Well, this was interesting... and also terribly funny and revealing, as you'll discover at the end of this post. A ton of studies have look at the way one's interests and biases affect decisions, and some recent examples offer food for thought:
"So who's right - the decision-makers who claim objectivity or the citizens who roll their eyes? Research suggests that decision-makers don't realize just how easily and often their objectivity is compromised. The human brain knows many tricks that allow it to consider evidence, weigh facts and still reach precisely the conclusion it favors.... People realize that humans deceive themselves, of course, but they don't seem to realize that they too are human."
True - one reason that intellectual diversity is so critically important in public and public trust sectors like the academic social sciences, not to mention the media et. al. Claims that abstract 'professionalism' will trump these tendencies are simply not credible to common sense or human experience. One may realize that one's friend knows a lot about drugs given that she is a highly successful consultant who devises physician marketing programs, with Eli Lilly as her #1 client - but one would be wise to add a grain or two of salt to her explanations about, say, the safety of Prozac re: potential side-effects. Both experimental and anecdotal evidence suggest that this is justified, and wise.
At the same time, these studies indicated that standards and concepts of fairness often matter, and matter in interesting ways:
"And yet, if decision-makers are more biased than they realize, they are less biased than the rest of us suspect. Research shows that while people underestimate the influence of self-interest on their own judgments and decisions, they overestimate its influence on others."
Some encouraging examples are provided, including one data point that speaks to the utility and foundations of Marc "Armed Liberal" Danziger's oft-stated points about "humility" in politics:
"The same researchers measured people's attitudes toward smoking bans and asked them to guess the attitudes of others. They found that smokers vastly overestimated the support of nonsmokers for the bans, as did nonsmokers the opposition of smokers to the bans - in other words, neither group was quite as self-interested as the other group believed."
This was interesting, too. While the studies show that people are typically willing to share, there are limits - and they have real consequences in politics:
"In a recent study, the economists Ernst Fehr and Simon Gächter had subjects play a game in which members of a team could earn money when everyone pitched in. They found that subjects were willing to spend their money just to make sure freeloaders on the team didn't earn any. Studies such as these suggest that people act in their own interests, but that their interests include ideals of fairness, prudence and generosity."
The application of this principle to various political controversies is left as an exercise for the reader. Meanwhile, I thought this was by far the best paragraph in the whole piece:
"In short, doctors, judges, consultants and vice presidents strive for truth more often than we realize, and miss that mark more often than they realize. Because the brain cannot see itself fooling itself, the only reliable method for avoiding bias is to avoid the situations that produce it."
OK, time for the final, amusing hook. This article can be found in the New York Times, whose drive to avoid any remedy of this kind with respect to its own conduct and reporting has become infamous.
One of these days, the folks who run the New York Times might actually begin reading their own paper....