Saturday, July 19, 2014

Bias. Again

One does not need to be an expert in a field in order to be the best available explainer of it.  There are science writers who are not specialists in any science, but are nonetheless exceptionally good at making concepts clear to a reasonably intelligent reader; religious writers who have no special credential in church history but can communicate a fair bit of it to lay audiences; even general writers who can successfully expound on a variety of topics.  Some can even speak knowledgeably and fruitfully to audiences of actual experts, summarising, analogising, tying together related bits.

There are limitations, certainly.  I don’t know what the threshhold level of intelligence and training is for explaining radar, or iconoclasm, or PTSD, but it’s probably pretty high.  John Tierney is no slouch, Isaac Asimov was pretty smart.  A host of folks even farther down the Gaussian Distribution have performed admirably at the task of explaining stuff, but I’m betting there aren’t many from the bottom half.  The flip side of that is folks who are smart generalists sometimes go up and over in how qualified they are to discuss complicated topics.  I have known some of these (cough, cough).

Those two sides, then – one has to be intelligent enough to understand an actual authority, but have enough humility to recognise when things have gone beyond one’s level.  You might be able to explain the current state of the research better than a whole roomful of actual researchers, but you are not, in fact, a researcher yourself.  In every field there are hoops to jump through – best-practice methodology and peer review being only biggies among the many – that are not simply arbitrary.  If you don’t have those on your tool belt, you just don’t.  A clumsy person might fairly evaluate the work of finish carpenters, but that does not mean they should be giving instruction.

When we watch a sporting event, it is always our fair lads being assaulted by the thugs from the next town over (and the refs refuse to acknowledge this).  When the Rosetta Stone was first exhibited at the British Museum, the French complained that the photo of Jean-Francoise Champollion was smaller than the photo of Thomas Young on the opposite pillar. The English complained that Young's was smaller.  The reality was (as you have guessed) that the pictures were the same size.

Deeply true, and yet often the easy way out.  Sometimes there is bias, and slant, and a refusal by the presenters to portray the data evenhandedly.  Then also, declaring equivalency, even when it is true, is a way to easily rationalise one's way back to the original bias in about 0.4 seconds.

What to do when the bias is real, but pointing it out is regarded as whining?

Yes, I am going somewhere with this within the next few days.


james said...

"complicated topics" I try to review science reports (been remiss lately) that I'm fairly sure I understand the features of and where the regular channels seem to have goofed or left something out. There's been a time or three when something I didn't know rose up to get me, though.

Sam L. said...

"What to do when the bias is real, but pointing it out is regarded as whining?"

Of which there is a lot (LOT) going on.