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 “Look…you 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.