Sunday, January 28, 2024

Mind Tools to Offset Bias

In this article we will discuss bias in the news, personal bias, the fantasy narratives that we are constantly inventing for ourselves, fake news, facts, logic, and the general dire situation of journalism and objectivity nowadays. Then again, this is obviously too much for me to cover in one article, so I'll just touch on the points towards which I am currently biased.

When you read the news, are those facts or fabricated narratives? How can you tell? Is there any reliable, or even useful information to be had nowadays from journalists? And can you actually tell when your own personal view is getting in the way of the truth?

Separating fact from fiction is never going to be an easy task, and won't always be possible. But I'd like to argue that you don't always have to become an investigative journalist yourself in order to figure out the truth. You can work on yourself and develop discipline and mind tools, or what I call an internal truth radar, or lie detector, and then use this to detect when someone is lying, or even to derive truthful information from the false information being fed to you. Many people do this intuitively, except that some do it well and the rest do it very badly, due to their mind tools being derailed by bias. I'll get into this below, but first I want to rant a wee bit more...

Once upon a time, newspapers at least ostensibly tried to differentiate between news reports and 'opinion pieces'. The articles were marked as such. Now everything is opinion trying to pass as objective reports. Facts are carefully edited, interpreted, and packaged to fit a partisan audience's most popular or accepted narrative. That, or news channels are outright mouthpieces for governments, repeating the lines and talking points they have been fed. Or, news outlets merely copy-paste from each other instead of investigating on their own. All of which means that one thousand news sources are not necessarily better than one.

Obviously, the vast majority of people have tuned in to the fact that the mass media is lying to them, and the fact that you're not supposed to believe newspapers is a cliche by now. Absolutely nobody today would be caught dead with such naiveté. But I find that many people repeat this truism with mere lip service, ignoring the depth and consequences of the problem, gleefully absorbing the juicy news they are being fed, and repeating it without checking facts or logic. Some think that the other news channel, the one their embarrassing black-sheep relatives are watching, is the one doing the lying, but not their favorite channel. After all, if the channel agrees with what you think you know, and supports your favorite politicians, it can't be all wrong, can it?

When the newscaster confirms your viewpoint, it feels truthful. But who fed you this viewpoint in the first place? Perhaps it was the carefully selected and suggestive facts by their editorial team that put this idea in your head in the first place. Just because you get emotional over a narrative, doesn't mean it's yours.

"I saw children dying with my own eyes in news videos, and concluded on my own based on this undeniable fact that the country doing the bombing is an evil aggressor committing war crimes." But what did the news outlet cunningly omit? Surely I don't have to go into how a story can be flipped upside down by simply omitting some details, do I? Except it's not just about facts and reporting, it's primarily about what we want to believe.

Many channels know their audiences and cater to their biases. It's an echo chamber. Like produces like. They will hire and interview people that think the same way in order to cater to the way you think, omit the details that would cause cognitive dissonance, and know that you will subscribe to their channel because 'they speak the truth'. This brings a whole new meaning to the concept of 'news as entertainment'.

And even if you are enlightened enough to listen to opposing news outlets and weigh multiple viewpoints against each other, how can you tell who is telling the truth, all the while avoiding your own bias?

Everyone is biased, including myself. We are biased towards the familiar content in our brains, whether we or others put it there, we are biased by the emotions we are currently feeling, by the useful simpler categories we have carefully nurtured in our heads combined with lazy thinking, by the favoritism we have towards our social environment, friends, family and country, and so on. It is impossible to be objective. The goal is not to be objective but to be aware of our biases and to develop the discipline by which we can recognize and compartmentalize our bias, and then follow the truth wherever it leads, regardless of the outcome, even if it smashes our comfortable mental structures that we nurtured for many years. This is even more difficult than it sounds.

We all know by now that humans are irrational creatures. Logic is almost always used to argue a conclusion that our biases or desires have already decided. From amongst the many annoying psychological mechanisms that make humans the wonderfully illogical beings that they are, here are a couple of examples: Many techniques for manipulating suggestibility, including the use of repetition or suggestive juxtaposition to inject false information into a person's memories. Cognitive dissonance, where the stress of seeing facts that don't conform to our worldview makes our mind contort these facts in order to make them fit. And we have a scary example of how our brains work from post-hypnotic suggestions, where hypnotized people perform actions suggested to them and then rationalize their actions as if they had used logic to perform this action of their own volition ("I switched hands because it felt more comfortable"). And we do the same thing with regular decisions: We want it, and then we justify it; not the other way around.

Welp, these are way too many problems; let's stick to the problems with news.

Mass Media News

To demonstrate how bad the situation is with popular mass news outlets, I am going to provide just one specific but extremely clear and indisputable example of widespread mass media censorship and fabricated narratives across the board:

The context is the famous 3-month battle of Mariupol in Ukraine between February and May 2022, and the long siege of the massive Azovstal steel plant in that city where over 2000 Ukrainian soldiers were holding up, along with hundreds of Ukrainian civilians. The battle was fought not only with weapons but with words, as accusations flew from both sides, each with their own narrative of what was going on in Mariupol and the Azovstal plant.

We will focus on the civilians that were trapped in Azovstal. The question is, were they trapped by the war waged by Russia while they took refuge in the plant, as the Ukrainians claimed, or were they held there by Ukrainians against their will as Russia claimed? Russia also claimed to have opened and declared a humanitarian corridor for civilians to leave Azovstal all the way back on the 21st of March, and that it had left it open for weeks. Ukraine counter-claimed that the corridor was "unilateral" and not safe. Finally, a whole month later on the 30th of April and 5th of May, civilians left via the corridors after "brokered deals". These are the facts. Now let's dig in more deeply and analyze:

The civilians that had just left Azosvtal after being holed up there for two months, were promptly interviewed. Here are three links containing unaired footage of their interviews from different angles: One, two, three.

Note carefully that two different people repeat several times very explicitly that they knew about the corridors, they tried to leave before it got worse, and they were either not allowed to leave or they were forced to turn back by Ukrainian soldiers. The also quote Azov soldiers telling them that they will die with the soldiers. For the pro-Ukrainians amongst you, this is guaranteed to cause cognitive dissonance and your brains are already dismissing this as fake Russian propaganda. 

Just to jar your cognitive dissonance even more, note that if this is true, it means that Ukraine used civilians as human shields and/or as hostages for making deals. The reason they did this is also explained in the videos, since they saw these civilians as pro-Russian. So that explains their motivation. Note also that although this is a small detail, the consequences of this truth are devastating if you are biased towards Ukraine, and it proves the Russian narrative to be true at least as far as the infamous Mariupol battle is concerned.

If you are thinking that this is fake news and that the people were actors, the Western pro-Ukrainian press confirmed they were civilians held in Azovstal by airing their interviews as well, and they were filmed together with other civilian evacuees. The big problem is, this press censored them. And every single news outlet did this across the board.

Here are two examples out of dozens that I saw: Guardian and NBC. Note that they used the same interviewee and each outlet has its own cut, they just censored the parts they didn't like. There are only two possible explanations for this, a bad one and a scary one: The bad one is that all commercial news outlets received censored footage from the same governmental source and didn't bother to investigate independently. The scarier conclusion is that all of them were complicit in the censoring, each individual outlet choosing to censor out the parts they didn't like on their own.

Note that this story told by the civilians is also backed by logic, seeing as Russia declared a humanitarian corridor a month earlier and all the Ukrainian soldiers had to do was let the civilians leave through this corridor. If they mistrusted Russians, they could have tested the safety of the corridor with a couple of volunteer civilians (I'm sure the "pro-Russian" ones would have agreed). Except that the Ukrainians didn't even deny that this corridor existed, as they called this corridor "unilateral". Which also makes no sense since all they had to do was stop firing temporarily and let the civilians leave and voila: a "bilateral" corridor. But, evidently, since they disagreed about letting them go at the time, it was "unilateral". And the reason the Ukrainian soldiers refused to let the civilians go was explained above.

Evidence for media lies, censorship and propaganda doesn't get any clearer than this. Of course, despite this, I know that if I am fighting against cognitive dissonance, I will lose every time.

Independent Journalism

Nowadays, people are moving away from mass media news, probably primarily due to the aforementioned catastrophic problems. But another possible explanation is that, nowadays, people want a more personalized outlet that agrees with their views and which feeds their anger and outrage more generously. Remember what I said above about the truth being what we desire?

One would think that, given the commercial pitfalls of news outlets, seeing as they have to answer to governments and advertisers (not to mention audiences), that independent journalists would be much more reliable. Choosing a dedicated journalist with either a thorough background in their field of expertise, or with physical and video access to current events, should, theoretically, solve all of the above problems. But this would mean you forgot everything we said about personal bias. Just because someone knows a lot, has conducted meticulous research, presents mountains of facts, and isn't affected by commercial or job pressures, doesn't mean they won't warp the facts to fit their favorite, biased narratives. In fact, in this day and age of heightened individualism and self-expression, this is much more likely to happen, especially seeing as they don't even have editors and co-workers to balance and correct their most self-indulgent fantasies. Many have also protected themselves from debates.

I'll mention a few examples which will also serve as cautionary tales. Each example is different and demonstrates a different human foible at play. Even if you are not aware of these people and what they do on their channels, I am using them as warnings of what can go wrong with independent journalism. Also note that these are not random internet crazy people but very well established channels with many years of reporting and a very large following of hundreds of thousands:

Scott Ritter, for all intents and purposes should have been the perfect independent journalist and analyst. He has a thorough military background, worked as a weapons inspector in Iraq, Israel and Russia, has fought political battles and personally faced a nasty Biden, is deeply involved in exposing the WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) controversy in Iraq, and has political and military connections all over the world. When he talks, he speaks with passion and authority, and typically delivers surprising insights you won't hear anywhere else. When I first discovered him after the full war broke out in Ukraine in 2022, I was deeply impressed by his pro-Russian insights.

After a few months, even Russia was contradicting the narratives that Ritter was pushing on us with utmost confidence (he invoked, amongst other things, his deep knowledge of Russian military tactics to explain a Russian withdrawal, until it turned out they withdrew due to a peace agreement), until even Ritter had to admit that he had made a big mistake. This was forgivable, but then it continued and went from bad to worse. Some of his narratives on Russia were again contradicted by actual outcomes, and he then went rabid on Yevgeny Prigozhin after his revolt, exaggerating his intentions as evil despite both quotes and actions from him that said otherwise, to the point that he flipped Prigozhin's great victory at Bakhmut into a negative point against Prigozhin. Ritter's narrative turned to emotion rather than nuance, and truth was sacrificed as a result.

I stopped believing him at this point, but the final straw was the story of Gonzalo Lira. Lira was a fellow independent journalist working from within Ukraine who made the fatal mistake of criticizing Ukraine. He was imprisoned, eventually released from jail, and tried to make a run for it until he was re-arrested at the border, and he then died in jail due to alleged 'health problems'. Ritter decided his story made no sense (I can come up with at least two narratives that make sense), and therefore Lira must be a double-agent, and so he threw Lira to the wolves while he was running for his life, telling people not to contact or help him. In this case, note that Ritter's fantasy narrative actually put a fellow journalist in mortal danger. This is where I stopped watching his videos completely and even started doubting his exposé on the WMDs in Iraq from the 90s.

He has repeatedly demonstrated that he becomes emotionally involved in a situation, he invents fantasy narratives that reflect wish fulfillment, and then performs research and contorts the facts to fit his narratives. Remember the rationalizing behavior after post-hypnotic suggestions that we mentioned? His narratives have been repeatedly disproved by the strongest evidence possible, by actual contradictory outcomes, death, and quotes from the very people he is trying to protect/attack. He has become a disgrace with zero credibility.

Which is why I was not surprised that when the Gaza war broke out in October 2023, I saw that he was inventing completely fictional narratives that blatantly contradict video evidence made by the perpetrators weeks before Ritter made his claims. Among other things, Ritter built a fantasy narrative where Hamas members only targeted soldiers and accidentally killed civilians despite very explicit Hamas-produced videos, and Ritter then explicitly stated his wish that Israel would lose the war badly after which he started collecting facts to prove his wish was coming true. It doesn't get more clearly biased and distorted than this.

Colonel Douglas Macgregor is another popular independent military analyst on the internet with a rich background, but he is a very different story. I call him the doomsday analyst. He consistently collects facts on bad things happening in wars, exaggerates them, and extracts from this the most extreme doomsday scenario he can. His narratives and predictions have been proven wrong numerous times by reality. He appeals to the type of crowd that think that just because he is telling harsh narratives, this makes him a truth-teller, telling truths that other people wouldn't dare say out loud.

A completely different kind of bias is demonstrated in 'The New Atlas', an internet channel that persistently and repeatedly exposes US involvement in various wars and violent uprisings in many countries around the world. While I definitely don't dispute his main contention about US involvement in violence and interference, he consistently makes the same mistake of taking his view on the US way too far into the land of crazy conspiracies, treating many countries as absolute US puppets, denying their ability to think for themselves and having their own agendas, many of which do not align with US interests. In other words, just because the US helps violent insurgents in other countries, doesn't mean all of their interests align. A basic nuance which eludes him.

Just as an example of how far he takes this, his bias against Israel has led him to the conclusion that Israel's leaders would put their own families and countrymen in fatal danger just to serve US interests, and ignores the fact that Israel has said NO and angered the US numerous times in history despite extensive evidence. And if Israel, say, tries to save Mubarak from the violent Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt despite the US encouraging these demonstrations, that only means Israel is using this as reverse psychology and as a strategy concocted by the US, because 'everyone hates Israel' therefore by supporting Mubarak they ensure that people will hate Mubarak and help US interests. Did you follow that? This is cognitive dissonance in action, and it demonstrates how conspiracy theories work par excellence. No matter what Israel does, it proves his theory correct, therefore you cannot escape his truth.

A final example and variation is the more respectable and popular channel The Duran. As much as I respect their careful geopolitical analyses and viewpoints and as much as I agree with many of their conclusions, they are not immune in the slightest against bias. They have at least two major problems: One is that they have collected a self-contained ecology of like-minded analysts, and all their guests always agree 100% with their viewpoints. They never have debates with people that disagree with them and I have never seen one single disagreement in hundreds of videos. This should be a warning sign to viewers. Their guests feed off each other and reinforce each other's views, not providing any mechanism by which errors can be corrected or criticized. Once you realize this, it greatly deflates their impressive stable of geopolitical experts from around the world. The second problem is that they constantly project European political ways of thinking on the Middle-East, egregiously misunderstanding how Arabs and Israelis think, and the result is that their views on the Middle East are very warped due to this bias. When you combine this with the first problem, you have a self-perpetuating form of cognitive dissonance. Once again, no matter what Israel does, it fits their narrative.

(Addendum May 2024: Since I wrote the above, The Duran has rapidly deteriorated to hosting some antisemites as well as Iranian propagandists, and never anyone that challenges their views, and they themselves and their stable of guests repeat the mantra that Israel is committing genocide without once thinking about it critically or considering that it may be propaganda. They carefully take apart criticisms and propaganda articles about Russia (rightfully so), but when it comes to Israel they suddenly switch off their brains and apply different modes of thinking, clearly demonstrating their bias. The ICJ/ICC cases against Russia are politically biased, but the ICJ/ICC cases against Israel are righteous and taken at face value. Their biases have been deteriorating and worsening as they settle and entrench themselves in comfortable, lazy narratives; they cherry-pick which articles they discuss and how they interpret them, in addition to the more subtle general problems I mentioned above.)

Just so you won't think it's all bad, or that the problem is with me, if you want an example of an impressively well researched and objective channel, I refer you to HistoryLegends.

Example 2: Breaking Down an Article for Inconsistencies

In the above section about mass media news, I provided one example of how we can extract truth from this swamp of unreliable information that we call 'news'. Note the techniques that we used in that example: 1. Skepticism. 2. Looking up what the opposing narratives say no matter how we feel about each side. 3. Tracing evidence to its source as best we can. 4. Deciding on the truth based on which narrative fits the agreed-upon facts, or which scenario seems likely, regardless of our personal preference.

Except, in that example, we had to perform some investigation, scouring the internet for sources, and combining several articles with logic to try and detect the truth. But sometimes, the quest for truth can make use of easier techniques: Namely, that of detecting internal inconsistencies and contradictions. This is the lie detector method.

The thing to keep in mind is that liars, usually and eventually, trip over themselves. The more arrogant they are, the sooner this will happen. The reason for this is not only because their lies don't conform with reality and they then have to continue making up lies to cover for this, but because their lies emerge from multiple desires and goals, and could easily conflict with each other. A third, deeper and subtler reason why they trip themselves up, is because their multiple statements don't emerge from a single source of truth. But I'll leave that one as food for thought.

Sometimes, you need to collect multiple quotes from liars over time to discover their contradictions. Other times they are so arrogant, they contradict themselves within the same paragraph. I say arrogant, because they assume other people are less smart than they are, and this gives them the confidence to lie repeatedly and carelessly.

I will now demonstrate one of my favorite examples, where both the contradiction and the actual truth are revealed in a single article. I will try to break this down in detail as if I were a lie-detecting algorithm:

The context is a bombing in Ukraine in the city of Kramatorsk in June 2023. A popular restaurant was hit hard during a popular time of the day, resulting in an unusually high number of deaths and wounded.

The first thing we have to do is separate the facts from the interpretation, because the newspapers will not do it for us. "A Russian missile hit a restaurant in Kramatorsk resulting in many deaths" could be taken as facts, but the line "the deadliest attack against civilians in months" is a narrative, not a fact, because it not only interprets the event as an intentional attack against civilians, but it suggests that Russia has been doing this for months.

The question is, is this narrative true? The article, thankfully, provides the Russian narrative as well: Russians claimed they hit a military target. If we wanted to be thorough, and we should, we should look it up in a Russian newspaper to ensure we got their side of the story accurately. But, in this case, we don't even need this to prove who is lying, as I will shortly demonstrate. 

Of course, we could also question whether the above facts are true. We could question the date, the place, whether it was a Russian missile, and whether this whole thing is fake news with fake pictures. But therein lies madness. And besides, most importantly, the Russians have agreed to the facts and have not denied bombing the restaurant.

Similarly, if we didn't have the Russian statement, we would need to exercise our imagination and come up with all plausible alternate narratives in order to rule out other possibilities one by one. For example, it may have been a terrorist bombing unrelated to Russia, it may have been a Ukrainian missile that misfired, it may have been a Russian missile that was shot down by Ukrainian air defense and the target was not the restaurant. And so on. But, once again, we have the Russians negating all of these scenarios and confirming that the target was the restaurant.

We could also play with the theory that both of them are lying and something more nefarious is going on, but therein lies conspiracy madness. There is no reason to come up with wild scenarios unless there is a good reason to do so. Occam's Razor, the simplest and most plausible solution... and all that jazz.

So now, once again, we seemingly need to put our biases aside, and decide between narratives. The first thing we must do is recognize our own bias, whatever that may be, and recognize what we want to be true. And let's not forget that everyone has a bias. Then, while maintaining awareness of this bias, we must put it in a box temporarily, and look for a strong logical argument that proves or disproves either of the sides. Preferably several proofs if possible to make sure we are not favoring arguments.

Except that, in this case, we don't need even this kind of investigation, as the article itself has contradicted itself and revealed the liar very clearly. Have you found it yet? Take your time.

The article talks about Ukraine catching and arresting a Russian spy that provided information to Russia about the restaurant right before the missile hit. See, they couldn't help but boast about their success and wanted to put fear in the heart of Russian spies everywhere. Except they tripped themselves up with this additional desire.

Why would you need a spy to bomb a popular restaurant filled with civilians during dinner time? Anyone, including me, can get precise coordinates of any restaurant in the world using the internet. Anyone, including me, could get a list of popular restaurants in the center of a popular town. Anyone could guess what time would be best to bomb the restaurant. Why on earth would a spy be needed if there were only civilians there eating dinner in a popular restaurant?

Obviously, a military meeting was taking place and that is why a spy was involved. This makes the restaurant a military target. This confirms the Russian narrative, but, as I said, we could also be content with simply pointing out the liar. One Ukrainian goal got in the way of another, they came up with two statements to achieve both goals, and their arrogance made them contradict themselves within the same press release. QED.


I ranted about news and humans; I ranted about highly overrated and dangerous so-called 'independent' journalism and provided many different examples of extreme bias. But, most importantly, I hope I have demonstrated several mind tools for extracting truth from the news without going insane or disconnecting from the world entirely. I provided two examples that make use of several techniques. Many of these might seem obvious, common or intuitive, but how often do we actually make use of these mind tools even if we know they're there? All we need is discipline, a healthy amount of self-awareness through practice, a love for truth, the ability to scoff at our own biases no matter how angry or righteous they make us feel, and to recognize that lazy thinking will be our own undoing.

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