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Every person and every media outlet has a point of view (usually several), and every point of view has opponents who consider it bias. Stephen Colbert, for example, likes to point out that facts have a Liberal bias. ^_^

So what is bias, and what would an unbiased point of view look like? I can make some suggestions from my own point of view, which is, of course, biased in my own personal way, and not any kind of absolute Truth about absolutely everything. I'm a Buddhist, for example.

The simplest distinction we can make among various points of view, but not by any means the most obvious, is their attitudes to ignorance. The Fundamentalist point of view, whether Christian, Buddhist, Communist, Fascist, scientific, or any other, rejects ignorance utterly, claiming to have a source of Ultimate Truth that cannot be questioned. (Yes, I have encountered such Fundamentalist Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and China. If you are interested, ask me, and I'll tell you about some of them. Also devotees of Scientism of various kinds. What you call cranks.) Others, including Socratic philosophy, Zen Buddhism, some forms of Christian mysticism, and science, embrace ignorance in various ways.

Follow me for more on this, and then around and back to the question of media conspiracies and biases.

Before we begin, let us acknowledge the poetic contribution of disgraced Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to the study of ignorance.

The Unknown

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

He, as we know, thought he knew much that he didn't. Which takes us to Mark Twain, or possibly to some other 19th century humorist to whom this quotation has been confidently attributed.

It isn't what you don't know that gets you, it's what you do know that just ain't so.
And that brings us to where the story really starts, with Socrates, who is often, though inaccurately, taken as the beginning point of Western philosophy. In reality, he was just the first Greek philosopher with a really good publicist, the organizer of the first serious think tank. His disciple Plato had started out as a playwright, and then burned his plays after he met Socrates and turned his skills to dramatic versions of philosophical dialogues. Plato often seems to be an unreliable witness, with more of an interest in dramatizing his own version of the teaching of Socrates than in reporting it accurately. (Plato is also the greatest theoretician of tyranny on record, much worse than Machiavelli or the Chinese Legalist Han Feizi, who recommended a ten-to-one ratio of punishments to rewards, as then practiced by the First Emperor in the Qin Dynasty.) At any rate, in Plato's account, Socrates defended himself at his trial on a charge of Impiety in part by telling the story of the Oracle of Apollo saying that no one in Greece was wiser than Socrates.

Note the wording carefully. As usual, the Oracle's words can be taken in more than one way. Socrates says that he is not wise, but almost completely ignorant, so how can the Oracle be correct? But on investigation, he found that all of those who knew a great deal came to believe that they knew even more, and to fall into even greater and more consequential errors than those who knew little (like Rumsfeld in our time). He decided that he would rather be ignorant, and know it, than to know a great deal, but not know how much.

Whether or not this is historically accurate, it has had a great influence. Among other things, it is at the foundation of the discovery of the Dunning-Kruger effect, that the less competent and more ignorant rate themselves higher in competence than even the most competent, who are aware of what they do not know. What Dilbert has been telling us all along, and what you can observe every day in Republican politics.

Scientific Ignorance, Pseudo-Scientific Know-Alls

In case you are wondering about Scientific Fundamentalist cranks, have a look at href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usenet_celebrity#Eccentric_believers">Archimedes Plutonium and his Plutonium Atom Totality theory. Then there are flat-Earthers, AIDS-deniers, circle-squarers, Global Warming deniers, Voodoo Economists, and a host of others. There is also the tradition in the schools of idolatrous devotion to The Right Answer in the back of the teachers' edition of the textbook, or held in deepest secrecy by standardized testing companies, but that is a topic for another time.

It is also well-known, in accordance with Socrates's observation, for established scientists to give their own work more authority than it has earned, and to reject new observations where an explanation has not yet been found. We all know about physicists claiming that powered flight was impossible, until the Wright Brothers did it.

  • French scientists before the Revolution rejected peasant tales of rocks falling from the sky, both because there are obviously no rocks in the sky (Duh!), and because peasants were considered intellectually inferior and given to lying at every opportunity. After the Revolution, scientists took the tales seriously because the peasants were now respectable free farmers, and because there obviously are rocks in the sky, particularly in the Asteroid Belt (Duh!). The scientists looked at the meteorites and began to learn from and about them.
  • The observation that Africa and South America would have fitted together quite neatly, and that this would solve many evolutionary conundrums, was rejected for decades because solid rock continents obviously cannot move. Except they can, when their boundaries are made of volcanic vents, as at the Atlantic Mid-ocean Ridge.
  • Even Einstein had a version of the problem, because the Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Mechanics conflicted with his notions of God knowing what he was doing. He devoted boundless energy to digging out the obviously nonsensical conclusions of QM, all of which were confirmed to be true in the lab. As Niels Bohr observed, "If you think you understand Quantum Mechanics, that is proof that you don't."
  • The notion of the formation of the Channeled Scablands in Washington by flowing water was clearly ridiculous. There can't be that much water available to flow so fast anywhere on land. Except, it turns out, at the end of ice ages, when nearly all of Montana has been under glaciers, then under a huge lake of meltwater now named Lake Missoula, which breaks out from the boundary glaciers and flows to the Pacific in about four days each time. This is also how the Grand Coulee got cut 900 feet deep, straight up and down, unlike the widely sloping Grand Canyon and others. And how Montana boulders the size of houses, easily identified by geologists, rolled down into the Pacific ocean.
  • The decipherment of Mayan writing was held up for decades by the top scholar in the field, Eric Thompson, who refused to recognize research into the notion that Mayan had a complicated spelling system, not just symbols for whole words.
  • But such incidents form a very small part of the entire scientific enterprise, which is normally strongly focused on the other side of the question, what we know we don't know. That is in part because the essence of scientific research lies in finding unanswered questions and unexplained observations, and then finding and testing possible answers and explanations. Furthermore, a researcher with a new n must try to think of all of the reasons why that idea might be wrong, and carry out experiments or observations that can confirm or refute it, or require modifications to the idea.

    For example, it is still said with some frequency, even by some who should know better, that scientific aerodynamics claims that bees cannot fly. This is nonsense, of course, and a very personal insult to scientists. What they really used to say was that the science of fixed-wing craft could not explain how bees fly. Then they figured it out. Bees not only flap their wings, but change the angle of attack, generating vorticity that results in greater lift. No, I can't explain it at a third-grade level, but you could watch the video.

    For ideas that have passed some of this scrutiny, a research community can take up the challenge. Thus we have continuing tests of Einstein's General Relativity such as Gravity Probe B (Confirmed with great difficulty. The experiment was harder than it seemed when it was built and launched into space, and many would like to do it over with improved apparatus.)

    There are other complications. Einstein accepted the Steady State model of the Cosmos, and put a Cosmological Constant in his gravity equations to accommodate it. When Edwin Hubble discovered cosmic expansion, now measured by the Hubble Constant, Einstein took the Cosmological Constant out of the equations, declaring it to be the greatest blunder of his life. Now that we know that the expansion is accelerating, we have had to put the Cosmological Constant back in again, but in a different form.

    Christian Humility

    The Christian mystical tradition, and many others, celebrate our ignorance of God, the ineffable, beyond any possibility of description or comprehension. Here is Job, borrowed by Jews from a Babylonian original. (Job 42:3)

    You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?'
           Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
           things too wonderful for me to know.
    Buddhist sayings:
    He who speaks does not know; he who knows does not speak.
    When you see the truth, you will understand that ships and rafts [metaphors for crossing from ignorance to knowledge] are a past dream.
    To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self, and be Enlightened by everything.
    Buddhism teaches Skill in Means, methods of bringing people to the point where they can realize the indescribable for themselves. After all, saying that it is indescribable is also incorrect.

    Daoism:

    The Dao that can be followed is not the eternal Dao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name.
    The One is the mother of the ten thousand things. The Dao is the mother of the One.
    Christianity:

    (Matthew 11:27)

    No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
    (I Timothy 15:16)
    15 ...the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords;

     16 Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see...

    You can't argue with mystics. They might tell you that you have mistaken the finder pointing to the moon (the Truth) for the moon itself. Niels Bohr didn't know the half of it.

    There are even scientific mystics. See, for example, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, by Jill Bolte Taylor.

    These various sources agree that, contrary to the maunderings of the Religious Right, we do not know what the Divine is, nor does it matter that we believe or do not. We can experience unity with all living things, unity with the Universe. We can see that we are of the same substance as the stars, or alternatively describe the stars as having the same inherent nature as the Buddhas, and therefore that we are not superior to others, but are in the same boat together. Even if the boat is an illusion.

    Media Conspiracies

    Well. Where does that leave us? Oh, yes, right here where we were, confronted by Fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, hidebound schoolteachers, kleptocrats, mathematical and scientific cranks, Tea Partiers, this-that-and-the-other deniers, all claiming to know everything, or at least everything of importance.

    Like the legend that Muslim General Amr ibn al `Aas who burned every book his men could find in Alexandria, centuries after Christians sacked the library and murdered the Librarian, Hypatia. The General asked Caliph Omar what to do, and Omar said that what was in the infidel books either disagreed with the holy Qur'an, and must be destroyed, or agreed with it, and was unnecessary. (Their names was later cursed by those who built the great library of Baghdad, later still sacked by Mongols. So the world goes round.)

    Yes, here we are stuck in the midst of those who know everything; those who know nothing; and those who know something, but are wrong about how much. So you see where I fall among these. I am a firm believer in philosophical, scientific, and religious ignorance, and solidly against all claims of total revelation or discovery of Ultimate or even comprehensive truth. And I like it that way. If we knew everything, what would be left to do?

    The media, however, are not engaged in philosophy, science, or religion. According to one theory, variously espoused by Thomas Jefferson and Thomas E. Dewey, they are there to inform the public about events of importance to the Republic, things that citizens should know about and base political decisions on. Which implies that they should make a great effort to be clear, complete, and correct, and tell readers where to find out more. Instead, with a few honorable exceptions, what we see can only be described as Epic Fail.

    Then there is the theory that the purpose of the media is propaganda about things that some self-important person or group thinks people should believe and base political decisions on. The theory that you can fool almost enough of the people amost enough of the time, and make up the difference in dirty campaign tricks. Which has had some success at times, but depends critically on people being willing to fool themselves about some threat, perhaps economic, perhaps an ethnic group, or country, or religion, or ideology. That requires a high level of fear, which cannot be sustained where there are any usable sources of truth. Even racism in the US, endemic for centuries, is on the wane. When the Southern Baptist Convention elects a Black President, you know that the Old South will fall again, and stay down this time. Even when it is a very, very socially conservative Black President.

    Thus, to the fact-oriented, propaganda is correctly seen to be the result of bias, even conspiracy, while to the propagandist, it is convenient to lie about the facts, and claim that the fact-oriented are biased and engaging in conspiracy. Hence the "No-Spin Zone", "We Report, You Decide" of the Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Really? Bill Orly (Taitz)? Papa Bear? Fixed News, I mean Faux News, I mean, um, Foxed News? Cluster-Fox?...Oh, you know who I mean. And of course, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the other usual suspects.

    But what do I know? That's just my bias. ^_^ Oh, wait, no it isn't. I fact-checked them. And the Liberal Media too.

    Anyway, it could be worse. In Russia, they used to say that in Pravda (The Truth) there was no news, and in Izvestia (The News) there was no truth--В Правде нет известии, да в Известие нет правды. (They still do, but there is now a Russian Spring underway.) There are still many state-owned radio and TV stations, and newspaper and magazine publishers, churning out personality cult fantasies and other such nonsense around the world. And censoring the Internet. (Disclosure: I am one of the authors of Bypassing Internet Censorship, available now in English, Arabic, Farsi, Russian, Chinese...)

    We also have much further-out sources such as former Trotskyite Lyndon LaRouche, who claims to be the spiritual heir of FDR, and that Dick Cheney is the Antichrist. I sort of see where he is coming from, but no.

    Much traditional Liberal media "bias" (or more properly, point of view) can be traced to an important set of facts about reporters: They spend far more time than the rest of us dealing with the people in the news, whether politicians, criminals and their victims, accident and disaster victims, celebrities, or the subjects of human interest stories or investigations. Thus they get a close-up view of human vanity, greed, lust for power, and the like, and also human good will, endurance, altruism, and so on, and the real problems people face. It is also significant that they chose this way of life. Many of them want to know what is really going on more than most of us do, and they want to tell the world.

    Anti-Liberal media are driven by other motives on the part of their owners and top managers, as Fox apparently by greed and lust for power on the part of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes; the Christian Broadcasting Network by Pat Robertson's racism, homophobia and so on, and those of his followers; and the Mainstream Media by the greed of its corporate owners.

    So what do you do? If you really want unbiased news, you have to, at a minimum, search out multiple sources, and learn how to check facts yourself. But that is a different Diary, for another time.

Originally posted to Mokurai on Sat Jun 30, 2012 at 10:57 AM PDT.

Also republished by Political Language and Messaging.

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