Monday, May 07, 2007

The Problem with Conservatives Who Cry Liberal Bias

It's an ongoing saga. Conservatives accuse some institution of having a liberal bias and set out to counter it. When the alternative goes against the judgment of experienced professionals in the field, conservatives dismiss this as evidence that the professionals have a systematic liberal bias. The examples are legion.

Fox New calls itself "fair and balanced" in contrast to the liberally biased network news. The Bush Administration stops having the American Bar Association screen its judicial nominees and refers them to the Federalist Society instead. Michelle Malkin defends the internment of Japanese-Americans and dismisses mainstream historians who disagree as "professor[s] whose tenure relies on regurgitating academic orthodoxy about this episode in American history." Douglas Feith selectively cuts and pastes intelligence reports on Iraq and says he is overcoming the CIA's anti-war bias. The Conservapedia sets out to counter the liberal bias of the Wikipedia. And now it appears that YouTube has a liberal bias and conservatives are founding Qube TV as an alternative. And then there are the alleged "alternatives" to evolution.

Two things invariably happen in all these cases. First the conservative alternative is invariably more biased than the original. After initial denials, conservatives admit it is true, but say that everything biased and they are simply providing a counterbalance. And I will concede their point that journalists, academics, scientists and lawyers tend to be liberal in outlook and that this may leak over into their supposedly objective work and create a bias. But a second and more important problem remains with these conservative alternative. They are invariably inferior to the purportedly biased mainstream versions.

So, unless we believe that reality has a liberal bias, why is that so? I believe the answer is that people creating conservative alternatives ignore basic rules of sound methodology. They tend to assume that sound methodology means methodology that yields results I like and is ideologically defined. But there are certain basic principles of how to analyze data to draw sound conclusions that are remarkably similar regardless of whether the field is science, history, journalism, intelligence analysis, etc.

  • Analyze the facts to reach a conclusion. Do not begin with a conclusion and arrange the facts to support it.
  • It is acceptable to approach the facts with a preliminary hypothesis, so long as the hypothesis can be modified or abandoned if the evidence warrants. What is not acceptable is for the hypothesis to be unchangeable regardless of facts.
  • Look for the broad general pattern, while noting anomalies for future investigation. Do not focus on anomalies and ignore the general pattern. (Do not conceal the anomalies, either).
  • Beware of single sources. They are apt to be anomalies. Reality leaves ample evidence.

These principles and not ideological. Neither, I admit, are they natural to most people's way of thinking. Most people have strong preconceptions that are hard to shake and are more impressed with a striking annecdote than a mountain of facts. But they are necessary for good scholarship or investigation.

If conservatives want to prove an institution liberally biased and offer an alternative, let them present evidence that mainstream members ignore these principles and offer alternative that adhere to them more rigorously. And if liberals wish to avoid being supplanted by inferior and more biased alternatives, then we need to teach people the importance of these principles for any sort of serious understanding.

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