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It's a Good Time to Talk About Bias

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 2/03/2016 Ian Bremmer
DONALD TRUMP © John Moore via Getty Images DONALD TRUMP

We all have our biases. We wouldn't be adult human beings without them. We all come from somewhere, from particular families and particular backgrounds. I grew up in the projects outside Boston. My mother was part Armenian. I was raised and educated by people who identified as Armenians, and who viewed the world through that lens. Armenia's war with Azerbaijan for Nagorno-Karabakh was a war for "our territory"; the Turks perpetrated a genocide against "our people." Even then I knew that these were decidedly partial views, but they were the views I grew up surrounded by.
I began my career as a political scientist more than 25 years ago. For the longest time, I would avoid writing about Armenia entirely, because I worried that my biases would somehow seep into my analysis. I was equally worried that if I did write about Armenia, I'd end up overcompensating for my biases by being unfairly critical and negative, which would have been just as bad. I spent years writing about everything related to the USSR except for Armenia. But to be a credible Soviet specialist, I had to cover every part of the Soviet Union, not just those parts I felt comfortable with.
So I began writing carefully about Armenia, always aware of the biases I brought to the table and constantly putting them in rigorous comparative context. In time, I figured out how to identify what my biases were and how to set them aside for my analytical work.
Why do I bring up bias now? Over the last 12 months, there have been two issues that I've felt personally drawn to, that I want to use my platform to say something about rather than just giving people data points and forecasts. That's been tough for someone who always strives for objectivity and whose entire professional career has been built on that foundation. I've taken a stand on these issues, and I'm not apologetic about it, but I think I need to explain to people where I'm coming from.

Syrian Refugees

I spent much of the past year writing about the refugees fleeing Syria's civil war. I've focused on their sheer numbers, I've analyzed why Americans don't seem to care about the issue, I've dissected why Europeans aren't responding effectively. And yet, as someone whose family came from Aleppo (Syrian Armenians), the fact that the U.S. would do virtually nothing for these people is shameful. To date, the U.S. has taken in less than 3,000 Syrian refugees -- Germany took in more than 1 million in 2015 alone.
I look at this issue not just as a political scientist, but as an American who firmly believes that my country has been made better by immigration. But it's more than that -- while I'm known primarily as a political scientist, I hope I'm also known as an adult human being. This is something I think Americans are just getting wrong, and given that it's an election year, the issue has become so politicized that to say we could do anything for these refugees invites an extraordinary amount of vitriol. This leads me to my second point.

Donald Trump

I've been strongly opposed to Donald Trump since day one. Some people on social media accuse me of shilling for Democrats, which is ridiculous; I'm an Independent, and I've voted for both Democrats and Republicans. As it happens, I have pretty strong views on Hillary Clinton too: I think she was a pretty good Secretary of State, but a pretty bad presidential candidate. As someone who grew up in the projects (bias alert!), I don't like people who feel entitled to things, that act like the presidency is owed to them -- and that's a feeling I've gotten both from Clinton and from Jeb Bush.
For the record, I see people running on both sides that could be credible as president: Donald Trump is not one of them, though Bernie Sanders' proposals on taxes are just as non-credible as Trump's policy promise to build a wall. But Trump is trying to build his popularity with a cheap play to our worst impulses, to the basest parts of our human nature. That's unfortunate and dangerous.
My views on Donald Trump, like my views on refugees, go beyond my role as political scientist; I'm reacting as an American, one who sees that what my country stands for is being undermined by someone smart enough to know better, a man with a lot of cash and media power.
In terms of analysis, once we recognize our biases, we do our best to work above them. We deal with the issue of bias at Eurasia Group all the time, because smart people tend to have strong opinions about things. But the company isn't worth anything to anyone if we're not willing to set them aside to help our clients understand what's happening, why it's happening, and what's likely to happen next. We have to be two things at once: human beings and analysts. I made my peace with that seeming contradiction a long time ago -- even if some issues are more challenging to deal with than others.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, global research professor at New York University and foreign affairs columnist at TIME. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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