“Every piece of data is biased. Every argument has opinion.”
TASK AT HAND: This week I’m thinking about the effects of bias and opinion. Analysis after the US election show that “fake news” – stories that are false but presented in a truthful manner (e.g., newspaper article format) so as meant to deceive – outperformed legitimate news stories on social media. We now occupy the post-truth economy of thought. In this state, opinion and argument are given the same credence as fact and truth.
Recently, the Oxford Dictionary announced that “post-truth” is its 2016 word of the year. It defined it as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ Simply put, If you believe something strongly enough, talk loudly enough about it, and can connect with someone emotionally with your argument, then it impacts others like truth or fact.
As a scientist, I am vehemently against this idea that opinion can be substantiated for fact. Truth requires evidence and logic. Truth should be void of bias and opinion.
“Truth requires evidence and logic. Truth should be void of bias and opinion.”
I have heard many times, “what’s the problem with voicing your opinion?” There is nothing wrong with expressing your opinion – I encourage this! However, please don’t confuse the expression of worthy words versus baseless chatter. Your argument should still be based on truth and constructed in a logical manner.
The problem of repeating nonsense over and over is related to how our brains form memories. Studies show that the more often a message is repeated, the more likely we are to remember it. This effect is called fluent retrieval. However, our brains then erroneously extrapolate that, what we can remember easily, must be true (Inferring facts from fiction: reading correct and incorrect information affects memory for related information. Memory 2012 Jul;20(5):487-98; you can find the full study here). The effect is that if you repeat a lie often enough, it starts to feel like truth.
But how to uncover bias and opinion? First, assume every piece of data is biased and every argument, whether it be in a newspaper article, social media post or formal communication, has opinion. You are a detective and must identify the bias and opinion in everything you consume.
“You must identify the bias and opinion in everything you consume.”
You can minimize bias and opinion by sticking to trusted reporting. However, this is not enough. In science and medicine, we have peer-reviewed literature which is considered the benchmark for bias-free communication. Peer-reviewed studies have experts and thought leaders review the work in question to ensure it is scientifically sound before being published. Having personally published over 100 papers, I can tell you that even this process can have bias. Reviewers have personal and professional biases and humans operate poorly in recognizing their own biases.
Second, when developing an argument, use multiple sources. Never stick to one reference and never rely solely on one authority. Attempt to survey as many respectable sources as possible when trying to come to a conclusion. This synthesis of thought is the crux of thinking for yourself because it forces you to take multiple vantage points and create a unique one for yourself. This is hard work and the main hurdle to overcoming herd mentality.
Finally, refute and reject frequently. “Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth” (Albert Einstein). This is not a call for anarchy but a reprisal for individual thought. Authority, or that which is accepted as truth, needs to be questioned. Force yourself to formulate independent thoughts as often as possible. This is not your brain’s default mode so you have to work at it. The goal is to have a society of independent thinkers that question truisms and myths alike. A culture that challenges arguments without fact and calls out opinions lacking logic.
How to uncover bias and opinion:
1. Assume every piece of data is biased and every argument has opinion.
2. Never stick to only one reference. Use multiple sources.
3. Refute and reject regularly.
“The goal is to have a society of independent thinkers that question truisms and myths alike. A culture that challenges arguments without fact and calls out opinions lacking logic.”
MEDICINE & MACULA: One of our recently featured publications on the ongoing debate of auto-antibodies.
Check out the paper, Positive Auto-Antibody Activity With Retina and Optic Nerve in Smokers and Non-Smokers: The Controversy Continues, published in Ophthalmic Surgery, Lasers and Imaging Retina (OSLI Retina). You can find the study here.
GRATIS: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” ―Mark Twain
My best to you,