The Jolly Librarian Considers Bias

I studied under postmodern professors who believe that truth is relative and no text is free from bias. While this may not be a useful way of studying literature, it does seem to be helpful when considering web sources.

About three or four times a week, either through email or Facebook, I am assaulted with links to webpages that accuse our current administration of various faults. This, of course, is nothing new. My liberal friends did the same thing during the previous administration. I guess this would not be such a problem except, in the library, we spend a lot of time stressing to students how important accuracy is. So when I noticed that so much of it was wrong and could easily be disproved by a simple check of the facts, I assumed the senders would want to know they were passing along wrong information. I posted links to Snopes.com, a site whose very purpose is to show the accuracy or lack of it in online chatter. But then one friend sent me a link to an article that accuses Snopes of bias. Never mind when I did the same search, underneath that article, there were at least three that refuted the claim. 

Now, first let me say that I have no idea if Snopes is biased or not. The authors could certainly be biased in choosing which articles to debunk and which to leave alone. But the issue I was dealing with was simple factual accuracy. If you say something was in The Wall Street Journal, then it’s a simple act to check the newspaper’s database to see if that article ever appeared.

So Idecided that some of what I was being sent had nothing to do with providing people with accurate information; it was just a form of venting. So I’ve left off commenting on it or even reading it.

But the web is a huge source of information for us, whether we’re searching for information for a research paper or the best home remedies for colds. So how do we cut through the bias to make sure we get the best information possible? Here are some rules of thumb:

  • The angrier the tone, the more wary you should be. Angry people are rarely sitting on the fence calmly looking at both sides of an issue. Whether you agree or disagree, your “bias shields” should go up when reading angry prose.
  • Watch out when the writers tell you how you should feel or react. One of the emails I often get sent starts with something like, “If this doesn’t upset you, then you don’t have a pulse.” This always irritates me, and my first reponse is ‘I’ll decide how I react. I don’t need you to tell me.’
  • Watch out for buzz words instead of logical discussion. They vary from issue to issue. One I keep hearing now in political ads is “Obamacare.” It’s pretty hard to have a civilized discussion over abortion if one side calls the other “baby killers.” And you can’t have a decent debate over the current president’s policy if to disagree gets you instantly labeled a “racist.”
  • Realize that it’s much harder to be bias-free that we think. Don’t assume you are without bias. In fact, if you analyze your own thought processes, you might find a common path. You make up your mind about an issue and then you autmatically, without thinking, pay attention to the information that supports that idea. So it’s a good idea, as a matter of course, to routinely look at sites, television shows, articles, etc. that show the other side of an issue.

 Bias is pervasive and insidious. And inevitable. But the good thing, once we realize these things, we are on guard against its effects. We become better thinkers and better citizens.

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