Tag Archive: media

The duties of a free press in an open society

Laws to safeguard democracy are still in a rather rudimentary state of development. Very much could and should be done. The freedom of the press, for instance, is demanded because of the aim that the public should be given correct information; but viewed from this standpoint, it is a very insufficient institutional guarantee that this aim will be achieved. What good newspapers usually do at present on their own initiative, namely, giving the public all important information available, might be established as their duty, either by carefully framed laws, or by the establishment of a moral code sanctioned by public opinion. Matters such as, for instance, the Zinovief letter, could be perhaps controlled by a law which makes it possible to nullify elections won by improper means, and which makes a publisher who neglects his duty to ascertain as well as possible the truth of published information liable for the damage done; in this case, for the expenses of a fresh election. I cannot go into details here, but it is my firm conviction that we could easily overcome the technological difficulties which may stand in the way of achieving such ends as the conduct of election campaigns largely by appeal to reason instead of passion. I do not see why we should not, for instance, standardize the size, type, etc., of the electioneering pamphlets, and eliminate placards. (This need not endanger freedom, just as reasonable limitations imposed upon those who plead before a court of justice protect freedom rather than endanger it.) The present methods of propaganda are an insult to the public as well as to the candidate. Propaganda of the kind which may be good enough for selling soap should not be used in matters of such consequence. [ch. 17, n27]

Explanation as the antidote to extremism

The challenge in an election season that largely takes place in the form of 30-second advertisements and fire-up-the-base rallies is that rarely is anybody — candidate or voter — asked to explain his or her positions. American politi­cal discourse, in short, is not discourse at all.

So what can be done to turn it into one? The answer implied by our research is not that we should all become policy wonks. Instead, we voters need to be more mindful that issues are complicated and challenge ourselves to break down the policy proposals on both sides into their component parts. We have to then imagine how these ideas would work in the real world — and then make a choice: to either moderate our positions on policies we don’t really understand, as research suggests we will, or try to improve our understanding. Either way, discourse would then be based on infor­mation, not illusion. […]

Strong opinion and vigorous debate are key parts of democracy and the foundation to American culture. Yet most people would agree that it is not productive to have a strong opinion about an issue that one doesn’t really understand. We have a problem in American politics: an illusion of knowledge that leads to extremism. We can start to fix it by ac­knowledging that we know a lot less than we think.

Informed consent of the governed

State control of information and the ability to manipulate it makes the right to vote largely meaningless. That is why people like Julian Assange are so essential to democratic choice.

The greatest force for peace on earth

The media, Ms. Goodman said in an interview last week, can be “the greatest force for peace on earth” for “it is how we come to understand each other.”

An interesting thought: people aren’t stupid

I don’t generally talk or write about being a doctor – it’s mawkish and tedious, and I’ve no desire to preach from author­ity – but working in the NHS you meet patients from every conceivable walk of life, in huge numbers, discussing some of the most important issues in their lives. This has consistently taught me one thing: people aren’t stupid. Anybody can understand anything, as long as it is clearly explained – but more than that, if they are sufficiently interested. What determines an audience’s understanding is not so much scientific knowledge, but motivation: patients who are ill, with an important decision to make about treatment, can be very motivated indeed.

But journalists and miracle-cure merchants sabotage this process of shared decision-making, diligently, brick by brick, making lengthy and bogus criticisms of the process of systematic review (because they don’t like the findings of just one), extrapolating from lab-dish data, misrepresenting the sense and value of trials, carefully and collectively under­mining the nation’s understanding of the very notion of what it means for there to be evidence for an activity. In this regard they are, to my mind, guilty of an unforgivable crime. [335]

The “baffled boffins” narrative

My basic hypothesis is this: the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of sci­ence, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour. Secretly, deep down, perhaps they resent the fact that they have denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of Western thought from the past two hundred years; but there is an attack implicit in all media coverage of science: in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science. On this template, science is portrayed as groundless, incompre­hensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality; they do work that is either wacky or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory, probably going to change soon and, most ridiculously, ‘hard to understand’. Having created this parody, the commentariat then attack it, as if they were genuinely critiquing what science is all about. [225]