Discussions of Bias in answers to the Edge 2007 Question

The new answers to the Edge 2007 Question ‘What are you optimistic about’ contain several discussions of bias. I’ve excerpted a few quotations below, about pessimism caused by the media’s bad news bias and bias in social science caused by political belief.

Media biases causes pessimism


“Over the years media owners have proven to their complete satisfaction that the stories that attract large audiences are the simple human dramas. Rottweiler Savages Baby is a bigger story than Poverty Percentage Falls even though the latter is a story about better lives for millions.…for example, the publication last year of a carefully researched Human Security Report received little attention. Despite the fact that it had concluded that the numbers of armed conflicts in the world had fallen 40% in little over a decade. And that the number of fatalities per conflict had also fallen. Think about that. The entire news agenda for a decade, received as endless tales of wars, massacres and bombings, actually missed the key point.”

Bias in social science


“Moralistic antinativism.  …I have noticed that social scientists older than me generally begin with a social learning explanation of everything (especially sex differences), and then act as though it is "conservative" (scientifically) or "liberal" (politically) to stick with social learning unless the evidence against it is overwhelming, p<.05, which it rarely is. But shouldn’t we use p<.5 here? Shouldn’t we always let nativist and empiricist explanations both have a go at each question and then pick the one that has the better fit, overall, with the evidence? I look forward to the day when most social scientists learned about the astonishing findings of twin studies in their twenties, and very few know who Stephen Jay Gould was.”
“Moral Conformity Pressure. Imagine an industry in which 90% of the people are men, male values and maleness are extolled publicly while feminine values are ridiculed, and men routinely make jokes, publicly and privately, about how dumb women are, even when women are present. Sounds like a definition of hostile climate” run wild? Now replace the words male” and female” with liberal” and conservative,” and we have a pretty good description of my field —social psychology—and, I suspect, many other areas of the social sciences….”

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  • I know this is a somewhat controversial point, but it’s not always clear when preferences are due to bias. In the case of liberals vs conservatives, the argument goes that academics are smarter than usual, that smarter people are more likely to hold correct views, and that liberalism is a correct view. The mere fact that academics scorn conservatives is not necessarily indication of bias, as the inflammatory analogy to males vs females suggests. Much the same tale could be told about evolutionists vs creationists (except that the creationists wouldn’t even be allowed into the room to be laughed at), but that doesn’t mean that we attribute that position to bias.

    I should add that I am in the fortunate position of being able to be agnostic on the liberal/conservative position, since I don’t see much relevance of these ideologies to my day to day life. So I’m not taking sides here.

  • TGGP

    Perhaps we could look for a correlation with IQ and political beliefs. I recall reading that economists outside of academia are supposed to be less leftist than those inside.

    Bryan Caplan had a post on this topic a while back: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2005/04/tabarrok_should.html

  • Hal: are you saying that we are entitled to be as confident in our beliefs in political ideologies as we are in our scientific beliefs? I don’t think we are.

  • M Lafferty

    Political ideology, like religion, is very handy when answers are required to questions that defy rational analysis, either because they are very difficult or even inherently unanswerable. Opinions obtained by recourse to ideology may be comforting, and hence serve a purpose, but they are vanishingly unlikely to be true.

    Perhaps this is the source of the old adage “Never discuss religion or politics”: there is simply no rational basis for resolving differences of opinion when discussing these topics.

  • Nicholas, I don’t think we can make general statements about the probability of political vs scientific beliefs. Scientific issues run the gamut from well established to completely unknown. And there is considerable overlap between the two. Many political and ideological beliefs relate to economic policy, human psychology, sociology, and other areas amenable to scientific study. In fact in the U.S. even a quintessentially scientific issue like evolution has a considerable political and ideological component. So I don’t think we can easily distinguish the two kinds of issues in terms of how confident we can be.

  • Hal: Fair enough, up to a point. I contrasted scientific *beliefs*, not scientific speculations, with beliefs in *political ideologies*. To take the specific contrast your raised, evolutionists are entitled to think that creationism is false, but no such confidence is warranted by liberals over conservatives, or vice versa.

    “evolution has a considerable political and ideological component” Really? What is that, then? I don’t think that *any* non-normative claim about the natural facts has *any* political and ideological *component* (they might have political and ideological *implications*, if the ought implies can principle is true, but that is a wholly different matter).

  • The claimed media bias assumes that what people want about news is useful information about overall trends. What if they just want to be entertained, or to collect fun stories to tell others?