Hogan's Alley

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Truth Is, There Is No Truth

There are bloggers, and then there are bloggers.

Some craft paragraphs on the internet just to say what they think out loud to a world that wouldn't hear them under normal circumstances. Only the privileged few publish books or articles or appear as talking heads on television. For the rest of us, this wonderful 21st century technology makes us feel better about our anonymity. We can shoot the shit about any damn thing we like, trivial or important, it doesn't matter, without having to endure people excusing themselves or falling asleep.

For others, blogging is about screaming out loud the anger they feel toward the morons who occupy the other side of their view of the world. They are not about the marshalling of facts and careful structuring of argument. Joyous, delicious fury and name calling is all they are about. Examples abound on the left and the right, but currently the most famous example of this breed is Maryscott O'Connor, recently profiled in the Washington Post. Their fans love them for their reflection of the very anger the fan feels, "thank God I am not alone in this madhouse, there are others like me."

The last group, the ones generally regarded as the heavy hitters of the blogosphere, write lengthy expositions on topics of world and national import. They look at the world, turn it over carefully in their hands and pluck out the salient facts and figures. For the most popular of this class of blogger, magically the careful examination of fact always ends up supporting their clear, not to say ideological, view of reality. Kos only finds facts that support the progressive-Democratic perspective, Malkin never saw a conservative idea or politician that wasn't plainly supported by the facts.

An Op-ed piece in last Sunday's NY Times by Prof. Daniel Gilbert of the Harvard Psychology Department reminds us of the only real truth there is in the opinion game. All of us see the world through the lens of who we are in our totality as persons; persons who think and evaluate, but also persons who feel, and who have emotional bonds and financial interests. Gilbert provides examples of a number of recent experiments in the field of social psychology that demonstrate two main truths:

Much of what happens in the brain is not evident to the brain itself, and thus people are better at playing these sorts of tricks on themselves than at catching themselves in the act. People realize that humans deceive themselves, of course, but they don't seem to realize that they too are human...And yet, if decision-makers are more biased than they realize, they are less biased than the rest of us suspect. Research shows that while people underestimate the influence of self-interest on their own judgments and decisions, they overestimate its influence on others.

Of course Gilbert uses the kinds of examples in modern life that will assure his continued welcome at the diner tables of Cambridge: doctors and pharmaceutical company-supplied drug samples, Supreme Court Justices and participants in a case they have a financial interest in, or Dick Cheney's assertion that Haliburton receives no favorable treatment in government contracting. I would add another important example that is often overlooked in the MSM.

Press releases are issued daily by not-for-profit organizations containing "studies" that prove the point of view they advocate. In the language of scientific research, these advocacy groups purport to show that the facts support the positions they happen to advocate. The sad thing is that these "studies" are routinely taken as gospel by the press. The reports of Public Interest Research Groups, Sierra Club, Food Banks, etc, are regurgitated without the usual skepticism that is a normal part of a journalist's makeup. Why?

I believe it is because of two factors (I am leaving aside the reporters own biases on the issue in question, since this applies to reporters of all stripes): an almost universal ignorance of the scientific method and statistics, and a blindness to self-interest that is not driven by corporate greed or election victories.

I am aware of no school of journalism that requires a semester of statistics of its students. Math or mathematical concepts are anathema to those called to the left brain activities of language.

More importantly, most reporters are never motivated to carefully examine the details of purportedly objective studies if the author is not obviously in it for their own political careers in public office or their own financial profit. Thus, a passionate advocate from a not-for-profit organization, even if he or she is earning a comfortable six figure salary, is granted a form of sainthood. Reporters never consider the benefit to that person's benefit in spreading their point of view, their competitive drive to win, or their desire to continue and enhance their own salaries and the funding stream of their organizations.

As Dr. Gilbert has titled his article, I'm O.K., but they're all biased.

Update: James Joyner at Outside The Beltway has an interesting piece in a similar vein to this entitled, Blogging, Red Meat, and Reasoned Debate. Check it out.