Is bias fair? Can we really know history?

Fake news!

That’s the most recent indictment by the modern skeptic. Overlooked is the fact that almost everyone is a modern skeptic. We (post-modern culture) trust no one. I wonder though, have we answered questions about historical reliability too hastily. Can we sit in judgement over all historical accounts and their reporters, either recent or ancient? How deep should our skepticism interfere with our belief when it comes to history? Is bias fair? Can we really know history?

For everyday Christians, this epidemic of the ethos is difficult to diagnose. One reason for that is we are both victims of the disease and carriers of the germ. Our primary sources are objects of distrust and we are consummate skeptics when it comes to contemporary reporting. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself where you get your news and information. Think about why you only watch what’s ‘fair and balanced”, have moved to multiple internet sources, or have even become so apathetic that you have disengaged.

It’s telling. The way you answer the question of bias points to a distrust that permeates the entire culture. Christianity has not been excluded.

Our culture has moved from the six o’clock evening news with (fill in the blank) to news twenty-four seven, to fair and balanced, to internet news, to aggregate distrust using the phrase “fake news” to describe anything that disagrees with our own presupposition. The day of reading the “rag” over the morning coffee is over. Believe it or not.

A peculiar problem.

Without considering the consequences, a healthy dose of skepticism seems prudent though, doesn’t it? That makes particularly good sense if you factor in the polarized “nation” in which we reside. It’s obvious that we can only trust those who hold our point of view. Or is it?

America is 48% against the other 48% right now. The 48% that holds power looks at governance as an opportunity to use coercion to apply ideals to the other 48%. Other than being a slap in the face of liberty that view is a supreme misunderstanding of federalism. It has also created a media culture that looks more like good versus evil than the reporting of history. You are either for us or against us dichotomizes all reporting and in doing so falsifies it for 48% of the people.

Who can we trust?

poison-ivy-2217070_1920
Poison Ivy
The news media is liberal, right? Blogs and Facebook posts are completely prejudiced, aren’t they? Even most history books have debatable content that comes from a point of view. All information seems to be tainted by bias. It really doesn’t matter if you’re a so-called liberal or conservative. It’s difficult to avoid an overall skepticism when it comes to reporting.

For a religion that is historically falsifiable, the idea that anything with bias is untrustworthy poses a peculiar problem. If bias poisons the well, can we know anything about history? Can we know anything about Jesus of Nazareth if his biographers were his followers? Are the historical documents written by Christians that attest to his life, death, and resurrection reliable?

Poison

Many people maintain that this is the case with the Gospels. The authors were obviously believers in Jesus, so they wrote these accounts with the single purpose of promoting their point of view. Everything they wrote was written from their biased perspective, intended to spread their faith in Christ. Consequently the objective historian cannot use the Gospels as a reliable source of factual information.[1]

What is bias?

To understand this problem, I think it would be good to answer the question, what is bias?

According to the Oxford Concise English Dictionary bias is inclination or prejudice for or against one thing or person.[2] In other words, bias in reporting has an agenda. It sounds negative at first, but I contend that bias is often much more innocuous.

Bias exists necessarily to reporting because reporting by nature is not exhaustive and always has in mind an unambiguous audience. There is no way to avoid it.

When someone takes up the task of reporting an event there are some things that are inherent to that task. Efficiency, audience, and perspective exist as unavoidable and nontoxic at first. These problems are understood as detractions from the truth about an event and often viewed as contaminating any real knowledge of what happened.

But, should that be our perspective? Is bias fair? Can we really know history?

Understanding bias.

Time dictates that historical accounts are always limited. There is no practical way to report a complex historical event exhaustively. A reporter must decide which facts to report and which ones to leave out. Because of this truth about reporting it is unrealistic to expect an exhaustive depiction of any complex event. The fact is no one can report everything that occurred and surrounded a historical event. Furthermore, no audience has the patience for exhaustive information. A good example is this 1000 +/- word article.

Another problem that dictates to the reporter how they will report is audience.

When a reporter realizes that time is of the essence when it comes to reporting, they must decide which facts or what data is relevant. One effective criterion to consider when doing so is to whom will you report. The fact is that to communicate what happened in an event most folks don’t need to know every little detail. It turns out that people have brains and can assemble data in their minds in such a way that is useful in making inferences about the event. No one ever does this impartially. Presuppositions dictate how history is filtered so the reporter must decide who his audience will be. Then they must determine which facts or data they will report according to who will be receiving the data. For the discerning interpreter of history it is only fair to realize that reporting is never balanced.

The human problem

Every reporter is at least human. That sounds silly but it’s true.

There is no way to escape the fact that there are no omniscient or omnipresent folk reporting or recording history. Each reporter is limited by their own perspective. No matter how diligent a witness, no matter how clear or ambiguous the data, no reporter or witness can see or even know it all.

Furthermore, every witness to an event has a presupposition. They have or will develop a point of view about what happened. This is unavoidable. The only question is to what extent a person will allow their perspective to shape the story. I don’t believe that the quantity can ever equal 0%.

Where does that leave us?

Now I’ve presented a problem that I haven’t yet solved. I have supposed that all reporting is bias and argued minimally for the innocence of some bias. I am not inclined to believe that most folk will change their minds about bias though.

Next, I think it might be a good idea to take a closer look at whether all bias is the same. After that I’ll opine about whether all bias is inherently bad. Finally, I hope to help us answer the original questions contained in the title.

Is bias fair? Can we really know history?

 

 

[1] Corduan, Winfried

1997

No Doubt About It: The Case for Christianity. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

 

[2] Soanes, Catherine, and Angus Stevenson, eds.

2004

Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

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