Q&A: What is bias and how do I deal with it in debate?

Q: What is bias and how do I deal with it in debate?

A:

According to Merriam Webster: bi·as (noun) : a tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others that usually results in treating some people unfairly OR : a strong interest in something or ability to do something

While this definition accurately describes bias, it lacks the context of debate an may leave you confused with how to apply “bias” to evidence and arguments. In Beyond Resolved, I spend 15 pages on Research and Evidence to build solid, non-biased arguments. I spend 11 pages on Rebuttal on ways to attack and identify flawed arguments and evidence. Bias is relevant to the entirety of Public Forum because it affects the credibility of arguments and evidence. Saying a source is “biased” is a favorite evidence attack, often misused and poorly responded to.

First, we can think of bias through its perceived opposite – objectivity or impartiality. What does evidence need in order to be “good”? You should ask yourself the following questions to identify objective evidence.

Is my source reliable and credible?

Does the source have some empirical basis?

Does the source make a claim?

After answering these questions, you must ask yourself “What is the source’s bias?”

The fact of the matter, however, is that every piece of evidence you will read will be “biased” in some way because it comes to a conclusion that excludes other conclusions. Bias is not inherently bad; the connotation of bias, however, is negative. This is because there are two types of bias that are often conflated.

Bias as prejudice: If the author makes a claim based on pure opinion or prejudice, then the bias undermines the validity of the claim. Here bias comes from a person’s opinions or personal perspective on the world, meaning that their conclusions are filtered through their personal lens. In order to prove their argument they must disregard information or evidence that could prove the argument wrong. Prejudice leads to a conclusion regardless of the available evidence. You should always be able to defend the conclusions your evidence contains. These conclusions should be shared by others of different perspectives and should not be conclusions that one individual or group has reached.

Bias as informed opinion: If the author has gathered years of expertise that leads the author to conclude one side of an argument is stronger, that bias is defensible. Here, bias is not a negative thing. If a source’s experience and research has led them to a conclusion, you should be able to weigh this evidence against conflicting evidence. Like a golfer has to adjust his or her swing to deal with the wind, adjust your presentation of the evidence to deal with refutations.

Bias as prejudice can appear in a few ways. The article How To Detect Bias In News Media by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) outlines some questions that can point you to places that bias can enter research, reporting, and writing. A few of these questions are:

  • Is there a lack of context?
  • What are the unchallenged assumptions?
  • From whose point of view is the news reported?

You can also use websites such as Politifact and SourceWatch to do a “background check” on political speeches and organizations, respectively. I personally enjoy Politifact’s Truth-o-Meter on political claims.

You especially want to know the background of Think Tanks. While these are good sources for arguments, they often publish articles with the purpose of arguing one side of an issue (sometimes, though rarely, presenting both sides). Think Tanks are organizations that research and write academic or policy papers; they can be both privately funded and governmentally funded. These tend to have political leanings and therefore you should always know what type of funding/organizational bias might exist. Common Think Tanks you find in Public Forum are The Heritage Foundation, Brookings Institute, CATO Institute, among many others.

In any case, you must engage any questionable evidence during the debate. Claiming something is bias without any specific reason is not a valuable rebuttal. Just like your arguments, you must have evidence or be able to explain why the evidence is biased (as prejudice) for the rebuttal to be effective and worthwhile.

Acknowledge if your evidence is bias and be able to support why the bias is based on informed opinion and not prejudice. Don’t throw evidence away if your opponents’ claim it is biased. Defend it. If you cannot, you should not include it in your case or argumentation in the first place.

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