In grad school, I worried that the same “postmodernist” tools that ivory-tower professors used to question reality were also being used by propaganda merchants to question climate change, evolution and so forth.
I hate being right. But this Chronicle of Higher Education piece, The Attack on Truth, confirms it.
“But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists,” the literary critic Michael Bérubé noted, “… and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind.”
Granted, the seeds of doubt go back a bit farther than that:
Of course, some folks were hard at work trying to dispute inconvenient scientific facts long before conservatives began to borrow postmodernist rhetoric. In Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010), two historians, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, have shown how the strategy of denying climate change and evolution can be traced all the way back to big tobacco companies, who recognized early on that even the most well-documented scientific claims (for instance, that smoking causes cancer) could be eroded by skillful government lobbying, bullying the news media, and pursuing a public-relations campaign.
And to some extent, our discussions have never been about finding truth:
In a recent paper, “Why Do Humans Reason?,” Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, both of them philosophers and cognitive scientists, argue that the point of human reason is not and never has been to lead to truth, but is rather to win arguments. If that is correct, the discovery of truth is only a byproduct.
So we’re talking about deeply ingrained human nature. But we often fight against that human nature and come up with the occasional Age of Reason or Enlightenment, pushing our scruffy species a little farther up the road toward good government, good decisions, and technology. If our species could never agree on truth, Apple engineers would still be yelling at each other about how to make an iPod. We’d never have an iPhone.
The bad news today is that we have the means to amplify every crackpot, and the media business landscape makes shouting pundits more profitable than careful research.
An obvious solution might be to turn to journalists, who are supposed to embrace a standard of objectivity and source-checking that would be more likely to support true beliefs. Yet, at least in part as a result of the competition that has been enabled by the Internet, we now find that even some mainstream journalists and news media are dangerously complicit in the follies of those who seek to disrespect truth. There have always been accusations of bias in the media, but today we have Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left (along with a smattering of partisan radio talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh), who engage in overt advocacy for their ideological views.
Yet those are not the kinds of journalists we should be so worried about, for they are known to be biased. Another tendency is perhaps even more damaging to the idea that journalism is meant to safeguard truth. Call it “objectivity bias.” Sensitive to criticism that they, too, are partisan, many news sites try to demonstrate that they are fair and balanced by presenting “both” sides of any issue deemed “controversial” — even when there really aren’t two credible sides. That isn’t objectivity. And the consequence is public confusion over whether an issue — in the case of climate change or childhood vaccination, a scientific issue — has actually been settled.
A lot of this was written in some guy’s grad-school thesis in 2000:
With readers choosing the news they see, vital bits of information may not get to the people who need it. Readers may not hear that the food on their shelves has been recalled because of a possible salmonella contamination. Voters may believe erroneous reports about the economy; a Los Angeles Times poll in 1994 found this to be the case, with 53 percent of respondents saying they believed a recession lingered in the United States despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Readers have new power to get around the gatekeepers, but journalists have less power to ensure that important messages get through the gates.
I hate being right.