Thursday, July 21, 2005

Issues of Bias

When we discuss "rhetoric" in our first-year composition courses, it is easy to overlook issues of philosophical and ideological bias. True, we tell our students to look for the biases within their readings, but we seldom explore the actual nature of bias.

The problem of bias is being exacerbated in our current media climate. An abundance of choice, which we often assume is a good thing, can also lead to self-segregation. People can locate magazines, television shows, Web sites, and "blogs" supporting their existing views. Our desire for simple binaries, often encouraged by the nature of these various media outlets, leads us to take sides andstake out rigid positions.

With so many outlets, students and instructors can locate research supporting most any view. Because we seek like minds, we are inclined to doubt or even challenge differing views. While we attempt to promote questioning and challenging in our students, we probably dovery little of this ourselves.

Even those of us involved in academic research tend to have deeply ingrained biases, which influence how we read and evaluate student papers. In effect, students enter yet another echo chamber when they enter a university setting.
"A warehouse of psychological research suggests, however, that once people form a belief, they selectively seek, collect and interpret new data in ways that verify their opinion. This distorting cognitive confirmation bias makes such personal convictions resistant to change, even in the face of contradictory evidence." (Saul M. Kassin and Gisli H. Gudjonsson. Scientific American Mind, p. 28, "TrueCrimes, False Confessions" 25 July 2005)
Kassin is a professor of psychology at Williams College. Gudjonsson is a professor of forensic psychology at King's College, London.

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