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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 15, 2011

Bias And How to Deal With It

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Posted by Derek

The coverage of the Japanese reactor situation reminds me of the coverage of many other technical issues when they overlap with serious breaking news stories. I wrote a little on this subject a few years ago, talking about the Merck/Vioxx business, but I wanted to expand on it.

I'm not going to rant on about the popular press not understanding this or that scientific or technical issue. There are more systemic problems with the way that news is reported, and in the way that we take it in. I'm not sure of what to do about them other than to be aware of them, but that's an important step right there.

The first of these is narrative bias. Reporters like to relay stories (and the rest of us like to hear stories) that have a progression. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end, the way our most popular novels and movies do. Something starts, something happens, something ends. Real life sometimes conforms to this template, but sometimes it doesn't. For example, some situations don't start, so much as they suddenly get noticed after they've been there all along. And some don't end, so much as they just stop having attention paid to them.

Another narrative-bias problem is the tendency to assign participants in any event to recognizable categories: good guys and bad guys, for starters. Moving to finer distinctions, there's Plucky Young X, Suffering Y, Salt-of-the-Earth Z, along with Untrustworthy Spokesman A, Obfuscating B, Crusading C, and the whole crowd. Mentally, we tend to assign people to such categories, especially if we don't know them personally, and it makes it easier for reporters, too. It's a team effort. The problem is, of course, that not everyone fits into a recognizable category, and many others overlap in ways that a simple narrative structure won't accommodate. Most real people are capable (more or less simultaneously) of great and venal actions, of heroism and cowardice, of altuism and selfishness.

Even when events are progressing in some sort of recognizable way, they're seldom doing that at the tempo that we'd like. This is the problem of temporal bias. They're especially unlikely to do that at the tempo that various news organizations would like. A cable news network would like to have something new to report every fifteen or twenty minutes; a newspaper would like something every day. But events happen when they happen, which means that in the absence of anything new to report or talk about, a tremendous amount of wind is generated to make it appear as if something is actually going on.

Our sense of history reinforces this bias. We compress and even out timelines. Look, say, at the start of World War II. Yep, Hitler invades Poland. Then he invades France. Dunkirk, Rotterdam, Battle of Britain, here we go. But there was a big gap in there, the so-called "Phoney War", where nothing much happened (at least, not compared to the way things started happening afterwards). We sort of edit that out, mentally, but it was a long period to the people living it at the time. A 24-hour news outlet would have had a rough time of it.

As an aside, a large, complex, and relatively well-documented event such as the Second World War (and the common knowledge that people have about it) furnishes all sorts of illustrations of the various forms of cognitive bias. Not so many people these days, unless they're history buffs, are aware of lacunae such as the Phoney War, out-of-the-spotlight actions such as the Battle of Madagascar, roads-not-taken such as the shipload of mustard gas that sank at Bari, or tragic mistakes such as the Cap Arcona incident. These and many other parts of the record have been sanded down or paved over, not by any conspiracy, but by natural human tendencies.

I find, getting back to the Japanese situation, that I'm getting more useful information from blogs and even the Wikipedia pages on the Fukushima incidents than I'm getting from primary news sources. Those tend to have jumbled timelines, unclear sourcing, and all sorts of overlap and garble. Reading the efforts of various other people who are trying to make sense of it all (and checking them against each other) is so far providing me with more useful information. My television is turned off.

Comments (31) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. Hap on March 15, 2011 12:44 PM writes...

It's far easier to sell events on the past publicized performance of entities than on the technical aspects of actions or decisions or on the reasoning or acts of the actual decision makers involved, which may be forever unknown or unknowable. People pay attention to news for lots of reasons, at least one of which is to feel that they know something and perhaps have some power as a result. People also like to be captured by a narrative, usually one that is unambiguous, that makes them feel that they have a place in the world.

History is perhaps like a novel, while media tend to be compensated best for (and thus to specialize in) anecdotes. Sometimes anecdotes are true, but most times, what happens is messier.

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2. anon on March 15, 2011 1:07 PM writes...

Ummm, I agree with the mainstream news having an obvious agenda, ie selling papers, ads, etc. But to think these bloggers you link to don't have an agenda as well is quite naive. They obviously understand what is going on better than the lay media but just watching how that main post has changed, now is being hosted somewhere else, and the blatantly rosy "this is no big deal" perspective when it's turning into quite a big deal. I don't have strong feeling pro or against nuclear power, but just because one side profits on building plants while the other makes money sensationalizing disasters, doesn't mean I'll trust one over the other.

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3. daen on March 15, 2011 1:08 PM writes...

I think you've just highlighted the main factor for the decline of TV news reporting: the overarching need for some kind of narrative structure. I'm old enough to remember the BBC and ITN newsreaders of the 1970s, including such greats as Anna Ford, Richard Baker, Angela Rippon, and Reginald Bosanquet (who was once thrown off the panel of Dustman of the Year 1975 for breaking into his ex-wife's flat, and was memorably parodied in the 1980s news sitcom "Drop the Dead Donkey"). However colourful their off-air exploits, their prime directive was to read the news, not trying to host a current-events game-show, as most TV news presenters appear to be these days. Unfortunately, the powers-that-be decreed that, like their US counterparts, these people were too staid on-air and the format too pedestrian for the stimulation-driven generations of the 1990s and 2000s, so they had to go.

These days, I also turn to reputable blogs like Boing Boing and your very own In The Pipeline (and yes, even to Wikipedia) instead of the TV news and mainstream media.

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4. NoDrugsNoJobs on March 15, 2011 1:36 PM writes...

Interesting post Derek. Bias is certainly nothing new but overtime it tends to reinforce where it can become the all accompanying narrative. The Web and its many sources have let in a number of competing narratives such that we can pick and choose - generally preferring those that dovetail with our own. Nevertheless, I do like to read a variety of sources to see that my own preferences are still valid for me in view of the many competing narratives.

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5. partial agonist on March 15, 2011 2:17 PM writes...

Another big problem is that "experts" on TV have to distill their thoughts into 15 second sound bites. If they go over that, the news host will cut them off. As an example Bill Nye "The Science Guy" was giving a very layman's level explanation of how nuclear power is generated, on CNN. He used no technical terms at all, yet the host cut him short and asked him to repeat something "in English".

If you use words a 5th grader doesn't know, it's too complicated, apparently. You need clear, short, crisp 5 second bullet points.

Few if any important topics lend themselves to that type of analysis.

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6. Anonymous on March 15, 2011 2:48 PM writes...

I find, getting back to the Japanese situation, that I'm getting more useful information from blogs and even the Wikipedia pages on the Fukushima incidents than I'm getting from primary news sources.

Useful information? Useful to what? Get used to the limited and sketchy commentary, because informing English speaking Americans who are not in an immediate position to provide meaningful assistance isn't really anyone's priority right now. Sheesh, talk about bias.

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7. Jon on March 15, 2011 2:50 PM writes...

In my experience, if you're going to watch coverage of just about anything on TV, you should either wait for BBC World News or for Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Rachel may let her blinders come on at times, but at least when she's reporting on a story (as opposed to then discussing it as opinion) the show's staff has the facts to back them up, and she's willing to admit when she got something wrong.

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8. Hap on March 15, 2011 2:58 PM writes...

The news isn't exactly done for peanuts these days, either - it is done to make money rather than as a public service, so it, also, has a bias based on the green stuff. Because of that, it also has less at stake in remaining an unbiased source - if a political opinion one way or the other will get more people to watch than not, then it will probably be held.

The old reasons for having an editorial bias also still hold (to wield power by getting people to do as you wish), and the lack of deep reporting means that the facts that might help one to determine where that stance impinges on the reporting aren't there. Blogs are not unbiased sources, and may or may not have a long-term, but they don't necessarily claim such, and if they are actually going to do the jobs that most media seem to have abandoned, well, then at least I'm getting some facts with my bias.

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9. Jose on March 15, 2011 3:37 PM writes...

Good summary from the Economist:

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10. Dickens on March 15, 2011 3:41 PM writes...

10,000 people have died because of the earthquake and tsunami, possibly more. No-one has yet died as a result of the problems with the reactors.

Yet the news reporting seems nearly inverted in regards to those two stories.

Ignorance and Want are the two starved children hiding under the coat of the "Ghost of Christmas Present."

We are seeing those two wraiths on display right now. An Ignorant news media, and a desperate people who's Wants may not be met anytime soon.

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11. Rick on March 15, 2011 4:17 PM writes...

To paraphrase the sage Harry Callahan "[Biases] are like a**holes, everybody has one". Previous commentators have weighed in on the cynical sources of bias. I want to point out that we also have an innate, natural tendency toward biases because we are pattern seeking creatures. Optical illusions and magic work because they take advantage of our tendency to create patterns where none exist. Once we understand how the illusion/magic works we stop filling in the blanks and the magic is gone. "The Black Swan" and "The Drunkards Walk" are two recent books that do a nice job discussing how we make these mental mistakes.

The innate tendencies that lead to bias rely on ignorance, which can be remedied by education. My recent experience teaching high school chemistry after having been a Ph.D. research scientist for 20 years makes me very worried about science education in america. Somewhere in the decades-old scramble to create more scientists and engineers to bolster innovation, we've lost something fundamental and important: creation of scientifically literate citizens. These days science classes have to make kids interested in being a scientist (and generally doing a lousy job at that, I might add), rather than helping them understand how science really works regardless of their interest in pursuing it as a career. As a result, a vanishingly small number of students, including the ones that catch the science bug, come out with an adequate understanding of the scientific method, its power and its limitations. This ignorance gives us lousy science reporting and gullible audiences, fertile ground for counter-productive biases and pointless arguments.

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12. daen on March 15, 2011 5:26 PM writes...

While the Economist article is interesting and relevant, I get slightly exercised by phrases like "It could have been worse". We've been hearing this since Friday. And, in fact, it has gotten worse. Much worse. The MIT and Economist articles should avoid these statements. Just tell us how things are: we can probably figure out how bad the situation is or could have been. And we actually don't know how much worse it will get. I really hope the engineers on the ground, who are risking life and limb every minute they stay there, can effect another cold shutdown soon, but I currently have as much basis to support that hope as the Economist. The only people who know for sure are those engineers.

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13. fontgoddess on March 15, 2011 5:40 PM writes...

The thing I keep wondering is if the news cares more about Japan than the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. There won't be an answer for a while, but this is something I think about while following/watching/reading/listening to the news from a variety of sources.

re: science literacy:
I find it disturbing that so many people have a bias against science that is based on the notions "science is hard," "science is boring," "science is confusing," and the like. People don't even try to understand science because they already think they're incapable of it. Worse, our educational system is so focused on making people know certain sets of facts that they are terrible at teaching people how to learn for themselves, including wanting to learn and then skills like where to start looking for information and evaluating sources of information.

This leads in to being informed about the news and current events. Mostly, it seems that people have short attention spans and lack the will to work to be informed. The media seems to be steered by this rather than doing their work anyway. Any disaster that lasts more than a week is old news (see the Gulf oil spill coverage). On top of this, journalists don't have the air time, research time, or funding to do coverage of much depth, even if the mass audience was interested in and patient enough to wait for and then digest that coverage.

In order to be educated and informed you need to take ownership and control of that. There is no one-stop-shop or easy source for this, and certainly no solution that fits everyone's needs and/or desires. I don't understand how anyone ever came to expect this. This is not to say that journalists should stop trying to be unbiased or that media outlets should give up trying to meet the needs and interests of a mass audience. This is to say that consumers of information should take an active rather than passive roll in being informed, and everything from the education system to purveyors of information should aim to give consumers the tools they need to be informed. Being informed, well, that's up to the individual in the end.

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14. fontgoddess on March 15, 2011 5:56 PM writes...

@daen, calling Boing Boing a reputable blog is problematic. They also have considerable bias and a fairly narrow scope. And they have been known to post things without really looking into them and judging their veracity, much less their quality in other measurable areas.

Luckily, someone in the comments on a BoingBoing post will usually catch any large errors. Still, BoingBoing should be treated with the same skepticism you apply to every other source of information. My usual skepticism policy: trust, but verify.

[disclosure: I like BoingBoing and am not a big fan of Reagan, but I think open-minded skepticism is a concept where one needs less dogma, and a willingness to disbelieve sources you are prone to believe and sometimes believe sources you may not habitually trust.]

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15. Anonymous BMS Researcher on March 15, 2011 6:01 PM writes...

Derek, you are right about some online sources having better perspective than most news media. Among news media websites the NY Times and BBC are doing better than most,
and the NY Times has run some good pieces based largely on conversations with technical
people with experience operating similar reactors in the US. Other good sources of
information include the Union of Concerned Scientists website and the website of
Scientific American. And has some informative content.

The Economist has a decent summary of what is known thus far at

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16. Anonymous BMS Researcher on March 15, 2011 6:54 PM writes...

Discussing nukes and possible alternatives to them with my wife, she coined a wonderful term for natural gas (which is the least carbon-intensive fossil fuel): "the methadone for our addiction to oil."

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17. Marilyn Mann on March 15, 2011 6:54 PM writes...

I agree on your comments on narrative bias and assigning people to good guy, bad guy roles. Another kind of bias I have seen occurs when a journalist writes a book. I've noticed that the author then tries to interpret each new situation to fit the theme of the book, whether the facts warrant that or not. They've staked out a position, a view of the world, by golly the world better go along with it. Sad to see this when it happens -- I lose trust.

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18. Marilyn Mann on March 15, 2011 6:55 PM writes...

I agree on your comments on narrative bias and assigning people to good guy, bad guy roles. Another kind of bias I have seen occurs when a journalist writes a book. I've noticed that the author then tries to interpret each new situation to fit the theme of the book, whether the facts warrant that or not. They've staked out a position, a view of the world, by golly the world better go along with it. Sad to see this when it happens -- I lose trust.

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19. dearieme on March 15, 2011 7:08 PM writes...

The "science correspondent" on the ITN evening news tonight ended with the comment that if you'd driven past the troublesome nuclear power staion with your car window open you'd have been exposed to a dangerous amount of radiation..pause..but less than if you'd gone into your local hospital for a CAT scan. At which, the anchor's face fell.

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20. Pam on March 15, 2011 7:18 PM writes...

Derek, Sorry, but if you think all blogs are written by people who are filtering the news, I would beg to differ. These days, you can't really tell who's writing what; in fact, advertisers are taking advantage of this. In fact, there have been so-called "mommy bloggers," who rave about a particular hospital. You know what, those posting aren't mommies and they weren't about to deliver twins.

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21. daen on March 15, 2011 9:05 PM writes...

@dearieme: Pretty sure you could easily get more than a CT-scan's worth:

a) there were levels of approximately 400 mSv per hour earlier inside the plant (or roughly 80 times a chest CT or 400 times the average annual dose; and

b) it's being emitted by relatively long-lasting airborne species of iodine and caesium, and hence can easily drift across roads. If the wind were in the wrong direction, I'm fairly sure you'd get a fatal or near-fatal dose quite fast.

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22. Dan on March 16, 2011 1:13 AM writes...

@dickens: The nuclear plants are the continuing danger, so of course they're going to draw more attention. Something can (in theory, at least) be done about that, and a lot of people are doing their damnedest to limit that danger.

@daen: At 400 mSv/hour, you probably wouldn't even notice any acute ill effects whatsoever (much less get a near-fatal dose) unless you stayed there for half an hour, and if treated promptly your chances of survival would be good even if you stayed for five or six hours (not that I'd recommend putting that to the test). Furthermore, that measurement was very near the most badly damaged reactor; measurements at the fence line were significantly lower (approximately an order of magnitude, if memory serves), and it was a relatively short-lived spike (latest I've heard is around 6 mSv/hr on the property, which is still quite high, about the equivalent a chest CT scan every hour).

Of course, if you get any bioaccumulation, you're going to have longer-term exposure to deal with. I wouldn't stay there any longer than necessary, but if you're talking acute exposure, driving by in a convertible with the top down (let alone a normal car with the window open) would be highly unlikely to even make you sick, much less kill you.

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23. Matthew on March 16, 2011 1:41 AM writes...

Interestingly, the same RAF officer was in charge of both Second World War incidents you mention.

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25. dearieme on March 16, 2011 6:45 AM writes...

"dearieme: Pretty sure you could easily get more than a CT-scan's worth": I dare say, but my point was that an attempt to compare the problem to something more familiar apparently wasn't what the anchor wanted or expected. It's like tabloid headlines which are forever describing reaction to something-or-other as "rage" or "fury" - a calm voice trying to give context or proportion is not what is wanted. That's a separate point than the question of whether the comparison was was wrong, or out-of-date, or whatever. Of course, it might have bben right at one moment, wrong at another.

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26. David on March 16, 2011 11:34 AM writes... television is most always turned off - especially when it comes to "news" reporting. Totally useless media in my mind.

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27. Cuckoo on March 17, 2011 6:00 AM writes...

For a funny take on the reporting BS:

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28. pEvans on October 27, 2011 8:29 PM writes...

As an historical example, the story of the Thielbek (sunk along with the Cap Arcona) makes a much more interesting example, especially to confound those who cite bits of history according to some personal bias.

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