Whenever people talk about investigating whether a piece of information is good or bad, there's a lot of talk about bias. And that's justified. Certainly there are many, many biased sources out there. But one problem is that everyone has their own definition of what constitutes bias. In our political divisions, especially, each side claims accuracy for itself and accuses the other side of bias. Honestly, even should they happen to be true, such accusations are not useful. They reinforce division by demonizing those we disagree with.
Another consideration is that bias is a negative idea. This can make it difficult for us to admit we suffer from it. More commonly, it can cause us to shrug and say that since everyone is biased, having a discussion or trying to find the truth is pointless. That kind of apathy is not very helpful, because there often is a truth to be found, even in issues in which people see things differently.
It's more helpful to think instead in terms of worldview. We all have a worldview: a picture of reality, a certain viewpoint from which we survey life, the universe, and everything, and try to make sense of it.
You have a worldview, too. It is created by all those things that go into making you who you are — things like your parents, siblings, friends, religion or lack thereof, political stance, and even the books you've read, the shows you've seen, and especially the choices you've made throughout your whole life. All those things combine to give you a particular idea of how reality works. Think of it as the lens through which you view the world.
Behind every piece of information is a person, and deep within every person is their worldview. Remembering this can be helpful when we evaluate information, because it can help us to understand where the source is coming from. Instead of dismissing sources that disagree with us out of hand, we can ask ourselves, "Why do they see things that way?" It doesn't necessarily mean they are bad, or dishonest, or deluded. It may just mean they are looking at the information through a different lens.
Understanding this can help us to have a conversation, a discussion, rather than a personal argument. It can help us to treat people we disagree with as people, rather than as automatically evil representatives of the wrong point of view.
Just like people, most publications have a worldview. The New York Times, for instance, has a worldview that skews left. What topics they choose to cover, and the words and phrases they use, reflect the way they see the world, and what issues matter to them. Ditto the Wall Street Journal, which skews right. Instead of shouting "Bias! Bias!" it's more helpful to simply recognize the worldview and be conscious of it as we read the source. That lets us hold ourselves apart and allow the source to be in conversation with us and our own worldview.
Of course, some sources really are flat-out biased, and not worth holding a conversation with. We must try not to leap to that conclusion just because they disagree with us.
If we're writing an evaluation about a piece of information we found, we should be clear when discussing worldview. See the examples below for strong and weak evaluation examples.
Weak: "This website by the NRA has a purpose of informing the public about guns."
We should acknowledge that the NRA (National Rifle Association) website is probably biased because they strongly support gun ownership with very few restrictions, in most cases. That doesn't mean we can't use the information on the website, but we do need to recognize bias that might exist, and we may need to locate sources that provide an opposing view, or a less biased point-of-view.
Strong: "This is a reliable website because it's a research study, but it was funded by an organization that will benefit from the results, so there may be bias."
Here, we're acknowledging that it's a research study, but also admitting that there might be bias.
It is important to not only consider the worldview of the source of information, but also to be conscious of our own worldview. At its core, our worldview consists of what we believe to be real and what we believe to be important. This influences how we interact with information. Why are some ideas pleasing to us, and others frightening? When we feel that an idea we were just exposed to must be right, or just has to be wrong, is that because we've looked at the question carefully, or because it appeals to, or threatens, the picture we already have of how things work?
Because here's the thing: we've spent this whole guide learning to investigate whether information is good or bad, but information is not a one-way street. It's a two-way street. We don't receive it in a vacuum, judging its merits with emotionless objectivity. We interact with every single piece of information we receive, whether we are conscious of doing so or not. So:
In order to be effective investigators of information,
we must also investigate ourselves.
When I feel attracted to a piece of information, or repulsed by it, I ask myself: why am I feeling that way? Is it because the information itself is good or bad, reliable or not? Or is it because I feel that it confirms something important to me, or that it threatens something I value?
Being aware of my reactions to information doesn't mean I need to change my mind! Maybe my response to this piece of information is justified. But maybe it's a little too extreme. Or maybe it's just wrong. I can't know unless I am willing to take the uncomfortable risk of examining myself.
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