Book Review True Enough: Learning to live in a post-fact society

Is the mainstream media biased? Do you find its bias to be always against your own opinions and views? Is this a coincidence? In this Month's science column. Sebastian Meznaric takes a look at a recent book, 'True enough' by Farhad Majoo, that aims to uncover how humans interpret and detect bias in the information they receive, with surprising results.

Books, New in Ceasefire, Science - Posted on Sunday, October 17, 2010 22:18 - 6 Comments

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By Sebastian Meznaric

Most people rely on mainstream media institutions to deliver the news to them on a wide range of topics. Of course we all want, above all, to consume news that is free of bias and as close to the truth as possible. Could it be, however, that it is partly our own behaviour and desire for truth that actually drives the media to give us the news that paints the world in a biased way? Well, in True Enough, journalist and author Farhad Manjoo examines the driving forces behind the media presentation of news and calling upon a number of scientific studies that had been undertaken on the relevant psychological phenomena.

One such study concerns what psychologists call “biased assimilation”. It is the idea that people tend to understand any new information they consume in a way that conforms to their pre-established beliefs. Lee Ross and Mark Lepper, from Stanford University, got hold of two empirical studies concerning capital punishment. One set of data indicated that the existence of capital punishment had a detrimental effect on the murder rates, while the other study indicated the exact opposite.

Taking the two studies together, it seems difficult to use them to conclude either way. And yet, when the two sets of results were presented to groups of students, one supporting and the other opposing capital punishment, the majority of the students did in fact reach a conclusion. As you might have guessed, the students interpreted the results in a way that agreed with their preconceived notions. More than that, the presented data reinforced their views. In the same situation, a dispassionate person who might have held preconceived opinions would be expected to have moderate their views. What’s even more important, is that the people in the study did not realise they had interpreted the data in a skewed way – they believed themselves to be objective and that it was a fact that the studies supported their view.

If, as suggested above, each of us considers our own view of the world to be objective, then we must also view anyone who disagrees with us as being either biased, unreasonable or brainwashed. In order to verify this hypothesis, Ross and Lepper decided to do another study. In 1982 a Lebanese Maronite Christian political party, the Phalangists, commited a massacre killing hundreds of refugees in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. At the time, the city was under Israeli occupation and both camps were in fact surrounded by Israeli forces when the massacre took place.

Immediately after the massacre many of the details surrounding the events were rather murky and it was not clear who to hold responsible (indeed, the debate continues to this day).

To investigate the way we perceive news, Ross and Lepper recruited 144 Stanford students from three different groups – a pro-Arab student society, a pro-Israeli student society and people from the introductory psychology courses (this group was presumed to be neutral on the issue).

The students were shown a series of news clips from a variety of news networks covering the event. The selection of the clips was made so that they were, in the eyes of researchers, as neutral as possible. The participants were then asked to rate the fairness and objectivity of the reports. The results were rather interesting. The neutral group did indeed consider the clips to be rather objective. The other two groups, however, did not agree.

The pro-Israeli group found that the accounts focused too much on the Israeli involvement and too little on the responsibility of the other parties. They consequently felt that the programs blamed Israel when they would have excused some other country. The students believed that whoever had produced the news was probably very pro-Arab and that a neutral viewer would be convinced by the clips to turn against Israel.

The students from the pro-Arab society experienced the exact opposite. This is how Ross described the results: “If I see the world as all black and you see the world as all white, and some person comes along and says it’s partially black and partially white, we both are going to be unhappy.”

The media owners and executives are very well aware of these psychological phenomena. In our society, different groups of people are served by different types of media. For example, 64% of the Daily Telegraph readers intended to vote for the Conservative party in 2005, while for the Guardian the numbers were 48% for the Labour party and 34% for the Liberal Democrats. This tells you that in order to maintain their credibility, these publishing houses must provide news that is coloured in a way their readers will expect. If they do not, they will be seen as biased, unreasonable and generally bad at reporting. The media are therefore quick to grab anything that can easily be interpreted to their readers’ liking.

Manjoo finds that facts are actually not what determines our belief systems. With the development of technology, everyone can publish and be heard. This has led to views such as “AIDS is not caused by HIV”, “Bush planned 9/11” and so on to spread more widely than ever before. Everyone can find people who, like them, believe the same nonsense as they do.

It is becoming more difficult than ever to distinguish facts from fabrications, be they intentional or not; and the book leaves us none the wiser in this respect. However, it does address deep and important questions about the society we live in as well as about the ways we consume information. Perhaps more importantly, it shines some light on the process through which information is gathered and eventually delivered for our viewing. No matter what your political views are, this book is an essential read for any observer of politics, the media and international affairs.

Sebastian Meznaric is a theoretical physicist and doctoral reseracher at the University of Oxford. His areas of interests include the study of information theory in quantum mechanics. He is also a keen observer of politics and current affairs.

True Enough
pp 256 pages, Wiley (March 17, 2008)
Is available at
Amazon

6 Comments

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Andy
Oct 18, 2010 2:03

Interesting. I think, however, that there are differences in the criteria used for “bias” by different groups. Altemeyer did these kinds of studies based on the variable of “Right-wing authoritarianism” (not the same thing as right-wing politics – more akin to authoritarian personality), and the people with this attribute were more prone to the kind of misreading discussed here, particularly taking insufficient facts to be conclusive and taking anything against their own presuppositions to be biased.

It’s also quite possible that people are using rather different evidential criteria as to what kinds of evidence are decisive, and that these different criteria not only affect the reaction to new information, but the initial positions involved. I’d expect conservatives to treat common sense and undifferentiated experience as grounds for proof, to put high weight on arguments from authority, and to assess through conventional schema (hence using unconventionality as proof of inadequacy). I’d also expect them to be interested in “hard” evidence (usually meaning numbers/quantitative data) provided it didn’t violate the other criteria. In contrast, I’d expect more liberal and open-minded readers to attach more weight to qualitative data, and to be more responsive to quantitative data which was “counterintuitive”. This is partly because there are definite stylistic differences between newspapers which are not reducible to their political line, particularly between broadsheets and tabloids, but also I think between left and right broadsheets – there’s a much wider scope of qualitative human experience in the Guardian or Independent than the Times or Telegraph, whereas the latter have more arguments from authority. If I’m right, this would explain part of the death penalty result: the conservatives were treating the counterintuitive study as carrying less weight than the other study.

In other words, I think the symmetry between the two kinds of accusations of bias is fallacious – right-wingers accuse media of bias for being unconventional or challenging their dogmas, whereas left-wingers accuse media of bias for being conventional (instead of factual/critical).

Erik the Read
Oct 19, 2010 19:25

The previous comment is probably half right as these things go – and I would be unwilling to comment further without reading the book, but…

I am deeply suspicious of the real significance of the difference between a Labour and a Conservative supporter – or Liberal Democrat – all these shades are just that, shades of personality with little real difference in policy or belief, either amongst the party or the public supporters generally. A big part of the mega-media game is to pretend differences that then putatively imply diversity. So I already smell a (small) rat brewing in this book (in other words, it may very much be chasing red herrings).

The quotes about 911 and Aids bring this home. If abundently available technology were actually the cause of fringe theories, why were Area 51, Kennedy, and angels such popular topics? Why was there so much distrust of the cause of Aids in the early 1990s? Just to compound ironies on media bias, 911 as an event caused by other than some fanatics in aeroplanes has proven extraordinarily controversal in the left media, which has by and large towed a Stalinesque party line that trumps Newton’s 3rd law as well as the first and second laws of thermodynamics… That implies media bias that doesn’t even need to look to statistics – it’s just straight up lies and damned lies…

(I’m assuming the reviewer is unfamiliar with the background of 911 in light of his well respected background in physics — though perhaps I have missed some irony that he intended.)

Andy
Oct 22, 2010 10:44

I’m not so sure as ‘left’ and ‘right’ means Labour/Conservative here, though that might be how the study tries to operationalise it; for instance pro/anti death penalty doesn’t follow either Lab/Con or US Dem/Rep lines. I’d guess it’s referring more to sets of assumptions/beliefs, particularly ethical positions; and also that the terms are relative.

It worries me when people present “left” and “right” as equivalent “biases” though, as if the overarching disposition of the media, the political elite and other information sources had no effect on the available options, which both similarly deviate from “truth”… Very often, truth is firmly within the “left” side of the frame, and the “right” side of the frame is either outright lying and mythmaking driven by counterinsurgency discourse (e.g. Aristide “fled” from “internal” unrest; prisons are “soft”; asylum seekers “get it easy”; French banlieue insurgency is “organised by criminals” and “treated softly”) – lies which seem to come straight from the mouths of state officials and to have a crisis-management goal – or else is simply reacting in terms of prejudices. These are not matters of opinion, but come down to things which can be very simply validated or invalidated. In Britain at least, the mainstream left would also be an inflected, slightly moderated (if at all) version of the right, but one does find that uncomfortable truths shine through in left discourse in its media incarnation (i.e. Guardian and Independent), in ways that they don’t in the Labour leadership or in the right-wing media. The problem is that the left/centre ‘middle ground’ which includes the likes of the Guardian and Independent, tends to position itself between ‘left’ and ‘right’ discourses as if they are equal, and thereby ends up, not reaching a truth which is somewhere inbetween, but reproducing the gravitic pull of rightist bias. Of course, on one level we all have our own perspectives which produce biases of sorts, SchNews has its biases, Socialist Worker has its biases and so on, but I think there’s a difference between the kind of biases involved here and the outright misreading, counterinsurgency propaganda and unreconstructed prejudice which makes up the bulk of mainstream rightist discourse. It’s just not true, for instance, that critics blame the police in the same kneejerk, prejudiced way that rightists blame protesters – the critical reaction has its reasons, built on a series of past facts and recurring structural phenomena, whereas the rightist reaction is just prejudice pure and simple – and the claim that leftists are simply prejudiced against police (rather than reacting to real police abuses) is itself part of the rightist prejudice towards the police, a mistaking of evidence and experience as ‘opinions’. It’s the difference between someone who sees the rabbit/duck indeterminate image and sees it as a rabbit because they’ve previously seen it with the word “rabbit” underneath, and somebody who sees the rabbit/duck image and swears blind it’s a goat because the Sun said so and anyway only hippies believe in rabbits or ducks.

I’m not sure as conspiracy theories are becoming more frequent, mainly because the literature on peasant societies suggests a prevalence of “rumours” of dubious origin which were rapidly taken as fact and acted on, which in some regards are very similar to conspiracy theories (e.g. narratives would spread that the king was really an impostor and the true king had called for an uprising, that bandits were about to attack, that some unpopular minority was hoarding food or spreading poison, etc). The absence of mass communication and literacy actually aided these rumours, which were extremely difficult to rebut.

I wonder if contemporary conspiracy theories (whether true or false) have other origins though. One of these is that the socio-discursive world is structured, events are not as random as the media portrays, but people lack the kind of structural theory which allows them to make sense of what’s missing, resulting in the substitution of a simple agent of conspiracy. Another problem is that the overload of information nowadays, and the widespread suspicion that the media is only telling partial truths at best, make it very hard to tell truth from falsehood, and conspiracy theories play on this gap – they’re not so much a result of plausible alternative hypotheses as of systematic (and well-founded) distrust of mainstream hypotheses. Still another reason is that conspiracies and ‘infowar’ do happen, we all know they have happened in the past (Gladio in Italy, the Reichstag fire and so on), and states do use events to their advantage (911 has been horribly manipulated in the interests of repression), so there’s a certain precedent for the leaps of faith involved in assuming a conspiracy. They do the rounds in a variety of ideological circles, but I suspect they’re most prevalent on the libertarian right (the bottom right quadrant on the Political Compass), and that their popularity arises from certain anxieties affecting people whose instincts are rightwards but who are suffering at the hands of the present system. What links AIDS and 911 is that both are products of global flows which produce unexpected events. They epitomise the ways in which the familiar, predictable lifeworld of (say) rural and small-town America, or of middle-class suburbs, or of relatively privileged groups of workers, is under siege from uncontrollable, cosmopolitan forces which are breaking down traditional forms of social power and decomposing these kinds of communities. That centralised state power is part of the problem is something these people are beginning to realise, but they don’t understand capitalist globalisation/neoliberalism, which in many cases they supported during its emergence, and they aren’t likely to turn to the left for answers, partly because they retain their right-wing attachments and prejudices (against migrants, for the “nation”, in defence of property…) and partly because the left has undermined itself by identifying itself with the state. Conspiracy theories fill the gap by providing an explanation for the distance between the popular rightist’s fantasy of what a capitalist social order should look like and the dissonances induced by a capitalist social order which in fact looks very different: the gap is there because of a betrayal, we aren’t “really” in a capitalist society, we’re “really” in a socialist or dictatorial society run from behind the scenes, and that’s why the society we’re in *looks* more like a dictatorial society than like the idealised image of a capitalist open society. The conclusion they’re turning intellectual somersaults to avoid, of course, is the conclusion that capitalism does not actually produce a free society, that it actually produces a dictatorial rule of global elites combined with all kinds of anxiety-inducing transformations and rapid flows. And that the state is not a benevolent minimal entity except when under insidious leftist control; it is inherently powergrabbing and dangerous. The trouble is, the logical conclusion of such realisations is that local lifeworlds should be defended by means of anarchism and anti-capitalism, and this runs against the particularity of the lifeworlds they want to defend: they would have to give up their prejudices and privileges to take this turn. This isn’t to say that conspiracies don’t happen, but I suspect that the popularity of conspiracy theories has less to do with their plausibility than their ideological appeal.

Mike
Feb 13, 2011 11:13

Great article thanks – however we must remember that objective truth does exist in human affairs (although it may be absent in quantum physics) and reporting of the news should be based on facts untwisted by bias.

If you watch BBC coverage of Israel Palestine the conflict is spun as a battle between two equally guilty, equal sides. This is not the case; Israel has one of the world’s most powerful military machines the Palestinians have ak47s and fireworks – Israel is occupying Palestinian land and building on the best parts of it, has killed far more people, is working with the US etc. etc. The BBC makes no attempt to teach people the basic facts of the conflict – it supports HMG policy.

Is this good journalism? Is this people taking what they want from reporting?

Of course it’s not just the BBC; it’s the whole of the mainstream media.

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[…] True Enough (2008) By Farhad Manjoo […]

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Jan 2, 2017 15:36

[…] taler om det postfaktuelle samfund (begrebet dukkede faktisk op i 2008 med en bog af Farhad Majoo), og man taler om fake news. Vi kan se, hvordan der i de seneste uger har været mange rapporter om […]

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