Considering only one viewpoint limits our understanding of just about any topic, let alone complex, controversial, and sometimes emotionally and politically charged subjects such as gender, race, political correctness and freedom of speech. Yet the media’s coverage of Jordan Peterson’s proposed website did just that — it presented, for the most part, a single point of view.
The website’s purpose, according to Peterson, would be to use artificial intelligence to identify university courses with “postmodern” content, including classes in gender and ethnic studies. The coverage we analyzed mostly supported the views of Peterson’s critics — that his proposed site would promote “fear and intimidation.” While this could indeed happen, only presenting this viewpoint is biased and can be detrimental to public discourse around these controversial topics.
Here are two examples of how bias and faulty reasoning support the media’s slant:
The anchoring effect: This term refers to people’s tendency to “rely too heavily” on the first piece of information they’re offered when making judgements or decisions, SUNY Geneseo psychology professor Margaret W. Matlin writes in the textbook Cognition. That initial information is called the “anchor.”
In the four articles we analyzed on Peterson, the “anchor” is the main point of view expressed in the headlines and opening paragraphs — his critics’ opinion that the proposed website would promote “fear and intimidation.” People who are reading about Peterson and his proposed website for the first time, or even those who have some knowledge, may “rely too heavily” on this initial viewpoint and may not take in new information impartially. This wouldn’t be the case for all readers — some may already have an opinion about Peterson, for example — but it could for many.
The straw man fallacy: This is a logical fallacy that “occurs when an opponent’s point of view is distorted,” or misrepresented, “in order to make it easier to refute,” according to Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
For example, CBC cites University of Toronto physics professor A.W. Peet saying:
“One thing I think is dangerous about Peterson is he claims to know the one true way towards the future.”This is presumably in reference to the following statement from Peterson:
“You can consider this a prophecy from me if you want … I’m afraid that this continual pushing by radical left wingers is going to wake up” the “right wing,” and by doing so “violence emerges.”Peterson may be making a prediction, but this is not the same as claiming to know “the one true way towards the future” and no evidence is provided of him making such a claim. Representing his arguments this way makes them easier to refute, though, because it’s obvious that no human can know “the one true way towards the future.”
Peet’s quote supports the slant of the article in two ways: 1) It discredits Peterson, although it’s based on faulty reasoning, and 2) The article contains quotes from Peterson’s critics — such as Peet’s — and none from his supporters.
Note that just because the articles we analyzed were biased in favor of Peterson’s critics, this bias doesn’t mean the criticisms of his proposed website aren’t valid. It just means that as a reader, you’re not getting the whole story when reading this coverage.
Why does this slant matter?
Whether you support Peterson’s views or oppose them, the media’s slanted coverage brings up a problem that The Heterodox Academy calls “the loss or lack of ‘viewpoint diversity.’” Specifically, the group conducts research on the diversity of viewpoints, or lack thereof, in American universities. News outlets contribute to the “viewpoint diversity” problem when they primarily support one perspective, as our Slant ratings demonstrate in the coverage of Peterson’s proposed website. According to The Knife’s balance ratings (which factor into our total Slant score along with sourcing), CBC’s article was 97 percent slanted, while The Globe and Mail’s was 83 percent slanted (the higher the percentage, the more it supports one viewpoint).
To think about this another way, imagine a widely accepted norm or belief, perhaps one concerning gender or ethnicity, that might be deemed politically incorrect to question. How comfortable do you feel publicly questioning this norm, even if you have a well-reasoned and well-intentioned argument? If you don’t, how likely is this to promote a diversity of viewpoints?
Not likely. Yet “bringing diverse viewpoints to bear on social, intellectual, philosophical, legal, and moral problems” is important, the Heterodox Academy says, because it is “likely to enhance the quality of the scholarship that bears on those issues.” This is not to deny that some viewpoints may promote harm, marginalization or discrimination. Also, some points-of-view have more scientific or practical merit than others. But there can be negative consequences when people don’t question accepted norms, even ones that are maintained out of political correctness or social justice.
As English philosopher John Stuart Mill said in On Liberty, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” The Knife encourages people to seek out alternative viewpoints to improve their critical thinking and gain a deeper understanding of their own beliefs. They may even modify some along the way.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News