August 10, 2014

Disclosing Bias

Bias is something most of us seek to avoid; at least, we seek to avoid it when we are trying to be objective. This is an important point because we are not trying to be objective much of the time. For example, most of the personal blogs you read, including this one, make no claim to be objective. We are not doing investigative reporting or presenting ourselves as objective journalists; we are sharing our personal opinions on the topics we address (for more on this topic, see Bloggers as Journalists).

What is critical about this sort of opinion blogging is that we freely acknowledge our bias. I have repeatedly informed my readers that this is an opinion blog because I believe that this is important for them to know. The scenario I think we all want to avoid is the one in which someone conceals his or her bias and feigns objectivity. This should erode trust.

There are plenty of situations where we expect much more objectivity that what we are likely to encounter from opinion bloggers. We hope that scientists strive to reduce bias and promote objectivity. In part, this is because we recognize the importance of what they are doing and the consequences associated with undetected bias in their work. We bristle when a journalist writes a one-sided hit piece (for a recent and unfortunate example of what this looks like, see Richard Dawkins: Atheism's asset or liability). We see how misleading such an article can be when sources are selected because they confirm a particular viewpoint, and we are understandably skeptical of the work such a journalist might produce in the future.

We recognize that there are scenarios in which bias is warranted because of the overwhelming data on one side and lack of evidence on the other. But then again, following the data isn't really bias at all, is it? It doesn't make much sense to claim that we are biased in favor of evolution over creationism. Some questions have been answered.

For those of us writing personal blogs, I think it is desirable to make an effort to avoid bias where it makes sense to do so and to disclose our bias when it cannot or should not be avoided. I do not think that most opinion bloggers need to began every sentence with "In my opinion," but it can be helpful to remind one's audience from time-to-time that they are reading an opinion blog. The burden is higher for a journalist. At least, it should be if they expect to be taken seriously.

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