed nation such as ours, with a robust and fair, if imperfect, criminal justice system should never take such a risk.

Looking at all sides of an issue is not a weakness or acquiescence; it is an intelligent approach to arriving at rational solutions. Technology has opened access to a wide world of information and, in the right hands with the right skills, information is the key to progress.

Thus technology is not the problem. The problem is ill-equipped citizens failing to recognize and account for their own bias. We require a license to drive a car, hunt, fish, become a lawyer or doctor. We make no such requirement to wield the power of casting a vote.

Failing to provide a fundamental education on civic duties—I’d be willing to bet most Americans would fail the citizenship test we demand immigrants to pass—and a sound foundation in analytical skills in our educational system makes us vulnerable to lies, misrepresentations, and conspiracy nonsense masquerading as news.

I may not always succeed, but I endeavor to look at an issue from all sides before I form an opinion. While I usually listen to my gut instincts, I try to keep in mind that some of that may be a product of innate bias and recognize such phenomenon.

There is always more than one way to the top of a mountain if you look for it.


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