A Philosopher's Blog

Fake News I: Critical Thinking

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 2, 2016

While fake news presumably dates to the origin of news, the 2016 United States presidential election saw a huge surge in the volume of fakery. While some of it arose from partisan maneuvering, the majority seems to have been driven by the profit motive: fake news drives revenue generating clicks. While the motive might have been money, there has been serious speculation that the fake news (especially on Facebook) helped Trump win the election. While those who backed Trump would presumably be pleased by this outcome, the plague of fake news should be worrisome to anyone who values the truth, regardless of their political ideology. After all, fake news could presumably be just as helpful to the left as the right. In any case, fake news is clearly damaging in regards to the truth and is worth combating.

While it is often claimed that most people simply do not have the time to be informed about the world, if someone has the time to read fake news, then they have the time to think critically about it. This critical thinking should, of course, go beyond just fake news and should extend to all important information. Fortunately, thinking critically about claims is surprisingly quick and easy.

I have been teaching students to be critical about claims in general and the news in particular for over two decades and what follows is based on what I teach in class (drawn, in part, from the text I have used: Critical Thinking by Moore & Parker). I would recommend this book for general readers if it was not, like most text books, absurdly expensive. But, to the critical thinking process that should be applied to claims in general and news in particular.

While many claims are not worth the bother of checking, others are important enough to subject to scrutiny. When applying critical thinking to a claim, the goal is to determine whether you should rationally accept it as true, reject it as false or suspend judgment. There can be varying degrees of acceptance and rejection, so it is also worth considering how confident you should be in your judgment.

The first step in assessing a claim is to match it against your own observations, should you have relevant observations. While observations are not infallible, if a claim goes against what you have directly observed, then that is a strike against accepting the claim. This standard is not commonly used in the case of fake news because most of what is reported is not something that would be observed directly by the typical person. That said, sometimes this does apply. For example, if a news story claims that a major riot occurred near where you live and you saw nothing happen there, then that would indicate the story is in error.

The second step in assessment is to judge the claim against your background information—this is all your relevant beliefs and knowledge about the matter. The application is fairly straightforward and just involves asking yourself if the claim seems plausible when you give it some thought. For example, if a news story claims that Hillary Clinton plans to start an armed rebellion against Trump, then this should be regarded as wildly implausible by anyone with true background knowledge about Clinton.

There are, of course, some obvious problems with using background information as a test. One is that the quality of background information varies greatly and depends on the person’s experiences and education (this is not limited to formal education). Roughly put, being a good judge of claims requires already having a great deal of accurate information stored away in your mind. All of us have many beliefs that are false; the problem is that we generally do not know they are false. If we did, then we would no longer believe them.

A second point of concern is the influence of wishful thinking. This is a fallacy (an error in reasoning) in which a person concludes that a claim is true because they really want it to be true. Alternatively, a person can fallaciously infer that a claim is false because they really want it to be false. This is poor reasoning because wanting a claim to be true or false does not make it so. Psychologically, people tend to disengage their critical faculties when they really want something to be true (or false).

For example, someone who really hates Hillary Clinton would want to believe that negative claims about her are true, so they would tend to accept them. As another example, someone who really likes Hillary would want positive claims about her to be true, so they would accept them.

The defense against wishful thinking of this sort is to be on guard against yourself by being aware of your biases. If you really want something to be true (or false), ask yourself if you have any reason to believe it beyond just wanting it to be true (or false). For example, I am not a fan of Trump and thus would tend to want negative claims about him to be true—so I must consider that when assessing such claims.

A third point of concern is related to wishful thinking and could be called the fallacy of fearful/hateful thinking. While people tend to believe what they want to believe, they also tend to believe claims that match their hates and fears. That is, they believe what they do not want to believe. Fear and hate impact people in a very predictable way: they make people stupid when it comes to assessing claims.

For example, there are Americans who hate the idea of Sharia law and are terrified it will be imposed on America. While they would presumably wish that claims about it being imposed were false, they will often believe such claims because it corresponds with their hate and fear. Ironically, their great desire that it not be true motivates them to feel that it is true, even when it is not.

The defense against this is to consider how a claim makes you feel—if you feel hatred or fear, you should be very careful in assessing the claim. If a news claims seems tailored to push your buttons, then there is a decent chance that it is fake news. This is not to say that it must be fake, just that it is important to be extra vigilant about claims that are extremely appealing to your hates and fears. This is a very hard thing to do since it is easy to be ruled by hate and fear.

The third step involves assessing the source of the claim. While the source of a claim does not guarantee the claim is true (or false), reliable sources are obviously more likely to get things right than unreliable sources. When you believe a claim based on its source, you are making use of what philosophers call an argument from authority. The gist of this reasoning is that the claim being made is true because the source is a legitimate authority on the matter. While people tend to regard as credible sources those that match their own ideology, the rational way to assess a source involves considering the following factors.

First, the source needs to have sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question. One rather obvious challenge here is being able to judge that the specific author or news source has sufficient expertise. In general, the question is whether a person (or the organization in general) has the relevant qualities and these are assessed in terms of such factors as education, experience, reputation, accomplishments and positions. In general, professional news agencies have such experts. While people tend to dismiss Fox, CNN, and MSNBC depending on their own ideology, their actual news (as opposed to editorial pieces or opinion masquerading as news) tends to be factually accurate. Unknown sources tend to be lacking in these areas. It is also wise to be on guard against fake news sources pretending to be real sources—this can be countered by checking the site address against the official and confirmed address of professional news sources.

Second, the claim made needs to be within the source’s area(s) of expertise. While a person might be very capable in one area, expertise is not universal. So, for example, a businessman talking about her business would be an expert, but if she is regarded as a reliable source for political or scientific claims, then that would be an error (unless she also has expertise in these areas).

Third, the claim should be consistent with the views of the majority of qualified experts in the field. In the case of news, using this standard involves checking multiple reliable sources to confirm the claim. While people tend to pick their news sources based on their ideology, the basic facts of major and significant events would be quickly picked up and reported by all professional news agencies such as Fox News, NPR and CNN. If a seemingly major story does not show up in the professional news sources, there is a good chance it is fake news.

It is also useful to check with the fact checkers and debunkers, such as Politifact and Snopes. While no source is perfect, they do a good job assessing claims—something that does not make liars very happy. If a claim is flagged by these reliable sources, there is an excellent chance it is not true.

Fourth, the source must not be significantly biased. Bias can include such factors as having a very strong ideological slant (such as MSNBC and Fox News) as well as having a financial interest in the matter. Fake news is typically crafted to feed into ideological biases, so if an alleged news story seems to fit an ideology too well, there is a decent chance that it is fake. However, this is not a guarantee that a story is fake—reality sometimes matches ideological slants. This sort of bias can lead real news sources to present fake news; you should be critical even of professional sources-especially when they match your ideology.

While these methods are not flawless, they are very useful in sorting out the fake from the true. While I have said this before, it is worth repeating that we should be even more critical of news that matches our views—this is because when we want to believe, we tend to do so too easily.


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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 19, 2014
Fox News Channel

Fox News Channel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Daily Show With John Stewart has, obviously enough, a Fox New fixation. Or foxation, if you prefer. One of the common segments involves showing the inconsistency of the fine folks at Fox by juxtaposing segments. For example, when discussing the $4 billion in federal largess for oil companies, the Fox view was that $4 billion is a drop in the bucket. However, when discussing the $3 billion for food stamps, the same Fox fellow suddenly regarded $3 billion as a huge amount of money. Since 4 is greater than 3, this seems to be an inconsistency. Or perhaps it is a Foxconsistency.  As another example, the folks at Fox routinely rail against Obama being a tyrant, a king and a dictator. The same folks then claim he is weak and engage in a rather bizarre tyrant-crush over Putin-a person who actually does the things that they claim to hate about Obama. That is, being a tyrant and a dictator. As a third example, when the fine Fox folks were discussing the wealthy, they regarded a $250,000 income as seemingly barely enough to get by on. However, when going after the “fat cat” teachers, their pay (about $70,000) was seen as exorbitant. I could go on with example–but I would suggest watching the Daily Show clips laying out example after example of Foxconsistency.

After seeing a multitude of clips like this, I had a small revelation in regards to my dislike of Fox. While I tend to disagree with their political views (which seem to boil down to “rich=good” and “poor=bad”), one of my main issues is with their inconsistency. That is, they do not hold to a consistent set of standards and principles when assessing matters. As in the example given above, $4 billion in largess to oil companies is a tiny thing, but $3 billion in food stamps is massive. However, whether a sum is large or small should be largely a matter of the size of the numbers. Naturally, it does make sense to regard something as costing too much-but the point made by the fine Fox fellow was that the $3 billion was a huge amount. It was not that the food stamps were more expensive relative to a modestly priced largess for the oil companies.

This Foxconsistency serves to rob Fox of a rational foundation for assessment. That is, they are not consistently applying a set of standards and principles and justly finding things to be good or bad. Rather, they judge something to be good or bad and shift their standards and principles as needed to fit that judgement. So, for example, in Foxconsitency a CEO who is making millions earns that money because people deserve to get paid what they are worth…while a minimum wage worker should not be paid what she is worth because it would be bad for business.  However, as suggested above, Fox does seem to have at least a few core principles. One of these seems to be that the rich are good and the poor are bad.

One rather obvious reply is to throw out a red herring or an appeal to common practice by claiming that the liberals or MSNBC folks do the same thing. Or that everyone is inconsistent. While this might be true, it is also irrelevant to the issue at hand. Another obvious reply is to engage in various ad hominems against me. This would, obviously, not provide a rational or effective response to the point made here. What would needed would be a clear argument that Fox operates on consistent principles and that the multitude of clips showing such Foxconsistency are in error.

I realized that I haven’t tossed out any red meat for a while-hence this post.

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Opinion Over News

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 20, 2013
The Rachel Maddow Show (TV series)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my critical thinking class I teach a section on critical thinking and the news media. One of the points I focus on is the importance of distinguishing between someone presenting an opinionated perspective and someone engaged in actual reporting.

Obviously, any report is going to be colored by the perspective of the person presenting it, but there are clearly degrees and important distinctions. It would be an error to merely assume that all reporting or opinion giving are equal-that is, that everyone is just as bad as everyone else.

Interestingly enough, MSNBC is the leader in relying on the presentation of opinions over reporting, at least according to this study. While I try to avoid watching MSNBC, the study is consistent with my own experiences with the network and there seems to be little reason to doubt this. Naturally, one can easily check on this matter by enduring a marathon watching session of the station. Apparently 85% of MSNBC’s airtime is composed of the presentation of opinions.

While MSNBC leads the way in opinion over news, FOX and CNN have also cut back on actual news reporting. Fox News is mostly (55% opinion). CNN is still mostly news.

One obvious reason for the dominance of opinion is that chatter tends to be cheaper than investigative journalism. Since news is a business and the business of business is making money, it is hardly surprising that the news corporations have slashed back their reporting budgets. Since they still have hours to fill, opinion segments provide the media equivalent of pink slime-a cheap filler product.

A second reason for the dominance of opinion is that such material can be more entertaining than the news-in many ways, the pundits at Fox and MSNBC (and to a lesser extent CNN) are putting on news theater that aims more at entertaining than educating. This, obviously enough, ties back into the idea that the business of the news corporations is to make money.

A third reason is that Fox and MSNBC are strongly linked to political agendas. Fox is, obviously enough, very closely tied with the Republican party. While MSNBC seems to be less formally linked to the Democrats, this could be chalked up to the nature of the Democratic party rather than a lack of desire to have such a relationship. As might be imagined, objectively reporting on the facts generally does not do much to advance a specific agenda. In contrast, opinion segments are tailor-made to do just that.

This dominance of opinion should be of concern for those who wish to be well informed rather than well propagandized. As might be suspected, I would suggest avoiding MSNBC-something I have done for years.

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Perhaps Too Furious?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 29, 2012
Deutsch: the fast and the furious logo

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The narrative at Fox News is that the Fast & Furious incident is Obama’s Watergate (of course, Obama has had at least three other Watergate events by Fox’s count). One problem with the way Fox describes this event is that classifying it as being on par with Watergate is hyperbole, a standard tactic at Fox (and MSNBC). In addition to the concern about the fact that such rhetoric is misleading, there is also the practical concern: what will Fox use as a point of comparison if Obama does something really bad? However, my main concern here is not to discuss Fox, but to consider whether or not the Fast and Furious scandal has been accurately presented.

In many ways, this sort of consideration is a foolish waste of time. After all, the narrative of this scandal has largely been written and the “facts” are mostly cemented in the public mind. Anything that deviates from the narrative will tend to be rejected by those who embrace the narrative and, in fact, will merely encourage them to cling more strongly to the narrative. Those who are willing to change their views in the face of new information will tend to be cast as merely following their ideology by those who are following their own ideology. As such, it is tempting to despair of ever discussing anything that might deviate from the narrative.

However, part of being a philosopher is considering that the accepted narrative might not be accurate and having a willingness to take into account new information. In the case of Fast and Furious, Fortune conducted an extensive investigation that appears to reveal facts contrary to the current political narrative. I must, of course, admit that I have largely accepted the erroneous narrative-primarily because this additional information was only recently made available.

As per the original narrative, guns purchased under ATF surveillance  ended up in the possession of criminals. However, Fortune’s investigation provides evidence that the ATF did not purposely allow guns to be trafficked illegally. In fact, it is claimed that the ATF attempted to seize weapons but it was, ironically, handicapped in its efforts by prosecutors and the existing laws covering firearms. Fortune’s investigation also reveals that the claims against the ATF include distortions, errors, partial truths and lies.

The Fortune investigation also covers the process of how right-wing bloggers and CBS escalated the story and then how Representative Issa and others used it to score political points. Interestingly, it is claimed that Obama basically yielded on this matter do as to avoid getting into a rhetorical battle about gun control (which is denied by the administration).

If these claims are true, then the accepted narrative being spun out in the media is flawed and does an injustice to the ATF and those involved. Given the general credibility of Fortune, it is worth taking the investigation seriously and this should impact the assessment of the situation. It should also serve as yet another lesson of the importance of being critical of the facts and being willing to consider new information.

If the Fortune investigation is accurate, then this makes Obama’s choice to use executive privilege even more interesting. After all, if the claims made about the ATF are accurate, then the ATF was trying to do as well as it could within the context of the existing laws and practices. That is, the ATF has been wronged by the erroneous judgments against it-including those I myself made. As such, the administration could have responded by asserting the facts and thus countered the scandal without resorting to executive privilege. After all, there would be nothing to hide.

However, the Fortune investigation does suggest why the Obama administration would have something to hide: perhaps there were discussions about how to handle this matter without getting caught up in the said rhetorical battle over gun control. After all, while Obama has only expanded gun rights, some folks have very strong beliefs that Obama is just biding his time and is waiting to attack gun rights (despite a total lack of evidence for these beliefs). As such, Obama probably wants to avoid getting tangled up in this rhetoric. If so, it is ironic that the use of executive privilege is taken as evidence that Obama is trying to hide something, perhaps some sort of conspiracy to infringe on gun rights.

Of course, it is not impossible that the administration did discuss how the existing gun laws would need to be changed to address the easy flow of arms from the US to Mexico. Such talk would, of course, be presented as attempts to infringe on gun rights. This also shows the challenge Obama faces in regards to this flow of guns. One the one horn, attempts to seriously address the problem will be seen as attempts to infringe on gun right and no doubt strongly opposed by the right. On the other horn, using weaker methods will have little or no impact and will result in condemnation from the right for failing to address the problem. In short, Obama (and the next President) would seem to be in a no win situation: anything he does to seriously address the problem would get him bashed as anti-gun and feed the conspiracy theories. Doing nothing serious about the problem gets him bashed as being weak on this matter.  Bush also faced the problem of this easy flow of guns and was not able to solve it. Obviously, whoever gets elected in 2012 will still face this problem and the challenge of solving the problem without being bashed as anti-gun.

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Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 23, 2011
Newt Gingrich

Image via Wikipedia

As I write this, Newt is doing well in the polls. Earlier this year, it looked like Newt was done, but he has managed to apparently get back into the game. Of course, it is important to note that he has made gains as the other candidates have suffered losses in popularity. The polls do not seem to have a “none of the above” option, so perhaps his surge is simply do the fall of the others. That is, it is not so much that more people are really hot for Newt-it is just that they will check the Newt box in preference to the alternatives.

The general pattern for the Republicans has been a surge from one candidate followed by a fall after some self inflicted injury or other problem. Given this pattern, it is not unreasonable to expect Newt to last but a little while before he is brought down (or brings himself down). Newt does have a lot of established baggage and the media has been exposing more recent apparent problems, such as his multi-million dollar involvement with Fannie Mae. Naturally, he is trying to spin these problems and is being aided by the fine folks at Fox (while the merry minions at MSNBC go after him).

While Newt is clearly a person who has some dubious ethics, he is also a smart guy and a very experienced Washington insider. He is well connected to the established political machinery and has plenty of ties with big money. That is, he is a classic old school politician who knows the game and has the resources to play it well.

Give Newt’s abilities and resources, he does seem to have a chance of getting the nomination. Although Romney has been consistent in the polls (mainly because Romney has not done anything stupid on camera), Romney is not beloved by the base. With some shrewd political moves and some self-control (Newt has often proven to be his own worst enemy) Newt could squeak ahead enough to beat out Romney. In that case, I would expect to see Romney as the VP candidate. Another possibility is Romney as the presidential candidate and Newt as the VP.

Newt would stand up well against Obama in debates and Newt is generally adept at handling damage control. However, he would need to keep a tight rein on himself. But, I would be willing to say that he would have a shot at it. Obama would, obviously enough, easily defeat Perry, Bachmann or Cain in an actual debate. After all, they seem quite adept at defeating themselves-Obama would probably merely have to stand there and observe the self-destruction. Newt though is amphibian of a different stripe-he would stand up ably to Obama and could do quite well.

If Newt were elected, he would most likely be an old school politician in the way he would handle things. Newt knows how to use politics to his own enrichment and advantage and it seems reasonable that he would function as president much as he did as speaker. Given his experience as an insider and his intellectual abilities (plus what appears to be a lawful evil alignment) he would probably do quite well as a mostly pragmatic president. He would also parlay his election into massive personal gain after he left office-Newt is no fool and is in it to win it (for Newt).

That said, Newt might just burn out and hit the ground, like the others before him.

So, what do you think of Newt’s chances?

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Negativity Bias

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 29, 2011
Karl Pribram and colleagues have presented evi...

Hard wired for negativity.

While scientists have only fairly recently gotten around to studying cogitative biases, philosophers have been teaching about them for centuries-typically in the form of various logical errors. However, it is good that the scientific attention to these biases is serving to attract additional attention to them.

Everyone of us is, of course, loaded down with all sorts of cognitive biases. Some scientists even claim that such biases are hard wired into the brain, thus making them part of our actual anatomy and physiology. If so, it would seem to suggest that people might be more or less biased based on the specifics of their hard-wiring. This would help explain some of the variation in people when it comes to being able to reason well.

While we all suffer from cognitive biases (and other biases) we do have the capacity to resist and even overcome such biases and reason in a more objective manner. As this takes effort and training (as well as the will to want to think critically) it is not very common for folks to try to overcome these biases. Hence, bad reasoning tends to dominate.

One standard bias is known as negativity bias. While some people are more prone to focus on the negative than others, apparently we all have an inbuilt tendency to give more weight to negative information relative to positive information. This would help to account for the fact that people tend to consider a single misdeed to outweigh a large number of good deeds.

Of course, people do also have other biases that can lead them to weigh the positive more than the negative. For example, people tend to ignore or downplay negative aspects of people, causes, and things they like and weigh the positive more heavily. This often involves embracing inconsistency by applying different standards relative to what one likes or dislikes (see, for example, how Fox News and MSNBC evaluate various political matters).

Interestingly, this bias seems to occur at neurological level. The brain actually has more neural activity when it is reacting to negative information than when reacting to positive information. Assuming these results apply generally, we are actually hard-wired for negativity.

The defense against this involves being aware of this bias and exhibiting even greater caution in assessing negative information-especially when it involves negative information about something we do not like. For example, folks who dislike the Tea Party will weigh negative information about them more heavily than positive evidence and will tend to make little effort to determine whether the evidence has been properly assessed. The same holds true for folks who dislike the Occupy Wall Street movement and its spin-offs. They will take any negative evidence as being quite significant and ignore or undervalue positive evidence.

This bias does help explain a great deal about how people see political events and assess them.

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Media Bias

Posted in Business, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 23, 2011
FOX News Channel newsroom

If the pants are off, it gets the lead off.

It is rather common for the media to be accused of bias, usually towards the left. This seems to be obviously true of MSNBC. Fox News is, of course, not liberally biased. It is, however, clearly leaning to the right. Talk radio is generally right leaning. CNN is sometimes accused of leaning left, although most people who watch it are stuck in airports and hence their judgment is probably impaired. As such, the media does seem to have plenty of instances of bias. However, they are clearly not all liberal. Unless, of course, Fox News, talk radio and so on are excluded from the media.

While the matter of a general bias among media folk can be debated, there is a clear bias in most of the media. Namely, the media has a bias towards stories that they believe will attract viewers. This typically means stories that are sensationalistic, preferably with a sexual element or an attention grabbing crime. Such stories are covered, obviously enough, at the expense of matters that are generally far more significant. To use the most recent example, while Weiner’s misdeeds were newsworthy, his being uncovered was covered far more than it actually deserved. As Weiner himself pointed out, we are involved in three wars, unemployment is high, revolts are sweeping the middle east, and so on. However, the main focus of the media remained aimed right at Weiner’s groin (an area to which he seemed obsessed with drawing attention towards).

While it is tempting to lay the blame on the media, they are actually following a good business model: they are giving the customers what they want. The news media is a business and it makes most of its revenue through advertisement. As such, the media folks need to keep the numbers up to keep the money rolling in. What keeps the numbers up is, obviously enough, stories that are sensational, sordid, sleazy, sexual and so on. As such, the media will tend to focus on these sorts of stories because that is what people prefer. This would seem to entail that changing the media bias requires changing what the consumer wants. To be fair to the consumers, they tend to consume what is pushed towards them, so the media folks could take a more active role in serving up more significant news. The analogy to food is obvious: companies sell junk food because people want it, but people want junk food in part because the companies push it. Just as Americans need to get off the junk food, we also need to cut back on our junk news.

This is a rather challenging thing. To use another obvious analogy, trying to provide the significant news is a lot like teaching. Most people find the content of education to be far less interesting than what is going on on Facebook or what text is incoming. Just as some teachers simply give up on trying to compete, so too has much of the media.

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Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 17, 2011
the 44th President of the United States...Bara...

Image by jmtimages via Flickr

A poll of 400 Republican primary voters revealed that 51% of them believe that Obama was not born in the United States. 28% believe that he was born in the United States while 21% were unsure of his place of birth.

This is hardly surprising. First, the birther movement has been quite active in pushing this idea and it has also gotten support (if only via innuendo) from Republican leaders. Second, Obama is disliked (or even hated) by most Republicans and people are inclined to believe negative claims about people they dislike-even when actual evidence is lacking. Third, Obama’ “exotic” background (non-American father, time spent outside of America and  so on) help create the impression that he is not a proper American. Fourth, some folks on the left (such as the fine folks at MSNBC) have been harping on the birther movement and their attacks might, ironically, serve to encourage people to accept it as correct-or at least to feel sympathy in response to their dislike of these left leaning folks.

While I am well aware that most people are poor at critical thinking and reasoning, the fact that 51% of those surveyed hold a belief that has been shown to be false beyond all reasonable doubt and that only 28% believe in a claim that has been established as true beyond a reasonable doubt worries me. After all, this would seem to indicate that these people base their beliefs on something other than evidence and reason and this bodes ill in regards to their ability to assess the candidates they will be voting for and against.

Of course, it is well worth considering that some or even many of the people surveyed gave the response they did based not on their actual belief but based on their dislike for Obama. If so, this would not be a case of people simply denying facts and holding to a delusion. Rather, it would be an indirect way of expressing their dislike of the man. This does have  a certain plausibility and is worth considering when pondering the implications of the survey.







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The Media & Politicians

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 4, 2010
Katie Couric (with Fred Thompson)
Image via Wikipedia

While politicians embroiled in scandals have been eager to avoid the media, there is an increasing tendency of candidates to avoid dealings with media they regard as non-friendly. This was especially noticeable in the run up to the recent elections.

Some pundits trace the start of this new tendency back to Sarah Palin’s bid for vice president. After her interview with Katie Couric, she decided to change her approach to the media. While she taunts the “lamestream media”, she appears on Fox regularly. However, Sharron Angle seemed to outdo Palin in this regard. After being nominated by the Republicans, Angle followed a strategy of accepting interviews rarely and only then from conservatives. She made her reason quite clear in public: she was upset that reporters would not ask her the questions that she wanted them to ask.

This evasion of the press is not just for the folks on the right. While the media is often sweepingly condemned for being liberals, liberal politicians have been avoiding the media-specifically the conservative media (such as Fox News).

One obvious reason why some politicians avoid the media is that it can be risky. While the media generally does not ask hard or critical questions, there is always the chance that a politician will flub badly.  No doubt they think of Palin’s disastrous interview with Couric and O’Donnel’s media adventures and think twice before agreeing to an interview.

Of course, one reason why the public should want politicians to be interviewed is to see how they handle such sandbox situations. If some cannot stand up to the inquiries of the press, then it raises questions about how well they can handle the rigors of office.

Another obvious reason is that some politicians are probably aware that if people knew their real views, then they would have greater difficulty being elected. While it can be wise to remain silent when one has nothing worth saying, a politician who is unwilling to discuss what s/he stands for is a matter of concern. After all, if they are saying nothing, then it seems reasonable to suspect that they are concerned that what they have to say is something that would not go over very well.

Of course, the voters have a right to know the views of a politician. At the very least, they need some basis on which to decide which candidate to vote for.

A third reason is that the media is often regarded as biased and hostile. In the case of the right, they tend to see the non-conservative media as being against them. In the case of the left, they see the conservative media as being against them. As they see it, it makes little sense to go on a news show to be attacked and presented in a negative light. It makes more sense to go someplace friendly (or at least neutral).

This does seem reasonable-at least in the case of the media that is clearly biased (Fox News and MSNBC stand out here). However, this concern does not seem justified in the case of media that is not biased. Of course, some folks think that any media that is not asking them the questions they want to be asked is biased. However, there is a clear distinction between being biased and asking questions that are not the ones a politician would like to answer.

A fourth reason is that bashing the media can be a way to gain popularity. People today seem to have a rather negative view of “the media” and, as such, it is an easy target. Ironically, Fox News fans seem to be the ideal target for this appeal-even though they seem to be rather fond of their own special media friends at Fox. I suppose the irony is lost on them.

Sarah Palin has shown a remarkable talent (genius even) in handling the media. She enrages it like a matador angers a bull. Then, when the media rushes to attack, she managed to leap on its back like a cowgirl and ride the media bronco to headlines and front covers. When the folks in the media mock her or are critical, they mainly serve to help her. First, they (as just noted) give her awesome amounts of coverage that keeps her in the news. Second, they serve to confirm the view of her fans that the media are out to get her.

Of course, there is the question of whether or not media bashing is enough. If, for example, Palin plans on being a presidential candidate in 2012, it seems likely that she will have to engage the lamestream media.  Perhaps she will be up to the challenge then.

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The $200 Million (a day) Man

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on November 10, 2010
Fox News Channel
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When I teach my critical thinking class I make use of the infamous “Rathergate” incident of 2004. As some will recall, Dan Rather presented the Killian documents which were highly critical of Bush’s military service. Unfortunately for Dan Rather, the documents seemed to be lacking in authenticity. So, rather than adding another major news story to his record, Rather became the story and thus sustained a career ending injury.

The point I make when discussing this incident is that people, most especially those who claim to be purveyors of facts, need to be careful in confirming claims before accepting them (let alone broadcasting them). I also note that being critical is especially important when the claims are very appealing.

Now, fast forward to 2010. After hearing a bit of chatter about Obama’s $200 million a day trip, I decided to follow the anti-Obama chatter beasts to their usual lairs: Fox News and other conservative pundits (the liberal chatter beasts generally make their home at MSNBC). A little investigation (well, clicking links) “revealed” that Obama’s trip involved naval vessels, three thousand people, helicopters and more. However, the truly impressive graphics and burning outrage failed to reveal the source of this figure.

A little more investigation (clicking more links) revealed that the source for this figure was identified as an anonymous government official in India. Some actual fact checking on the size of the entourage and the like cost of the trip revealed that while such state travel is expensive, it is not $200 million per day.

On one hand, I am pleased that this occurred: my 2004 example was getting a bit stale and it will be nice to have this fresh example on hand of how folks in the media can take an unverified source of information and run far with it. However, I doubt that anyone at Fox or any of the other pundits will suffer from their actions.

On the other hand, I am dismayed at this sort of thing. While the pundits can be expected to believe (or at least seem to believe) any claim that matches their agenda (or what their audience craves to hear), they should be more critical. This is especially true of Fox. They claim to be a news agency and this creates an obligation on their part: they need to at least take some minimal effort to check the facts before presenting a story.  Naturally, the audience should also engage in some critical assessment, but Fox’s core audience seems to be no more critical than Fox itself-at least when it comes to what matches their belief system. In this case, such folks want to believe Obama is wasting their money and hence they accept such reports without even pausing to wonder about the veracity of such claims.

Interestingly, the facts seem to have little actual impact in such matters. Folks on the left and right seem to believe what they want to believe (that is, whatever matches their belief system) regardless of the actual truth of the matter. Such folks seem to feel more than assess and when they are critical it is generally only in regards to what they disagree with. The pundits and “news” feed and feed on these qualities, making America more irrational and polarized place.

MSNBC is, ironically, trying to fight Fox and the conservative pundits by being more like them. This is, of course, a bad idea. First, MSNBC is simply not up to matching its competition in this area (even with Olbermann back from his suspension). Second, the way to counter such “news” is by engaging in correct reporting techniques: that is, objective investigation and critical assessment.  Unfortunately, there is probably not much in the way of ratings in such an approach.

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