While I was encouraging you to examine, for your Throwdowns, the bias of your authors and the publications for which they write, it occurred to me you might think of bias only as a bad thing, like prejudice.
But bias is ethically neutral, like a preference for vanilla or chocolate. Or more generally, a preference for ice cream. Or more generally, if I ask you to think about food, your tendency to think about dessert.
Hammer and Nail
A hammer sees every problem as a nail. An economist sees every problem as a natural outcome of market forces, while a psychologist sees the same problems as conflicts between different sorts of personalities.
If the globe is warming, the economist says: We keep burning fossil fuels because they’re so cheap; if we taxed them to reflect their real cost to the planet, we’d find alternative energy sources. The psychologist standing on the same warming globe says: We are narcissists who exaggerate our own present needs and undervalue the needs of future generations. The politician says: What warming? My supporters dispute the evidence and I’m no scientist.
The tendency of the economist and the psychologist to approach a question from different angles isn’t deplorable. It’s actually quite valuable. We get a front view from one, a profile from another, a rear view from a third, and by combining the several perspectives, we compile a three-dimensional understanding. The economist studied long and hard, spent years in classes and more time on the job, accumulating experience and strengthening her insights. We shouldn’t wonder that she sees the world as an economy, or that the psychologist sees the human race as a single composite personality. We gain insight when they tell us how their specialties view a problem.
The Clinical Psychologist Example
Here’s a specific example of healthy bias from a student’s Throwdown. One of your colleagues asked for help finding the bias in a simple article about the decision parents make between having their child play multiple sports or specializing in one. Since the author claimed that each child was an individual for whom a different choice might be best, your colleague reasoned that the author had no bias.
That logic makes sense. The author wasn’t biased in favor of “one sport” or “many sports.” Still, the author expressed his clear bias in a different way.
Joel Fish, PhD, a clinical psychologist with multiple psychology degrees and a thriving private practice, sees the sports question as a question of psychology:
From a sport psychology point of view, the key point is not whether the child is physically capable of playing one sport all year round, but is the child emotionally ready to do so? Is the child mature enough to handle the extra stress and pressure all year round. If on a travel or elite team, is the child psychologically prepared for the expectations that come from being on an elite team? Is the child socially ready to be part of a more intense sports team? In my opinion, unless the child is both physically and emotionally ready to specialize in one sport, the disadvantages can outweigh the advantages.
This author, looking at a question about how best to address a child’s athletic development, doesn’t consider the child’s age, gender, physical capabilities, or athleticism. He asks four rhetorical questions about stress and emotional health before he even mentions the word physical. The value of engaging this voice in the conversation about a child’s sports life is precisely that it is biased to offer the evidence pediatricians, athletic directors, coaches, and parents might never think of.
Young reporters, journalists, reviewers, commentators, and writers of all types may start with a plan, but their careers generally take shape largely beyond their control. They get assignments from editors who believe them to be capable of delivering stories of a particular type. Successful stories lead to additional assignments similar to the first. Before long, writers become their reputations. Readers learn what to expect from them; in fact, they learn to value writers for delivering what is expected. Writers whose work is wide and varied, or that isn’t predictable, don’t come readily to mind when story assignments are handed out. In other words, it’s in the interest of the writer to continue to produce work with a predictable bias.
So, when we predict the bias of writers in the Author sections of our Throwdowns, their publication history is very pertinent.
Newspapers, magazines, and journals are businesses with customers, mostly subscribers. They thrive when they meet their customers’ expectations and fail when they disappoint. When subscription numbers decline, publications evolve or they go out of business. It stands to reason, then, that from its first issue, a publication that wishes to persist evolves until it reflects a worldview back to its readers that comforts and confirms reader expectations. It becomes predictable.
So, when we predict the bias of our sources in the Publication sections of our Throwdowns, knowing the publication’s overall attitude and the range of opinion it historically presents is very pertinent.