Friday, February 23, 2007

On bias and hypocrisy: Conservapedia as a case study.

Bias as a human element.

There is a reason why our language is littered with trite phrases such as "only human" and "the human element." At some level, as a society, we recognize that the human condition is marked by an extreme level of imperfection. We cannot but introduce elements of ourselves in what we do, and we cannot perfectly abstract ourselves away from a task. In particular, in any non-trivial writing, then, we make obvious to the world our thoughts as we introduce bias into that which we pen. Of course, I am no exception. What I write here is quite obviously biased, and I wouldn't expect anyone to think otherwise.

Bias as a conservative anti-virtue.

This discussion, though, presumes an understanding of what "bias" even is. We most often hear the word in association with "the media," or other elements of mass communication, when neoconservatives accuse decidedly conservative reporting outlets of being liberal in bias. This modern use of the word is very misleading in several ways, the majority of which are outside of the scope of this essay. What I do want to deal with, however, is the idea that unbiasedness is a virtue that trumps accuracy, fairness, completeness or relevance.

That particular idea of bias, along with the modern usage of the word "balance," leads us to farces like that of including an oil industry representative to "balance" a scientist's reporting on global warming. Some statements are, within the scope of our current knowledge, "true," and this by their very nature gives them a special status apart from any other statements. For instance, if I say that all the research conducted to date confirms that global warming is true, then this is not "biased" in a liberal-versus-conservative sort of fashion. Rather, it is biased towards verifiability and accuracy.

What does one do, then, when their political positions are based largely on statements that are in contrast with what we know about reality? Construct a system of thought where evolution must be "balanced" by creationism under the guise of intelligent design, where global warming must be "balanced" by climate "skepticism," and where an introspective examination of history must be "balanced" by blatant and unjustified religiosity in the guise of historical interpretation.

This is precisely the sense of the words "bias" and "balance" which those like Fox News use in order to justify spewing what any sane and rational person would call biased trash. As per the discussion of bias before, I don't mind the biased part. I listen to Democracy Now, read Crooks and Liars, and watch Olbermann. No, I mind the implication that everyone else's bias is bad, but that one group (always the conservatives or neocons) can be biased with impunity.

A recent case study.

Seldom has this effect been more stunningly obvious than in the recent launching of the Wikipedia-inspired Conservapedia. With the lofty mission of eliminating bias, this "virtuous" project demonstrates the incredible extent to which they avoid bias by putting their political leanings in their name. How could any project with the name "Conservapedia" ever be accused of being liberal in nature?

Of course Conservapedia is biased. It exists. That pretty well guarantees its bias. The problem comes, however, in how it is biased. Whereas Wikipedia is biased towards things that we understand to be true (global warming, evolution, the existence of religions other than Christianity), Conservapedia is biased towards things which support the neoconservative and Christian fundamentalist platforms. While this may be useful to them, it most certainly cannot provide the same utility as a repository for information generally regarded as being accurate. Moreover, the inherent effect of this kind of a "resource" is to be display marked hypocrisy, as one cannot simultaneously demonize "bias" and publish articles based only on a book about "Creation" published by "Apologia Press."

Thus, I denounce Conservapedia not as being horribly biased, but rather as being vapid and hypocritical. In the same way that I don't decry the fact that the Cato Institute is biased towards the classic-conservative position, I do decry the horrible dishonesty with which the authors of Conservapedia handle the issue of bias.

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