Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A False Fallacy - Argument from Bias

For quite some time I have been surprised about the remarkable popularity of a certain misconception. There are a good number of people who seem to hold the strange idea that a person who is biased is less trustworthy than a non-biased person and that a biased opinion is less credible than a non-biased opinion. Such people have essentially created a new category of logical fallacy, by which they can dismiss arguments and statements made by biased individuals. For example:

Person A: Public schools are institutions that primarily exist as a means of governmental indoctrination.

Person B: You're just saying that because you don't like governmental institutions, therefore your assertion is false.
Despite that fact that some people regard statements made by biased persons as less credible than statements made by non-biased people, the fact remains that bias itself has no bearing on the validity of an assertion or argument. In fact, I would suggest that biased individuals are more likely to present truthful, detailed and accurate cases for things than either non-biased individuals or mildly-biased individuals.

A biased person is simply one with a mental tendency or inclination towards something. For example, if one prefers chocolate ice cream to vanilla, that is a form of bias. Similarly, if one holds the opinion that, on average, men are more intelligent than women, that is another form of bias. Bias is simply an opinion that leans in one direction and not in another. However, the fact that a person is biased has absolutely no bearing on validity of their opinion. It might be true that, on average, men are more intelligent than women, yet the mere fact that a person holds such an opinion does not affect the validity of such an opinion. Completely independent of any opinions held by anyone, the statement itself is either true or false. An examination of the relevent evidence is the most rational way to determine the validity and accuracy of any assertion.

The rejection of a idea because of its source, rather than its merit, is itself a common fallacy, known as the genetic fallacy. As such, those who reject the opinions of another simply because of alleged bias are the ones who are committing the logical fallacy. Bias has no bearing on logical cohesiveness of an argument nor of the validity of the postulated supporting evidence. To dismiss an argument prima facie without considering its merits simply because the argument or its presenter appears biased is to make a common logical fallacy.

Moreover, in further consideration, it would seem that a strong bias is more likely to result in more credible and meaningful arguments in support of a given thing. One who is only slightly biased is much more likely to rely on fanciful and invalid reasoning to support their opinion than someone who is more strongly biased. For example, suppose a man recently purchased a new Ford automobile, and yet isn't fully convinced that he made the best decision. He is only slightly biased in favor of his new car. As such, if you ask him why he thinks the Ford was the best choice, he will offer whatever feeble reasons he can, such as "It's a great value for the price,” “The color is really vivid,” It gets better mileage than competing cars," yet he remains not completely internally sold on the idea that his new Ford is really superior. His rationalization hamster is working hard to justify his choice to himself and others.

However, one who is strongly biased need not construct fanciful reasons in support of his choice. The musician who has purchased a brand new 5-string bass guitar and is fully knowledgable about its merits and imperfections is able to present a solid case for why it is a better choice than other similar models. He need not embellish the facts, since the raw facts alone support his choice. He will say, “My bass was absolutely the best I could purchase for less than $1000. It has received favorable reviews from over 200 satisfied customers. It has a build-in active equalizer. There is plenty of room in between the strings, making it easy for slap bass techniques. It normally retails for $1500, yet I bought it on sale for only $700. The body of the guitar made from natural cut Alder wood helps give the tone more sparkle than other models.” He is biased in favor of his new guitar because he is utterly convinced, by the simple facts alone, that his bass guitar best meets his musical needs.

As such, whenever I seek to find out the truth about something, I always look for someone who is strongly biased in favor of it. If I were seeking to find a religion that is practical and matches reality, I wouldn’t ask a Muslim what he thought about Buddhism, since he clearly remains unconvinced of the Buddhist worldview and therefore probably won’t offer good reasons for why I should accept Buddhism. But, a dedicated Buddhist monk, the most biased person possible, would be able to best present a sound argument for why I should accept his way of seeing things, since he truly believes that Buddhism is the most truthful and meaningful religion. Likewise, if I am looking to a buy a CD by an artist I haven’t listened to before, I would go to a dedicated fan of the band and ask his opinion about which album is best, and why. He will happily explain the many merits of his favorite album, and I will be able to judge whether I would enjoy it for similar reasons or whether he likes certain aspects of the music that I don’t enjoy as much. The critic, having disliked the album after listening to it only once, simply won’t be as familiar with the material and won’t be able to offer equally well-constructed reasons, either favorable or unfavorable, for why I should or shouldn’t buy a certain album.

Similarly, it is easiest for a salesman to sell a product that truly is of superior quality. While it certainly isn’t impossible to sell a product by lying to a customer and convincing them that a product is better than it is, it is far easier to sell a product by telling the truth about it, so long as the product itself possesses sufficient merit. The second way also never results in disillusionment, product returns or angry customers, whereas utilizing deception is a sure way to harm one’s business in the long run.

Or, in another example, there are many skeptics who doubt the authenticity of the Gospels because all of the authors of the Gospels are, quite clearly, strongly biased in favor of Jesus. These people seem to think that this bias would lead the apostles to construct clever falsehoods and embellish the truth in order to convince people of Jesus’ divinity. However, it would seem to a more reasonable assumption that because the apostles were so strongly convinced of what they had seen and heard, that they would accurately report the facts, knowing that the facts alone are compelling enough to convince a person that Jesus is divine. Their willingness to die rather than recant their faith in Jesus would further support such a hypothesis. Why would a person willingly die for a lie?

In any case, regardless of whether a strongly biased person is more likely to be honest and accurate or not, it still remains quite clear that to claim that "Arguments from Bias" are intrinsically fallacious is a logical error of its own. Neither the opinion of a single person nor of a collection of people has any bearing on the truth of their claims. A prima facie rejection of an argument or claim simply because of its author’s bias is a violation of the rules of logic and a perfect example of committing the genetic fallacy. The odd idea that bias leads to untruthfulness is neither a logical nor a rational hypothesis.


  1. This is a very solid argument. I'm going to be sharing it with friends.

  2. Yeah, very good post, Silas.

    it would seem that a strong bias is more likely to result in more credible and meaningful arguments in support of a given thing.

    I would add the corresponding argument that "bias" may often arise after a decent evaluation of evidence, not before, as many critics protest. If I believe a certain position to be correct, well, of course I'm going to be "biased" towards that position!

    "I only seem 'biased' towards this position because the evidence has convinced me that this is the right position," is a perfectly reasonable response to the "bias" card.

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