Saturday, February 27, 2010

That's what I call "bias"

A friend posted this article on facebook:

Liberalism, atheism, male sexual exclusivity linked to IQ

This article is a classic example of headlines being completely misleading. First, the difference in average IQ was hardly astronomical, as the article admits:
The IQ differences, while statistically significant, are not stunning -- on the order of 6 to 11 points -- and the data should not be used to stereotype or make assumptions about people, experts say.
What would we do without experts? We'd never be able to tell that not all religious people are idiots!

Second, the definitions of "liberal" and "conservative" used in the study had almost nothing to do with the actual meanings of those words in common American political discourse.
The study takes the American view of liberal vs. conservative. It defines "liberal" in terms of concern for genetically nonrelated people and support for private resources that help those people. It does not look at other factors that play into American political beliefs, such as abortion, gun control and gay rights.
In other words, the study doesn't take into account what it actually means to be, you know, conservative. Or liberal, for that matter.

Also, I don't see any evidence from the article that atheism, more than religion, could be at all connected with caring about strangers, which is supposedly a "liberal" trait. There doesn't seem to be any comparison between intelligent religious people and intelligent atheists.

Isn't it possible that among people with higher IQs, the religious people are actually more "liberal" than the atheists? I mean, of course, that they would care more about providing resources to perfect strangers. I don't think this is an unreasonable hypothesis; church-goers give on average a higher percentage of their income to charity (though still not enough).

Similarly, no comparison was made between intelligent atheist men and intelligent religious men on the subject of sexual exclusivity. Even though intelligence might curb sexual promiscuity among men, who says atheism does? Everyday experience would suggest quite the opposite.

The conflation of these three concepts, atheism, "liberalism," and male sexual exclusivity, together with the attribute of intelligence, is simply an editorial decision made by CNN in choosing a headline. It appears to have little or no grounding in reality.

So does anyone still wonder why people complain about media bias in reporting? You can talk all you want about how objectively the facts were laid out in your article, but that's not all there is to journalism. Presentation matters.

Headlines especially are crucial in shaping people's opinions. Even when people actually read the article (which is by no means 100% of the time!) the headline always leaves a certain impression, and perhaps even skews one's interpretation of the facts laid out in the article.

I can hardly believe that journalists for a network like CNN are so oblivious as to not realize this. Thus I can only conclude that they are intentionally naming their headlines in a manipulative way, and that is what makes me cynical about news media.

Besides this, I get really tired of interpretations of religion like the one presented in this article:

Religion, the current theory goes, did not help people survive or reproduce necessarily, but goes along the lines of helping people to be paranoid, Kanazawa said. Assuming that, for example, a noise in the distance is a signal of a threat helped early humans to prepare in case of danger.

"It helps life to be paranoid, and because humans are paranoid, they become more religious, and they see the hands of God everywhere," Kanazawa said.

Yeah, you know, it's really the paranoia that keeps me going to church every Sunday. It's as if researchers like this have never actually met anyone who's religious.

In fact, for 2000 years Christianity has in many ways been dispelling this kind of primitive paranoia Kanazawa is describing. By proclaiming that the One True God is not only sovereign but also loving and rational, Christianity practically paved the way for the modern era, one in which people don't have an inherent fear of nature but rather faith that nature can be mastered.

One might refer to this article for more insight on that topic.

Anyway, as a conservative religious man who also happens to be a PhD student in mathematics, I can assure you, you shouldn't believe every headline you read.

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