Bias in the (popular scientific) press
by Anton Jarrod
While I am somewhat reticent about engaging with certain issues, not only because of the problems associated with surface dynamics, but also because certain issues really do require extensive resources, research and study (which I, as a single individual, am not able to perform, and certainly not in this article), such that “opinion” and “commentary” becomes a rather ineffective analytical tool, nevertheless it does sometimes behove one to draw attention to startling and important fundamental errors, which lead many to complacency, delusion, fallacious and lazy thinking, besides many other things. One such issue is that of bias in the popular press, and in this article the popular scientific press.
In many ways, “media bias” is a very elementary subject, about which many in the modern world come to discover something as part of their ordinary education. However, all too few, I would surmise, continue to develop their critical faculties beyond standard schooling, where they must then become subject to the sometimes glaring, pervasive biases of the ordinary press, which must influence their thinking.
As said, nothing but a full study of the whole of contemporary media, in accordance with all the rigors of modern scientific investigation, can reveal the extent of the problem, which is to say, the extent of bias in the media and its influence upon the perspectives of modern humans. Yet, even a casual glance at the popular press, with the application of only the slightest effort, reveals the essential nature of the problem that is commonplace. Whilst in the local library this morning, I caught a glimpse of the latest UK edition of New Scientist (21 April 2012), and was not at all surprised to read such sentences as the following in an article on “Our true nature”:
“Anthropologists have identified many ‘human universals’ – characteristics shared by all people everywhere…” (p.38) and, “For a start, we are all obsessed with kinship…” (p.41)
“All people everywhere”? Are they sure? It would mean meeting and studying all six billion or so people on the planet, and continuing to study all people who come into existence subsequently. What about those who have died? Are we all obsessed with kinship? Of course, the writers do not really mean to suggest that this universalizing position is asserted as valid (I hope), but the content does betray the more general assumption that all human beings are always the same, and that therefore the possibilities of fundamental difference amongst them are non-existent; an assumption which can only lead further to the assertion that further human development, as posited by the developmental hypotheses found within such things as religion, philosophy, psychology etc., is impossible.
“What sort of creature is the human? The obvious answer is a smart, talkative, upright ape…” (p.38) and, “… our ancestors did something completely different from other great apes…” (p.42)
Is it, actually, so obvious to all living human beings? The fundamental assumption here is that the human being is only an ape. The bias can only lead to the automatic denial of the human being’s multidimensionality. The actual and only position that empirical science can assert (and even then not absolutely) is that the human being at least has an animal, physical aspect as ordinarily understood: a materiality related in some way to animalistic evolution, although this neither confirms nor denies the multidimensional nature of the human being. Such an assertion is not at all incompatible with an understanding of the evolutionary principle from within a perspective that asserts the multidimensional and transcendent nature of the living being, yet the general assumption is that it is.
Although, of course, the article is not intended to be a serious research piece, and is perhaps closer to entertainment than research, I would suggest that such writing is typical of what is found in the popular scientific press, whose fundamental editorial position is based on the orthodox, physicalist perspective, which is variously informed by the explanations and assumptions derived from – and believed to be supported by – empirical science, amongst other things; however, such claims do require serious, competent research to verify (I am sure that such research is already being undertaken: it would be most unfortunate if this were not the case). Competent and critical individuals already know how to establish and verify the truthfulness of one position or another, and how to detect and go beyond partiality to ascertain things as they actually are. With the article referred to here, the biases are so obvious as to be trivial. Yet, one wonders how many do not go beyond the simple reception, especially where the bias is subtler, or hidden behind many layers of assumption.
Personally, I do not consider that bias is wrong in itself. In many ways, insofar as it demonstrates and manifests an individual’s or community’s strong preference for a particular position, it is entirely in accordance with a level of development and consciousness that cannot enter into or appreciate the multiplicious nature of things, and thus is entirely comprehensible. As a sociological force, however, given that many individuals would aspire to impartiality, truth and integrity, it must surely be worthwhile drawing attention to bias where it is found, and encouraging a greater level of general criticism of it, not only as regards the scientific media, but the media generally, whatever its form or content (including, of course, such articles as this, which in some ways is biased against biased writing).
In many cases, all that is necessary is to remember those language classes taken during compulsory schooling, in which students looked at newspaper articles and discussed the ways in which they were biased or not. Bringing even those basic critical skills to one’s engagement with the ordinary things of life can bring many beneficial results. However, sometimes it is also necessary to do more; necessary, that is, if one wants to see past assumption and belief, and discover where knowledge is.