Bias

This post is going to be a little different from the previous ones because I want to address an issue that’s more general than the current EU Referendum. That’s the question of bias.

Accusations that some source or opinion is biased are being thrown around quite regularly and the idea should really be addressed. Not so much for the official campaigns, they are quite clearly, unashamedly and rightly biased; but instead for all the other sources and commentators so that those who are listening to and reading them can do so with more confidence.

What is bias?

A key starting question so I’ve gone to the dictionary (the online OED) and it says:

Bias – Cause to feel or show inclination or prejudice for or against someone or something:

Which then begs the question what do those two words mean; and so:

Prejudice – Preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience

Inclination – A person’s natural tendency or urge to act or feel in a particular way; a disposition

With a definition of what to look for, we can look to see how it manifests itself in the current debate and what that can tell us.

Prejudice

This is the easy one to spot because it’s usually predictable. To be prejudice simply means you have already made up your mind before you have been given any facts – literally pre- judged. The classic example perhaps at the moment is Nigel Farage and his reaction to any report, organisation or body that disagrees with him. As soon as it is reported, he will denounce the source either as EU-funded, a conspiracy of old friends, or just denounce the writers abilities. Because this has become so predictable, he has demonstrated “pre-judgement”.

Prejudice actually comes from a very sensible evolutionary perspective. If you didn’t know what orange and stripy big cats were – and then one almost killed you – afterwards you would be very very wary if you ever saw one again. Your first assumption would be to be very cautious – and those that didn’t learn that lesson, didn’t survive to have children. But we don’t live in the jungle anymore and this doesn’t translate to modern society. To be robbed in France doesn’t make all French robbers. To have been sworn at by an Italian doesn’t make all Italians foul-mouthed. We know it’s nonsense because we don’t say all British are robbers when a robbery occurs here. It’s understandable where it came from; but fellow humans aren’t tigers.

The definition says it’s a preconceived opinion not based on experience; but if you’ve been robbed in France, you have had an experience, haven’t you? Yes, and if you met the same person again, you’d be right to be wary. But to transfer one person’s guilt to another who just happens to live in the same place – and sometimes not even in the same time – as someone who did something to you, is as illogical as it is lazy. Most of us want to be treated as individuals. So we should do the same to others.

So in this campaign, if you see people giving definitive views on anything without any logic or evidence, that’s a preconception. If you see someone refuse to answer when their logic is challenged or they maintain their position in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that’s preconception. Ignoring everything and everyone that disagrees with you, blaming it on “bias”, “corruption” or “conspiracy” because you couldn’t possibly be wrong, that’s a preconception. That’s prejudice.

Apart from that one example above, I won’t pick on any more in this campaign simply because, with the above in mind, they are very easy to spot. And if you’re not sure, ask the question. If there’s reasoning and evidence, it will be forthcoming immediately. If it isn’t and the argument rapidly shifts onto another strand… well, just ask the question again. It’ll become obvious pretty quickly.

Inclination

This is much harder to spot simply because sometimes people genuinely aren’t aware of it (myself possibly included in that). It can be subtle and a product of experience. An open minded person who has seen a lot of bad things happen because of X is naturally going to be suspicious of X in the future, even if sub-consciously. Someone who has benefited from Y is likely to think fondly of it, even if Y can be awful to others.

In this campaign, those who have had funding may well generally think well of the EU and be more inclined to vote Remain, that is probably true even if they’re not fully aware of it. But it’s not an absolute by any means. UKIP receives plenty of EU funding but is hardly pro-EU. The SNP receives plenty of funding at Westminster but is not pro-UK. So this can only ever be a small part of the picture. It’s much more reliable to look at track records.

To add to this, your perspective of the same event or action can be different depending on your own starting point and priorities. More immigration might have a suppressing effect on wages, which is not good if you are the employee. But it’s good for the employer and might allow them to increase profits and expand their business. Thus one person is inclined to be anti-immigration and another pro because of how it affects them personally.

Voting for how things affect you and what you have personally experienced makes sense; but it can lead to bias. A bad experience (or a good one) could lead you to miss parts of the fuller picture and make decisions you wouldn’t have done otherwise. That inclination is hard to avoid – especially as it’s often emotional and sub-conscious. Personally, I would say the best way is to ask questions and challenge views. Keep asking ‘why’ and drill down in the reasoning; and if the answer ends up being something that is very personally affecting you, then that may be revealing an unknown inclination. Or it might be known and you’re happy with that. Either way, you’ll be making a more informed decision than before.

Conclusion

One of the things that prompted me to write this post was an accusation that I was biased. It made me question whether I actually was; so I took seriously his comments and looked at what he was accusing me of.

Firstly, I was accused of being biased because I came to a conclusion on each issue. To me, this is not what being balanced (i.e. not biased) is about. Balanced is not showing prejudice or inclination to either side. Looking at all the arguments and evidence each side is presenting, analysing it and testing the arguments is balanced. And if one side has 5 logical well supported arguments and the other has 1 illogical and poorly supported one, then I am going to say that. To date, I believe that is all I have done; but I know I can be wrong and am happy to respond to any extra information.

However, in doing that, was I showing any prejudice or inclination? I think I can categorically say no to prejudice. I will just go where the reason and evidence take me – and I hope others would do the same. If, on an issue, that takes me to one side more than the other, I think that says more about the arguments presented than it does me.

Do I have an inclination or a disposition towards one side or the others? This is harder to judge as I mentioned earlier. I can admit, though, that my experience of the EU has broadly been positive and my interactions with fellow Europeans has been pleasurable (on the whole). I studied history to degree level as well and saw how a lot of conflict has played out in the past; and I’ve worked a lot with forecasts and economics and so have time for such models. However, I don’t receive any EU funding and have not been approached by David Cameron to participate in a conspiracy (though I would say that, wouldn’t I?).

Overall, I think it’s fair to say that I do have a slight inclination to look at the EU in a positive light and I think the comments probably made me a bit more aware of that. However, as I mentioned before, the remedy for that is to ask questions and be held to account, provide logic and evidence for decisions, be transparent, and then admit when you are wrong – because we all are from time to time. I believe I am doing that and would encourage anyone to challenge me if I appear to stray. But, more importantly, please challenge the ones running these campaigns – all of them!

Bias appears when answers run out. So we all need to just keep asking the questions.