Confirmation Bias and the Gora Effect

Sep 17th, 2011 | By | Category: The News

Confirmation Bias

Reading The News today, we noticed an article that did not stand out much except for the by line. This particular column was penned not by a recognised name, but by one Mr Alan Farago. Though it is not unusual to see a Western name attached to a by line in the print media, unfamiliar names raise our suspicions. Who are these people, and why are they writing for the Pakistani press? While some articles may actually be legitimate reporting, there also exists a tendency for media groups to publish pieces that involve what we call ‘Confirmation bias and the gora effect‘.

These pieces tend to follow one of two themes: America is on the decline, or America is the world’s terrorist. Mr Farago’s piece is one of the first type, describing an America that suffers from election fraud. One hopes the publishing of this article is not a clever way for certain elements to set up an election hijacking here, prepared with the typical excuse, “America does it, so why can’t we?” But our greater interest was just who is this Alan Farago writing about election fraud in America? Is he a political scientist? Is he a lawyer who specialises in election laws? After conducting some research, we found that Mr Alan Farago works for an environment NGO in Florida, USA.

Mr Farago has the right to write about whatever he chooses, of course. But the question must be asked why The News – a Pakistani newspaper – chose to publish a piece about alleged electoral fraud in America by the employee of an environmental NGO? Could it be because Jang Group knows that its readers enjoy reading pieces that make America look bad?

Another example found in The News earlier this week is in a column by Aijaz Zaka Syed. In his column criticising America for its response to 9/11 attacks, Aijaz Syed suggests that perhaps al Qaeda was not even responsible for the attack, and references “independent researchers and experts like Dr Alan Sabrosky”. Again we asked ourselves, who is this Alan Sabrosky? Actually, we were not the only ones who wondered this. Another independent researcher, Mr Adam Holland, investigated Alan Sabroksy’s background and found that he is not quite what he seems.

Alan Sabrosky bills himself as the former Director of Studies at the U.S. Army War College. He has made quite a name for himself in recent months by first declaring himself a military expert with high-level connections in the U.S. military hierarchy, then by outrageously claiming that Israel was responsible for 9/11 and that the U.S. military knows this and is concealing it. While he offers no evidence for this, he claims that he should be trusted because of his expertise. The truth of the matter — with respect to both his background and his claims — is quite different, of course. Sabrosky has deliberately inflated his role in the military and has used that ruse to promote a hateful, fact-free conspiracy theory. In fact, while he did work as an administrator at the U.S. Army War College, he was not, as his job title seems to indicate, the director or dean of the college. Far from it. According to the Press Office of the Army War College, in the mid-1980s, Sabrosky served as a civilian administrator at a research department of the college, supervising the publication of papers written within that department. His job title was “Director of Studies” because he supervised publishing studies done within a department of the college. He was a mid-level civilian manager at a military college, without access to the sort of highly classified material of the sort he now fraudulently claims to have. Moreover, since his employment at that school was about 25 years ago, his employment there would provide him with no special insights with respect to 9/11. How on earth could someone who worked on the level of a college librarian in the 1980s be privy to top secret information revealing a vast hidden conspiracy? And how on earth could he be the only person to know about it or think it worth revealing?

So why would Aijaz Syed cite this man as “independent researcher and expert”? Could it be because Alan Sabrosky writes that 9/11 was a conspiracy of Mossad?

These are but two examples, but news watchers will find many more. How many times have we been sent videos of a Mr Alex Jones or Webster Tarpley reciting all types of conspiracies? A minimum amount of background checking finds that these individuals are known conspiriacy theorists with few (if any) qualifications and no credibility in the international media. At home they are considered ‘crack pot’, but here their paranoid delusions are published as if they were renowned researchers. The only qualification required for the Pakistani media, it seems, is that they blame someone else for our problems and have white skin.

Why is this enough to get treated as a credible source by some of the nation’s leading media groups? Confirmation bias is when people accept information that confirms what they want to believe, even if the information is not true. In the case of Western conspiracy theorists, the confirmation bias is strengthened by what we call “the gora effect” – the fact that the subjects are white somehow gives them credibility, even if what they are saying is ridiculous. “Look, even the goras admit this!”

Confirmation bias can be dangerous not only because it allows people to believe in a false reality, but because believing in fictions will result in making decisions that are self defeating in the real world. It is as if a captain was told his opening batsman was also an excellent bowler. His match strategy, because it is based on false information, is actually a strategy for failure!

The News may prioritise raising revenues over raising the public awareness, and Aijaz Syed, who a couple of months ago warned of an imminent American invasion of Pakistan (which, of course, was not true either), may be a paranoid conspiracy theorist himself. If the people are going to devise a strategy to solve Pakistan’s problems, media must serve as a bearer of truth – not delusional conspiracy theories and selective information that confirm wishful thinking. Otherwise, basing our decisions on false information, we too will devise a strategy for failure.

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