Image for ABC Bias or the ABCs of Cognitive Bias?

*Pic: Ruth Ellison, Flickr. Dick Smith at Australian Skeptics National Convention 2014

Figure 1. Monthly anecdotal sightings of foxes reported in Tasmania by members of the public in the first 3 years of the fox eradication program in Tasmania (closed circles) against our model based upon media intensity and the number of equivocal claims made about physical evidence of foxes as reported by the media (open circles with 95% confidence as solid line).

First published September 9

Dick Smith’s recent claim of ABC bias in the mass immigration and population debate ( here ) is worthy of some serious analysis.

His main criticism of the ABC seems to be that they promoted inaccurate claims that misrepresented his beliefs and manifesto of his Fair Go campaign ( here ).

Oddly perhaps an analysis of the Tasmanian fox scandal has allowed us to provide some scientific insights into one aspect of media bias.

Our independent group of scientists ( here ) has just published a research paper on the risks of promoting equivocal information via the media. You can find a link to the paper here ( here ).

Tasmania ended up as a petri dish that permitted us to study the role of the media in engendering flawed perception and belief in the ‘fox that wasn’t there’.

We looked at the influence of equivocal claims of physical evidence reported by the media up against the number of anecdotal fox sightings arising from members of the public.

Surprisingly we were able to accurately account for the patterns of fox sightings using a statistical model that incorporated only the number of equivocal claims of physical evidence made each month and the amount of media generated in the same period (see graph above).

Our research showed that the anecdotal sightings of foxes followed psychological cues rather than well known and anticipated fluctuations in fox seasonal abundance.

No foxes were needed to explain the trends in anecdotal fox sightings.

We also demonstrated that those people receiving and assessing the subjective ‘reliability’ of anecdotal fox sightings were similarly affected by bias. When there were few anecdotal sightings they believed a large proportion of them were reliable, but when fox sightings went through the roof they believed much fewer were genuine.

Its called cognitive bias and we are all affected by it. It causes us to think in ways that deviate from rational analysis, often in a very self-serving manner. Coupled with a tendency for cognitive dissonance these are powerful and dangerous demons that lurk in the human psyche.

Together they allow us to convince ourselves that our square peg of comfortable ideological belief and self-interest fits nicely though a round hole of reason.

Because most of us want our beliefs to be seen as reasonable and rational; even if we have to lie to ourselves and others to do so.

Strangely, cognitive bias and cognitive dissonance has rarely been considered to be part of the pathology of media bias. But what the Tasmanian fox analysis demonstrates is that it is a powerful mechanism by which well meaning people end up leading others astray.

But it doesn’t stop here. Because those who are led astray contribute to a feedback loop where their belief emboldens those who offered up the original equivocal information in the first place. Just think about how the fox sightings collected by DPIPWE’s own fox program were used to justify its own success – by way of the media.

To cut a long story short, it seems that those with a privileged platform to disseminate inaccurate information and ideology via the media can build a following quite easily - irrespective of the poor quality of the information they use. As their following and exposure grows through good marketing it appears to the proponent that their beliefs and ideology is supported by the self-affirming feedback they receive.

Flattery will get you anywhere. An echo chamber of ideology in the media may well be explained by a similar mechanism.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that it all happens unconsciously.

So, while Dick Smith may well be right about ABC bias, I think that the true irony is that those responsible for this bias may be largely unaware of it. They may not be well placed to identify bias in their own belief system and actions.

Because those who suffer from cognitive bias and cognitive dissonance are usually not aware that their views do not stand up to reasoned analysis, sometimes because they seek what affirms their own belief and reject that which conflicts with it.

It’s called confirmation bias.

Ultimately we all become the victims of poor quality information if we confuse belief and opinion for fact. If we obtain affirmation of our opinion via flattery and groupthink rather than reasoned debate we become intellectually marooned. The last people to realize this will be those who unconsciously look for confirmation of their own beliefs.

Bias in the population debate may well have come about because journalists and celebrities have failed to open themselves up to critiques from truly independent sources. They sometimes live in a relatively sheltered world that the media gets to create, often using the magic of television and in tune with the esprit de corps of their institutions.

When it comes down to tin tacks it is the willingness of the media to rely upon opinion and equivocal information that sets up the trap of cognitive bias and cognitive dissonance.

Opinion is the poor relation of true knowledge and often a dead end altogether if we seek truth.

Put bluntly, nobody should care what the opinion of any journalist is when it comes to environmental, scientific and ethical and democratic issues; issues best ascribed by seeking empirical information and reason. Establishing the dimensions of these matters requires a very different model that is not predicated upon chat circles and an echo chamber of mates.

Part of the solution is to broaden the inputs and relax the editorial controls rather than tightening them. This seems counterintuitive, but increasingly journalists indulge themselves in matters that they are neither qualified to assess or independent enough to deliberate on. The only way they can counter such very human and forgivable deficits is to embrace their critics, not seek to control them.

Balance can only come from engaging with sources capable of the rigorous and independent review of information. It is increasingly notable that the ABC has not done this when it comes to the population debate.

Presently we have a Ground Hog Day where the wider media in general is busy interviewing itself and the usual suspects in a merry-go-round of self-affirmation.

Today we have journalists interviewing other journalists in the name of journalism and this has become patently ridiculous. It has also set up the perfect conditions for cognitive bias and cognitive dissonance to grow in the media petri dish.

Key issues of ethics, science, democratic process, amenity and resource sustainability are ignored and replaced with a chat session that are impervious to the few reasoned critiques that are presented as Christians before hungry lions.

Editorial control is often exerted to control debates so that institutional and personal reputations are maintained, often by creating pariahs out of those who challenge authority who pay a very substantial public and personal cost for daring to do so.

This is the workhorse of political correctness; to make the cost of promoting a different opinion so high that only the brave or foolhardy will try.

No one likes being criticized, upstaged or made to look foolish, but heavily stage-managed media stacks the deck against those who have an unpopular view. In the process we forget that history shows us that the chance of being empirically correct has nothing to do with winning a popularity or beauty contest.

Intellectual input has been all but ignored in the population debate. It has been starved of oxygen quite simply by not seeking comment from a wider range of academics and social commentators and by making the risk of reputational damage so high that few academics will take the chance.

Overall, we are all better off if we maintain values where the opinions of journalists and self-interested parties are immaterial. We need journalists willing to return to a core business of informing and objectively reporting rather than being bit players in contrived dramas that put them at the centre of the story.

These days journalists don’t have a privileged access to quality information or a unique capacity to analyse it; many people do by virtue of their connectivity. This means that some forms of journalism just get in the way of informed debate by turning it into a theatre where the star of the show is the ‘expert commentator’ in a theme park paid for at the expense of an opportunity to canvas truly independent inputs.

What the Tasmanian fox saga should teach us is that no one is immune to bias. We can all believe in fantasy and chase our own myths by virtue of unconscious and unintentional defects in our reasoning and judgment. While this does not make it any less damaging, it may nonetheless imply that bias may not be always malicious, but a psychological and cultural component of what we are.

Under such conditions those institutions accused of bias may not be well placed to determine if such claims have merit. A media watchdog must have teeth but also enough independence and wisdom to explore how cognitive bias works.

No public organization should be permitted to become too much of a monoculture of any flavor, largely because it will eventually lack the psychological and cultural capacity to test its own metal by embracing its own critics within.

After all, providing a platform for your critics is the best practical demonstration of your own integrity.

*Dr Clive Marks a bio is on its way

Dick Smith joins Sustainable Australia

Van Badham, Guardian: I get why you’re angry, Dick Smith. The ABC ignores my ideas all the time