Posts Tagged ‘intellectual honesty’
It is no secret that I am deeply troubled by the incompetence, irrationality, and partiality of journalists*. For some years, the short-comings of journalism have seen a partial cure through independent, Internet-based, sources of news and opinions. True, the average blogger is worse than the average journalist, but there are very many bloggers who make journalists look clueless.** True, many of the independent news sites are even more partial than traditional news papers, but they are partial in different directions and help to give readers a different perspective and to overcome the censorship*** and partisan angling that is common in journalism.
*For the sake of simplicity, I will mostly speak of “journalist”, “news paper”, and similar. This should not be taken to exclude e.g. TV news, TV reporters, and the like. The problem is a general one with traditional news media.
**And, frankly, when I hear journalists speak derisively about bloggers, or complain about bloggers not treating “real journalists” with sufficient respect, I marvel at their conceit and lack of self-insight.
***Usually driven by a fear that the readers will come to the “wrong” conclusion (i.e. another conclusion than journalist has) if exposed to the uninterpreted and unfiltered facts.
The new phenomenon of “fake news” threatens to end this cure: Firstly, the presence of “fake news” makes alternative sources of news less likely to be trusted to begin with. Secondly, traditional media and their allies are campaigning massively for more censorship against “fake news”. If that happens, even those alternative sources that engage in honest reporting could end up suffering severely, (E.g. because platforms like Facebook could choose to censor on the mere suspicion or because of uninformed or malicious complaints directed at actual news. This problem is worsened by the simultaneous increase in complaints against “hate-speech”—which, sadly and real occurrences of hate-speech notwithstanding, quite often amounts to nothing more than disagreeing with the politically correct “truth”) Considering how these things tend to run, it would also not be unsurprising if the bars were pushed higher and higher over time, giving traditional news sources their monopoly back. The meaning of “fake news” could very soon turn from actual fakes (“Trump is an alien”) to that which violates the world-view of the journalists or the politically correct (in Sweden, possibly, a study indicating differences between men and women that are in-born and not caused by societal brain-washing).
Depending on developments, “fake news” per se could prove to be a smaller problem than these side-effects…
Given this situation I have to call for another cure through a new type of press ethics based on strict adherence to principles like:
- To always report the facts in a manner that allows the readers to form their own opinions—even if they happen to deviate from the journalist’s. This includes not selectively filtering facts that that are unpleasant or incongruent with the journalist’s world view, and not presuming to be an arbiter of what is relevant and what not. (Except to the degree that space constraints prevent a listing of all details that e.g. Sherlock Holmes might have liked to hear.)
- Never to assume that journalists are more clever, better informed, better at critical thinking, …, than their readers. Quite often, the assumption is faulty even for the average reader—and it will virtually never be true for a significant part of the readership.
- Never to mix news and opinion. Opinion belongs in opinion pieces. If a journalist wants to express a certain opinion, he should keep the news clean and write a separate opinion piece, clearly marked as such. More often than not opinion pieces will be irrelevant; when they are relevant contrasting opinions should be allowed a say.
As a notable special case, issues of ethics, “right and wrong”, …, are always (?) a matter of opinion, and, if ever, such opinions should only be applied when they are supported by a virtual consensus of the population. In many cases, a better solution is to contrast something against a specific set of rules. (E.g. by preferring “X’s article violates several rules of press ethics suggested by Michael Eriksson” rather than “X’s article is unethical”.)
- Ditto news and analysis, with the addendum that analysis is usually better left to an independent expert on the matter at hand than to a journalist (and that analysis might be relevant far more often than opinion). A good analysis, of course, will give all sides of the issue a fair hearing and will not be limited to using one particular approach. (Unless using the approach is uncontroversial: Solving a mathematical equation usually leads to the same result irrespective of which (sound) approach is used; however, a fiscal measure can lead to very different expected results when analyzed with different models.)
I point especially to the many, many instances of journalists encountering a scientific study and jumping to a conclusion that is premature, only one of several possible, or simply nonsensical. Even something so trivial is often not understood as that “the study failed to show X” does not automatically imply “the study showed not-X”.
- To understand that the “common wisdom” among journalists, politicians, and the average citizen is often very far from what science actually says and to give preference to scientific opinion over personal opinion when reporting.
- To, as a counter-point, understand that not everyone who claims to be an expert actually is, that scientists often differ in opinion, and that the softer sciences are often fraught with ideological concerns.
Experts tied to political or ideological movements are particularly likely (deliberately or through a biased world-view) to make flawed claims. To boot, the risk of encountering “experts” who simple lack the intelligence, tools, and/or depth and breadth of knowledge is considerably higher when talking with a member of a movement than with, say, a university professor.
- To always respect and convey any uncertainty present, especially in a legal context. For instance, someone suspected or accused of murder should always be referred to as “murder suspect” (and so on). In fact, considering how many miscarriages of justice take place, it is better to speak in terms of “convict”, “convicted”, and similar, even after a suspect has been found guilty—and to speak in terms “found guilty” rather than “guilty”. (In the U.S. system of bartering confessions for less punishment, not even a confession can be seen as conclusive proof of guilt.)
- To always give both parties in a controversy an equal say (or at least the opportunity for it) and to never side with either one in a news item. (That a journalist will side with one or the other in private is often unavoidable.) Siding within an opinion piece or analysis might or might not be justifiable depending on the circumstances, but it is clear that the siding should be based in reason and not emotions or prejudices about the parties involved.
- To never distort or exaggerate someones opinions or statements, including making assumptions about intent, motivation, inner state, unstated opinions, etc. A particular problematic case (that I have often complained about) is distortions like someone protesting against (militant) Islamism but being categorized as anti-Islam or even anti-Muslim. Another is the common assumption or claim that someone is racist or sexist based even on a factual, scientifically uncontroversial claim that does not fit the own world-view.
I stress that this list is by no means complete. There are likely many items of a similar type that can be added, with an even greater number coming from other areas, at least some of which are present in many current attempts at similar lists*. I could probably write several blog entries alone on journalists’ use of language… Admittedly, these several blog entries would be on the wrong abstraction level for a discussion of press ethics, but the point is that there other problem areas.
*While much of the above goes contrary to what many journalists appear to consider their role and would imply a major change of course.
I further stress that this list is intended for journalists and their like. Some of it can be taken to apply to e.g. bloggers or commenters too, especially where issues like representation of others’ opinions and other matters of “intellectual honesty” are concerned; however, much of it is simply irrelevant, redundant, or impractical when we move away from traditional journalism. (Starting with something as simple readers’ expectations: Blog–personal opinion. News paper–facts.)
As an aside: It is almost funny that the “fake news” debate has started in the wake of increased criticism of the press (at least in Germany). Even the phrase it self is close to the “Lügenpresse” (“lie press”, “liar press”) used by some German groups to belittle the press. While “Lügenpresse” has caused an outrage among journalists, I can only see it as unfair on two counts: Being too much of a blanket claim, seeing that some areas are worse than others, and ascribing a deliberate intent to the reality distortion that is often going on. More often than not, I suspect, it is just incompetence, in particular lack of critical thinking, that causes the distortion.
I recently commented on a Muslim blog claiming to have rational evidence for the existence of Gode. (They did not, not even close.) I left a brief comment there—this comment, and those of others, appear to be censored in a grossly intellectually dishonest way.
I quote from what the blog owners say in their own comment:
Es fehlt uns die Zeit allen, welche bei diesem Thema einen Kommentar hinterlassen haben (es sind ca.10), zu antworten.
(We do not have the time to answer everyone (there are about 10) who has left a comment to this topic.)
There is no need to individually answer all comments and not being able to answer is no excuse for not publishing—on the contrary, it is far worse than publishing an unanswered comment. I further note that there is not an excessive amount of work per head involved for several people to answer ten comments (should they see the need). For that matter, why was the solution not chosen to pick a smaller number of comments and reply specifically to these.
The true reason, then, is in all likelihood the suppression of dissent.
Bei allen Kommentaren haben wir gemerkt, dass man gar nicht auf die Punkte eingegangen ist. Eher hat man mit anderen Punkten abgelenkt und lediglich behauptet, dass die Punkte, die erwähnt wurden, nicht stimmen. Bewiesen hat man es jedoch nicht.
(With all comments, we have noticed that no-one has discussed our points. Rather, they have distracted with other points and only claimed that the points that were mentioned were incorrect. Nothing was proved, however.)
Firstly, it is who he makes a claim who has to prove it—not those skeptical of the claim. Further, no-one prevented the blog owners from starting a dialog in the comments, requesting/allowing evidence. Secondly, if the points (all two of them) are wrong, there is no reason to discuss their contents before there correctness has been discussed. Thirdly, even a discussion of the correctness is a discussion and not a distraction. Fourthly, bringing in other points is not wrong (as long as they are reasonably on topic). Fifthly, if all commenters were unanimously in agreement that the points were wrong, then that should be cause to stop and reconsider: Could we be wrong? Have we explained ourselves too poorly?
Wir zwingen keinen daran zu glauben. Doch wer ein offenes Herz an, erkennt die Wahrheit.
(We force no-one to believe this. But who has an open heart, will realize the truth.)
The blog entry alleged to give rational proof. This having convinced no-one, the issue is suddenly made a matter of faith. Further, the reader is insulted through the implication that his heart would not be open.
Something that has occurred to me again and again in discussions with feminists, creationists, and similar groups, is that they like to accuse others of exactly the errors they themselves excel in making. Often (but not always) their accusations are also unfounded or very exaggerated. In at least some cases, they even try to reverse criticism in an odd manner. Below, I will give some recent examples by the Swedish commenter “Tuggmotstånd” (“Chewing resistance”), all made on a blog that tries to counter-act the disproportionate emphasis on women’s issue and women’s perspective in Swedish society, when compared to men’s.
[…] men det känns också som att du frånser förhållanden som många kvinnor lever/har levt under när du anlägger dina sk. ”genusperspektiv”.
([…] but it feels like you neglect the circumstance that many women live/have lived under when you apply your so called “gender perspectives”.)
The blog entry (to which this was a reply) was obviously ironical and pointing to how Swedish feminists apply gender-perspectives and come to the conclusion that women are poor victims. Between the lines, the blog entry said “Feminist gender-perspectives tend to overlook that men have problems too.”, while her explicit reply amounted to “You overlook that women have problems too.”—making the reply almost surreal.
Note: It appears to me, from the sum of her comments, that Tuggmotstånd has not in any way understood the intents and contents of the blog entry.
Jo, men just nu känns det som att Ström söker intensivt med lykta efter saker att haka upp sig på.
(Yes, but now it feels like Ström [the blogger] is intensively searching [original idiom both misformulated and untranslatable] for things to get hanged up on.)
He does not: He picks from the many and easily found examples that illustrate how Swedish feminists, gender “scientists”, politicians, newspapers, whatnot, behave—including how feminists seem to be deliberately searching for things to get hanged up on… (Indeed, in the form of gender-glassese, this search borders on an official recommendation.)
Jag blir frustrerad över att någon som inte har verktygen och perspektiven hänger sig åt denna blogg, men lämnar alla problem orörda på ytan. Det är synd om män bara, men ni vill helst inte ha några svar på varför.
(I become frustrated over that someone who does not have the tools [read: is involved in gender-studies] and perspectives [read: the women’s/feminists’/gender-glassed perspectives, or similar] dedicates himself to this blog, but leaves all problems untouched on the surface. Men are just to be pitied [in her view of the message of the blog], but you do not like to know why.)
One of the main criticisms of gender-feminism is exactly that it paints a picture where women are to be pitied, but an attempt to explain why is often missing (or only filled by a cliche or an unsupported claim). Similarly, one of the main criticisms of gender studies is that its “researchers” are lacking in tools (including scientific methods and critical thinking) and perspectives (other than their own, personal, perspective or that of women as a group—respectively, what they perceive to be the perspective of women as a group).
Jag har en fråga till er:
Skulle ni ställa er lika negativa till en positiv särbehandling för män inom yrkesgrupper där män är underrepresenterade?
(I have a question for you:
Would you be as negative to affirmative action for men in professions where men are underrepresented?)
This comment was made on a post that discussed the hypocritical treatment of men and women were affirmative action is concerned: When women are underrepresented, affirmative action is seen as positive; when men are, affirmative action is suddenly an inacceptable injustice. (Specifically, this case dealt with an affirmative action program to increase the number of female professors; and should be seen in the light of an affirmative action program to increase the number of male psychology students being struck down earlier in the year—with considerable complaints about unfairness against women.)
In effect, the blogger says “Feminists and the like have a double-standard where affirmative action is concerned.”—and her reply is to imply that the blogger and the majority of the commenters only are upset because men were disadvantaged in this particular instance (i.e. that they have a double-standard). (As with the previously discussed post, I strongly suspect that Tuggmotstånd simply did not understand the message. Notably, she otherwise appears to misinterpret a very significant proportion of the statements others make.)
Detsamma. Mer otrevlig person har jag sällan mött på.
(Ditto. A more unpleasant person I have rarely encountered.)
Her reply to my statement that I would likely leave further comments by her unanswered—after she from go and without any reasonable excuse had used personal attacks and expletives, distorted my statements, and committed a number of gross errors of reasoning. (While my own tone certainly adapted to her behaviour, I did remain factual and ad rem, except as answer to a preceding ad hominem attack.)
Generally, Tuggmotstånd is herself very prone to personal attacks, displays of ignorance, unfounded claims of superior knowledge, errors of reasoning, etc.—and equally prone to accuse others of exactly these errors. In this, she is a muster example for this post.
Something that has long annoyed me is the way leftist parties and organisations (at least in Sweden) tend to argue, with strong preferences for personal attacks, specious (or even obviously incorrect) arguments, confusing reasoning, etc. In particular, they often seem to have the attitude that an opponent who cannot be convinced must be discredited in the eyes of others—while respect for his opinions, attempts to convince him and others with ad rem argument, and (above all) openness to the possibility that he could be right, are far to rare. (The issue has to some degree already been raised e.g. in my discussion of hypocritical media.)
This is not in any way unique to the left; however, the problem seems to be unusually bad with the left and some related movements (notably feminism). Other common problem groups/individuals can be found at the fringes of non-leftist opinions, in some strongly religious areas, and similar; and even the non-leftist main stream is occasionally affected—but to a far lesser degree.
A particular annoyance is the common use of a (typically misapplied) word as an ipso facto “proof” that the opponent is wrong, e.g. “racist” or “sexist”. Effectively, one party makes a certain statement of opinion, e.g. “It is unfair to apply quotas on how many of each sex must be on the board of a public company.”, a reply of “Sexist!” follows, and the discussion is effectively closed without anyone from the feminist/PC side providing any kind of argument for their position—let alone an argument to prove their far-going claim about their opponent(s). (Real arguments could have focused on a discussion whether we actually have equality of opportunity, whether there are any justifying benefits in other areas, or similar. These, however, are the exception—and typically very flimsy when they do occur.)
Another is the use of reasoning that is obviously faulty to any reasonable thinker, but where the very flimsi- and faultiness makes it hard to attack, where there are so many holes that it is hard to know where to start, or where an analysis would take disproportional long. There is basically a series of sentences that to someone dumb enough may seem to form a chain of arguments and conclusion, but, in reality, are just loose, individual links that do not fit together. (Not to be confused with e.g. those cases where different priorities or basic ideological principles makes a line of reasoning untenable for the opponent, or those who merely suffer from the imperfection of knowledge and stringency almost all discussion underlie.) Consider something like:
I agree with your statement, “If the rich don’t throw in to help out the country out of a strong sense of patriotism and optimism for our future, I think we’re going to be hurting for a while.” However, when the economy was strong, the rich seemed to demonstrate little need to improve the conditions of their fellow citizens. Instead, the gap between the rich and the poor grew to disproportionate levels. I think we’re going to be waiting a very long time for the wealthiest segments of the population to grow a conscience.
If you read the original post (not by me), you will find that the apparent agreement in the first sentence goes together with a strong overall disagreement. The second sentence misses the point of the post; is an over-generalization; overlooks that the conditions of the poor likely improved during the strong economy; and is somewhat of a non-sequitur, because there is no reason why the rich should feel such a need (in particular considering that the poor are already benefiting from high taxes on the rich, that the actions of the rich can have positive effects on the poor even without active “philanthropy”, and that at least some part of the explanation for the poor situation can be found with the poor themselves—not to mention that a strong economy is a time when there is less reason to try to help others). The third misuses the word “disproportionate”; is disputable in its content; and is unlikely to have been connected to the willingness of the rich to help (to the degree that it was, at all, true). The fourth presupposes that the “wealthiest segments” do not have a conscience (which is disputable) and that having a conscience would make them change their behaviour (ditto)—not to mention the likely implicit assumption that they could make major changes (which need not be the case, depending on the exact circumstances).
In addition, it appears that the author has simply not understood how capitalism works. (Having capitalism is not a must, but anyone who attacks a system should have at least some basic understanding of that system.)
This (likely incomplete) analysis turns out to be almost thrice as long as the comment, even though the faultiness of the comment is obvious at a glance—and this is not even a good example, just one that happened to fall into my lap at the right time. I have from time to time seen entire articles filled with long series of non-sequiturs, this-or-that fallacy, and grossly incorrect logic.
Generally, I would conjecture that there are several contributing factors that make an individual tend to this kind of argumentation, a sub-set of which is:
Great conviction of opinion.
Limited intellectual development.
Exposure to a (sub-)culture or history of similar methods.
Notably, these are all issues that (at least in Sweden) tend to be common with people of leftist opinions; and from my readings on gender-feminism/-theory, these are affected globally. (But, yes, the issues do occur more often than they should in the population as a whole—not just on the left.)
As an aside, I stress that the fact that many leftists debaters appear to be complete idiots does not automatically make all leftist ideas idiotic: Many of them do make some amount of sense, or can be understood when seen from the right perspective (in particular, with an eye at history, the society of yore, and similar) or assuming a particular set of priorities. The ideas should be judged on their own merit—not based on who proposes them. (Cf. e.g. an article on judging issues based on perceived intents).
(If you wish to comment, please make sure that you have read Unfair argumentation methods I: Preliminaries first.)
As the recurring reader knows, I have an article on misuse of the word “racism” (and some related issues) in the workings—but it does not seem to actually become written and, further, is branching out in scope.
To counter this, I have decided to make a series of somewhat shorter articles dealing with unfair argumentation methods. The preliminary schedule is (within, possibly, the next week): This entry dealing with preliminaries; a discussion of this problem in general and on the Swedish left; a discussion of the Swedish party Sverigedemokraterna, and how they are treated; three specific examples from discussions I have myself been involved in recently from respectively Germany, Sweden, and the US; and the originally intended article (maybe split in two, depending on developments). Possibly, I will throw in a post with links to my previous writings on related topics or interesting discussions by others.
Obviously, this series of articles can only cover a few aspects of a very wide topic—and the reader is cautioned to be wary of the incompleteness of the discussion.
Considering the topic (and for reasons that will be clear in due time), I will use a stricter comment policy than usual for this series of entries. Notably, comments containing any form of bad language or personal attacks, controversial claims not supported by links, misrepresentations of others opinions, or any indication of foul play or ill intentions (regardless of the target), will be blocked or edited.
During the last half year (or so), I have done extensive readings on politics, issues in society, religion, and similar, through the lens of the blogosphere. Notably, this gives a very different perspective than when keeping to newspapers, what individual parties say, etc. Difference include not just opinions (a much wider spectrum and more freedom for those who do not adhere to the Official Truth or PC propaganda), but also very different quantities. For instance, I have read or been involved in more discussions concerning immigration issues since delving into WordPress than in my entire previous life—in fact, without actually being very interested in immigration per se, but mostly in intellectual honesty and critical thinking, I find that even my own blogging has had a disproportionate focus on this topic (including a long entry currently in preparation).
One central observation is the need for balanced thinking: We humans are naturally imperfect in knowledge and understanding (and certainly lack Sybillic skills). The implication of this is that it is very hard to say what opinion amounts to being clear-sighted and what to being paranoid; when a “slippery slope” warning is justified and when a fallacy; when a perceived danger is real and when a result of undue pessimism; whatnot.
Consider e.g. the privacy issue: With the recent behaviour of Facebook, the enormous amount of data available to Google, and the possibility of espionage through governments (at least here in Germany), it is quite possible that we stand at the brink of losing any reasonable informational self-control and will see our rights as consumers and citizens severely reduced. It is also possible that we will in ten years time notice that life has gone on more or less as before. Here it is important to be aware of both possibilities and to try to make an informed decision on how to proceed and react. For my part, I recommend that we err on the side of caution and remove the temptation for abuse by removing the ability for abuse (e.g. by blocking referrers, unneeded cookies, and similar when browsing; or by running servers for Tor or I2P—noting that there already are people, e.g. political dissidents in dictatorships, who will legitimately benefit from our doing so). Others may see the risk as sufficiently small that such efforts are not warranted. Others yet believe that I am overly optimistic, and that more drastic measures (e.g. surfing exclusively with various anonymity services) is a good idea. Irrespective of personal belief, they all benefit from gaining an understanding for the other side and its arguments, and from making an informed and unprejudiced evaluation—explicitly bearing in mind the possibility that their current opinion may be naively over-optimistic or ridiculously paranoid.
(At the same time, I must warn for the gut reaction many of my fellow Swedes seem to have: The blanket assumption that the truth is half-way between two opinions, without in any way investigating the plausibility of the individual opinions.)
In other cases, we have conflicts of interest, where one perceived threat has to be compared to an other, while considering questions like whether the threat is real, how great the potential damage is, what the probabilities are, which issue is the more urgent in what time-frame, etc. Immigration is an excellent illustration of this: Looking just at my own perspective (let alone those of others), I am caught between, on the one hand, the ideological view that each individual should have the right to himself decide where he lives, the knowledge that emigration from some problematic countries can be a necessity to enable a reasonable life, the belief that exposure to different cultures can be highly valuable, the conviction that many immigrants bring a net benefit to their adopted countries (I hope to belong to this category myself), etc.; and, on the other, complications like rates of immigration that makes integration impossible, significantly higher crime rates in some immigrant groups, the many immigrants that abuse the welfare systems (at least in Sweden and Germany), etc. Again balanced thinking and openness to others viewpoints are of paramount importance.
I would, in particular make the plea that debaters in all issues try to avoid the moral high-horse, try to understand both sides of the issues (note that understanding does not automatically imply agreement), and focus on argumentation ad rem. Above all, that they stop generalizing about their opponents, and realize that there is a spectrum of opinion in all groups. The last thing a debate needs is “You X are all Y!”—in particular, when this is abused as an ipso facto “proof” that the opponents are wrong (e.g. by the calls of “Racists!” or “Misogynists!” that are so popular in the PC communities). Achieving these items is not easy (certainly, I occasionally err myself), but even just starting with the right mentality could lead to an enormous improvement.