By Kyle Carruthers
One accusation that routinely makes me want to yell at my computer screen is when opinion writers are accused by readers of being biased. In my snarkier moments, when that accusation is levelled at those who opine in the News, I want to screenshot where it says “Letters and Opinions” at the top of the page, underline the latter word, and post it.
Bias is inseparable from the concept of opinion. Commentators are not here to report the news. That would be the job of reporters. Columnists are here to provide their own take on what is going on and what the news means within a social and political framework. You can take those opinions or leave them, but don’t expect the opinion page to be free of bias.
So while we are on the subject why don’t we get a few of my biases out of the way:
I am biased in favour of the belief that climate change is happening and that it is caused to a significant extent by human activity. I believe that it is a problem of great significance which requires immediate action. So whenever I write in favour of policies aimed at stemming it I am biased in favour of actually doing something about it over finding flimsy excuses not to. If we’re debating whether government regulation or a carbon tax is a better way of tackling climate change, I have neither the intention of re-litigating the evidence that climate change is real, every time the subject arises.
I am biased in favour of people whose basic needs are going unmet over those who want the unfettered pursuit of luxury and greater wealth. This doesn’t mean I am always going to be in favour of high taxes and big government or that I reject meritocracy. Economics are complicated and poorly thought out tax policies can be counterproductive. Government is an inherently inefficient vehicle and not always the best tool to raise all ships. But it is part of the solution. And if push came to shove and I faced an either/or choice between your new speedboat and basic shelter and food for all, I will unapologetically choose the latter.
I am biased in favour of expert opinion and the scientific method over “gut instinct” and (a conservative favourite) “common sense.” Many of the ways in which the world operates are counter to our intuition (even my own). So when the thrust of the knowledge that is acquired through a scientifically rigorous process points in a particular direction I’m inclined to believe it even if it “doesn’t feel right.”
I am biased in favour of sources of information which at least make an effort to bear fealty to truth even if they have occasionally been imperfect. The New York Times and Breitbart are not two sides of the same coin. The former makes mistakes – because it is ultimately an organization made up of fallible humans — but retracts stories when they are shown to be untrue. The latter maintain just enough truthfulness to avoid being sued for defamation. This isn’t a left-versus-right” thing. I enjoy the National Post and the Wall Street Journal, papers that lean right, but are still beholden to the practice of journalism.
I am biased in favour of free expression and open debate, and don’t lightly a draw the line where they may be reasonably curbed. The fact that a particular opinion might makes you uncomfortable is never reason enough to prohibit it.
I am biased in favour of incrementalism. Moving too quickly and uprooting the institutions of society to accomplish social or political ends rarely goes according to plan. I favour making gradual changes within the existing structures of society. I am not going to be in favour of grandiose plans or schemes.
I prefer complex explanations to simple ones. I prefer to look at each situation on its merits, and make an effort not to fall into partisan modes of thinking.
Those are just a few of my own personal biases, and if you read what I have to say long enough you will see them permeate my writing. And that is OK.
This isn’t to say that there are no unacceptable forms of bias.
If I were writing in favour of a contentious project that I have a financial stake in, and didn’t disclose that fact to readers, that would run afoul the ethics of public commentary. There is a big difference between an undisclosed pecuniary bias (where one actually has a financial stake in a matter) and a mere attitudinal bias (where the sum of their lifetime of experiences predispose them towards seeing the world in a particular way).
But readers ought to accept that people providing public commentary have biases, and stop throwing the accusation out there as if it is somehow wins the argument.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.