Sunday, September 2, 2012

Critical Thinking and Detecting Bias

Webster defines bias as a particular tendency or inclination. Richard Paul (1995), in his Glossary of Critical Thinking Terms, supports this definition by describing it as a “mental leaning or inclination”. However, Paul goes on to talk about the differences between “thinking within a point of view” and “being blind to or having an irrational resistance to a weakness” within that point of view. It is my very blindness or irrational resistance to a weakness that makes it important I employ critical thinking and “sleuthing” skills (Shermer, 2009) for everything I read on the web – no matter if I am reading or watching to just be informed or if I want to apply material as evidence for corroborating or dissenting viewpoints for a well-rounded argument. For my observations, conclusions and solutions to have any credibility, I need to verify the veracity, accuracy, and bias of the underlying information I am using to support my thesis.

When I view or listen to something that seems rational, or even innocuous, what tools can I deploy to detect bias and further, to verify truthfulness and authenticity of the material I am reading, watching, or listening to? This quote from the Freeman Institute ( is an exaggeration, to be sure, but pokes fun at the credibility which we often give the web for the information we find there.

"The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that it's difficult to determine whether or not they are genuine."

-- Abraham Lincoln

Quote From the Freeman Institute

Since I can’t remove bias from the equation (minimally, a point of view), the very first critical thinking skill I need to apply as I scan web materials is a question: “Do I keep watching or reading or listening because the bias of the material comports with my own bias? (Further, how do I know?) Conversely, do I stop watching, reading or listening because the bias of the material disagrees with my bias? (Further, do I discount everything that agitates me?). In either case, how can I know which of the two materials is really biased? (In the sense that it plays into my own irrational resistance).

Michael Shermer’s video, below gives a quick way to make an assessment on bias by asking 10 questions that are particularly helpful when reading or watching material that is ostensibly evidence-based and purporting to bring the reader to a rational conclusion.

 Michael Shermer's Baloney Detection Kit

Alan November’s work ( goes beyond the purported “facts” of any material on the web, to get to the underlying bias or agenda of the producer or owner of the information presented. Here he is in a seminar, teaching parents on how to do the “search behind the search” for information.

 Alan November - The Search Behind the Search

In a rather quick search, I found several other sources, among them, professor Scott Wrobel's syllabus for bias detection (, and Rhetorica (, for material in applying critical thinking skills to ask a few questions which get to bias, veracity, and accuracy. Additionally, my colleagues in our critical thinking class found six to eight other sites useful for objective scrutiny of web-based material. All of these sites vary in their respective approaches, but all of them provide quick ways to assess bias when viewing web material. The methodologies include ways (and this is by no means an exhaustive list) to:

            Evaluate the author, publisher and owner of the information (Do they have a history of supporting only a particular point of view? Or do they just report the facts with no value-oriented adjectives or adverbs?);
            Interpret the format, emphasis, and words used in the text and the titles (Are value statements implied by the clever use of words, or the arrangement of words and claims?);
            Discover the owner of the website (does the owner have and agenda or a history of supporting a particular point of view?);
            Corroborate the information, supporting data, and concepts from other sources (Is this the only place where a particular argument or data set is used? Can it be found in other locations in a similar argument?);
            Verify the original sources for the data or quotes (Use of second sources is dangerous – can the original source be found?), and;
            Apply scientific or philosophic logic in evaluating the claims (claims and conclusions which run counter to logic should be carefully evaluated).

So I applied the very principles that Shermer, November, and Wrobel espouse on the materials that we were asked to read. I looked up background information on the authors of the material I read, and on the publishers and the organizations represented by the publishers. A closer look at Michael Shermer’s video on Baloney Detection reveals that it was produced by the Richard Dawkins Foundation. In going to the web site for the Richard Dawkins Foundation (, its mission statement reads as follows: “The mission of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering.” A noble statement on behalf of reason and science in overcoming superstitions and intolerance, but does the very fact that “religious fundamentalism” is listed with superstition, intolerance, and suffering reflect a bias toward anything of formal faith? (Further, isn’t tolerance advanced by those who can acknowledge the validity of other world views even in disagreement?) Shermer’s use of examples only for an evolution point is one of the very “filters” listed in Scott Wrobel’s material on detecting bias: there are no examples from an opposing world view with a different interpretation of the same facts to support his points. In fact, by inference, any such belief would run counter to most of the points he makes.

Now comes the question about bias – does the bias of the Richard Dawkins Foundation affect the credibility or usefulness of Michael Shermer’s 10 points on detecting baloney? It would be easy to just dismiss the points that Michael Shermer made because of the bias of the Richard Dawkins Foundation. Since we discovered in earlier work that we all have bias - it’s a part of being human and growing up in any culture, society and family. The question behind the question is this: “Will my own bias keep me from an honest evaluation of material, given its bias?” This is where my critical thinking skills get to be applied again. I happen to think that Michael Shermer’s points have validity and are very useful, even though I don’t embrace the world-view of the Richard Dawkins Foundation. While the approaches used by November, Wrobel, Rhetorica, and others, vary, the core concepts in searching for bias are corroborated (cross-referenced and validated ) by these other sources. Alan November and Scott Wrobel may or may not share the same world view, but their personal biases are never revealed in the way they (or their respective organizations) present information about themselves or the subject at-hand. So I think the larger point is this: there are critical thinking (and sleuth) skills to be applied to detect bias on the web AND there are critical thinking skills to be applied to determine if the bias effects the validity, neutrality, or usefulness of the material presented. It is the totality of our critical thinking skills that help us find bias, and once found, evaluate its effect on the material at hand, in light of its intended purpose.

Richard Dawkins. Richard Dawkins Foundation. Retrieved on 8/27/2012 from:

The Freeman Institute. Retrieved on 8/27.2012 from:

Paul, R. and Elder, L. (n.d.). Distinguishing between inferences and assumptions. The Critical Thinking Community. Retrieved from:

Paul, R. (1995). Glossary of Critical Thinking Terms. The Critical Thinking Community. Retrieved from:

Rhetorica. Retrieved on 8/30/201 from:

Alan November. November Learning. Retrieved on 8/27/2012 from:

Wrobel, S. (n.d.). Anoka Ramsey Community College. Retrieved on 8/28/12 from:

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