Fat Steve's Blatherings

Sunday, May 29, 2005

On Question #1

      I made my own contribution to Roger Simon's first question, and here it is:

      First, I want to say to Roger that I'm in awe at your ability to attract intelligent commenters.  Only one insulting comment, only one off topic.  How do you do it?

      Now, let me sneak up on the "fair and balanced" question.  Did you ever here of Sir Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn?  They were both philosophers of science.  Popper was born in 1902, just as the quantum physics revolution was getting under way.  As a young man, he noted that the physical sciences hadn't proved a lot of the things they thought they'd proved.  He also noticed that Marxism, Freudianism, and Adlerianism all purported to be scientific, and true, but all differed.  What was going on?

      Popper eventually came to the conclusion that science can't prove universal propositions.  But it can sometimes disprove them.  The sciences, he said, were distinguished by dealing in universal ideas that were subject to experimental disproof.  He also decided that the ideas of Marx, Freud, and Adler weren't science, because nothing could conceivably disprove them.

      Thomas Kuhn was born twenty years after Popper.  As a student of physics who switched to philosophy, and as a man with a strong historical bent, he said that Popper was a bit too simplistic.  Some things can be definitely disproven in science, but in other cases disproof is a long, drawn-out affair, with no clear line where you can say "This idea has now been shown to be false."  Kuhn argued instead that there are usually big theories, which he called "paradigms," that sum up a field and guide research.  Paradigms are usually in a state of uncertainty, he said, explaining some things but not all things.  "Normal science" consists of doing research that seeks to explain phenomena in terms of the reigning paradigm, and adjusting said paradigm a little to fit it closer to the observed facts.  "Revolutionary science" occurs when hard data comes in that can't be explained in terms of the current paradigm.  As such data accumulates, adjustments to the paradigm get so extreme that people begin to doubt it.  New paradigms are proposed.  Eventually, one works very well and becomes the new general paradigm, guiding research in the field.  But some adherents of the old paradigm never 'convert.'  You just have to wait for them to die off.

      Now, consider moral philosophy.  In A Treatise of Human Nature, book III, Section 1, David Hume observes:
      In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not.  This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence.  For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ’d and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

      Hume was right, 'is' and 'ought' are very different relations.  But people seem to have inborn difficulties in distinguishing these two ideas.

      Last, did you ever study Euclidean geometry?  If you did, every single "proof" you learned was probably invalid.  Why?  Because geometry, as it is usually taught, is full of unstated assumptions, such as 'When you draw a geometric figure on a plane, the plane is not distorted by the process of drawing.'  In The Left Hand of the Electron, Isaac Asimov notes that there are more than forty such hidden assumptions in Euclid.  It wasn't that the ancient Greek was dishonest, it was rather that he didn't realize he was making them.

      Now, what does all this have to do with being "fair and balanced?"  As Susanna Cornett, has frequently noted, reporters tend to approach stories with "templates."  These are the equivalents of Kuhn's paradigms.  But where scientific paradigms deal with 'is/is not' relationships exclusively, reportorial templates contain mixtures of 'is/is not' and 'ought/ought not' propositions.  Where scientific paradigms are very explicit in their terms and assumptions, reportorial templates are vague and filled with unconscious assumptions, but far more so than Euclid.  And while scientific paradigms are supposed to be subject to test that will potentially disprovable them, and frequently are so tested, reportorial templates are never questioned.  Reporters assume their templates are always true.  The key word is "ass/u/me."

      "Fairness and balance" requires a constant awareness that you are carrying these assumptions around with you; that they might be generally false, or true in some cases but not all; and that any time you fit a story into a template, you need to consciously test the fit.

      In a later post, I'll suggest ways of doing this.



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