Monthly Archives: July 2014

Blah, Blah, Blah, and Claims of Media Bias

BBC Biased Bullshit Corporation

A couple of nights ago I went to a Jewish Community Center to listen to a talk by a respected scholar of Middle Eastern politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was an enjoyable evening with pleasant enough talk. Actually, it was more like a prayer meeting than a community political lecture. The audience was composed of Israel supporters and there were prayers and the singing of Hatikvah.

But what struck me was the casual and confident ease with which people claim media bias. One presenter proudly and enthusiastically declared that she was going to cancel her subscription to the New York Times, as if that would do anything other than make her less informed. I know the media are an easy target and as an active specialist in these areas myself I encounter the charge of media bias regularly. Still, it is frustrating how little effect I have on people when I explain the multitude of perceptual distortions that go into their conclusions about bias, followed by an explanation of the difference between “bias” and “perspective”.

We can’t seem to explain to the public that people watch the news for a multitude of reasons, many of which have little or nothing to do with the acquisition of accurate information. We watch news for mood management, social rehearsals, and all sorts of cognitive needs. The more one watches the more they are bound to encounter bias or develop distrust.

You know that individual psychology and cognitive distortions are implicated when both sides of an issue claim bias. There are a dozen studies that show the same footage or text to two different groups, only to have that message interpreted completely differently by the two different groups depending on their entering perspective. No news story is completely free of values, and no story includes all potentially relevant information.

In one study available here the authors found that presentation variables such as agency in headlines and focal point of photographs all contributed to different (perhaps just “different” and not distorted) interpretations. And just as one would predict, according to the hostile media affect, the roomful of Israel supporters saw bias against Israel everywhere, noting the New York Times, when in fact the research cited above indicates that the New York Times is mostly pro-Israel. The hostile media affect is the tendency for highly involved individuals to see media coverage of their issue as biased against their own position. Their own ego involvement and engagement with the issues makes it impossible for them to process a new story objectively. In fact, coverage of the Israel Palestine conflict has traditionally been so supportive of Israel that the American public is uninformed about the Palestinian narrative and political position. Zelizer and colleagues in the reference cited above found that the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune had remarkably similar coverage of the intifada with the Times being more supportive of Israel.

But the difficulty people have with the distinction between “perspective” and “bias” is particularly disappointing. Not a single person at the lecture interpreted news stories as a perspective; they only saw bias everywhere they looked. A perspective is a defensible and explainable viewpoint from which one member of the group sees an issue; it is a point of view. The perspective can be impartial and defensible. To say it is defensible means that the holder of the perspective is fair-minded and has come to his or her opinion on the basis of acceptable reasons and evidence. This does not mean that other evidence is not available or different interpretations are not possible, just that the holder of the perspective has thoughtfully considered alternatives and sincerely tried to weigh competing evidence. Being a “liberal Democrat” or a “Zionist” is defensible and can be explained on the basis of acceptable reasons. But the same is true for being a “conservative Republican” or an “anti-Zionist.” It is the clash of these perspectives that results in reasonable disagreement. There is disagreement because the two perspectives support different positions and hold different values, but both perspectives are defensible from evidentiary, rational, and cultural standpoints.

A bias is holding an unfair and indefensible attitude or opinion. The holder of the bias is typically close minded and unwilling to consider additional evidence and alternatives because he or she pre-judges new information and alternative perspectives and refuses to engage in proper and sufficient information processing that might result in opinion change. Certainly, putting aside beliefs and working to form new conclusions is difficult. But it remains a communicative behavior that is central to problem-solving and part of the general communicative process that forms the foundation of democratic conflict resolution and the management of conflicting groups.








This will not stop if we don’t talk

Free gaza from HamasConflict!

ze lo y’gamer im lo n’daber

This won’t stop if we don’t talk

It is probably unimaginable to think of Hamas and Israel actually talking civilly but getting to the negotiating table is the only answer. Here are some thoughts on doing that.

The above phrase in transliterated Hebrew is going around Israel. It means “this will not stop if we don’t talk” and it appears on protest signs, news stories, and casual conversation. It rhymes in Hebrew. Truer words have never been spoken. The issue is not how to talk to each other or what form those talks should take, the issue is getting to the table. All of our knowledge and skill at communication, dialogue and deliberation, is wasted and unavailable if you cannot get the two parties to the table. If Hamas or Israel insists that the other side must be destroyed or their incompatibilities are irreversible and there’s nothing to talk about, then the violence and conflict will simply continue.

At the moment I’m concerned about getting to the table. Essentially, this is the issue of “ripeness” which you can read more about here. Ripeness refers to the right time or the belief that the conditions are best for talking and solving problems. Right now no one would consider the time “ripe” for conflict management between Israel and Hamas for example. The time might be necessary or the most urgent given the violence but the situation is not ripe. “Ripeness” is a delicate matter because it is a little subjective and difficult to know when exactly is the “right time.” One can move too early, too late, too fast, or misjudge the other. Moreover, conflicts usually have more than one ripe time.

But I do not advocate sitting around waiting for the ripe moment. Participants in a conflict sometimes avoid ripe situations because they get more out of prolonging the conflict. Hamas always says it has “time on its side” because the status attributions it receives from war with Israel outweigh any benefits of negotiation and talk. One question becomes then how you create ripeness, how do you construct conditions that will increase the chances of bringing two sides to the table? Here are some strategies:

1. Third parties are always good sources of incentives. The Middle East has been most calm and in control when there is a significant international polity (the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, the United States,) that can provide incentives for talks. Actually, anytime a third-party is willing to intervene and try to mediate the conflict it is a good indication of ripeness.

2. The second strategy for getting people to the table, although a less pleasant one, is waiting until things are so bad that negotiation becomes attractive. As the saying goes, “sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.”

3. Sometimes it’s possible to get people to the negotiating table by promising them more than they expect. Perhaps some symbolic recognition that was earlier denied, or a tangible resource.

4. New ways to be interdependent that benefit both sides are always strong strategies. Interdependence creates common interest and overlapping concerns and the two parties will talk if the reward possibilities are sufficient.

5. Pre-negotiations or “talking about talk.” Finally, it is sometimes useful to get the two parties to talk about how they would organize and develop dialogue or deliberation. Don’t engage in actual discussion and deliberation and do not term the conversation as official negotiation or discussion. But get the two parties together and have them imagine what the process would look like. This should move them closer to the actual experience of problem-solving deliberation.

Persuading the two parties to talk and find a way to negotiate a settlement – to get them to the table – is typically more difficult than constructing an actual settlement package. There are lots of solutions and proposals to end and contain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of them are understood and accepted by both parties and not very controversial. But none of this matters if the two parties do not talk.







Coming Next Week

ze lo y’gamer im lo n’daber

This won’t stop if we don’t talk

People ask me what I think about current events in Gaza as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and here’s what I tell them.

Don Ellis


Recent book: Deliberative Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict

Peter Lang.

Is This Editorial Cartoon Funny?

Scale Cartoon for Israeli TeenagersPeople enjoy political cartoons. They make for fast iconic processing and cut to the quick of a point. This cartoon by Steve Bell is clearly cynical and anti-Israel. Its essential point is clear enough – that Israel values its own lives greater than that of the Palestinians. An even deeper and more cynical and insensitive interpretation would be that “only” three lives are considered more significant than all of the Palestinians.

But the cartoon does represent the mindset that characterizes the perception of Israel. On the one hand, any culture disproportionally prefers its own people and interpretations of its culture that are favorable. Why wouldn’t an Israeli, or an American, or member of any other culture be at least just a little biased towards its own people and political conditions? But this cartoon doesn’t state an obvious political reality; it’s not a simple statement of support and preference for one’s own that anyone can understand. No, it’s an indictment. It is a charge that Israel considers itself to be superior, that the lives of three teenagers (three coffins draped in an Israeli flag) are considered more important than all the Palestinian suffering.

Political cartoons that are rich in interpretive possibilities lend themselves to multiple issues and implications. This one not only accuses Israel of unfair and biased attitudes about human life but also speaks to the issues of moral superiority and moral equivalence. It accuses Israel of considering themselves to be morally superior, which is why the death of the three teens outweighs the Palestinian experience or the other side of the scale. And even though, as referred to above, this is common enough and true of any political culture in the hands of a cynical cartoonist it becomes an accusation. Moreover, as part of this bias towards one’s own group, there is the matter of moral equivalence or the belief that your own group is equally as justified as any other group. If the killing of the three teenagers was the act of a crazed individual (such as in the case of Baruch Goldstein) then that is different than it being a political act. But if Hamas for example consciously planned to kidnap and kill three Israeli kids coming home from school as part of a political statement, then an aggressive response is justified.

One of the most pernicious aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the sense of moral equivalence on both sides. The Palestinians believe they are morally superior because more of them have died, and the Israelis believe they are morally superior because of their developed political culture as well as the conviction that they are a legitimately established state that is surrounded by enemies and simply defending themselves.

Research on political cartoons reports that cartoonists want to expose the system and encourage resistance. They clearly have an agenda, which is fine because that’s their job. But a persistent bias toward one issue is no different than any journalist engaging in conscious and systematic bias with respect to an issue. An editorial cartoonist is particularly adept at exposing hypocrisy and absurdity and these cartoon moments are powerful when there is a consensus recognizing hypocrisy and absurdity. But a cartoonist who simply hammers away portraying his or her own biased political perspective is little more than a journalist hack.

Political cartoons are naturally critical and typically have a sharp cutting-edge humor and insight to them. And this is why we enjoy them. If they subvert those in power and draw attention to the corruption of deep or sacred principles than editorial cartoons are powerful communication forces. A cartoon may not prompt revolution in the streets but it can be and should be oppositional in the most honorable sense. If we laugh or see ourselves in bitter recognition then the cartoon is successful. But propagating an indefensible cultural stereotype aimed at one culture and interpreting that culture through a single lens (the accusation of Israeli moral superiority in this case) moves beyond insightful cartoons into the realm of rank bias.

What Kind of Mentality Kills Teenagers Because They are Jewish or Palestinian? I’ll Tell You What Kind.

O Allah kill Jewsgodless atheists

You have to be pretty far outside the category of “human” to kidnap three scared teenagers and shoot them in the back of a car. Shoot them for no reason other than they fit the category of “other.” The murder of Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaar, both 16, and Eyal Yifrach 19, and the Palestinian Mohamed Abu Khdeir reveals the monstrosity that can arouse itself in humans whenever group membership is highly salient and fueled by powerful beliefs such as religion. Let me explain how framing a conflict can be murderous.

Experts talking to lay people usually make the point that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not about religion or culture but land and national rights. It is a conflict between national political movements – Zionism and Palestinian nationalism – and perhaps includes broader Arab nationalism. Framing the conflict this way is actually quite good and beneficial. In addition to the practical implications, describing the conflict as one between two national political movements makes the conflict more amenable to management and resolution with all of the attendant rational and political bargaining. It implies sensible trade-offs and compromise along with future relationships and the positive attitudes and beliefs that will accompany these compromises and future relationships. Each side will broaden its circle of humanity and slowly include more of the other.

But with the integration and the unity government formed between Hamas and Fatah, not to mention the Hamas Charter and its aggressive religious history, we have a powerful religious element introduced. Islamizing the conflict is our worst nightmare and begins from the simple category definition of the conflict as one between two rival religions Islam and Judaism. Or, to put it in even more intractable terms, a conflict between two opposing absolutes. Now attitudes about the other are not subject to rational trade-offs and the anticipation of future relationships. And yes, the conflict can be Judiazed but there are important differences which we will take up at another time. This post is mostly about Islamizing the conflict. I will deal with revenge later.

Turning the conflict into a religious one between Islam and Judaism means you operate with only two categories – the ingroup and the outgroup with all of the biases and mental distortions that demonize and dehumanize the outgroup and wildly exaggerate the truth of the ingroup.

The murderers of these teenagers did not see  human beings, they did not see naïve young boys, and they certainly did not see three individuals who like sports, school, and their friends. No, they saw three Jews or a Palestinian who are all alike; they saw the “other” who was responsible for usurping the holy land; they saw grossly distorted historical monsters who – as the Hamas Charter indicates – were a demonic force on earth, bloodsuckers and the killers of prophets.

And it’s getting worse. As Hamas asserts itself Judaism becomes its primary enemy. The hate and narrowing categories of acceptance will reach hallucinogenic proportions as Jews are described in demonic terms and according to the Hamas Charter are a “corruption on earth.” It will be increasingly easier to kill innocent teenagers because Islamizing the conflict drained them of any remnant of humanity.

The Hamas Charter – and I encourage everyone to read it to fully appreciate the depths of its depravity – relies on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The old charges of the Jews controlling everything would be laughable if they were not so consequential. Hamas is not bargaining over land because Palestine is sacred and not subject to division or occupation by anyone else. There will be no discussion of borders, or settlements, or land swaps. Palestine is dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam).

Islamizing the conflict is the worst thing that can happen from a contemporary social science and intergroup conflict point of view. It will increase the distance and differences, and decrease opportunities for positive contact even more than they are. As the two groups retreat into their own worlds and formulate their psychological and communicative categories such formulations will be increasingly based on misinformation, distortions, historical inaccuracies, stereotypes, and emotions until the two groups retreat to their respective corners each having drained the other of even the slightest consideration. At that point it becomes easy to murder teenagers.



Evidence-Based Thinking is Necessary for Proper Deliberation

Three Levels of Evidence

I have a sinking sense that schools don’t teach much “evidence-based thinking” anymore. They do teach critical thinking which is related but students are remarkably poor at defending propositions and recognizing thoughts and beliefs worth having. Although here is a blog site devoted to evidence-based thinking by two energetic young fellows. This spills over into the deliberative process because many citizens and political activists suffer from some of the same deficiencies. For some time now we have seen the diminution of the effects of Enlightenment thinking and science. From religious extremists to Tea Party members there’s plenty of anti-rationalist thinking and pseudo-intellectual discourse.

But things get worse. There is a clear disdain for logic and reasoning in some circles with many holding a toxic dependency on popular culture. This is not a particularly new phenomenon because Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life published in 1963 began to note the decline of the principled and evidentiary intellectual society and its replacement – the persuasion of single-minded people tenaciously holding onto a belief, opinion, or feeling and doing nothing but looking for support for that belief rather than its improvements, or accuracy, or truth value. I term this, the backside of evidence based thinking, confirmatory thinking in honor of the confirmation bias which is that people favor information that confirms what they already believe. But it gets worse. I count four ways that thinking is deficient because it is not evidence-based.

The difference between coincidence and causality is sometimes not completely clear but important to understand. Those who oppose vaccinations believe that all drugs have negative effects and any new vaccination would be the same thereby confirming their depreciated knowledge about medicine. They hold a mistrust of government and consequently any government program – even a highly evidence-based program that saves children’s lives – is rejected. A consistency of their own belief is more important than the evidence that supports the value of vaccinations.

A second sign of diminished capacity for evidence is simply how science and methods for making decisions work. The past and knowledge is strewn with failures and disappointments. Even when studies are unsuccessful and wrongheaded they make for a certain amount of information that is still of scientific value. It is comparable to the quip attributed to Edison that after he failed 200 times to make a light bulb he was not frustrated because he learned 200 ways not to make a light bulb. Evidence-based thinking requires developmental and evolutionary attitudes towards the unfolding of better and more precise information. Even though information can be wrong and lead you down wasteful paths, these paths are part of the process.

Basic misunderstanding of the logic of research is also a third issue. I’m not talking about standard logic or sophisticated mathematics but about basic principles of research and conclusions based on quantitative data. What it means for something to have a mean (average) and variation around the mean. Or, to have a sense of why and how numbers are influenced and change over time. This would include the logic of the experiment and the quality of conclusions when conditions are controlled and only a single experimental factor could have caused variation.

Lastly, one of the easiest ways to never get out of your own head and to hold fast to wrongheaded beliefs is to dispute, challenge, and dismiss those who are credible; in other words, to care more about maintaining your own consistency by rejecting experts and those more knowledgeable. We cannot all be experts on scientific and political matters so we must often rely on the expertise of others. And even though challenging and checking on the credentials of others to ensure source reliability is an important critical stance, this is not the same as knee-jerk rejection of experts. It seems as if those on the conservative end of the spectrum are quick to label all sorts of science as biased against the environment, or the climate, or finance because they inherently mistrust the source of any information and easily gravitate toward rejecting inconsistency with their own ideas then truly exploring and integrating new information.

There are all sorts of ways to distort information or disengage from it. And even the most conscientious thinker allows biases to creep in. But the attitude and willingness to engage, integrate new information on the basis of sound evidentiary principles, and change as a result of this evidence is what makes for more rigorous thinking.





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