Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Trust and Bias

Whether you accept or reject evidential claims (your bias) has a lot to do with what you trust.

Recently, at a dinner with atheists, one person commented that there has been extraordinary work in the field of autism research. A doctor has successfully cured 25 children of autism by removing mercury from from their blood through a process called chelation. Others at the table remarked that chelation is dangerous and that ethyl mercury found in Thimerosal is different then methyl mercury, which is most associated with mercury related poisoning and neurological damage, because ethyl mercury is removed from the body more easily then methyl mercury.

His response? Chelation is not dangerous, that is something they just want you to believe. The mercury differences is just a smokescreen. Just look at a YouTube video of mercury destroying neurons! My child has spasms the day after he received a vaccine, that might have been due to the mercury in the shot. What about fluoride in the water? It's a known carcinogen, yet our government forces us to drink it.

I had only met this person this evening, so I don't have a lot of history to go on, but from talking with him, he's a passionate person, concerned with the environment, sustainability, organic gardening and has a distrust of corporations and the government.

Because of who and what he did not trust, this affected his acceptance of evidence, disregarding objections raised.

A concerned Facebook group member contacted me earlier this week, recommending that I send out a correction about the Tim Pawlenty scandal over the apparent misuse of funds obtained by selling Support Our Troops plates. A staff member received $30,000 as a partial salary, the same person in charge of overseeing the Governor's Faith Based Initiaves, from the Support Out Troops funds. When the DFL brought the issue to light, it was determined that this staffer was working for veterans, on behalf of a veterans welfare group, seeking out eligible veterans who were not using services to which they were entitled.

Did I send out the correction? No. I don't think sending out messages on Facebook qualifies my role as a journalist and besides, who would care? I also am acting with bias. I don't like Tim Pawlenty's socially conservative politics and as an atheist, I'm sensitive to, not only the misuse of government funds, but the misuse of funds which support a program which offers an unfair advantage to religious organizations, making it more difficult for quality secular organizations to operate. Because of my bias, I still see an issue with what happened. I still think that sharing staff between the Governor's office and another organization leads to too little transparency. So, I am hesitant to write it off as an innocent decision on the part of Tim Pawlenty. But, this is largely due to the fact that when I'm presented with information, I don't have as much skepticism when Al Franken is accused of wrongdoing as if Tim Pawlenty is, because I don't trust Tim Pawlenty, but should I trust Al Franken?

It would be a difficult world to live in if trust was thrown out of the window and all claims were subject to deep analysis. But, even at that point, what do you trust, your own experiences, your senses, your memory? It it more important, then, to be aware of ones bias? But, is it that innocent, just to be aware and let your opinions be clouded? Bias can be innocent, such as preferring one local sports team over an non local sports team; however, can be more dangerous when advocating for expensive, ineffective and potentially dangerous treatment for a condition which is becoming more well understood, but until then the favorite enemy of the day will be to blame for the cause.

2 comments:

Erica said...

Trust is an interesting way to think about it. I would call it cognitive shortcuts, we have to use them because there isn't time in our lives to be experts on everything. So for example I trust the movie reviewers at Entertainment Weekly and Roger Ebert to help me sort through what movies I want to see, and I trust Consumer reports and CNet to figure out what GPS or netbook to buy (I'd trust you too for that!) It seems like the person talking about mercury was trusting an unreliable source - and it makes you wonder what the person's criteria is for trusting a source. I trust Ebert for example because I've tested his reviews against my own opinions and tastes. I trust Consumer Reports because I understand their process and judge it to be smart and fair.

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