Someone shared this comic on facebook (from drawninpowerpoint):

I criticized the comic because, although the comic clearly portrays one character as the more ignorant, the two characters are really behaving similarly; their viewpoints are just based on articles from sources they trust. They are not doing the work of exploring or questioning the reasons they trust those sources in the first place, or the implications of accepting what those sources say. One character just takes for granted that her source is “objective” and “scientific”, as though the other character would just accept such an analysis at face value. Not only are they not questioning the foundations of their disagreement, they seem unaware that such foundations even exist; it’s just one source of information versus another.

This points to the larger issue that these characters (and many people in the real world) seem to take for granted: facts are never “just facts.” News, even if it is accurate and factual, is never “neutral.” The facts, the news stories, are embedded with meaning. Editors at a news outlet (or even a prestigious scientific journal for that matter) selected that article or that set of facts for a reason. You, as the reader, will interpret the meaning of those facts. How you interpret that meaning will be based on a lot of personal factors, but it won’t be objective. A fact, in and of itself, may be objective, but its meaning is never objective. The meaning of a fact must be formed through your understanding of the world, your interests and values, and even the choices you’ve made.

So arguing with someone that, “You just believe that because you watch too much Fox News!” or “You just believe that because that’s the consensus on Tumblr or Twitter!” is a useless argument, a sort of reverse appeal-to-authority fallacy. Perhaps it is true, but it takes for granted that there’s some other source more worthy of trust. That is, what news sources you trust is itself founded on something deeper, including the way you form meanings from facts.

This also goes for arguments of “this news is neutral, this is more biased, etc.” It’s all biased because it’s all filtered. And you get meaning from that filter whether you like it or not, so you might as well be conscious of it and think about it while you consume it. Why is this news outlet reporting this news story? The significance may or may not be political or controversial, but a reason exists, even if you do not have enough information to guess why.

And what about all the facts and the news you don’t know about because it never reaches you? You can’t use news that doesn’t reach you to form any meaning at all! But it still exists.

My point with all this is not to argue that news should be “more fair” or “more objective” or anything. My point is that news can never be “fair” or “objective” in the first place, so you, as a consumer of news, should be aware of the set of presuppositions with which you form meaning from the news, and you should think about what meaning the presenter of the news wants you to have, whether or not it’s controversial.

A digression, but this is the same sort of problem I’ve ranted about before in regards to our formal education system in the US, especially in the higher grades. Many parents, students, and teachers take a lot learning material for granted. So much of what is taught in high school and college is just useless information because the student is never going to use it. The facts lack meaning. Very few students are going to end up using chemistry and calculus, and certainly not to the extent that they need to memorize and regurgitate a bunch of facts about them this year or else. But then the student grows up and forces his child through the same wasteful system.

This whole topic is also interesting to me because it relates quite a bit to artificial intelligence. What does it mean for a set of facts to “mean” something at all? How could we program a computer to form “meaning” from a set of facts? It’s easy to understand how a human might do it, but when we try to define it formally, it’s like trying to catch a cloud. Get too close to a cloud and you lose the shape of it and you’re just lost in a fog. But I find it a fascinating question.

This also relates to how science is not nearly as “objective” as the usefulness of the scientific method may make it seem. Much of what we call “science” is in fact subjective interpretation, the forming of meaning from facts. The scientific method provides a useful way of honing in on the most practically useful sets of factual interpretations, but they remain just that: useful interpretations. Not immortal objective truths. This does not mean immortal objective truths about the material world don’t exist, only that science doesn’t tell us what they are; rather, science only provides us with a “most useful guess for a given set of purposes based on a given set of data.” (The scientific method should also not be confused with merely interpreting meaning from statistical data; collected data for which we could not control certain variables is much more tricky to interpret, despite our mind’s natural inclination to do so.)


Scott · August 21, 2020 at 6:01 AM

I love this post. You touch on the preeminent flaw by which we as humans interpret information, and a growing issue with how most people form important opinions. And, incidentally, why a growing segment of people seem to believe that since they believe their opinions to be objective truth, they somehow have the right to squelch alternatives, both oppositions and nuanced agreements.

As you well know from our previous almost book length conversation on the subject, I do not agree about education. I am firmly of the mind that the “usefulness” of information, or indeed whole subjects, cannot be judged simply based on how often one references it after learning it. I’m in the camp of the “Renaissance” student, who may have a specialty, but should have at least an adult-level understanding of a variety of academic disciplines. We can agree to disagree on that topic, but I feel that understanding basic levels of a topic would allow people to be more discerning when determining the meaning behind not only a set of facts, but also how and why they are presented and what may also have been omitted. To me, having a well-balanced education would potentially help alleviate the problem you discuss in this post. However, I also realize that in practice, this is not even often the case.

Speaking of, there’s an interesting book on not this exact subject, but close. It’s by Dilbert creator Scott Adams and it’s called “Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America.” It’s mostly about political spin and how not to get caught up in something ridiculous that a politician presents as true, but it’s still an interesting tie-in to this broader issue.

    S P Hannifin · August 21, 2020 at 4:54 PM

    Thanks for the comment! I guess I’m particularly annoyed with the idea (as expressed by some on facebook) that certain news sources, or the news stories themselves, are somehow inherently more “neutral” than others (with the implication that the listener of these more “neutral” sources is therefore less biased, and therefore more likely to be “correct”). Or the idea that news and opinion can be appropriately recognized and separated with proper analysis. But every news story comes with the implicit opinion that the story is news-worthy in the first place.

    Re education, I agree with your overarching point that “understanding basic levels of a topic would allow people to be more discerning when determining the meaning behind not only a set of facts, but also how and why they are presented and what may also have been omitted.” I just don’t think that studying subjects like chemistry and calculus for an entire school year is a very efficient method of achieving such an understanding; in fact, it’s probably even counter-productive because the topics of study remain too abstract and tend to encourage rote memorization of facts and formulas for graded test regurgitation rather than gaining deeper understanding.

    (A digression: As COVID-19 school closures force students and teachers (and parents for that matter) to explore different teaching models, it will be interesting to see if any of this changes; the Internet, along with modern bandwidth that allows for decent video stream quality, has plenty of untapped potential. For instance, why learn math from an assigned teacher from the community when you could explore hundreds of potential teachers from all over the country, many of whom may be much more effective?)

    Thanks for the book recommendation! It looks interesting, I’ll have to check it out!

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