Arnold Kling  

Media Bias and Asymmetric Insight

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Megan McArdle writes,

What bias does--in science, in media, in any situation where information is gathered--is affect what questions you ask.

McArdle suggests that you tend to be skeptical of findings that go against your point of view, but you are more likely to accept at face value findings that confirm your point of view. In other words, journalists are subject to confirmation bias.

I think that the law of asymmetric insight suggests a more serious concern about bias. That law implies that you are likely to under-estimate your own bias considerably. Asymmetric insight means that you think that you understand the other side better than you really do, so that you think you are less biased than you really are.

If most journalists lean in one particular direction, then this seems to me to be more of a problem if the law of asymmetric insight holds than if it does not. That is, if journalists were aware of their biases, they might report in an unbiased manner. But if journalists are convinced that they are unbiased, when in fact they are not, then they will make no attempt to correct for bias. As I see it, the law of asymmetric insight suggests that it is highly unlikely that journalists will report stories objectively, in part because they will not even notice when they are failing to be objective. The only way to get balanced journalism would be to balance the political biases among journalists.

In short, the law of asymmetric insight leads me to be more concerned than I would be otherwise about media bias.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
mersault writes:

This may all be true, but I would add that overcompensation is likely also it's own sort of bias and is dangerous as well. If I believe that the world is round, but adhere to the principle you espouse above, I may be driven to give airtime (and therefore credence) to a flat-earth opinion when clearly that opinion is not worthy of consideration.

This type of thinking gives rise to what Stephen Colbert coined as "truthiness," where counteropinions are always valid because there are always two sides to a story. This nullifies what used to be the acceptance of general consensus opinion, and validates all fringe opinions regardless of how much support they actually have in that field.

Philo writes:

"The only way to get balanced journalism would be to balance the political biases among journalists." Unfortunately there must be many dimensions of bias, and it is unclear what would be a suitable metric for each one (to be used in measuring anyone's *amount of bias*).

Since you seem to assume that there is a single neutral, unbiased standpoint, with respect to which any particular individual's bias can be measured (though I am complaining that the metric is unclear), it would seem that there is a more direct way to get unbiased journalism: allow only people who have adopted this standpoint to be journalists. When all the journalists are unbiased, so will the journalism they produce.

But it would be quite a feat to determine just which standpoint is the unbiased one.

siredge writes:

I don't think of bias as a teeter-totter or see-saw that has a point of perfect equilibrium that people just need to find. I understand bias to be more the influence of a person's perspective on how they process the data provided by the world around them. So while some bias has more effect than others, bias is always present. The best anyone can do is recognize what their own bias is and to regularly confront their biases to make sure they are still comfortable with them. Anyone thinking they are unbiased seems to be a self-delusion of a higher order.

Flaws with this supposition?

Nickolaus writes:

"In short, the law of asymmetric insight leads me to be more concerned than I would be otherwise about media bias."

- Excellent and hilarious observation.

stephen writes:

The media gives answers as well as asks questions. Its biased in both categories.

curioustask writes:

The adversarial legal system is premised on exactly this truth: that countervailing biases will, on balance, produce better results than an single investigator attempting to be unbiased. In court lawyers are paid to be as biased as possible. We're not quite there yet in the newsmedia, but we keep getting closer to a divided press; advocates paid to be biased. This is a good thing, treated as a disaster.

Les writes:

It seems to me that acting in one's own self-interest is not confined to economics. Rather, it may be a universal feature of all (or most) behavior. Therefore, when observing any act, is it too cynical to ask oneself "cui bono?"

Mike Rulle writes:

You always make think and there is never enough time to respond the way I want. But here goes.

"Bias" is a complex word with many shades of meaning. Implicit in the current usage above is that bias is a bad thing. Sometimes "bias" is short hand. Many friends of mine differ greatly on various political ideas and people with me. More times than not the differences stem from pure value differences, or virtually unfalsifiable belief systems. For example, one of my beliefs is it is moral for man to use our resources freely because we will "never run out". Kind of like the Julian Simon way. The reason I believe this is because we never have run out.

Others believe we must conserve more than we do because
they have the Malthusian Erlich view that we will not have
resources for future generations. Some even view the world
as sacred, almost godly, to be protected from man's greed----
hence no drilling in Northern Alaska or no pipelines from Canada to the Gulf.

I believe such views are nonsense, but they are still based on belief systems which are ultimately value based. People's
biases (outside of the misuse of scientific method, another
shading of the word bias) are often derived from first principles or values and we start from there and move on---that is what I mean by shorthand.

Finally, many things we call bias is just stupidity or ignorance
about certain facts, yet in politics we call it bias. Atheists and
believers in God will never agree on a slew of issues. Both
are non falsifiable propositions---even as one is likely to be

I like bias. I cannot stand fake political speech about agreeing
on the unagreeable. Lets not pretend there is some political truth we can all agree on. The best we can do is agree to a system where when the other biased guy gets his way, we believe there is some fair shot we will have a chance to get our way too.

steve writes:

Bias in the media used to bother me. No more. Now when I hear a story that piques my interest. I just google it. There are always multiple viewpoints and usually more than two.

I am not sure this makes it any easier to discern the truth. I still rely heavily on my own biases.

Shane writes:

To me a classic example of this is the question I often hear journalists (here) put to politicians:

"Should the government do more to solve this problem?"

I rarely hear them ask: "Should the government do less?" No intentional agenda is needed, but a question like that may suggest an ever-growing burden of responsibility on the government to deal with social ills.

Shangwen writes:

A friend of mine was a journalist in Toronto two years ago when the public sector workers went on a garbage pick-up strike in the summer. The city suffered for weeks: garbage was strewn everywhere, rodents became more numerous, the stench was horrific, and the optics were vile. As an extra insult, the unions tried to blockade people from depositing their trash in private disposal facilities.

When it was all over, hatred at the union was at an all-time high. My friend wrote a piece stating that citizens' actions during the strike (private garbage disposal) and their sentiments about the union, were due to "nothing more than a deep antipathy to organized labor".

My friend is a bright guy. But where's the insight in that piece of writing?

Yancey Ward writes:

What you have to guard against is the use of coercion in the control of information. In other words, government enforcing of informational content. Today, I see things going in a positive direction with the vast expansion of the world wide web, but I am always vigilant about attempts to shut this down, and such attempts are regular propositions from those who used to dominate the dissemination of information. I think Kling's worries will take care of themselves with the present trends in place. So, guard those trends.

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