journalism, philosophy, politics

The Attack on Truth: Postmodernism and propaganda

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.

journalism, politics

I’ve looked at D.C. from both sides now … um …

Following up on John Oliver’s brilliant “proportional” climate change debate, here’s Obama on “false equivalence”:

You’ll hear if you watch the nightly news or you read the newspapers that, well, there’s gridlock, Congress is broken, approval ratings for Congress are terrible.  And there’s a tendency to say, a plague on both your houses.  But the truth of the matter is that the problem in Congress is very specific.  We have a group of folks in the Republican Party who have taken over who are so ideologically rigid, who are so committed to an economic theory that says if folks at the top do very well then everybody else is somehow going to do well; who deny the science of climate change; who don’t think making investments in early childhood education makes sense; who have repeatedly blocked raising a minimum wage so if you work full-time in this country you’re not living in poverty; who scoff at the notion that we might have a problem with women not getting paid for doing the same work that men are doing.

via Morning Plum: Obama slams ‘false equivalence’ media.

It’s always a mistake to cover the “left” and “right” the same way, even if they’re all acting honestly. A traditional “liberal” sees problems and posits solutions, usually via the government. A traditional “conservative” acts as a brake on reckless spending and often posits alternative solutions.

That puts “conservatives” in a public relations bind. Their role is to be the spoilsport. Many traditional “conservative” arguments in a First World country may come across as self-serving — they usually benefit the speaker, and it’s difficult to point out that they also see the problem. And if they come off as patronizing while doing so, then the message falls flat.

Since Gingrich, the GOP has adopted more of a flame-throwing approach. Instead of carefully explaining the nuances of why a “liberal” proposal is flawed or counterproductive, that proposal must be evil. And so are the people who proposed it. And they’ve been so successful with that message that they can deny scientific reality and not be laughed off the stage.

cynicism, philosophy

Why we believe utter crap

Are we doomed to believe things that are demonstrably false?

Brendan Nyhan (Dukie!) has devoted much of his career to fighting falsehoods, and he is depressed by a three-year study he conducted to try change beliefs on vaccination:

The first leaflet—focussed on a lack of evidence connecting vaccines and autism—seemed to reduce misperceptions about the link, but it did nothing to affect intentions to vaccinate. It even decreased intent among parents who held the most negative attitudes toward vaccines, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect.

Oh dear. That’s not good.

The theory is that one’s sense of self is threatened if you’re confronted with the idea that you’re wrong. So here’s the clever but difficult solution: Make people believe they’ve arrived at the correct answer on their own.

Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without.

So yelling at people that “the grownups are talking” might not work.

At least, not immediately. But I’m a little more optimistic than that. From my own experience, I can think of things I used to argue that I now know to be false — creationism, the infinite superiority of prog rock to pop music, etc. — and I can see how my beliefs changed not in one argument but over a period of time.

And experience forces us to change as well. I recently chatted with a high school friend who worries that I’ve been corrupted by being around all these media and government types. Not so, I said. I’m the same person I was in high school. But my experiences have changed me.

It’s simple common sense. If you’ve never met any Muslims or gay people, you’re more likely to harbor prejudice than you are after you meet them. If you’ve never seen any hard-working poor people, it’s easier to scapegoat them as lazy leeches. If you’ve never met any charitable Christians, it’s easy to stereotype them based on the snake-oil salesmen who dominate the airwaves.

But are some people hard-wired to resist such change? That’s what this piece on right-wing thought and “psychological origins of political ideology argues.

Again and again, when they take the widely accepted Big Five personality traits test, liberals tend to score higher on one of the five major dimensions—openness: the desire to explore, to try new things, to meet new people—and conservatives score higher on conscientiousness: the desire for order, structure, and stability.

I’m still skeptical. I know too many “liberals” who like “order, structure and stability” — that’s what Europe’s socialized programs offer, after all.

But I do firmly believe people are ingrained with certain fears. And today’s propagandists are all too good at exploiting them. That’s why people believe their freedoms are being taken away by the slightest measure of gun control. Or that Putin is going to go marching through Europe after he gobbles up Ukraine. Or that “genetic modification” is going to turn their produce into radioactive carcinogens.

So I think the next level of research is this: How do you counter propaganda? Censoring Fox News and Jenny McCarthy won’t do it. It has to be something that works to assuage those fears.

Update: I checked out Brendan Nyhan’s Twitter feed and found something I had to add:

But the evidence suggests the Tea Party, like my ninth-grade belief in creationism, is burning itself out.


Daytime TV, a quick survey

In case you worry about American civilization, here’s a quick scan of my TV options at 1 p.m. …

CW local affiliate, The TestIt seems two girlfriends have moved in with the same guy. At least one of them has a kid with him and insists she’s staying there because she doesn’t want to make the same mistake she made with her ex-husband, the father of her first child.

VH1, Basketball Wives LA: Seems like a serious issue (fertility) being addressed, so I’ll offer some sympathy and move on.

TLC, 19 Kids and Counting: Duggars Do Asia: The logistics boggle my mind.

Travel Channel, UFOs Crashed My Vacation: Hate when that happens.

American Heroes Channel, Hollywood vs. Commies: Because we often forget the importance of good old American propaganda.

H2 (formerly History International), Ancient Aliens: The description: “Satan may have been an extraterrestrial.” 

Fortunately, one of our public TV stations is airing Black Adder.

But that reality show about the women who think they’re competing for Prince Harry’s hand in marriage doesn’t look so bad now, does it?