We’ve covered how to evaluate sources for their credibility, i.e., how likely it is that they’ll contain accurate information, but today I want to discuss something else that affects sources: bias.
Simply put, bias is partiality or prejudice for or against something.
All sources, regardless of the publisher, author, or intent, will have some level of bias in them, so don’t waste your time by asking, “Is this source biased?” The answer will always be “yes.” Instead, what you’ll want to focus on is 1) how much a person or source has attempted to correct for bias and 2) the degree to which a person or source has been compromised by bias.
Why Are All Sources Biased?
Because humans are biased; we can’t help it. Our genetics, environments, experiences, education, and a million other things affect the way we understand the world. In fact, a lack of influencing factors can have just as much of an impact on the way we see, gather, or interpret information.
We then carry those biases into everything we do. We pay attention to certain things and not others; we ascribe value to this but not that. Even the inquiries we pose at the beginning of projects—writing projects, engineering projects, self-improvement projects—reflect bias.
Wait, you mean everything is biased? Like…everything?
I sure do.
All news? Biased.
All science? Biased.
All history? Biased.
Your very own write-like-a-PhD author? Biased.
Nothing humans create or influence can escape bias, not even stuff that’s produced by experts who have been trained to prize accuracy and credibility.
Uh-oh. Isn’t Bias the Most Terrible Thing Ever?
Sort of! Sometimes! It depends.
A big reason we tend to freak out about bias is because objectivity has become the standard that we think we should all be achieving all of the time. If we’re objective/impartial/not biased, then we’re reasonable! Logical! Trustworthy!
But, if we’re biased, then egad! We’re emotional…irrational…and definitely not worth listening to.
The thing is though, that’s not really how the world works. Just as accuracy doesn’t preclude bias, bias does not preclude accuracy. You can absolutely produce writing, research, and thinking that is sound and reasoned, even with bias (or worse, emotions!) present.
Which brings me to my first recommendation for how you deal with bias, and that is to rely on information that is checkable when making assessments.
Checkable? Yes, one of the things academic or professional scientists do is to make their research methods and data available so that others can reproduce (i.e., check) their work. The humanities also do something similar. We include information we gather from sources and then provide those sources to our readers so they can go see if our claims are warranted.
Using this approach doesn’t guarantee that bias won’t affect someone’s conclusions. However, reproducible or checkable information increases the chances that findings or results have merit.
Okay, but Doesn’t Bias Make People Jerks?
Yes! Sometimes! It depends.
Another major reason why we get so hinky about bias is that bias-run-amok can have devastating consequences on people’s lives as well as the information we consume. One way to combat this type of bias—that is, the incendiary and discriminatory variety—is to get good at spotting it so you can avoid getting suckered into someone else’s bias trap.
And that brings me to my second recommendation for dealing with bias, which is to assess the source itself for an agenda.
Here’s how I do that.
When I’m evaluating information or a source of information for bias, I generally ask myself the following questions:
- Who is telling me the information?
- What benefit or disadvantage comes from revealing this information?
- Why does this person want me to know what they’re telling me? (Or, alternatively, why doesn’t this person want me to know some piece of information?)
The more answers include things like “to inflame opinions” or “to stir up trouble,” the more likely I’m dealing with 1) extensive bias and 2) information that is suspect due to the level of bias present. As such, I will probably take the information with very large grains of salt until I can do some investigating of my own.
Cool. So, Unless the Person/Source is a Jerk, It’s Probably Okay?
No! Sometimes! It depends.
Don’t mistake my “we’re all biased, we can’t escape it” for “don’t worry about it!” We should worry about bias, and we should try to recognize when it’s impacting the sources we use and our own thinking and judgments.
Indeed, bias will do greater harm if we don’t acknowledge it than if we do—regardless of whether it’s a “mild” form of bias or one that’s more sinister. Rigorously interrogating our sources and ourselves for biases should be a regular, automatic process for writers and anyone who wants to communicate their expertise on a subject.
So, in summary, be aware all sources will be biased and adjust your assessments and expectations accordingly. If a source has a dearth of checkable information and/or the source seems to have an agenda that involves stirring up trouble, be very careful.
More to Come!
Join me again next week as we dive into the depths of writing and research. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter!