Thursday, May 24, 2007

Keith Olbermann, and the issue of Bias

Some of those close to me don't understand how I could like Keith Olbermann so much. This video of his special comment on the Democrats not having the balls to end the Iraq war is a perfect illustration of why. He rips into everyone, with no concern for which color state they hail, or party to which they belong. They all deserve it. Yet some, I suppose, willd still dismiss what he says on the basis that he is "liberally biased".

There is always a lot of talk about bias when discussing political televion personalities. It is a very powerful concept, because it has objective meaning in statistical circles (a "biased estimator" is one whose mean differs from the underlying distribution), giving it an intellectual legitimacy often lacking in political terms like "fairness" or "rights". More importantly, it is a very convenient excuse for dismissing an opinion one doesn't care for, a tendency we all have and I maintain we should all be on the lookout for. It's the simplest path to intellectual slop.

However, there is more than one kind of bias involved in politics, due to the trade-off nature of politics, and it is important to distinguish between them. One leads to sloppy intransigent thinking, and the other is merely a part of being a thinking human being: a factual bias, and a philosophical bias.

Politics is not a science. It is not about what is, but rather, ultimately, about what kind of world we want to live in, and how we are going to go about getting it that way. That's not to say political science is not a science; its to say that its subject is not science. Because of that extra dimension, politics involves a lot of philosophy within which to evaluate the facts towards one's chosen goals, and those goals are often chosen based on subjective preferences not shared by others. So conflicts often simply cannot be solved merely with the facts, because the goals and philosophies evaluating them are different. Thus, there are two places biases can appear: factually and philosophically. And here is where I will argue that the biases of the Olbermann's of the world are not at all the same animal as the biases of commentators that root for one party or another, nor of nearly as much concern.

As Olbermann demonstrates in that video, he is not one for partisan politics. Of course, he has his views, his presumptions and conclusions about the world, and they are the prism through which he interprets the world, as it is for all of us. Of course he dislikes Bush, which is why he chooses to criticize him so much. Of course he is pissed off that the politicians didn't end the war. One could say that therefore his view is biased. But what exactly is one saying there, except that there is something wrong with his views because he actually has drawn some conclusions about the world, and uses those conclusions as assumptions when reacting to what goes on around him? That's something we should encourage, not treat as a character flaw.

Now of course those underlying conclusions might be incorrect, as they could be for all of us, and it is good to debate those factually and logically as far as we are able. But in the end there is no way to logically, factually determine whether it is more important to save lives or allow driving without a seat belt, or how many lives an democratic Iraq is worth.

This is all Gene Roddenberry's fault. He popularized the notion of a completely logical being with no emotions. Such could not exist, per the arguments I've made above. Indeed, it has started to seem to me that emotions are a natural, and inevitable, result of self-awareness, as I'd argue has begun with some of our increasingly sophisticated computers, who seem to have more and more of a personality all the time. But I digress. The point is one cannot make political decisions completely on some independent objective logic. There is no such thing for setting goals, or weighing one value against another.

Politics demands what Olbermann does, and the biases he is accused of having are merely part of being an intelligent human being who believes there is a real world out there worth paying attention to. Contrast this to a factual bias, say what happens with O'Reilly, or the Discovery Institute, who repeatedly make statements at odds with the facts, especially with regard to what others have to say, and always, ALWAYS benefitting one side of the discussion, eliminating the idea that their errors are innocent mistakes. These people have a bias towards the facts. Regardless of how many times factual errors are pointed out to them, they continue to make their claims unedited.

THESE are the kinds of people we should worry about in the media. It is one thing to make an honest mistake, or to have a philosophy about the world that is flawed in some way. Those problems trouble us all, and Olbermann is no exception. But that is a completely different animal than being someone who knows something they are saying is untrue, or supresses facts that demonstrate that, because they have the agenda of having this or that political party's success. I think the evidence that one major network does this far more often than any of the others is significant, and should be of concern to anyone who gets their news there. Better to get your information from a sincere fool than a deceptive genius. And I'd insist, by any objective measure, Olbermann is a sincere genius.

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