Thursday, June 07, 2007

Slanting Self-Defense

In my post of May 14th/07, I identified a form of news slanting by package dealing which I ended with "Let the Reader Beware." Thinking about this further, I wondered just how is John Q Public going to do that. How can a Joe lunch box or a Wanda waitress defend themselves against all the bias, slanting, half-truths, distortions and outright falsehoods published in the media as news reports? Towards the goal of alleviating this problem I offer a few suggestions.

Unfortunately, there is no fool-proof way of making oneself well, fool proof, but there are steps one can take to defend against many forms of slanting and deceit. The first step I would recommend is to learn some of the logical fallacies. This site has eight of the most common ones used today. There are many more but it's not necessary to know them all. Knowing a few will help a lot. I will touch briefly on a couple.

One of the most common is the ad hominem, or attack the man and not his argument. This usually takes the form of calling him names like fool or idiot or attacking some aspect of him like his past or his source of income. This one is real popular today. "He has received money from Exxon Mobil therefore his argument is irrelevant." Another is the argument from numbers or consensus which holds that an idea is true (or false) because a majority of people agree (or disagree) with it. One hears this one a lot in the climate change debate. Once one has learned a few of these, it is time to look at some other tactics used to slant news reports.

In my first post of Dec. 2005 I showed how a reporter used violent, negative action words when referring to President Bush and peaceful, positive, domicile words when referring to Democrats. For example, Democrats "expressed worries" while Bush "hurled back" those criticisms. That article was a blatant example. Now and then a reporter will go so far as to tell you how to think: "Unbelievably, the president denied any wrong doing today." The word unbelievably properly belongs in an editorial, not a news report.

Sometimes the use of slanting adjectives can be very subtle. I call them nudge words. For example, when referring to scientists, I've seen such words as "top","leading", "authoritative" and my favorite, "reputable" used often. Such adjectives would be fine if the reporter were talking about a scientist's credentials, experience, awards, etc. But to plop that adjective down in front of "scientist" outside of any context of credentials or experience is to nudge the reader into agreeing with that particular scientist's findings. Why?

I don't think any reporter concerned about his future is going to refer to the scientist issuing him a press release, as a disreputable scientist. (unless of course he's reporting on a case of scientific fraud) It is assumed by me and hopefully most others, that whomever the reporter is quoting, he is at least reputable to some extent. So why bother adding such qualifiers as reputable to the word scientist? Obviously, being reputable means having a reputation which means that a number of people think he is an ok scientist--and here comes the nudge--ergo, you should too. In other words, don't bother to challenge, question or even doubt this scientist's findings because others think he's right so you should go along, or, who are you to question all of these?

When I see such words as "top", "leading" and "reputable" being used out of context like this, I know I'm being nudged by reporters who have bought into the scientist's findings and can't resist a chance to nudge his readers into acceptance of those findings.

The word authoritative has only one valid meaning as far as I'm concerned and that would refer to a scientist who has authored a lot of published papers. Other than that, scientific findings are either true or false, right or wrong or perhaps some of each, but never authoritative. What would it mean for scientific findings to be authoritative? Do they get to boss around other findings? Do the scientists have the authority to say "I'm right and you're wrong"? But Mike you say, you're getting irrational here. Well, not any more irrational than using a political concept like authoritative in a scientific context as a nudge word.

Another kind of slanting is using deceit in the form of package deals, an example of which is linked to at the beginning of this post. It was a study in which a false idea was packaged with one or more true ones. It is impossible to defend oneself from this kind of deception in advance. Most people don't have the time to fact-check studies or even know what to look for. So, I recommend doing what I do: go to the sites of scientists who do read studies and report on them. I recommend the sites listed in this post. I hope this has aided in some small way your slanting self-defense.
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