Larry hopped in his truck for the relatively normal commute from our office in Avon to Eagle. He catches up on news before and after work, and quickly switched over to one of his favorite syndicated stations to listen to current events. As is often the case with radio, he caught the middle of a story. Students in Beijing were protesting the political climate. Concerns over inflation, limited job prospects and corruption were all primary reasons for the students gathering.
Larry listened, fascinated, trying to picture the nearly 1 million people gathered to protest. Then, in the midst of the story, he hears that government troops had killed hundreds, if not thousands, of peaceful protesters. More than 300,000 troops were deployed to Beijing to break up the protests, and the outcome had been a massacre. The students’ desires for freedom of speech and freedom of press had been bloodily quashed.
Outraged at the event, Larry switched off his car and walked into a gathering of friends, turning off the continuing coverage of the tragedy. Within minutes, he found himself asking if anyone had heard of the events of the day, recounting the story with anger and fervor. It was only after pontificating for a few minutes that one of his friends told him that the events he was describing had happened more than 20 years before at Tiananmen Square. He had been listening to a rebroadcast.
Recent events in my personal life and this story from one of my coworkers helped me again stumble over one of the most agitating problems of our time. To protect the innocent, Larry’s name was changed, but even he will quickly acknowledge the importance of knowing the source and motivation behind information. While this is a harmless and rather extreme example of information bias, it certainly applies to some of the biggest problems we face as individuals, communities and a country.
Information is a necessity to successfully living our lives and making our choices. Unfortunately, even more important than the presence of information is how we mitigate a lack of it. In seeking out information we expose ourselves to one of the greatest academic pitfalls of our time. This pitfall is known to rhetological academics as single-source bias. I can switch on the TV, or sit at my laptop, and find news coverage of a particular event almost instantaneously. Regrettably, there are motivations and perspectives behind the news, the way it is covered, the time allotted, the hour of the day it is covered and the political underpinnings that are not well understood by the public. If I only watch one news station or only visit one website for all my news, then I am not only subject to those unknowns, but my opinions are influenced by them. With my news from only a single source, I would certainly be subject to some bias. As an example, think about your own information sources on the current events in Crimea, and how the story is being politically charged.
Beyond the single-source problem, however, lays the deeper problem facing our information seeking. Confirmation bias is the tendency of an individual to seek out information that supports an existing assumption or belief. You just barely spent a few seconds thinking about Crimea.
As Americans, I now ask you, what are our core beliefs and assumptions about our world? Now, consider for a moment the possible core beliefs of the voting population of Crimea who lived through and are children of the Cold War generation. Would you currently feel comfortable if your news source was suddenly exchanged with theirs? For better or worse, our ability to look at a situation with neutrality is severely diminished by our existing desires to confirm or validate our long-held beliefs. Neutrality, of course, is not always a good thing, but the inability to be neutral is almost always fatal.
I am absolutely convinced at this point in my life that it is easier to be passionately for or against something than it is to be educated about it. However, to you fellow seekers of truth, let’s not assume that the answer always lies in the middle, or that one even exists.
Benjamin A. Gochberg lives in Avon.