Can you handle the truth?

In recent blogs on this site, especially regarding the phrase `war on terror’ and the political mud slinging of recent weeks, I have frequently seen the hope expressed that the media should be free of bias and just report the truth. A praisworthy sentiment. Can you however really handle the truth? Would you recognise it if you see it? Would you watch a news show if it really gave you the full truth about what it knows and what it doesnt? Do not presume the answer is `yes’ too easily. To illustrate how virtually everything you get fed in the news is a fabrication, I took the liberty of dissecting a couple of stories of the news of the last two days. I only concentrated on stories you could find on SBS world news or ABC news so that the overly obvious bias from certain quarters was already filtered out. Lets take some stories in random order to give you a sense of how you are being spoonfed, though I wish to stress at the outset that probably very little of the fabrication is politically motivated:

1. The financial news. The ABC headline: ‘Interest rate concerns push Aussie shares down’. Really? On an average day, there are millions of share transactions made for a whole swathe of reasons. The reasons to sell include people who need the money embedded in their shares. The reasons to buy include having money to invest. They include hopes and fear on thousands of items including the overseas economies, and the whole of the domestic economy. Given all this, how could a journalist possibly know that it was interest rate concerns that pushed the shares down? Could the journalists have talked to all the thousands of people who dealt in shares yesterday, or the millions of people on who’s behalf shares were traded? There’s no way the journalist could have done that. Where then does this story come from? Presumably from the journos talking to a couple of their mates close to the market who feed them this line. In a strict sense though, this headline and nearly every other headline containing an explanation of movements on financial markets is a fabrication. Indeed, nearly all the news regarding explanations for what goes on in the economy pretends to know the unknowable and each of us laps it up every day. We’ll let the tricky issue as to what constitutes an Aussie share lie.

2. The weather forecast. Actual weather modellers come up with many different scenarios and essentially are only able to say what the weather will be within confidence bands, subject to the assumptions of their models and data availability. Hence the `weather outlook’ you are spoonfed is simply one particular scenario, neither representing the average forecast or anything approaching an undoubted forecast. Nevertheless, words are used like ‘tomorrow it will be X degrees in Melbourne’. Pure fabrication. It gets worse. Recall seing those pressure charts on virtually every weather channel and in the paper? These things dont just ignore the uncertainty in the forecasts, but they are actually literally made up. There’s no such thing as a line going through the continent where on one side the pressure is below some number and on the other side it is above some number: pressure varies immensely locally for all kinds of reasons (spot winds; clouds, hills, buildings, etc.). Drawing a pressure line on a map is a bit like drawing a line through Australia and saying ‘the rich people live to the left of this line and the poor people live to the right of this line’: vaguely right at best. Pressure maps are strictly speaking pure fabrications, but you would not see this mentioned in the media.


3. Current international affairs? Take this headline from SBS: ‘The world’s leading economist on climate change, Nicholas Stern, has challenged Australia to cut greenhouse gas emissions.’. Nicholas Stern is the worlds leading economist on climate change? Preposterous! The man has few credentials in that field and I doubt he’d call himself a leading climate economist. He chaired a committee that reviewed other people’s work in this field and their report was successfully sold by the Blair administration in the UK to the media. The BBC website calls the fact that Blair managed to have the Stern report as headline news for 3 days ‘the stuff of Spinmeister legend’. Was the report a work of solid scientific evidence? Hardly! As a truly eminent economist, Angus Maddisson, noted in November 2006, the Stern report simply swallowed the IPCC scenarios lock-stock-and-barrel. This, even though the UK house of Lord’s report in 2005 heavily criticised the IPCC for being an unscientific political body with an agenda. Indeed, the Stern report is in some economic quarters regarded as a bit of a joke in its uncritical acceptance of the `findings’ of the IPCC. Hence, the SBS line on this is not just wrong, but shows the power of spin in other countries to influence debate here.

4. International conflicts? In the last few days, 120 Taliban were reportedly killed in heavy fighting in Afghanistan. Really? How would an Australian journalist know that these were actually Taliban? Do they all carry a little card saying they are Taliban? Of course not. How would we then know that it weren’t some local militia members, random bystanders, or even innocent men, women and children? Such numbers are usually given out by the military or local authorities. What incentives do you think these people have to say anything else than that the people who were killed were those whom we’d think ok to see killed? What should they have said in a strictly truthful media? Perhaps something like `we think all sorts of people got killed and maimed yesterday in this region (anywhere from between 50 to 500), some of whom carried arms themselves and some of those carrying arms may have been motivated by a (group) desire to resist Western and central Afghan military. It doesnt make for quite the same easy reading now, does it?

5. International politics? Take the following SBS headline: ‘Iran condemned as “provocative” comments by Tony Blair warning of a “different phase” in British efforts to secure the release of 15 detained sailors.’ Really? The whole of Iran condemned Tony Blair? All 70 million inhabitants? Or just the government? Or just the small group within the central government who puts out these statements? The latter, methinks. And did they really condemn Tony Blair or the speech someone else wrote and for which half a department is responsible but which Blair delivered? You may think these distinctions trivial, but whereas in reality it is not at all the case that the whole of the Iranian population condemns a Blair Speech, the soundbite does conjure such a bellicose image.

etc. And this is just the content of the stories. We’re not even talking about the selection of stories that make it on the news and those that dont. Indeed, without trawling through many news sites, you’d be hard-pressed to know that the biggest wars of the moment are in Darfur, Sri Lanka, and former Zaire, and together have lead to more lost lives than any of the lesser conflicts making up the bulk of the news (Israel, Ireland, Afganistan).

If you are willing to open your mind hence, the news you get fed is one long litany of made-up stories, simplifications, and outright lies. Day after day, year after year. How could you have become a well-thinking person if you are raised on such spoonfeeding? This is not to say that any of this happens deliberately, but is probably a reflection of the fact that journos have to make things simple to get their audience to pay attention and to convey some meaning. Journos have to cater to the prejudices and prior beliefs of their audience because they otherwise wont be understood and would quickly be out of a job.

The question now turns to you. Would you really be able to handle the truth if that’s what journos gave you, with no uncertainty and nuanced left out? What is the audience potential for `real news’ in Australia? And if the truth is too hard to handle, what then should we see as the ‘best possible news’?

This entry was posted in Uncategorised. Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to Can you handle the truth?

  1. Mr Denmore says:

    Sounds like Mr Fritjers is a sub-editor in the making. As someone who worked as a journalist for 26 years, we used to get this pedantry all the time.

    The fact is that journalists are crafts people who work under incredible time pressure to report on fast-moving events and get the news out on time.

    Corners are inevitably cut, and short-hand descriptions for complex events are inevitably made. But that is the nature of the medium.

    To cite the oft-quoted description, journalism is the first rough draft of history.

    Of course, the truth is more multi-shaded and complex and indefinable than the headlines would make out.

    But if you applied Mr Fritjers annually retentive test to every news story, nothing would ever get published.

    By the way, in referring to “journalists”, I am talking about the real workers who every day graft away writing and editing stories for very low pay and very little positive affirmation from their superiors.

    I am not talking about wanker celebrity columnists who couldn’t cover a house fire accurately.

  2. Lazy Aussie says:

    On this topic about North Korea at beijing Newspeak
    link

  3. derrida derider says:

    You’re dead wrong, Paul, about the relative scientific merits of the Stern Report and the outrageous political hatchet job that was the House of Lords committee report – I suggest you talk to people who know something about the background to both before you sprout off again.

    How strange of Professor Stern to prefer the exhaustively researched and carefully argued consensus report of the world’s climatologists to the rantings of right-wing bloggers, Exxon-funded front organisations (google the term “astroturf”) and sundry contrarian cranks.

    You see, you’re assuming it’s you and not he that knows “the truth”. Now you don’t have to be a fully-fledged postmodern to understand that things are a bit more complicated than that.

  4. Paul Frijters says:

    Derrida,

    I am sorry to have tackled one of your pet myths though you go a little over the top by saying

    “How strange of Professor Stern to prefer the exhaustively researched and carefully argued consensus report of the world

  5. Ken Parish says:

    Paul

    I don’t want to derail this potentially interesting thread by harping on about global warming, Castles and PPP versus exchange rates, but I thought you might be interested to read this post by John Quiggin, including the comment thread which includes extensive discussion between JQ and Ian Castles.

  6. Thanks Ken,
    I know of their debate. The main point is that John Quiggin too acknowledges that using the wrong converters begets bad policy advise and that he agrees with Ian that PPP should be used. The resistance of the IPCC to incorporate PPP and to continue with drawing the wrong policy conclusions shows their reluctance to be influenced by scientific concensus which includes non-economists: prof. Richard Tol (quoted by Ian) is a friend of mine, an eminent climate moddeler, and certainly not a right-winger or Exxon ratbag.

  7. Mr Denmore says:

    None of this has much to do with my blog though which was to ask the more serious question of what constitutes good news in a world that appears too complex to report on accurately

    And the point of my response is that the world has always been complex and we journalists are forever accused of “over-simplifying” the news – particularly by those people who hold deeply partisan positions on public issues.

    The fact is that whatever your position on the climate debate, journalists need a a short-hand way of describing people. If a former World Bank economist, who published a seminal and widely quoted report on the economics of climate change, cannot be described as an expert on the subject, I don’t know who can.

    If we added all the qualifications and parenthetical points requested by the likes of Mr Frijters, nothing ever would get published.

    Most working journalists don’t hold partisan positions on these issues, by the way. They just want to get the news out as quickly, as accurately and as independently as possible. Leave the parentheses and footnotes to the historians.

  8. Link says:

    I think we could easily handle and live with the truth, but will never know it as an objective reality because the human mind for reasons big and small is geared to doubt. Truth sits easily because its ‘real’, its the crap which is so hard to swallow and can find no place to fit. It has no basis in reality and so it circulates uncomfortably until disproved.

    There is nothing we can know for certain unless we first can thoroughly know our minds and there isn’t a human alive who can claim to have a thorough knowledge of his mind.

  9. Link and Denmore,
    thanks. Very honest. I think I agree with you, but your answer does leave me with the uneasy feeling that all those who in previous blogs have asked for truth-reporting might be deluding themselves about the possibility of their wish; and it leaves me as an intellectual and an academic wondering what hope there is to better inform the public. If it is unreasonable as an academics to insist on truthful reporting by the media and by other social scientists, what next? Should I just join the fun and deliberately say untrue things hoping no-one will bother to expose my lies? Is it a pipe dream to believe that `we’ Aussies have the right and to some extent the duty to know things the way they are without having to wait for the historians to add the footnotes? Should we just except that there isnt even an elite open to the full complexity of things? To accept this is to give up hope in mankind. I essentially struggle with the question what a (social) scientist is supposed to do in this country if not bang the drum of truth. There surely must be many more scientists and well-meaning intellectuals who wonder the same things? Have they given up on the very idea of an intellectual Australian?

  10. Ingolf says:

    Paul, I think you may be whipping up a bit more drama around this topic than is justified. The search for truth and clarity is a continuous one, rarely if ever attained in any final sense, and almost always a struggle between competing visions of the world. This has always been so and I can’t really see how it can ever be otherwise.

    Each of us can choose to do our part in trying to further understanding or choose to merely observe. Or, of course, to obfuscate and propagandise. Mr Denmore undoubtedly has a point that in practical terms, journalists must constantly make decisions under time pressure and with inadequate information. Just as they and their media organisation will, consciously or not, bring some bias to the job. As we all do.

    Isn’t it precisely the great strength of a relatively free society that the process of questioning, debating, proposing alternate hypotheses, criticising is in continual motion and that out of all this ferment, we may hopefully edge a touch closer to the “truth”?

    If there’s a particular reason to be concerned today, it may be that under the onslaught of new media and technology, the ratio between information, knowledge and wisdom is getting ever more heavily skewed towards the former.

  11. Great, great post, Paul. That said, while what you say is true, Mr Denmore’s point about ‘rough drafts’ is fair, too.

    As long as we don’t delude ourselves into thinking that news-reporting is anything more than a ‘rough draft’. That’s when things start getting awkward.

  12. derrida derider says:

    Paul, in the interests of keeping the thread on-topic I won’t respond at any length to your stuff about PPPs, or the supposed dishonesty of the IPCC (though what possible motive the IPCC scientists could have in risking their reputations on this scale I can’t see – any well-known climate scientist who demonstrates they are wrong is assured of both fortune and reputation). John Quiggin’s blog has plenty of to-ing and fro-ing on these questions and maybe we should post our responses there.

    On-topic: so you’re surprised that hastily-written articles pitched at the casual commuter and based on the last person some harried journo spoke to are an inefficient guide to understanding the world. Tell me, are you also surprised that the sun rises every morning?

  13. Chris Lloyd says:

    While acknowledging that you have a valid point to make, I remain unimpressed by your first two examples.

    One can quite accurately say the share market went down on fears of interest rate rises without interviewing every party to a trade. How? One can look at various financial instruments, like bonds, which measure what people think is going to happen to interest rates over various time horizons. It is an empirical fact that when they go up the share market goes down. So post hoc, the drop can be explained. Even if the jouno asked a couple their mates, if those mates are looking at the interest rate indicators then everything is kosher imho.

    Your second example is even more bemusing. You seem to be saying that isobars are fabricated because of their are local variations not displayed. This is like saying that contour maps of the Australin topography are fabricated because they do not include the little 1 meter high compost pile in my backyard.

  14. Johng says:

    Paul you say
    ‘are you really sure you want to unquestioningly swallow everything a bunch of UN bureaucrats write about our climate’ (referring to the IPCC). But then you speak highly (and rightly so) of Richard Tol who is a key member of a number of the IPCC groups. He is one of the ‘UN bureaucrats’ you so lightly dismiss. The consensus of the IPCC is not always correct, as in the exchange rate decision, but the IPCC are unquestionably experts and well worth listening to.

  15. Blatherskite says:

    I agree with Chris Lloyd that your comments about the isobar lines being “pure fabrications” are a serious misunderstanding of how they are constructed, what they represent, and how they are used.

    What is your alternative means of representing pressure gradients in the atmosphere? Or do you regard them as trivial, or irrelevant?

    Frankly, your comments on reporting weather forecasts are just silly pedantry. Everyone understands that it is a probabilistic prediction, with few certainties, but that it still has considerable real world value.

    0/10 for that one.

  16. Bingo Bango Boingo says:

    There is no such thing as a ‘patented trade secret’. The S&P 500 is not a measure of Australian shares. The list of the companies that comprise the S&P 500 is public information.

    I stopped reading after point 1. Can you blame me?

    BBB

  17. I only concentrated on stories you could find on SBS world news or ABC news so that the overly obvious bias from certain quarters was already filtered out.

    Paul,

    SBS and ABC unbiased, you’ve got be kidding me.

    As with regards your other complaints about journalism and weather forecasting, it is really an economic question, isn’t it? People have only so much time to dedicate to current events so they consume them in abridged versions. If newspapers were the size of encyclopedias or even always the same size as Sunday editions, they would not have a readership. If a news story takes your interest, you may dedicate more of your time to research it in greater depth.

    I don’t think it is a question of not being able to handle the truth, more a question of how much time you have to digest information available to you.

  18. Sacha says:

    Paul, the point that the “news” simplifies or glosses over things has to be true – as to fully understand any particular thing (eg the pressure chart) might require the presentation of phenomenal amounts of information. In choosing to write one thing or the other, one makes judgements that necessarily bias the material.

  19. Sacha says:

    For example, there has been a recent story about the calculation of matrix elements for the exceptional Lie group E(8). Now, to properly convey what E(8) is, what knowledge of the matrix elements could lead to, and what it all means, requires a couple of third-year or Honours courses in mathematics! Similar things hold for many stories on scientific thangs. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile to write stories on them, even if it only gives some kind of flavour of the work done. (In the case of the recent story on E(8), probably the thing that attracted the most attention was the massive number of calculations.)

  20. Ken Parish says:

    I agree with the reservations of other commentators about Paul’s hypothesis. Paul’s example 5 is equally problematic. Except perhaps for an exceptionally naive 8 year old child, no-one imagines that a news story starting “Iran condemns …” actually means that every citizen in Iran either possesses or has expressed any opinion at all on the subject in question. It’s a form of journalistic shorthand that (just about) everyone understands without needing to be told: it means “the political leaders of Iran (or perhaps only some of them) condemn …”.

    Summarising, compressing and selecting information as newsworthy says nothing at all about whether we can “handle” the truth, in any less trite sense than that we all have limited time to digest and make sense of ever-increasing amounts of information in a digitally globalised world. We should certainly always be wary about the possibility that these unavoidable simplification, selection and information compression processes are susceptible to deliberate manipulation or inadervertent drastic systemic distortion, and therefore potentially apt to mislead us into making bad decisions. But there is nothing in any of Paul’s examples that provides any indication of any such problem (unless you subscribe to global warming denialism, which I don’t).

  21. Paul Frijters says:

    :-) this certainly got the pulse pumping. I was afraid this was going to be much more brutal.
    I agree with all the commentators who said simplifications aint so bad. We simplify things all the times and we have to (such as in the weather chart case). Whilst I have no objections to simplifications per se I do object to it not being clear that these are simplifications. Sacha’s example of the reporting on E(8) is a clear example of where the media explicitly states that their representation is a simplification, which is fine. As soon as you dont report that something you say is a simplification though it becomes a problem because it then becomes misinformation.
    The worse thing is when you present things as the truth which are not just simplifications but essentially just opinions of semi-knowledgeable people, such as the share market example. Why cant the journo say ‘according to my mates, the shares went down because of fears of interest rates?’ Presenting that opinion as the truth is misleading and reinforces potentially wrong theories about why share markets move.
    It gets worse still when one presents as the truth the stated information by a party that has an incentive to report a biased version of the truth, such as in the Taliban case. That really makes you hostage as a journo and as a population to deliberate spin.
    Adding qualifications to people and events is an in-between house. The Iran example does bother me, because its not a simplification, but rather an example of antagonistic language. It makes the event look much more threatening than it otherwise would seem. Similarly with the Stern example, the added qualification (which is not just saying he’s ‘an expert’ but rather he’s ‘the worlds expert’). These are not simplifications, not even simplifications dressed up as truth, but their are becoming a party to deliberate misinformation.

    The notion that news is biased and simplified is something we probably have to live with. But in my ideal news agency, its made clear in every story what degree of certainty and bias applies to that story.

    By the way, on the S&P 500. We all know which shares are in it (duh!) but my understanding from talking to 2 finance profs is that the way they’re added up is a secret owned by S&P (which I believe is American).

  22. Paul Frijters says:

    I’m just brain storming out loud here, but what about a 5 star system for stories, either by scientists or journos:

    5 star story: the journo/paper/tv/scientist is so certain of everything in the story that it is willing to pay a certain amount to the first person who could in a court of law make reasonably plausible that it contains either a mistake / an unflagged simplification / or a false reporting as truth of something that is an opinion.

    4 star story: the journo/paper/tv/scientist is so certain of everything in the story that it is willing to pay a certain amount to the first person who could in a court of law make reasonably plausible that it contains either a mistake or an unflagged simplification

    3 star story: the journo/paper/tv/scientist is so certain of everything in the story that it is willing to pay a certain amount to the first person who could in a court of law make reasonably plausible that it contains a mistake.

    2 star story: the journo/paper/tv/scientist guarantees nothing at all

    1 star story: the journo/paper/tv/scientist is so certain that the story is a pure fabriation that it is willing to pay a certain amount to the first person who could in a court of law make reasonably plausible that it does not contain mistakes, unflagged simplifications, and false reporting as truth of something that is an opinion.

  23. Mr Denmore says:

    I

  24. Chris Lloyd says:

    Sorry to ruin the party on the S&P500. There is no way S&P could keep the weights a secret. The 500 companies are known. So all you need to do is observe the index change 500 times and you can back out the weights. Even if the 500 companies were not known you could work out which ones were in from a larger data base.

    Let’s not assume from this that Paul isn’t touching on an important issue. A lot of news is reported third hand, syndicated but ultimately comes from one source. The media frenzy about the Iraq threat in 2001 is the best example. I guess the web and blogs are potentially independent sources of info but even much of that is driven from the same basic news sources.

  25. Paul Frijters says:

    you miss the whole point, Mr Denmore. For instance, if you say

    “a source we are not willing to divulge has told us X” then that could be a 5 star story. This formulation makes clear you dont know X for certain, but thats not the point. You then dont claim X as the truth, but as an opinion in itself.

    Similarly, you can say “the police commissioner told us he thinks 3 people died yesterday in a boat incident”. Again, that can be a 5 star story even if they turned out to be 4 since you didnt present it as the truth that there were 3.

    Being honest about what level of certainty applies allows you to put a higher rating on your story and doesnt mislead the audience. Or do you disapprove of the whole notion that journos should offer rewards for people proving them wrong (over and above the existing liable laws) because you think we the public should just trust them to be as honest as they can? To quote Brendan, let’s look at this as an economic cost-minimisation problem…

  26. Paul Frijters says:

    :-) try backing out the weights Chris, it aint that easy. I agree with you that when I heard it was a trade secret last year, I too thought you could just find the weights by a simple regression of shares on the index. I can only guess at what they get up to to prevent you knowing more than roughly what goes on. Perhaps they randomly vary the weights over the day, deliberately add noise, whatever.

  27. Bannerman says:

    Bannerman is of the opinion that Mr Frijters takes himself just a little too seriously, and assumes the rest of the media consuming populace should be doing likewise. He takes the literal too generally and the general too literally. He also gives an extremely good impression of assessing the intellect of the average media consumer as just above that of a single-celled bacterium. The world, Mr Frijters, is just chock-a-block with spin merchants looking to sell the mundane as the dramatic. You sell yourself over the top and your fellow media consumers way too short if you really believe what you’ve written in this tome.

    Still, it has managed to fill in a space at ClubTroppo.

  28. Ingolf says:

    Paul, as you said, S&P500 index methodology is a minor detail in terms of the overall topic but I fear you may be in danger of slipping into the 1 star category on this one. The Standard & Poors fact sheet for the S&P500 can be found here. As you can see, they go to great lengths to ensure there isn’t any mystery.

    Even in pure commonsense terms, bear in mind that multiple large firms devote considerable funds to arbitraging the index futures against the cash components on a continual basis. In addition, close to US$1.5 trillion is invested in index funds that track various S&P Indices. You really think these guys would accept that Standard & Poors “randomly vary the weights over the day, deliberately add noise, whatever.”? I don’t think so.

  29. Chris Lloyd says:

    Paul, I checked with our finance aspro here who said:

    The S&P index (like the vast majority stock mkt indices, except the Dow Jones) is a market-value weighted index. The weight is well-known. if the market value of the stock is $30 billion, and the aggregate market values of the 500 stocks are $30 trillion, then the weight for this stock is 30/30,000 = 0.1%.

    On the other hand, the weights for bond market indicators (for example, Lehmann Brothers) are not known for some institutional reasons.

    See also Ingolf above. I guess this exchange is showing precisely what your post was doubting. Do we want to know the truth? Would we recognise it? I think we do want to know when something is incorrect and when we suspect something is porkies it is not too difficult to find a less commercial but more reliable source.

  30. nick says:

    hey buddy, how about this. read everything, including your favourite authors, with a (for you, massive) dose of skepticism. think, read more, find more evidence, think some more, and come to your own conclusions.

    start off with this thought: “this is all lies” and you’ll never go wrong. otherwise you’re a sucker.

  31. Jack Robertson says:

    “Paul, the point that the

  32. derrida derider says:

    … surely

  33. Paul Frijters says:

    thanks all for many of these thoughts. I was afraid when writing the blog that I was only going to get denialists but now I see there are quite a few who do share similar concerns. I cannot agree more than with the words of Nick above:

    “hey buddy, how about this. read everything, including your favourite authors, with a (for you, massive) dose of skepticism. think, read more, find more evidence, think some more, and come to your own conclusions.

    start off with this thought:

  34. Being quoted by the press – even pretty well regarded journos always gives me the willies. The better ones will expend considerable effort making sure they say nothing literally wrong. But – and this goes for the better ones as well – all are so pre-occupied with translating what you’ve said or experienced into a ‘story’ that it even when this is done with real attention to not saying anything untrue it can leave you very perplexed at what was written. It’s in the nature of things of course. One ‘text’ (yours) being written into another one (by another for yet others) and all as a ‘story’.

    This is true not only of journalism, but also of history – which is a story built from a tissue of remains. I recall the press secretary (Tony Ferguson) taking my draft press release after I’d worked for a year on the Button Car Plan. It was as condensed as I could make it – an argument about what we were trying to do in about a page and a half.

    “This will never do” he sighed. Then he wrote out four dot points. The plan was to

  35. hold down the price of cars
  36. improve their quality
  37. increase Australian equity in the industry and involvement in car design and
  38. protect jobs
  39. (This is from memory – the actual list may be somewhat different but not much and you get the picture).

    He then checked with me that none of these things was an outright lie – we hadn’t given the second one a thought though of course we expected increased competition to improve quality.

    Then he put it out. The press covered the story with these dot points dominant in the description of the plan. And histories written of what the government thought it was doing with the plan are all written in the same vein.

    The factoid rules.

  40. Jack Robertson says:

    “Let me also say that I found Jack Robertson reply beautiful and I agree with his (I hope he forgives me for this simplification) central point that many here above treat the misrepresentations in our world too lightly.”

    Tah heaps, Paul, both for the generous – and apt – response to what I was trying to say in itself, but also for not mocking me on a ‘meta-level’ by ridiculing my style and length, which I suppose is not so hard to do. I’ve never pretended to be a good or succinct writer stylistically – which is in fact a major part of what drives my main arguments. Derrida Derrida’s cheap shot above is a timely example of my central claim: that many nominally literate people now cannot tell the difference between style and substance, nor recognise which is more important when assessing the merits of non-fiction writing: essentially, what Derrida Derrida implies is that even the truth only deserves a look-in in a given debate if its ‘readability’ i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed in accordance (presumably) with the appropriate writing benchmarks laid down by…well, God knows who gets to decide what is ‘readable’ and what is ‘unreadable’, frankly. Whoever it is, Paul, as I said I’m glad and grateful that you – the post’s author – took the time to give my lengthy response a go anyway, however unruly-looking it clearly was to Derrida Derrida’s eyes. And thanks again for the space, Club Troppo. I really enjoyed this post and this thread. I think this is one ‘pomo, airy-fairy’ topic that will seem less and less so as the fruit of what is increasingly our epistemological anarchy become clear.

  41. Ingolf says:

    Jack, I’m pretty sure you’d find that very few, if any, here on Troppo would argue that the media always does a good job of seeking out and presenting the “truth”. Often it does it very poorly indeed. Nor do I think they’d suggest this isn’t an exceptionally important issue. Quite to the contrary.

    The fairly widespread scepticism that greeted Paul’s post was instead, I think, due to two factors. To begin with, the tabloid style headline didn’t help. Second and more importantly, as noted in various responses, the examples given were a mixture of contentious, slightly silly or outright wrong. Not a winning approach when the expressed intent of the post is to discuss accuracy in media presentation and our ability to “handle the truth”.

    As to not being able to “tell the difference between style and substance” or “not recognis[ing] which is more important when assessing the merits of non-fiction writing”, I think you’re creating a false dichotomy. If the only choice was between accurate content written in a lousy style and the opposite, I doubt whether many would choose the latter. But of course it isn’t and good style will always multiply the chances that a given message will actually get a decent hearing.

  42. Jack Robertson says:

    Pardon the delay, Ingolf, I only get access to a computer every few days.

    No argument with your first par, and I don’t think that’s quite what I was arguing. Certainly wasn’t my intention. Apologies for any perceived slight to anyone here.

    I see where you’re coming from in the second and third pars, but I could only concede those points painlessly and quickly if I ‘chickened out’ of this thread and accepted the kind of circular terms of debate that, to me, beg precisely the question that needs unpacking in detail. You write: “…the examples given were a mixture of contentious, slightly silly or outright wrong”. I write: no, outright error on the 500 aside, whether or not those examples are as you say here, by what criteria this is assessed, and how legitimate those criteria are…are precisely the contentious meta-points under debate in the post. ‘My arguments are sounder than yours’, which is what you are effectively saying here, is not an argument in itself. So: par two is where we diverge, and par three carries that divergence further. Not only would I be very happy to defend any of Paul’s (non-500) examples, Ingolf, I would concentrate on what by thread consensus seems to be the ‘silliest’ one. Paul’s ‘weather forecast/pressure line’ example, in its near reductio ad absurdum of the epistemological stakes up for grabs in this Information Age, presents the most lucid illustration of what he, or at least I, mean when I talk about the battle between ‘style’ and ‘substance’.

    So now we have an epistemological problem of our times and thread, Ingolf. As it happens I’ve spent much of my day off today when I should have been thrashing my Strat – more cretin me – working on a detailed argument in defense of Paul’s ‘silliest’ example. It runs to about 2000 words. I reckon it’s not a bad one. I reckon it’s not too hard to read. I reckon it takes this thread to new places, even. But then I would say all that, wouldn’t I?

    Do I post it, or not? If not, why not? You tell me, Club Troppo. Let’s do what (I argue) Ingolf just did in par two, and determine the future terms (AKA limits) of discussion on this thread by the defining epistemological un-mechanism of our age, one I reject (and depise, as a near-inescapable cage fiecely guarded by ceaseless incumbents, curse the Boomer Language Professionals Who Will Not Die Off Or Shut Up): consensual attrition.

    It’s your site, Troppity Bip, your post, your thread, your money paying for bandwidth, your imprimatur getting tarnished by a loony moonbat like moi, your pub’s gates being gatecrashed. What does everyone who has contributed to this thread so far think? Shall I post my 2000-er? And which will better support my case – a ‘Yay’ or ‘Nay’?

    PS: Derrida Derrida, if you need a hand making up your mind whether CT should let me post my next jungle of adjectives, here’s the opening half dozen or so sentences (to give you a feel for its methodological approach and ‘style’ in general):

    “It’s your site, Troppity Bip, your post, your thread, your money paying for bandwidth, your imprimatur getting tarnished by a loony moonbat like moi, your pub’s gates being gatecrashed. What does everyone who has contributed to this thread so far think? Shall I post my 2000-er? And which will better support my case – a ‘Yay’ or ‘Nay’?

    PS: Derrida Derrida, if you need a hand making up your mind whether CT should let me post my next jungle of adjectives, here’s the opening half dozen or so sentences (to give you a feel for its methodological approach and ‘style’ in general):

  43. Ken Parish says:

    Jack

    How about if you send it to me by email and I’ll post it as a document in the Troppo WordPress database and then create a hyperlink to it here in the discussion thread? That way people can read it in all its glory without making the discussion thread too physically long and slow-loading. Email to ken dot parish at cdu dot edu dot au .

  44. Ingolf says:

    Jack, I confess I don’t understand what you’re really driving at — at least not yet — but I certainly have zero intention of putting any “limits of discussion on this thread”. Not that anyone would let me anyway!

    Ken’s idea sounds a good one. Don’t know if I’ll end up participating but always happy to see a good argument.

  45. Jack Robertson says:

    Ta heaps, Ken, that’s an infuriatingly generous and deflatingly sensible offer. Will do. Also….meta-bugger.

    ‘…in all its glory…’. Cheeky bitch.

  46. Jack Robertson says:

    Hi Sacha, as a result of Ken’s generous indulgence I was – fitfully, between bub-minding and mad grabs at passing computers – trying to refine a long comment better explaining what I was getting at, specifically by way of defending Paul’s meteorological example as being anything other than silly, or pedantic, as it was generally regarded. Shorter and more useful to respond directly now to this:

    “The way of presenting a predicted pressure chart imposes certain limitations on what can be presented (even if in only the level of detail). The fact that these limitations mean that we aren

  47. Paul Frijters says:

    Dear Sacha and Jack,

    firstly I feel a little embarrassed by the fierce defense Jack has given me. I dont know if I deserve all that effort.
    I can illuminate the weather example though. Of course I dont know exactly how the weather maps are produced. I know enough to know that the maps are an elaborate abstraction. Abstracting doesnt bother me in the slightest. Abstractions are the name of the game in economics all the time and the full complexity of reality needs simplification in many situations. The weather maps were meant as an illustration of how even the most simple things on the news are in a strict sense a fabrication but they are not presented as a fabrication. I didnt know better until quite recently that pressure maps were the absolute truth. I had no idea they were predictions. Now, people can profess their smartness all they want, but I find it hard to believe that there wouldnt be large slabs of the population who still dont know better than that the weather pressure maps (i.e. those describing events of the previous 24 hours) convey the absolute truth. What I would like to see is weather presenters telling us we’re looking at abstractions rather than pretending they are quoting the holy scriptures. What goes for weahter goes for finance and nearly everything else: why cant journos tell us when they are presenting simplifications? It is true that the weather example is a little silly because at the end of the day ‘who cares?’ but its a perfect illustration of the ‘truth’ factory. The really important example in my list was of course the Taliban example where what we are fed may be completely made up and where we as a public may be lead to ignore gross misdoings. Once the public is desensitised to expect to be told fabrications without due warnings however, one should not look surprised when they’re not that critical with the more important issues either because they will simply not ne prepared to expend the mental energy to keep track of ‘truth’ in the way Nick suggests.
    There’s one point of the discussion above I want to comment on further, which is whether someone is allowed to say something about a subject even if (s)he does not know 100% of the issues. I fully agree with Jack that not knowing a 100% about something should never proclude anyone from saying something about them. Not only would it mean no-one could say anything of interest because there’s simply more being written about any single important topic than one could possibly read, but it would mean an abandoning of the democratic ideals in which each person is supposed to form an opinion about everything based on very limited information. Those who believe that only supposed experts have a right to an opinion, even if one only needs a subset of the information on that subject, are on the road to a very nasty political regime indeed.

  48. Pingback: Club Troppo » Can you handle the truth II: does everybody lie and does it matter?

  49. Pingback: Club Troppo » The real Australia

Comments are closed.