Today’s topic in my historiography class was supposed to be causation – why does stuff happen? But we got astray, because the chapter on causation in our textbook started off with a riff on the importance of questions, which led to a discussion of bias. Most people think of bias as someone having an axe to grind or some product to sell. We see it every day, from politicians to advertisers. We think ourselves pretty savvy, snickering at the blurbs on movie ads from reviewers no one has ever heard of, sneering at the half-truths from the politicians we love to hate. But seeing bias on that level is trivial – any five year old can spot the obvious stuff.
I routinely get book reviews from students telling me that the author was “objective and unbiased.” What they mean is that the author was measured in tone, neither praising the subject at hand to high heavens nor demanding its damnation. Most scholarly authors of course don’t do that – we got that beaten out of us in grad school. But bias very much remains. The place where bias is most influential is not in our adjectives but in our questions. It is when we decide what to write about, what to research, what questions to ask, that our presuppositions become clear. If I bother to write a book called Religion in America, I am asserting that religion in America is important and worth researching. You may say that of course it is, but note I have not written a book called Atheism in America, or Humanism in America. Indeed, Prentice Hall publishes a textbook called Religion in America – there is no corresponding title on atheism (PZ Meyers might want to look into that).
So if you really want to know where bias lies in academic or journalistic circles, don’t just look at what is written, think also about what is not written. Frank Rich’s new book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina makes exactly this point. In the run up to the Iraq war, the information was out there that the intelligence for WMDs in Iraq was weak and shoddy. Most of the media, the Knight-Ridder papers being an exception, just weren’t asking the right questions. Indeed, the White House was in the same boat. They focused on asking what evidence there was for WMDs in Iraq, and vacuumed up every scrap they could find. They didn’t ask the opposite question - what evidence is there against the existence of WMDs in Iraq? This is how the CIA got caught flatfooted by the collapse of the Soviet Union – our agents and analysts studied the ways the USSR was powerful and dangerous, not the ways in which it was a house of cards. Once again we didn’t ask the right questions. Please, before we start bombing Iran, could somebody start asking the right ones?
Thursday, September 21, 2006