Pierre Bayle on Media Bias

Bias is nothing new, and it likely has gotten neither better nor worse over time. People tend to think that media bias and misinformation are getting worse in the social media age, ironically because the human brain is prone to recency bias, availability bias, and pessimistic bias. But as Pierre Bayle wrote in the 1680s in his Nouvelles de la République des Lettres back in the 1680s:

“History is dished up very much like meat. Each nation and religion takes the same raw facts and dresses them in a sauce of its own taste, and each reader finds them true or false according to whether they agree or disagree with his prejudices.”

A little bit of awareness of this tendency can go a long way towards minimizing the problem of bias and misinformation. In today’s time, that means avoiding the cable news channels, purging low-quality sources from one’s social media feeds (or abstaining entirely), putting a little effort into statistical literacy, and employing a little bit of skepticism, especially towards too-good-to-be-true stories that appeal to one’s ideological priors. Keeping an eye on the longer arcs of history, and not just today’s ephemera, is also useful. I often find myself simultaneously a short-term pessimist and a long-run optimist; it turns out that both can be true.

Bayle’s emphasis on tolerance towards people with different beliefs, apparently still as radical in our time as it was in his, is also helpful, both here and in many other parts of life.


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