In recent weeks there has been a veritable tsunami of information media commentary to the effect that voters in a democracy cannot be trusted to make the ‘correct’ choices, and social media posts to the effect that information media cannot be trusted to tell the truth.
That journalists and other public commentators unmask themselves as totalitarian idiots by either misunderstanding democracy or actively opposing it is an obvious, easy conclusion to reach. Voters may be misguided, or ill-informed, but they are never wrong in exercising their right to cast a vote at an election. That is (still) democracy – for better or worse.
But just how misguided social media commentators are about decrying information media is not as easy to unmask as the laziness or ignorance it really is. I wonder how many of those complaining most bitterly on social media realise that they are themselves now part of the information media they decry, and as guilty as the journalists and other commentators they accuse of lying or distorting truth.
The path I propose for demonstrating the laziness or ignorance of those who demand from the information media a reflection of their own Weltanschauungen is to look at very brief sketches of:
The history of journalism, to illustrate it is not, and never has been what most people demand it was or should be;
Political economy as the one framework of reference that permits a systematic explanation of all human activity;
Critical analysis as too often misunderstood and not applied in either journalism or its audiences; and
Intellectual integrity that recognises uncomfortable truths.
In the Western world journalism is preceded by pamphleteering, and specifically the highly political kind of British pamphleteering that arose in the 18th century. There was no question of striving for objective truth in these self-funded, cheaply printed, but eagerly read opinion pieces. The best of them were invectives seeking to tell truth to power, or satires poking fun at the abuses of power.
Pamphleteering was eventually replaced by gazettes, or journals (hence journalist), and then newspapers (hence the press and news media).
The original European gazettes sometimes restricted their scope solely to ‘intelligences’ about the movement of ships and cargoes, armies and battles, and the doings of monarchs and aristocrats. But many also included letters from observers in foreign parts (hence the name correspondent) about matters of general or popular interest. These came to include celebrity gossip about aristocrats and prominent people, but also genuine reportage, moving into investigative journalism to present the facts on issues and events as best as they could be uncovered, and not run afoul of censorship.
But there was no suggestion in the earlier journals or newspapers of unbiased views. In fact, quite the opposite: most took a definite stance on social and political issues of the day.
I assert here that nothing much has changed, except perhaps a notable concentration of ownership leading to fewer differing points of view. I don’t argue that scandal mongering and overt propaganda deserves to be called news, just that some of this has always been called news.
This leads me to state categorically that you are just wrong if you assume:
Journalists should report facts in an unbiased manner without ever acting as human beings, rather than becoming automatons;
Objectivity is possible by sticking to incontrovertible facts, and by fact checking; and
Objective truth exists in human affairs that is not actually the untruth of either ideology or religion.
Journalists are people, and therefore fallible. They are constrained by their own subjectivities and limits on resources as well as intellectual capacity in selecting facts to report. They are often obliged to apply to the facts they report their own interpretation, or an imposed one.
Journalists or editors who claim objectivity are liars. The best they can do is give coverage to many diverging points of view, but usually this just ends up in a simple bipolar oppositional partisanship that excludes all other views (for example, running Labor and Tory opinion pieces, but not ideas from Marxists, fascists, anarchists, environmentalists, and so on).
The best journalists explicitly acknowledge their subjectivities and invite you thereby to form your own opinions. The worst ones are just scribes for propagandists.
The next time you argue for objective truth in journalism, have a long look in the mirror to examine just how much of that you are capable of, or are known for.
While you stand there, also ponder the simple truth that in some people subject matter expertise and experience counts for something. In others it may just cause entrenched, rigid prejudice. In that vein, also contemplate another simple truth: almost everyone thinks no one else is smarter or better informed, and they are invariably wrong.
Most people who have not studied it are easily confused by that term. Because it is confusing, and there are many schools of political economy. The main two are political scientists looking at economics, and economists looking at political science. Others inject varying flavours of the social sciences, and all the ideologies known to us, including theology (Iran and other Islamic states operate partly Shariah law-driven economic regulations).
However, in its most simple terms, political economy is the interplay between the exercise of political power and the economic structure to which that power is applied.
This simple definition allows us to understand any event or phenomenon in human history in terms of political economy.
Let me use as an example the ancient Greek Oracle of Delphi. Greeks from all over their known world came to consult the Oracle for omens on the success or failure of ventures, or the truth or falsehood of big questions.
They paid a caste of male priests with valuables for oracular sooth-saying. The priests would then summon one or more of a caste of female oracles to sequester themselves, and inhale fumes or vapours that may have been neurotoxins to induce trances or fugue states in which they were thought to speak with the voices of the gods. The male priests would then interpret what the oracles said and relay that interpretation back to the paying customers.
In this way, the Oracle of Delphi became a hugely influential political and economic player in Greece, with the priests determining whether ventures should proceed or not, including wars and feuds. They also became an early bank by lending, at interest rates or profit sharing, some of their profits to favoured individuals or causes.
Now let me tell the same story in a contemporary setting.
A gaggle of economists, paid by varying sources with varying agenda, produce reams if impenetrable jargon and gibberish. Journalists paid by varying sources with varying agenda interpret the gibberish into the vernacular for paying consumers of journalism.
In that process the biases of the economists should be obvious by examining both who pays them, and what they say consistently over time. The biases of journalists can be thought of as being bought and paid for by information media owners, frequently via editors and editorial policy.
We, the consumers of it all, just get to pay for everything with our taxes and direct payment to access the ‘news’. In return we get the political economy that governs our lives, and all the lies or truths that emanate from it.
In that last story, too, lies the political economy of information media: owners throw money about to make more money, which used to come from advertising, but now seems to rely increasingly on patronage, which is the sale of editorial support, either to an owner’s own interests, or to some other capitalist. I think the repetitive nonsense about newspaper political economy in textbooks doesn’t enlighten much of what is occuring in information media today. I recommend instead to those interested in greater insights reading one prescribed university text, and Manufacturing Consent by Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky.
The principle here is to follow the money: who benefits from a particular point of view, and how. Most of the time this is simple enough to figure out, and without needing a university degree in anything, including economics. But simple in this context does not mean it might not require time-consuming spade work. It just means any plodder can do it.
Critical faculty is the most misunderstood concept I have observed as it applies to all discussion and debate – not just about journalism and information media.
Let’s look at what it is not: reductionist determinism. In fact that is an opposite of critical analysis because it operates by reducing some meaning to a single aspect of it, and then applying that single aspect deterministically to be the sole meaning, if not also the objective ‘truth’ of the matter.
Reductionist determinism arises most commonly from people turning to reference works, like dictionaries or encyclopaediae, choosing a single definition, and then insisting doggedly on its objective truth, and therefore on the falsehood of all other definitions or interpretations. Most good reference works include many definitions and perspectives. Hardly any online reference works are in that league.
Reductionist determinism is the most common error in judgement and logic made by scientists and IT professionals because they are used to working according to absolute rules. It is nevertheless a serious error of judgement. Even in the sciences it is acknowledged axiomatically that any theory or supposed law must be open to challenge. If it is not contestable, it is not science.
So, critical analysis is more than semantics and ‘lawyering’ of cited sources.
Another thing that is not critical analysis is gleefully trashing some argument from a position of malice or self-righteous superiority. Critique seeks to find flaws, not destruction or ridicule. That said, however, sometimes it is just not true to argue that there is more than one point of view to every argument, and this may involve legitimate ad hominem: ‘The Earth is not flat, and you are a moron to argue that against all available evidence!’ And there can be legitimate reasons for malicious destruction of an argument.
Critical analysis can be thought of as a mixture of critique aimed at exposing flaws, suggesting improvements, and ‘appreciation’ of an argument or position by pointing to its likely credibility in those areas where it exists.
With that in mind, my own simplification of the concept of critical analysis is based on the idea of questioning every assertion and citation according to the importance it holds for the entire argument or position.
What do we question?
Who is saying it? Is that person presented as an expert, and does that imply or aim at credibility? Is that credibility deserved or just asserted? What evidence can we uncover about that expert’s history of expertness? If the person is not presented as an expert, how do we judge credibility? What is that person’s profile? The tone, literacy, and readability can tell us about likely experience in the subject matter area, and with speaking or writing. Bad grammar and many typos are always a warning sign of at least carelessness.
What is being said? Are we reading opinion or reportage? Are sources cited? Are sources given as anonymous? Are more than one or two points of view being represented? What are the agenda being pursued? What are some of the alternative viewpoints? What is the intended response from us? How bested in a specific outcome is the author or speaker?
Where is it being said? Is it ‘news’ media, a blog, another kind of web site, a social media platform? Does the medium have credibility for what is being said? If you don’t know whether it has credibility, is it being said elsewhere as an independent piece of information? If the same sources are cited everywhere, warning bells should be ringing about uncritical diffusion of a potential fabrication.
Are there gaps in a position or argument? Can you identify something obvious that was left unaddressed? Does it matter that gaps exist, or are these critical for the argument or position? What are the arguments or positions that could fill these gaps?
Is credibility being presented as a function of popularity? This is almost always a signal to pay careful attention. It is the Google syndrome of applying higher scores to popular search results. It is the social media fallacy that trending ‘stuff’ must be good. Popularity usually means unimaginative dull-wittedness, not credibility or commendability.
Are you making a judgement based on appeal to you personally? This is an absolute killer of logic, judgement, and any kind of analysis. To agree with something that plays to one’s own prejudices and Weltanschauung, without extra care to ensure it is valid, is the most frequent stupidity I see committed by smart people.
If you know what you are doing you don’t need the above list, and you realise it’s at best incomplete.
Critical analysis is not easy. No shortcuts or formulae can substitute. It must be conducted repeatedly for every circumstance where just one variable has changed. This means it’s not critical analysis to think about one issue once and then forever declare that judgement to be sound for every other instance of a similar discussion. In fact, doing that is ideological rigidity, which is one opposite to critical analysis.
There is no a priori rule in the universe outside religion and ideology. Everything ever said and written has been said and written by people who are as fallible or infallible as you or me. That means nothing should ever be believed without applying judgement.
In practice this probably devolves into a ‘trust but verify’ policy for a small number of information sources and people, and a much larger ‘always verify’ policy for all other things.
Knowing what we do about public commentators, and the information media, if it is not obvious to you that you should not credulously trust what they transmit to you, I think you are foolish. Anyone who guarantees you can trust them to represent your interests rather than their own is lying through their teeth.
To defer your own responsibility for judgement to someone else is either laziness or ignorance. You get to decide for yourself which of these applies to you.
Judgement is always your responsibility. Looking to make this easier by seeking to rate information sources is a recipe for disaster; it will merely bring you back to the social media nonsense of popular=relevant or credible. Every single information item has to be judged, and not merely by defaulting to trust previously established in the respectability of a source. That trust can only ever play some part in evaluation.
In defending free speech during the controversial Faurrison Affair, Noam Chomsky was breathtakingly accused of being a Holocaust-denier. Subsequently he made a simple and elegant point that seems lost on a lot of people, including, disappointingly, many scientists and IT professionals:
Faurisson’s conclusions are diametrically opposed to views I hold and have frequently expressed in print (for example, in my book Peace in the Middle East?, where I describe the holocaust as “the most fantastic outburst of collective insanity in human history”). But it is elementary that freedom of expression (including academic freedom) is not to be restricted to views of which one approves, and that it is precisely in the case of views that are almost universally despised and condemned that this right must be most vigorously defended. It is easy enough to defend those who need no defense or to join in unanimous (and often justified) condemnation of a violation of civil rights by some official enemy.
Restating this position slightly and we arrive at one of my most strongly held principles of intellectual integrity: no defence of someone to say something is a defence of that position, and the more we are all taught the legitimacy of only one point of view about something, the more we should support the right of anyone to say the contrary, no matter how outrageous that may seem.
This principle has direct application to the critical evaluation of information: the more outrageous some statement or position might seem, the more carefully it must be analysed before being dismissed. Conversely, the more sympathetic and true a statement or position might seem, the more carefully we must analyse it before endorsing it.
If that strikes you as too much hard work, I think you are right. But why do you think it should be easier? Why do you think you should be able to rely on someone else to do your thinking for you, and then insist on righteous indignation when you discover you were misled? Misled by whom? I would say to you that you misled yourself. Lazy or ignorant?
Normally I don’t add postnominal fruit to my essays, but I think it might be relevant here.
My first degree is a Bachelor of Arts in English with majors in journalism, literary theory, and politics.
My second degree is a Master of Business Administration with concentrations in economics and electronic commerce.
My third degree (in progress) will be a Master of Arts in IT. Graduation expected in July 2015.
I have worked as a journalist, including editing a business magazine. I have developed and drafted economic policies with others, including proselytising for them.
I don’t claim to be an expert in anything, but I do claim significant exposure to the academy, the requirement for critical analysis, the rules of journalism as it is practiced, the construction of politically economic policy, and the professional pursuit of rhetoric and persuasion.
[Reposted to Google Plus for comment and discussion.]