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November 27, 2004

A Treatise on Debate: Part II - Bias and POV

Last night a group of us got into a debate that seemed to quickly degrade to a point where it was no longer productive. Strangely enough, it should have been obvious to me WHEN this point was reached, why it was reached and what should have been done at this point, given my last post on the topic. It was only the next day that I realized what mistakes were made. I believe the story of what happened can be instructive to everyone.

A debate began on bias in the media, whether it was more liberal or conservative. The purpose of this post is not to make a case in any direction, but to use the debate we had as a model. Early on in the debate, my friend, who I will call Wes, inadvertently, but astutely, pointed out the problem with our debate. What he said was, "My theory is that since most of the news media is so liberal, it makes Fox News appear very conservative. If you lived on the surface of the sun, everything might seem cold." Please, no comments on whether you agree or not, that isn't important. What Wes had aptly discovered was that our observations on whether the media was liberal or conservative was based on our perspective of what was liberal and conservative. It was at this point in the debate someone countered by repeating his claim in reverse, saying that the reason he thought most of the media was liberal was because they were compared to Fox News which was obviously so far to the right, everyone else seemed far left.

I have begun to see this trend in debates where this type of paradoxical argument is so often presented. It is paradoxical because both sides are applying the same rules to the other to arrive at a different conclusion based on different premises. I think we should watch for this very occurrence because it almost always signifies something important that can be useful in determining the debate is no longer productive and how to move it towards productivity. Taking the substance of what Wes was saying out, he was essentially saying that our conclusion was invalid because our bias made our observations skewed. He was right. We of course repeated the same claim back, invalidating his comments. We were, of course, right. The mistake we all made was in assuming each of us was in a position to make that claim about our opponent. For, in order to make the claim that our opponent is wrong because of his/her bias, we are also claiming we are not so biased and at the least unbiased enough to recognize our opponents bias. Here again, both groups are claiming to be unbiased while claiming the other to be biased. The reality is that we were both biased and neither of us was cable of making the claim that we were less biased than the other. It was at this point we should have reframed the debate to try and come to come up with questions that we agreed encapsulated the debate. Before explaining how this might be done I want to make an illustration about the nature of bias.

Here is a way of looking at the problem of bias that better illustrates our dilemma. Let us assume we all see the degrees of bias in terms of a scale from -10 to +10. For the sake of this discussion we'll use political bias as our example. So, we may see -10 to represent the far left and +10 to represent the far right. No one wants to believe his/her bias is so strong that they're views are highly skewed so few people would call themselves a -10 or a +10. Most reasonable people would admit their biased, but downplay how much. Maybe they are a 3 or 4, admitting bias without claiming to be wildly biased. Now lets pretend that in reality, there is an absolute scale of -1,000 to +1,000 representing all possible viewpoints from the far left to right. My -10 to +10 scale I see will fall somewhere within that larger scale. My -10 might be 200 and my +10 may be 350. Another person's -10 may be -200 and his/her +10 is 150. The first thing this illustrates is that in reality, our perceived scales vary in width. Someone else's scale might feasible fall within your scale. Someone else's scale may overlap yours, or as in the case of the example above, may not even be within the same range. In this case my far left was to the right of the other person's right. What this illustrates is that our whole scale, ie our understanding of our bias, is itself biased and relative to our position.

We can see a metaphor of this in Einstein's theory that speed is relative. If you roll a ball at 3 mph down the hallway of a train moving 60 mph, the ball is moving 3mph, not 63. Many people mistakenly believe he was saying the ball APPEARS to be moving 3 mph, but is really moving 63. What he was actually saying was that the ball WAS moving 3mph because all speed is relative to its own reference (in this case, the moving train). Maybe one reason he realized this was because he realized there was no state of rest for anything. The planet is spinning and moving in space and nothing is really still, nor can we really know how everything is moving enough to subtract that out and reach some absolute 0 motion. Put differently, there was no absolute reference point with which to judge speed against.

Now back to the debate with Wes. Once we both began accusing the other of the same thing we should have realized that our debate had become unproductive. It was unproductive because we had no reference point with which to debate who was right or left. In this example, it may have been that there WAS no reference point we would be able to agree upon given the fact that our definitions of what fell under the umbrella of right and left might have been different. For example, one person might think the debate was about the media being more politically right or left, while another person might believe it was whether they are more morally right or left in their reporting. Or it may be some combination of the two. It may be that the person arguing that the media was far to the right would agree that the media was morally left. Once again, I ask that you not try and come to conclusions as to what I mean when I say morally right or left. This is just an illustration and not an argument.

Given the ideas I suggested in my last post, at this point it might be good to ask WHY each person believes what they do, why you believe what you do and why you think they believe what they do. In this example it may be that we are coming from different places and can not really have a debate on who is more RIGHT or LEFT. However, moving on to the next phase I suggested in my last post, we can begin to construct questions we can agree frames our debate. In this example, it may be that the purpose of the questions is to NARROW the debate to a debatable level. For example, we can narrow the debate to who is more politically right or left by asking the question, "If a media outlet reports twice as many good stories about republicans and twice as many bad ones about democrats, can we agree they are more republican?" Or visa versa. There are a number of reasons either side might have problems with this question and it may be that this question is not acceptable, but by working on it, both sides can hopefully come up with a question they both agree on. Then, the burden is on the voracity of the evidence. Maybe one side can cite statistics one way or another that fall within the guidelines of the question.

I want to end this post by talking about the biggest problem with you believing your opponents belief is based on bias. This also applies if you think you know what faulty reasons they have for having their belief on the matter. This especially applies if they told you why they chose their side and you continue to believe it is really for some other reason and not what they said. In a debate, we can, and often do, make arguments which question the validity of our opponents reasons for coming to their conclusion. If you make assumptions or do not believe why they tell you they believe what they believe, you will make arguments against something that may not exist. This can be frustrating for both of you. You may make a convincing argument to find your opponent agrees with your argument, but disagrees with your conclusion. You will find it hard to believe they can agree with the argument, but not the conclusion. This should be a sign to you that you do not understand their reasons and were arguing against reasons they never had to begin with.

At this point you may be asking, "Honestly, how much can he possible write about debate! Doesn't he sleep or go outside?" To this I would argue you are probably being closed minded. :)

Posted by wonko at November 27, 2004 07:58 PM

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I must admit, your relativity analogy seemed a bit over-the-top at first, but it does make one think that we can ONLY be biased in a debate, or anything else for that matter. I would find it interesting if you could give a good example of a debate where one might not be biased. One problem with the left/right thing, for example, is that rather than being on two ends of a scale, they are in reality, more like positions on a sphere, with aspects of the extreme left being close to aspects of the extreme right. How you measure one thing against another depends on the direction in which you set out.

Posted by: Markus at December 6, 2004 12:44 PM

I like your analogy of the sphere. That is in fact what I am saying. When we think of things in terms of an absolute scale with us on one side or the other, it is merely an illusion where we have arbitrarily chosen a center. In reality, our 'bias' leaves us uncapable of determining a center because in general we all believe ourselves less biased than we really are. Even this statement seems tricky as using the terms less and more in terms of bias is difficult.

Posted by: wonko [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 6, 2004 12:56 PM

Dude, you should read more Derrida. You seem really bogged down in binary oppositions.

Posted by: dragon girl t at December 16, 2004 01:12 PM

i was just kidding.


Posted by: dragon girl t at December 17, 2004 01:57 AM

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