Research Conundrum: Bias

Posted on October 26, 2011 by


A political comic showing how one person's bias can affect how others learn things.

Somehow, two different articles can use the same information but be completely different. It all depends on how people present or skew the information. These are the two articles I first read on the 16th century’s religious reformation:

James D. Tracy’s book, Europe’s Reformations, 1450-1650: Doctrine, Politics, and Community

Johann Kirsch’s article on the Reformation from the Catholic Encyclopedia

Tracy’s book presents a more clean-cut, unbiased critical-factual view of the Reformation. The Catholic Encyclopedia’s view is slightly more biased. If I didn’t know a thing about that time period and read the one by Tracy first, I’d think this reformation was a movement of great individuality and delightful humanism. If I read an article on the Catholic Encyclopedia, on the other hand, I’d view this reformation as a terrible event that really negatively impacted culture. To tell the truth, I was the kid who had never heard of this “Reformation” and took everything I read from the first article for granted as true history. When I got around to reading the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article, it seemed ridiculous. What I had just learned about as a period that fostered great independence and thinking is now being called a “revolt” that produced “lamentable shallowness in religious life,” based on “false fundamental doctrines.” What I realize now, though, is that both articles actually present the same information, it’s just that their bias put it in much different terms.

Both articles state the same facts about the Reformation; it’s just the words they use to describe those facts in which they differ. Tracy’s book tells the causes and results of the reformation mostly from a view Martin Luther or one of the reformers may have used themselves, although it does at times bring up counter-arguments to how other people saw it. The Catholic Encyclopedia tends to liberally use phrases like “false doctrine” and “true religion.” Questionable word choice in the Catholics’ article is detrimental as well as beneficial to the article’s point of view. Sometimes the article uses a term like this to make the Reformation seem like a horrible loss of unity:

“One of the chief means employed in promoting the spread of the Reformation was the use of violence”

-Johann Kirsch

Other times, the Catholic Encyclopedia almost refutes its own arguments:

“Supernatural interests fell into the background, and naturalistic aspirations aiming at the purely mundane became widespread.”

The use of the word “supernatural” contrasted with the Reformation’s “mundane naturalistic aspirations” could almost make the reader think that the Catholic church were really the radical ones. Some of the evidence in the Catholic article simply contradicts Tracy’s book:

“One of the chief means of promoting the spread of the reformation was the use of violence.”

If you consider the printing press a violent machine, then Tracy’s book agrees.

Another interesting point may be the two sources’ views on the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The Catholic Encyclopedia portrays it as a grand revival of Catholic culture that was underway long before Martin Luther’s protestant reformation. Europe’s Reformations presents the counter-reformation as Catholicism’s attempt to recover from the protestant revolution by exiling protestants and witches from Spain and Italy, and ingraining the traditional Catholicism more firmly into the culture by heavily educating the public in “correct doctrine.” It sounds like a last-ditch attempt to quash the reformation, although this time Catholicism actually did reform.

An unbiased source that tells all sides of the story is usually a great focus point for research, but sometimes the biased account is necessary to really put the time period in perspective and get a student like me to really take a moment and reflect on what I’ve been reading.


Works Cited

Kirsch, Johann Peter. “The Reformation.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 26 Oct. 2011

Tracy, James. Europe’s Reformations, 1450-1650: Doctrine, Politics, and Community. Rowman & Littlefield Pub Inc, 2006. Print.

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