As journalists, we often rely on experts for information, whether to put things in context or to give background information on a subject.
We talk to people who are deeply embedded in their fields and know what they’re talking about. However, we know that no matter how qualified an expert is to speak on their field, they still have a distinct lens through which they see the world. Everybody has an angle.
For example, I recently worked on a story with a scientist as a primary source. The story was on a divisive issue and that division ran through the scientific field, even among colleagues. Just because a person is qualified and experienced with doctorates and degrees does not mean they are immune to bias.
Everyone thinks differently, and they tend to seek out information that confirms what they already believe. This is called confirmation bias and it feels good once we find it. I know that I am susceptible to confirmation bias, and it is my job as a journalist to put that aside and present all sides of a particular story. It does not matter what my beliefs are, I just have to find the ever-elusive ‘truth’ to the matter. Sometimes that is harder than it appears.
The ideal scientist should follow the basic scientific method that we all learned in middle school. They start with an observation, ask a question, make a prediction or hypothesis, test it and then revisit their hypothesis. If they were right, they move on to something else with the knowledge they’ve learned. If they’re wrong, they try to figure out why. Individual scientists follow this format and all contribute to a body of work that can broadly be called a theory. Theory in science has a different meaning than in common speech.
When regular people talk about theories, it means an untested idea that would probably be true. For a scientist, a theory is a rigourous explanation for a range of phenomena. It is widely held to be the truth, but can be disproven, it’s just really hard to do. Think of the big bang theory, or the theory of relativity. These are the background on which modern science is done. When new data comes to light that changes these theories, it tends to be a massive paradigm shift that shakes the foundations of science.
Conversely, when a large group of scientists agree on a subject, it is likely that the subject is as close to the truth as we can get with the data available.
However, the ideal scientist rarely exists. Within these theories, everyday scientists work on smaller questions. Their areas of interest are swayed by things like personal opinions, funding, the political realm in which they live and their own confirmation biases. In science, data is king. A lot of scientists have their own opinions and interests that drive that data, but what they find speaks for itself. Scientists can be biased, but scientific theory tends to be neutral.
Just because someone has a degree and experience does not mean they don’t have a bias. It happens to all of us. Part of our job as humans is to take in all of the information available and to make informed decisions about how to live our lives.
We all have different opinions and experiences, and we have set up systems that reinforce those opinions. Within this ever-increasingly polarized world, it is important to stop and consider all sides of the story before coming to a conclusion.