A Philosopher's Blog

The Press & McCain

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 22, 2008

As almost everyone knows, the New York Times launched an attack on Senator McCain. The full text of the article can be found here.

While I believe that the media has an important role to play in exposing corruption and misdeeds on the part of politicians, journalists need to base such exposures on adequate evidence. After all, without evidence such assertions are just that-mere assertions and hence should not be accepted as true. Journalists also should retain their professional objectivity-when a journalist is writing to further an agenda, then that person has crossed over from being a journalist to being a propagandist. Yes, everyone has a view that colors his or her perception. But reporters have an obligation to overcome that bias and to try to present the information in an objective manner. If a reported cannot do that, then s/he should make it clear that s/he is writing an opinionated editorial piece and not actual reporting the news. The NY Times article seems to sin on both accounts-it is not adequately supported and certainly seems to cross the line between merely reporting the news and being an intentional attack aimed at a political purpose (harming McCain’s chances of being President).

“A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.”

While reporters do need to rely on anonymous sources, there are significant problems with using them as evidence for claims.

The first problem is a straightforward matter in the realm of critical thinking. When a journalist (or anyone) cites a source to support a claim they are using an argument from authority. The basic idea is that the claim should be accepted as true because the person cited is a legitimate expert in the field and is therefore likely to say true things in her field. The quality of the argument rests, naturally enough, on the quality of the alleged expert. The quality of an expert is assessed in terms of a variety of factors such as the person’s education, degree of bias, positions held, and amount of experience. If the expert in question is a legitimate expert, then the claims she makes in her field should be regarded as very plausible and typically accepted as true.

One obvious problem with anonymous sources is that the audience has little, if any, basis upon which to assess the quality of the alleged authority. At most the audience might be given vague information about the person’s job. For example, the source might be identified as “a high government official” or “a military expert on terrorism.” Given such a dearth of information, the audience cannot make a reasonable judgment about the quality of the source and hence cannot reasonably accept the claim as plausible on the basis of the alleged authority.

Of course, journalists do expect the audience to believe these claims. If they did not, they would obviously not bother to report them. Since the authorities are not adequately identified another basis is needed for the audience to rationally accept such claims. In such cases, the audience is supposed to accept that the claims made by source are correct because the journalist accepts them as a legitimate expert. In short, the audience is relying on the critical thinking ability of the journalist. Unfortunately for the audience, journalists are generally not experts in critical thinking nor do they tend to be experts in the areas they are writing about. Because of this lack of expertise, there are reasonable grounds for concern when journalists rely on anonymous sources. To be specific, unless it has been established that the journalist is adequately skilled at assessing the expertise of her sources, then there is no reason to accept the anonymous sources as credible on the basis of the journalist’s say so. This is not to say that the claims should be rejected, but the rational course is to suspend judgment in regards to such claims.

What is also interesting about the article is that it never actually presents any evidence that McCain did anything wrong in the relevant events. As the above quote indicates, there is just the claim that certain unnamed people said they believed that McCain might be involved with the woman. That is certainly far from a solid foundation.

Ironically, if this was intended as an attack on McCain, it might have backfired. It has helped to unite many conservatives with McCain against the assault of the “liberal media.” It has also generated sympathy among some non-conservatives. Most people find apparently baseless innuendo to be unacceptable and this makes Senator McCain look like the victim of an unfair attack. He has also handled the matter with great restraint-thus enhancing his standing in the eyes of some.

If the NY Times has solid evidence, then they should bring that forward and settle the matter. If not, they at least owe Senator McCain and the world an apology.

Standardization in Education

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on February 22, 2008

As part of the trend in assessment and standardization, some university bureaucrats have begun pushing for standardized classes with standardized texts. In general, they do not take the view that they, the non-teaching administrators, should decide what books are used in classes. Rather, the plan is to have departments standardize certain classes in terms of the textbook and content.

To be fair, this proposal has certain merits. First, there are some classes that are aimed at providing a general content that will be needed in the major or in other classes that follow. Standardization can help ensure that such content is provided and that the students are thus prepared for later classes. Second, most schools have a general education curriculum that is supposed to provide a core education. As with the classes in the major, standardizing such classes can help ensure that the students receive the education they need. Third, having standardized classes will simplify things for the faculty, students and the book sellers.

Despite these merits, this proposal has serious flaws. First, there is the matter of academic freedom. One critical aspect of the university system is that the professors have a degree of autonomy and this includes the right to select the material that will be taught. Obviously, professors need to stick within certain rational guidelines. But as long as a professor is doing a competent job, there seems little reason to take away such freedom of choice. An essential part of the intellectual environment is the clash of ideas. Mandated standardization conflicts with this essential part of academics.

Second, students often seek out professors who teach specific material and hence standardizing classes would also restrict their freedom of choice in this matter.

Third, there is the fact that some faculty write text books and hence there would be the potential for a conflict of interest as well as conflict between faculty. For example, if the chair happens to have a text on the market, s/he might be sorely tempted to make it the standard text. As another example, multiple faculty members might have different books out there for sale, thus leading to conflict in regards to which gets adopted.

Fourth, each professor tends to have his/her own style and strengths and they tend to pick texts that match these qualities. For example, one professor might be well versed in the the varieties of feminist ethics and hence select a book with more readings in that area. Another professor might prefer a more informal approach to logic than another and hence select a book that is more informal (and perhaps less dull to the students).

Fifth, if someone is qualified to teach a class, then that person should be qualified to select a suitable text and teach an adequate class. If this is not the case, then standardization will not really solve that problem.  After all, in the standardized scenario there would merely be an incompetent person doing a terrible job trying to follow a standard plan. While this might be somewhat better than an incompetent person following his/her own incompetent plan, it would still be a serious problem. To use an analogy, it would be like saying that the solution to bad drivers getting into accidents is to make sure that everyone has the same car to drive. That would hardly solve the true problem. The solution would be to replace someone who is incompetent with someone who can do the job properly.

Obviously, I’m opposed to standardization. I do, however, agree that faculty are obligated to do a competent job at providing the education students need.  Honesty compels me to say that not all faculty do this and that is a problem. But this problem can be solved without imposing standardization on the faculty. The solution, as noted above, is to deal with incompetence and failings directly.