Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Biased vs. Balanced

   Bias seems to be something some people just don't understand. First, the definition (as found using a Google search with Mozilla Firefox browser):
Prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.

   The mistake I have seen a couple people clearly make is that if you have two sides of an issue and each side is not treated 50/50, then there is bias. The first time I saw this was in a review for the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) where the reviewer was claiming the book to be biased because it was critical of more conservatives than liberals. It may have been from this review (I thought I had left a comment on the review at the time...but maybe a mistake is being made by me!):
Interesting but has a definite liberal bias,

The book is interesting. The subject of the book is our "blind spots." Unfortunately, the authors seem to have a few blind spots of their own, which is not surprising. Unfortunately, it makes the book annoying to those of us who don't buy into the liberal political view. Specifically, almost every time the authors pick a public figure as an example of bad behavior, they almost invariably pick a conservative or republican. Dick Cheney, George W Bush, Antonin Scalia, etc etc. Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton get mentioned, but in a much softer light. It seems that liberals just don't make as many mistakes as us conservatives. I expected better, especially since the authors spend a lot of time talking about the importance of unbiased psychological experiments.

   The latest example is from a blog post on Dispatches I saw today:
And they have “definitive proof” that Politifact is biased, which is going to crack you up. Their proof is that they added up all the times Politifact had called a political claim a “pants on fire” lie and — shock and horror — conservatives were more likely to receive that designation than liberals. They don’t dispute a single one of those “pants on fire” calls; in fact, they don’t even discuss any of them. All that matters to them are the numbers.
To have any semblance of fairness, PolitiFact should play it 50/50 and present an equal number of lies from both sides. They clearly are not concerned with any pretense.
Ed asks what should be the obvious question: "Well that might be true, if both sides lied equally often. Do they?"

   The possible confusion* in both of these cases is thinking that treatment needs to be 50/50 in order to be unbiased. But this is not the case. Seeing that I had not left a comment to that review above, I added one in which I said the following:
Let's say for the sake of argument that liberals make twice as many mistakes as conservatives. For a book to be unbiased, then it better have twice as many liberal examples as conservative examples, because that would reflect reality. But if a book were balanced with examples (same number of liberal examples as conservative examples, or 50/50), then that book would actually contain a liberal bias since it under-represents liberal mistakes in regards to reality.
   To restate the above, reporting incidents at a 50/50 rate is only unbiased if such incidents occur at that 50/50 rate. If the rate is actually 60/40, for example, then reporting must also be 60/40 to be unbiased. This is not to say that the book or Politifact are not biased, but before such a claim of bias can be made, the person making the claim needs to know the real-life rates of the reported incidents.

* Or it could be the case that these people do understand the difference between bias and balance, but rather they are incorrectly making the assumption that reality is going to be 50/50.

   As an aside, here's an interesting tidbit from the second example as to why Michelle Bachmann has been treated unfairly:
They also unfairly tarnish Michele Bachmann as a liar, when anybody who follows her already understands that many of her statements aren’t meant to be truthful in the first place — she simply says what she feels.
So...if what she says is a lie, we are not to call her out on her lie because she is speaking from the heart...or something? OhhhhhhhhhhhhK.

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