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Evaluating claims you find on web sites: C. Bias

What is a credible source: a checklist

BIAS: Could the authors' bias have distorted the truth? Have they misled us, consciously or unconsciously?

The bias of an author is their preference for a particular outcome (or ideology) that may cause the them to lose objectivity or fairness. Bias may result in false or misleading claims.

Most bias is caused by a conflict of interest

  • The first duty of authors is to be truthful.
  • When authors have special interests (financial, political, etc.), these may conflict with their duty to be truthful. 
  • A conflict of interest does not always result in distortion, but we should be on guard.

Conflicts of interest occur when authors can gain something by misleading readers, or by not telling the whole truth, or by outright lying.  How can we detect conflicts of interest?  Consider what you know about the authors, their intended audience, and their purpose in making claims. Could they be tempted to depart from "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth"? 

Consider these temptations:

  • Wealth: Can the authors influence how readers spend their money? If so, the authors may get a "cut" of the profits.
  • Influence: Can the authors' claims get the attention of powerful decision-makers?
  • Fame:  Can a spectacular claim enhance the reputation of the authors?
  • Ideological advancement:  Can the claim incline readers to adopt a political or cultural position?
  • Friends and enemies: Can the claim help a friend or undermine an enemy or competitor?

The publishers of some journals, magazines, and newspapers ask authors to disclose conflicts of interest to readers.  For example, a financial writer who reports on Microsoft must tell readers that they own stock in that company. Readers will know that the reporter has a financial interest in Microsoft's stock price.

What protects authors against bias?  

  • For a given article and claim, how likely are the authors to be "caught" if they distort the truth?

    • The more likely they are to be caught, the more protection there is against bias.
  • If the author is caught, would there be serious consequences?

    • The more serious the consequences, the more protection against bias.
    • For some authors, a damaged reputation would end their careers. But for others, reputation means little.
  • Are other people, such as publishers and editors involved in this publication?

    • These people's reputation could be damaged by a biased author.
    • They may have power to correct bias before it is published.

Now, try the questions.

Does bias exist?

Could the authors have distorted the truth, because of bias? Could they have misled us, consciously or unconsciously?

The questions below help you answer this.

1. Is there a conflict of interest?

Identify (possible) conflicts of interest for your authors.

  • What might the authors gain if they distort the truth?
    • Consider who the authors are.
    • Consider what claims they are making.and who their intended audience is.
    • Consider the following temptations:

Wealth: Can the authors influence how readers spend their money?


Influence: Can the authors' claims get the attention of powerful decision-makers?


Fame:  Can a spectacular claim enhance the reputation of the authors?


Ideological advancement:  Can the claim make readers favor the authors' political or cultural position?


Friends and enemies: Can the claim help a friend or undermine an enemy or competitor?

2. Disclosure?

Does the author disclose any conflicts of interest?

This helps us evaluate possible bias. It also gives us some confidence in the author's honesty.

Disclosure of conflicts is common practice in the following publications types:

  • medical research journals
  • major newspapers and magazines, especially when reporting on major corporations.
  • reviews of books, etc., when the reviewer has a past relationship with the author reviewed

Is the author protected from bias?

For this article and claim, how likely are the authors to be "caught" if they distort the truth?

  • The more danger of being caught, the more authors will guard against bias.
    • How many people will read the claim?
    • How many of these people have the expertise the evaluate the claim?
    • Will any of these people be motivated to publicly dispute the claim?
  • Factual mistakes by major news organizations are often caught and corrected publicly.
  • In scholarly journals, many errors are caught and corrected prior to publication (peer review). Additional errors scholarly journal articles may be pointed out by peer researchers in later articles.

If the author is caught, how serious will the consequences be?

  • The more serious the consequences, the more protection against bias.
  • How much does a particular author stand to lose?  Reputation, employment, research grants?

Are other people, such as publishers and editors, involved in this publication?

  • These people may be able to correct bias before it is published; their reputations are at stake.

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