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A question of bias

According to Techworld, Jonathan Zuck of the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT) has recently accused the European Commission of having a bias in favor of open source. This is an interesting claim for a number of reasons, not least of which are the questions "who is the ACT?" and "what are they doing in the halls of the European Commission?". But the question of reported bias is also an interesting one, and characterizes on of the great philosophical and political challenges of our age.

The great American experiment of democratically electing its government quickly evolved beyond the political sphere. By 1835, when Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy In America, the effect of democratic choice could be seen affecting wages, religion, attitudes towards war and peace, and even the English language itself.

Perhaps the greatest change in our understanding of Democracy between 1789 and 2009 is that Democracy used to be about the freedom to choose one's government, but now it has universally become the freedom to choose one's facts. In particular, when a scientific fact stands in the way of policy or ideology, modern American Democracy (and its enormous influence on the journalistic profession world-wide) allows one to discount the fact, or propose its opposite, rather than conform one's view to allow for the fact. Indeed, at the 2006 STS Forum in Kyoto Japan, I had a chance to discuss this development with Nobel Prize winner F. Sherwood Rowland, who told me of his frustrations as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the group of scientists who formally have the ear of the President of the United States on the subject of science. He told me that when he tried to explain some aspect of Global Climate Change theory to the executive office, he was told by some high-ranking staffer " people are what we call the realists. There's no place for your realities in our administration's policy."

It is easy to imagine how one incurious President might be comfortable dismissing strong scientific consensus in favor of industry-sponsored position papers, but to understand how a growing majority of Americans (and an increasing fraction of the world) have become so mistrustful of science and so accepting of demagogy, one only needs to follow the trail of bias, and in particular the story of so-called media bias. The frame of media bias is that any facts that do not comport with a particular agenda are evidence of bias on the part of the media, not a valid contradiction to a bogus agenda.

And so we have an actor, Jonathan Zuck, using lines from a story that confound and abuse any notion of objective truth. By leading with an accusation of bias, it is philosophically impossible to discern what is the proper choice and what is not, because no truth, in that frame, is better than any other. The result: a stagnation of dialogue and the preservation of the status quo.

But the status quo is broken. It is a center that cannot hold. If a government best serves its people by making responsible choices in the arena of standards, should it be accused of making biased decisions? Or should it be applauded for finally breaking down the barriers that sponsor monopoly against the interests of the people and, more importantly, the laws that govern them. I, for one, believe that we can get by with less government and better government when the standards we choose support choice and freedom. To the extent that choice and freedom bias naturally against monopoly control, that's a bias I'm willing to live with. To choose standards that promote monopoly, while the laws of the land forbid it, is like trying to grow crops in a field of weeds. No matter how much care we give to the plants we are trying to grow, they weeds will always benefit more. That's a bias that's killing the industry, our economy, and our future.


Michael (may I call you Michael?) I came across this blog entry and felt compelled to speak up. Setting aside for just a minute a reference to Alexis de Tocqueville and a implicit criticism of foreign commentators in the same blog, I'm forced to ask myself, how can something that feels so right be so wrong? It feels right because all that you say about choosing one's facts really does ring true. The tendency to ignore the evidence and selectively construct a more comfortable reality does seem to be growing all the time. Smoking and climate change are certainly big examples. Sometimes, this kind of tunnel vision isn't even intentional but it can be just as insidious. For example, a harried association executive, involved in a very lively debate about the future of the software industry, might jump the gun on an Commission document and err in his commentary, making a critique of a white paper that turns out to be inaccurate. Even an attempt to retract the blunder ( is ultimately pointless because it lives on and people continue to comment on it as though it represents his opinion. So, once this statement has a life of its own, people don't even read the original statement anymore but just just "run with it," especially if they see an opportunity for self promotion in the process. Now you have a difficult situation where a normally thoughtful commentator and open source advocate writes an entire blog on the headline of an article (probably not even written by the reporter) rather than the article itself which was in turn based on a statement released in error. So, a concern that a particular document might introduce a preference in government procurement, is summarized as the introduction of a procedural bias by the reporter which is changed into an "accusation of bias" by a headline which, in turn, becomes a very inflammatory "fact." Talk about selective facts! You're right. Gosh, who wouldn't blog about that?! Speaking of facts, another way the facts are distorted is through self-referential hypertext reality in blogs. All I have to do is write an inflammatory blog and now that it's on the net, everyone can reference it as "fact." I remember this well from high school debate. If you could find someone who was willing to write it down, you could cite it as "evidence" in your accelerated advocacy of a particular position. Advocacy has only become more accelerated on the web. So, if I wanted to "choose my facts" who better to cite than Roy Schestowitz? Schestowitz has called the Gates Foundation nothing more than a “pyramid scheme” and a “tax loophole,” so one must be incredibly skeptical of his opinions of the organization and how it operates... Especially given the complete lack real documentation he offers for his accusations. On the other hand, if it suits us, why not cite his rants as "facts." ( Roy has developed a bit of an obsession with me and my organization as well. While he is certainly entitled to his opinions. This is a person who, without substantial proof: Accuses President Obama of taking Bribes. Calls the Gates Foundation is nothing more than a "pyramid scheme" and a "tax loophole." Accused Microsoft of Forcing Hans Reiser of Killing his Wife. Claims “Google Gleefully rubs hands together over blood of kids for G-Generation.” We need to actually seek out the opinions of others with whom we disagree so that we can direct our objections to the substance of our differences rather than rely on intellectually lazy and "incurious" ad hominem attacks. I feel confident that F. Sherwood Rowland would agree. We can only hope that in this environment, those of us concerned about "selective facts" can withstand the onslaught of questionable data even when it suits our own purposes. Otherwise, we'll all be convinced that weapons of mass destruction were actually found in Iraq. After all, it was on the "news" and reported in several blogs. Thanks again for your post, Michael. You raise some very important concerns. Jonathan Jonathan Zuck President Association for Competitive Technology