What do you know and what do you believe?

Despite the fact, that I don’t trust the Bible’s depiction of Jesus and I don’t really know what is meant by “God,” and I don’t have a religion of my own, I’m not completely anti-religious. In fact, I have had religious experiences, or perhaps a better term is “mystical experiences” since it was not an experience of religion, but an experience of the rationally inexplicable. I am sort of an agnostic with mythological syncretism. It could be said that my mystical experiences are merely the result of luck or fantasy or chemical imbalances, and that could be right, but the great thing about it is that they are purely subjective experiences and therefore, I get to be the ultimate decider.

I have the power!

What I especially dislike about monotheistic religions is the tendency to regulate human behavior. I believe that morality is a subject more aptly dealt with by philosophy. I just don’t like the idea that an all-powerful, all-knowing superbeing would say do this and you go to heaven, do that and you go to hell… forever. First of all, that’s not really a choice and second of all, it makes us out to be nothing but trained monkeys. In this system, you can’t really do anything good at all, since you are doing it to avoid eternal, unimaginably-awful punishment. Essentially it’s a bribe. Following this kind of system does not make you good, it makes you obedient. Does God have so little respect for us?

I am aware also that there is a certain tendency in modern society to look down on religious belief as something of a crutch used by those who are too weak to face the horrors of their own reality. I confess I’ve had that thought myself from time to time. This is an idea that has arisen, I believe, as part of the social upheaval of the industrial revolution, the age of the machine, wherein the old symbolic systems have been shattered. Man, machine and science have taken on a new authority at the center of our conceptual model where god once reigned supreme.

Chocolate Grinder by Duchamp

The rationalization of religion can be seen in these quotes by Freud.

“Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.”
–Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 1933

“Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world, which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. […] If one attempts to assign to religion its place in man’s evolution, it seems not so much to be a lasting acquisition, as a parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity.”
–Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, 1939

I’m not in total disagreement with Freud, but does he have to be so mean about it? (I certainly don’t think everything can be reduced to primitive, libidinal drives as Freud’s system seems to suggest.) I’m totally willing to admit that religion is a bunch of “fairy tales,” but I also think fairy tales are cool and perhaps helpful to the properly functioning psyche. If it’s the difference between you being a neurotic mess and you being happy, why not be happy? We tend to convince ourselves that the Truth really is out there and is attainable, but is it really?

Physicists have, for quite a long time now, questioned whether or not objective truth is actually possible. There is a limit to what we can see with the naked senses and then yet another limit by what we can see with the aid of technology. Will technology get better? Yes. But will there always be a limit? Can you make the speed of light go faster? In short, I don’t know. I’ve been on both sides of the argument. I’ve read accounts of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle used in justification of both sides of the question.

The Uncertainty Principle (Le Principe d'Incertitude), Magritte

In short, I don’t have a problem with someone believing in “fairy tales”, but I do think it’s unfortunate that people often confuse belief with fact. Most of the time when people say “I know…” what they really mean is “I believe.” For example, I’ve never ever actually seen that the earth is round, and I have not conducted my own experiments to answer that question. I personally don’t know this for a fact. I have good reason to assume it is a fact, but I’ve never actually seen it. The things that I actually know for a fact are very, very few.

I know that I’m smart. I’ve aced plenty of tests in college, and many of them without studying. In other words, I find that more often than not, I am right, but I am not right because I know, instead I am right because I made a good guess based on sound beliefs and reasonable assumptions. This is the case with most people, they just don’t know it. If you keep asking as a child sometimes does… “Well, how do you know that?” (answer) and “how do you know that?” (answer) and “how do you know that?” etc, etc, etc… eventually you realize that you don’t actually know very much of anything. If you allow yourself to really think about it you will see that what you have is a very reasonable model, an approximation of reality, and this model is fundamentally based on belief or assumptions. It is not based on facts that you know personally to be true. Or at least, it is not based on many facts.

This is perhaps why so many people have a problem with understanding how science works. Science has become very important to modern society and naturally so. Look at all we’ve gained from it, especially in areas like medicine. But science is not a system of fixed truths. It is designed to change, to adapt as new information is brought to light. So what we may consider to be “scientifically” verified truth today may turn out to be wrong tomorrow.

At any rate, it’s very important for everyone to realize that their conception of the world is just that. It’s a concept. It’s a map, a model, a system of symbols, a representation. We love our symbols, and they are useful, but we must be sure to break free from time to time and actually see the world for what it is. The problem with symbols is that we come to rely on them too much, even to the point that we refuse truth that contradicts our model of the world.

There on the table, my yellow mug, half full of lukewarm cocoa.

Laying a Brick: what is bias?

(Introducing the category: Laying a Brick. Since bias is a central theme of many of my posts, I thought I should try to layout some background and assumptions I am using, and to create a sounding board for further discussions. These types of posts I consider foundational because they inform the use of the term bias in other posts. and yes, I’m not unfamiliar with the scatological characterization of the bloggosphere.)

This one is a toughie. It’s basically defined as an outlook or perspective that is usually unfair or unreasonable toward opposing perspectives. We all agree that everyone is entitled to their own perspective, but how do we judge whether or not something is unfair? Especially when the judgers may use their own bias to make that decision?

The definition is also open to using the word “bias” without the implication of suppressing alternative perspectives. In that case, it just means preference or holding some value. Therefore, when the word bias is used, there’s the potential for some ambiguity. This is one reason why we must make a distinction between negative bias and neutral bias, personal bias and media bias. Personal bias can be benign or “unfair” depending on the use and context of the word, but when you have media bias, the underlying assumption (which is not always correct) is that it’s the “unfair” kind.

It is arguable that it is impossible to completely remove bias from the news, and therefore the best we can hope for is a diverse market that caters to all sides. (whoa! More on this later.) But does that exonerate the worse case offenders from not even attempting to be impartial? Does the fact that bias is nearly impossible to remove mean that we must adjust our expectations for journalistic ethics? Or can a code of ethics function as a litmus test for revealing unacceptable uses of bias?

Overtly, we agree that negative bias is bad. When a news outlet admits bias, it takes a hit. We have an interesting situation where journalists and news organizations tacitly admit bias, and yet call out other journalists and news organizations for their bias. It appears hypocritical, but maybe this is just part of the theater of opposing biases. Each side does not appear unfairly biased to itself, but each does appear unfairly biased towards one another.

This brings us to another dimension of the bias conundrum, the “hostile media effect.” This is when someone with a strong bias automatically “perceives media coverage as biased against their opinions, regardless of the reality.”

Even though we think of media bias as wrong, the market appears to the support news organizations despite their perceived biases, or perhaps even because of them. Studies show (see below) show that there is a strong influence of bias in the news market due to the demand of the news buying market. If we suppose that the market is actually open and free, then what does the current state of bias in mainstream news outlets say about the bias of the body politic? And, even more importantly, what does this say about the people?


The question is not whether there is bias; everyone has bias. The question is whether that bias is unfair or unreasonable in its treatment of alternative perspectives. Unfortunately, it is probably impossible to always objectively determine whether or not a bias is unfair towards others. And chances are, even in the best situations, at least one person may still be entitled to call foul simply. Is it possible to offer an opinion on politics and current events that is universally unbiased? maybe, but I don’t see how. Perceptions of unfair bias are predicated upon the viewer’s bias, the ability to step outside of one’s bias and the individual’s ability to tolerate alternative perspectives.

Finally, I’m left wondering… can the journalistic code of ethics (or some type of methodology) be used with reasonable accuracy to call out bias? Is it something that can only be used with authority by those outside the bias of mainstream society? Finally what can be said about the bias against science? Regardless of the bias that may or may not have prompted it, shouldn’t cases of distortion, misinterpretation or otherwise inappropriate use of science and scientific data be called out and corrected?


(In the effort to promote transparency, enlightenment and critical thinking, I feel it is important to document the information I am using.)

The Market for News” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Andrei Shleifer published in the peer reviewed journal American Economic Review is  a study which explores the relationship between demand in the news market and it’s influence on biased news. Although not definitive proof, the study provides strong evidence that the bias present in news media is a product of maximizing profit in the market.   http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/shleifer/files/market_aea.pdf

Another exploration of media bias and supply demand side economics is provided in “Media Bias and Reputation.” [Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro; Journal of Political Economy, 2006, 114(2), pp. 280 – 316. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/499414] Here the authors find that bias occurs as a result of news organizations effort to build a reputation of accuracy with their potential market. Gentzkow has continued this exploration in several subsequent papers. See here: http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/busecon/busfac/Gentzkow.html

Apart from this is I used wikipedia and various online dictionaries. Wikipedia is usually a good starting point for getting some background on the issue: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_bias

Big Hollwood? Bad Hollywood! Bad Blog!

Recently I came across a blog post by Adam Baldwin (actor in the awesome, now defunct show Firefly) on the Big Hollywood blog.

Briefly, the blog targets a high school teacher on charges of propaganda and indoctrination of his students with the idea that global warming is caused by human activity.

In support of his attack on Benjamin Kay the science teacher, Baldwin has linked to various sites with so-called evidence that there is not a consensus among scientists regarding the claim that global warming is caused by humans. In fact, Baldwin has focused on the following statement made by Mr. Kay and casually tossed it off as false.

“There’s an actual statistic that 99% of all scientists agree that humans are exacerbating global climate change…”

The result is that his post has fueled the belief of the so-called “climate deniers”. You can see the long list of comments praising Baldwin for exposing this terrible deed and maligning the state of education today that could allow this to happen.

The problem is that all this is all untrue and is itself part of an elaborate propaganda scheme. The attack on the science teacher is unfair and the so-called facts that Baldwin uses to support his claims are flimsy and don’t hold up to scrutiny.

In response to the various claims that there is not a consensus among scientists, researchers have conducted surveys of scientific opinion and literature to ascertain objective data on whether or not this is true. Most recently, researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago have published a paper and survey results. (also see the publishers website and abstract.) In response to the question on whether human activity is a significant contributor to global warming, 80% of all scientist agreed and among climatologists who are active in climate research, that number jumped to 97.4%. In other words, 97.4% of the scientific experts on this topic believe that humans are exacerbating global warming.

OK, Mr. Kay is not completely accurate that there is a 99% consensus among ALL scientist. However, the accusation that Mr. Kay is indoctrinating his students with false propaganda is unfair and not true. While he may oversimplify some facts and data, the overall gist of his message is not wrong. Furthermore, it’s completely unrealistic to expect high school students to truly understand and criticize the actual science of global warming. To do that requires years of advanced study, commonly known as graduate work.

(Oh, the irony, the hypocrisy! that people who themselves have little understanding of science and do not bother to educate themselves, would raise a stink over a high school class glossing over the extensive and complicated details of climate research!)

Now it is true that there are skeptics in the scientific community and I do not wish to overlook this fact. This is a good thing. A healthy dialogue in the scientific community is needed. Good science is constantly experimenting and learning about the world. As new information is brought to light, views are changed, theories are modified, etc, etc. That is not the problem. The problem is the manipulation of public perception for political and economic gain.

This has been documented several times and yet it is still going on. (See 2006 Vanity Fair article.)

If you want to talk conspiracy stories. Lets talk.

A conservative think tank long funded by ExxonMobil [snip] had offered scientists $10,000 to write articles undercutting the new report [on impeding disaster of global warming] and the computer-based climate models it is based on.

From a 2007 Newsweek article

Look. Would you consult a computer programmer about your health problems? How about an insurance adjuster? So, why is it that plenty of folks believe ExxonMobil, PR firms and the conservative think-tanks, and yet refuse to believe the scientific experts? (I have my own answer on that, btw.)

Whether you like it or not, the the reigning view among scientists is that yes, global warming is real, yes, it is a problem and yes, it is exacerbated by human activity. If you want to prove them wrong, then be my guest. Start your own experiments. Publish your data. Please! Do something. Do not, however, repeat ignorant propaganda. Do not make unfair attacks on science teachers who are just following their conscience, trying to do the right thing. There is enough misinformation out there and it’s downright shameful. It ought to be everyone’s ethical duty to avoid propagating lies, and if you don’t know, then find out.