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Reality-based journalism in the US

May 24th, 2011

The fact that, with no observable exceptions, the US Republican Party relies on delusional beliefs for most of its claims about economics, science and history has been obvious for some years. But, until recently it’s been outside the Overton Window. That seems to have changed, as witness:

* Jacob Weisberg, who only a little while ago was giving qualified praise to the Ryan Plan, now says the Repubs have

moved to a mental Shangri-La, where unwanted problems (climate change, the need to pay the costs of running the government) can be wished away, prejudice trumps fact (Obama might just be Kenyan-born or a Muslim), expertise is evidence of error, and reality itself comes to be regarded as some kind of elitist plot.

* USA Today comparing Republican climate change delusionism to birtherism and saying

The latest scientific report provides clarity that denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. It paves a path to a future fraught with melting ice caps, rising sea levels, shifting agricultural patterns, droughts and wildfires.

* The Washington Post, home of High Broderism says “the Republican Party, and therefore the U.S. government, have moved far from reality and responsibility in their approach to climate change.”

* Even GOP house journal Politico draws the formerly off-limits link between “skeptics” and “deniers”, regarding the Republican adoption of fringe economic theories suggesting the US can safely leave the debt ceiling unchanged.

Why is this happening now, after years of apparent Republican immunity from any kind of fact-based challenge? And how will this affect public debate in the US and elsewhere?

The precipating event, I think, was Obama’s release of his long-form birth certificate. The timing was brilliant, and indicative of political skills that seemed to have deserted Obama for some time. By the time he acted, it had become clear that the majority of Republican supporters supported birtherism (at least verbally) and that no-one in the Republican Party (or among conservatives more generally) was prepared to confront birtherism head-on as a racist delusion. The par position among “sensible” rightwingers was something like “Of course, I believe that Obama was born in Hawaii, but he has only himself to blame for not releasing the long-form certificate (and, in any case, Democrat supporters also believe crazy things[1])”. That position sounded safe, but looked awfully silly in retrospect, especially when Donald Trump took the credit for it.

The killing of bin Laden a few days afterwards set the seal on things. As Scott McLemee observed, Obama seemed to be making life difficult for himself in his quest to impose Sharia law on an unsuspecting US populace. The desperate attempts of Republicans to claim that it was their policy of torture that made Obama’s success possible looked even sillier given their longstanding endorsement of, or acquiescence in, birtherism.

Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat of events, minor in themselves, and unlikely to have counted for much in the past, that fit the frame “Republicans=delusion”.

* The release of yet another authoritative report on climate change by the National Academy of Sciences

* The exposure of massive plagiarism and other misconduct in the work of Edward Wegman, lead expert in the attack on the climate change “hockey stick”

* The massively publicised predictions of a Doomsday rapture, which have permitted general mockery of a belief that (minus the nomination of a specific date) is held by lots of Americans[2] and almost certainly the majority of the Republican base

* The debate over budget policy, the Ryan plan and the debt ceiling, in which the Very Serious Centrists (a group exemplified, until very recently, by Jacob Weisberg) took a hammering from real experts like Krugman, who could work with numbers rather than being taken in by rhetoric.

Once the frame is in place, examples can be multiplied indefinitely (evolution, DDT, bogus US history, “Climategate”, the Breitbart scams etc etc). Moreover, thanks to blogs and work like Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science, both the framework and the material required on most individual topics is ready to hand. So, no great intellectual effort is required to fit any particular story into this analytical framework. That’s important given that most journalists (like most people) aren’t too keen on intellectual effort.

And, there is no obvious way back for the Republicans or for the US right more generally. The great majority of the conservative/propertarian intellectual apparatus (thinktanks, commentariat, blogs) has been actively engaged in peddling delusions (most notably on climate change and economics) and none[3] has been willing and able to mount a consistent defence of reality. The few who have tried to do this on individual issues (for example, Bruce Bartlett on economics) have been read out of the movement in short order, and have mostly found themselves questioning their conservative position more generally.

So, the shift in the Overton window shouldn’t prove too difficult as far as analysis and op-eds are concerned. On the other hand, as Jay Rosen has been tweeting today it’s a big challenge for political news reporters are concerned. Rosen says

Political journalism exists so that politics can be reality-based… right? But if one of the parties isn’t, the press circuits get fried.

Rosen is an acute observer, and I respect his judgement, but I think he overstates the case here. As he implicitly admits, the press routinely treats as presumptively false claims made by any political group that lies outside the Overton window. And for the Murdoch media (Fox, WSJ etc) that includes the Democratic Party. There’s nothing technically difficult about writing political news stories with the premise (implicit at all times and explicit when necessary) that the subject is either deluded or dishonest.

The real problem is that such a shift will mean the end of what has been a united front of the journalism profession against everyone else (most obviously bloggers and other outside competitors). This front was seen in operation when the Obama Administration tried, early on, to take a stand against Fox and was threatened with a general boycott. Objections to Fox lies were seen as a political attack on the press as an institution. Of course, the political right has long had it both ways, exploiting mainstream adherence to conventions of balance and ‘objectivity’ (not to be confused with willingness to state objective facts as such), while disregarding these conventions.

As Rosen implies, a world in which one party is actively hostile to reality is a world in which there is no such thing as “the press”. Rather there is a pro-reality press and an anti-reality press, and it’s up to the audience to determine which is which. It’s no doubt a reflection of my perennial optimism, largely unjustified by the events of my lifetime, but I see the pro-reality side gaining the upper hand at last, and the advocates of centrist objectivity finally being forced to recognised this.

A pro-reality journalism will inevitably be hostile to the Republican party and its intellectual apparatus, but that doesn’t mean it should fall into the trap of reflexive support for the Democrats. The point is to report the truth, and report lies as lies, without falling into the equal and opposite traps of ‘balance’ and partisan loyalty.

What of the implications beyond the US? In all the English-speaking countries, there is a large section of the conservative commentariat (most obviously, but not exclusively, the Murdoch Press) whose business consists mostly of importing and retailing Republican/conservative/propertarian ideas. If these ideas become the subject of consistent ridicule in their home, they will be steadily harder to sell abroad.

Nevertheless, the political consequences of a shift to reality-based journalism won’t be entirely beneficial. The delusions on which the Republicans rely are a cover for the class interests of the very rich, and for the tribal loyalties and hatreds of their base. Blowing the cover may well produce an even cruder politics of interests and tribalism. And, as I’ve argued before, the centrist managerialism of leaders like Obama (or for that matter, most of the current crop of social democratic politicians) doesn’t provide the genuine hope needed to counter the politics of tribalism.

fn1. I plan a long post on this false equivalence or tu quoque argument Real Soon Now.
fn2. There are lots of references to polls by Time and Newsweek suggesting that majority of Americans belief in the Rapture, but the second-hand reports of the questions seem too vague to allow this inference
fn3. Counterexamples accepted with gratitude

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  1. Watching the deniers
    May 24th, 2011 at 10:11 | #1

    Being the party of “No” may have had some short term political advantages, but as it has been stated for some time as a long term strategy, it makes one look very, very foolish.

    Trump looks a (even bigger) fool, and thus can be safely discounted as a contender. As is Palin, whose tweets, bulls eye targets etc.

    I think the recent shooting in Arizona is also a contributing factor, as it prompted debate about the quality and nature of debate in US politics.

    I suspect Abbot and the Lib’s are in for an equally nasty surprise, when their foolish stance in issues becomes more apparent. Not that Labor are doing themselves any favours…

    Now… what to do about the Murdoch propaganda machine? That’s the real deciding issue on the quality of debate both in the US and Australia.

  2. Mark Hadfield
    May 24th, 2011 at 10:21 | #2

    I wish I could believe it, but I suspect you are greatly underestimating people’s ability to hang on to their delusions.

  3. mikey
    May 24th, 2011 at 11:01 | #3

    Great article, really gives hope that the tide is turning. Back home we have Bob Brown and Lindsay Tanner stepping through the looking glass and the media making itself look silly – like Michael Pachi’s “I’m not being defensive!” outburst. People are noticing the Opposition failed to raise a single question about the budget in parliament. The lack (or suppression) of credible leadership in conservative circles – filled by ego, unreality and obstination – is becoming apparent here and in America… I’ve always felt the politics of the two countries were oddly synchronous.

  4. djm
    May 24th, 2011 at 11:05 | #4

    I’d like to hear some more on what you think the consequences for Australia are, John. The conservatives (media and politicians) are following the GOP script to the letter and, by all accounts, are winning because of it. Personally, I think a lot of their success can be attributed to Gillard’s abject failure as a leader, but the climate and economic delusion that the right are peddling here seem to be finding real resonance in the community.

  5. Michael
    May 24th, 2011 at 11:33 | #5

    It really is hard to believe what is going on in Australia where unreality based politics seems to be going gangbusters. There seems to be no let up in the deluge of anti-science denialists comments in the newspapers – no discredited talking point is left out. If anything it seems to be getting stronger. I doubt this is a widespread or strong opposition to science but the nut-jobs are filling the void.

    The sad fact is that since Labor dumped Rudd they have (in the media narrative anyway) lacked legitimacy and it’s hard to see a path back to it. This seems more significant than any half-baked opposition to a carbon tax that is not even detailed yet. It’s looking extremely doubtful that Gillard can turn things around.

  6. Mark
    May 24th, 2011 at 11:39 | #6

    What will be Tony Abbott’s “birtherism” issue?…..I suspect it will be Climate Change denialism. To have at least two senior members of the Coalition (Joyce & Minchin) argue the toss about whether or not CC is real, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, and it’s acceptance by most modern countries…… is akin to denying the evidence of Obama’s official Birth Certificate.

    These dangerous fanatics are being given air-time by our stupid and irresponsible media ……as if it’s suddenly become perfectly acceptable to give these deluded individuals a National platform from which to spread their rubbish.

    I sincerely hope all reasonable Australian’s start thinking and saying…”we want to live in the real world and we want our media to reflect the reality of our world”

  7. Peter T
    May 24th, 2011 at 11:41 | #7

    I think the turning point revolves around Republican plans to cut Medicare and Social Security. A large part of the US population is in a difficult financial position (see eg http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2011/05/23/nearly-half-of-americans-are-financially-fragile/), few see an immediate turn-around and, like Australians with WorkChoices, the changes touch a sensitive nerve.

    But can your optimism show a politically attractive reality-based program? Labor here, and the Democrats in the US, both seem on the perpetual defensive – it’s not the facts, it’s the lack of a narrative.

  8. O6
    May 24th, 2011 at 11:57 | #8

    Hadfield #2 and others are spot on wrt people strengthening their delusions rather than giving them up in the face of evidence. Deidre Macken on back page of today’s dead tree Aust. Fin. Rev. cites research in the journal Social Influence that gives part of the explanation: faced with conflict between lifestyle and belief, people change belief, not lifestyle.
    So prospects for sanity on climate change in Aust. remain bleak.

  9. Douglas
    May 24th, 2011 at 11:59 | #9

    Their ABC has a lot to answer for, giving so much attention to denier wackjobs.

  10. May 24th, 2011 at 13:30 | #10

    That’s right Douglas, it is the job of the ABC to push the Green’s political line. Crikey, what is the country coming to when the ABC reports actual news, & the punters make up their own minds!

  11. Michael
    May 24th, 2011 at 14:01 | #11

    @Steve at the Pub
    The actual news is that the climate denialists are distorting facts, repeating discredited talking points and making false claims. Why doesn’t the ABC report that instead of providing a fake balance where bozos and clowns get equivalent billing with actual scientists.

  12. NickR
    May 24th, 2011 at 14:29 | #12

    @Steve at the Pub
    It is remarkable that you believe that the ABC is pushing the Green’s political line. Given the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change it is much more parsimonious to think that both the Greens and the ABC are independently following the science, as I’m sure you would agree they should.

    If not, I hope you are equally frustrated by the ABC bias in favor of ‘spherical earth theory’.

  13. aidan
    May 24th, 2011 at 15:21 | #13

    You got another shout out from Krugman:

    John Quiggin is optimistic: he thinks that we may have reached a real turning point. I hope he’s right. But I doubt it. There’s a large cohort of people in the commentariat (and one in the White House, I fear) who are more or less liberal in sentiment, but desperately want to see themselves as men who transcend partisan differences; and to serve their self-image they keep looking for what Atrios calls “GOP daddies”, supposedly serious, sensible Republicans they can praise to show their open-mindedness.

    That description of liberals desperately wanting to be seen as non-partisan .. come on down Chris Uhlmann. Fits him to a tee.

  14. Ikonoclast
    May 24th, 2011 at 15:46 | #14

    @O6

    But then, faced by conflict between lifestyle and the physical reality of limits, people are eventually forced to change lifestyle and conform to physical reality.

  15. NME
    May 24th, 2011 at 15:55 | #15

    @Steve at the Pub

    Given 95% of scientists agree on the facts of AGW, they should get 95% of the air time (across all channels not just the ABC). That’s the real balance point. I’m happy for the delusionists to get their fair 5% share, however it would be better suited to light entertainment rather than the news.

  16. Marginal Notes
    May 24th, 2011 at 16:14 | #16

    Aidan @ #13 – I agree with you about Chris Uhlmann. I couldn’t keep watching his interview with Tim Flannery last night. I wasn’t sure if he was suffering from being in the shadow of Kerry O’Brien or, as you say, was striving for ‘balance’ with the unbalanced views of the Opposition so as to establish his reputation as a reasonable man.

  17. sam
    May 24th, 2011 at 16:20 | #17

    @NickR
    I would actually love for the abc to interview a flat-earther. They should then talk to a hollow-earther, a young-earth-creationist, a cigarettes-give-you-cancer skeptic, and finally, a climate change denier. They could call the show “Silly things that no sensible person believes.”

  18. NME
    May 24th, 2011 at 16:40 | #18

    @sam

    “Silly things that no sensible person believes.”

    No, a sitcom surely – with cheesy seventies British theme music. And they should share a house together.

  19. PJF
    May 24th, 2011 at 16:44 | #19

    John,
    It’s often difficult to identify these turning points, but they are undoubtedly critical. I don’t think Obama’s observations on Israel-Palestine in recent days, have been mentioned in the post or comments, but that’s an indicator of how the change in the US political climate has freed him to say something that would have been unthinkable 6-12 months ago.
    Richard Crossman was a not particularly successful Minister for the British equivalent of Social Security in the 1960s Wilson Government. However, he was a fine writer, and he produced a splendid three volume diary detailing his time in the Cabinet. It was only published after very lengthy court action.
    He recorded that on one occasion, he inadvertently misled the Commons in answer to a Parliamentary Question. That was a sackable offence in those more morally rigid times; however, Crossman was able to get away with a later apology and explanation, precisely because he had managed a few wins in his portfolio in previous weeks. If it had happened earlier, when he’d been struggling, he acknowledged that it would have been back to the farm.

  20. Brad
    May 24th, 2011 at 17:12 | #20

    Great Article, John. At your best.

    Have to take issue with one point though:
    *The massively publicised predictions of a Doomsday rapture, which have permitted general mockery of a belief that (minus the nomination of a specific date) is held by lots of Americans[2] and almost certainly the majority of the Republican base

    Are you suggesting that the erroneous prediction of a specific date legitimised mockery of a belief that excldues the nomination of a specific date? That doesn’t really make sense, does it?

    I don’t think the ravings of a wealthy lunatic ought to compromise the beliefs of many Republicans.

  21. Rationalist
    May 24th, 2011 at 17:48 | #21

    “The fact that, with no observable exceptions, the US Republican Party relies on delusional beliefs for most of its claims about economics, science and history has been obvious for some years.”

    That is an opinion.

  22. djm
    May 24th, 2011 at 17:55 | #22

    @Brad, publication of a specific date certainly normalised mocking of the rapture on an unprecedented scale.

  23. bobalot
    May 24th, 2011 at 18:37 | #23

    Rationalist :
    “The fact that, with no observable exceptions, the US Republican Party relies on delusional beliefs for most of its claims about economics, science and history has been obvious for some years.”
    That is an opinion.

    Really? A significant proportion of the party disbelieve evolution, believe the earth is 6000 years old and Obama is a secret Muslim.

    That’s not opinion either, there are multiple polls that show these delusional beliefs are rampant amongst Republicans.

  24. Rationalist
    May 24th, 2011 at 18:49 | #24

    @bobalot
    Who cares about that? Do they plan to legislate about Obama’s religion or the age of the Earth? I doubt any such beliefs if true or not affect the US debt and deficit problem.

  25. Alice
    May 24th, 2011 at 20:07 | #25

    @Rationalist
    There is one thing you can probably count on Ratio – the conservatives will make the deficit worse by slamming the economy with austerity measures, still demanding their bottomless tax cuts and leaving all things policy to central bankers and their friends.

  26. Alice
    May 24th, 2011 at 20:10 | #26

    Is anyone getting the impression the US conservatives are starting to unravel badly as a serious party and are maybe starting to be actually seen as peddling not only denialism but dangerously overdone pro rich pro extreme inequality policies?

  27. Freelander
    May 25th, 2011 at 04:19 | #27

    But will the people who seem to vote for them wake up? Seems too many Americans rely on FoxNews for their take on reality.

    Maybe the spate of ‘coming to their senses’ among the commentariat might have something to do with the bracing effect of the death and destruction wrought by recent tornadoes? If that is the case, maybe Tea party voters might come to their senses as well? But then again, they may simply interpret these ‘signs’ as part of the end of days.

    Maybe changing demographics will change things? The sooner Mexicans achieve ‘right of return’ to the old parts of Mexico the better. Having to sneak in is so undignified.

  28. Rationalist
    May 25th, 2011 at 05:44 | #28

    @Alice
    Well that’s just socialist.

  29. Fran Barlow
    May 25th, 2011 at 05:45 | #29

    Rationalist :“The fact that, with no observable exceptions, the US Republican Party relies on delusional beliefs for most of its claims about economics, science and history has been obvious for some years.”
    That is an opinion.

    It is an opinion, but it’s widely shared, and on compelling grounds. The impulse to counter-define onesself against observable reality speaks ill of the capacity to develop evidence-based public policy.

  30. Ikonoclast
    May 25th, 2011 at 08:59 | #30

    @Fran Barlow

    It is not an opinion. It is demonstrable fact that that the US Republican party now relies on delusional beliefs for most of its claims about economics, science and history.

  31. Ken Fabos
    May 25th, 2011 at 09:11 | #31

    As long as this is a trend and not a noisy spike on a downward slope.

    I fully expect reality to catch up with the climate change existence debate – likely too late – but economic disasters that the kleptocracy can’t largely insulate themselves from by making and changing rules that unsure the wider economy are the ones who pay seems to be built in, fundamental and unchangeable. Of course, getting widespread agreement that there is a problem doesn’t necessarily lead to agreement on solutions; for climate we’ll just see the debate shift from being about it’s existence to intransigence when it comes to action.

    Recently heard Australian electricity industry expert (paraphrased) – a big enough carbon price to see a shift to gas from coal will hurt enough that we don’t want to do it, shifting to gas is our only possible concession as increasing electricity supply is the industry’s priority not reducing emissions, Green solar schemes are mad.

    The industry we most need to be fully focused on the shift to low emissions has shown no interest or urge to do so and finds it advantageous and more ‘cost effective’ to continue their ‘can’t be done, don’t be silly, we’ll all be rooned’ opposition to policies that might do the minimum necessary to meet even the easiest first round targets. That this shift is not optional and the consequences of failure will hurt much, much worse than a high carbon price – high enough to favour renewables – has not yet become part of their version of reality.

  32. Fran Barlow
    May 25th, 2011 at 11:02 | #32

    @Ikonoclast

    It is not an opinion. It is demonstrable fact that that …

    Hmm … sounds like empiricism here to me. While I use the word “fact” to describe opinions for which there is no reasonable alternative inference, strictly speaking, all apparent facts are inferences both about the existence of a reality to which it refers, and its attributes. They are thus, in common parlance, opinions.

    I am aware that it is the fashion in epistemically empiricist circles to derogate opinion when set beside apparent facts, but that’s just a consequence of the weakness in the episteme rather than something that should bother the thoughtful. Pace Terry Lovell, one is entitled to infer that a real world exists, and coherent actione demands this assumption, but one ought to be far more cautious in making claims about its configuration based on the ostensible proxy data. We humans learn to live with provisional and partial insight.

    We all have opinions. Some are spurious or specious and some well attested by what most people take to be the observable world. Serious debate is the process is distinguishing the former from the latter so that it is the spurious or specious that is derogated in favour of the intellectually rigorous.

  33. Ernestine Gross
    May 25th, 2011 at 11:28 | #33

    I wonder how people who think like Fran Barlow make up their mind whether or not to take an umbrella when leaving the house for a long walk after an person who thinks like Ikonoclast entered the house and announced “it is raining”.

  34. Ernestine Gross
    May 25th, 2011 at 11:29 | #34

    “an person” should be “a person”.

  35. Alex
    May 25th, 2011 at 12:23 | #35

    @aidan To gain some insight in Uhlman’s agenda, you need to read a little about former ACT MLA, Paul Osbourne. Osbourne rose to power on the back of throwing a match winning pass in the 1994 NRL grand final. Once elected the public found out that he was a far right-ring whackjob. Guess who his chief advisor was? Uhlman also unsuccessfully ran as an MLA on Osbourne’s far right-wing ticket. The guy now hosts ABC’s flag ship current affairs program; great!

  36. Ikonoclast
    May 25th, 2011 at 12:25 | #36

    @Fran Barlow

    For sure, epistemologically, we could even take an extreme idealist position (like that of Bishop George Berkeley) and argue that material reality does not exist at all. Berkeley’s philosophy is internally consistent and not strictly refutable in philosophical terms. Nonetheless, the reputed refutation of Johnson tends to carry considerable weight with empiricists.*See footnote.

    However, to get down to tintacks. You make a claim which is a semantic and conflation error which leads on to a category mistake. You make the meaning of “opinion” so broad you conflate the most absurd fanciful opinions with carefully attested empirical knowledge (facts) which have not yet been refuted by any test or experiment. Your derogatory reference to empiricism (the only method yet devised to obtain nearly certain knowledge and nearly certain facts with an order in many cases of something like 99.999999999% certainty) is revealing.

    Your appeal to common parlance to support your broad definition of “opinion” is fraught with danger and exactly where your category error occurs. Frankly, you can’t “do” serious philosophy in common parlance. You need to be more careful with your terms.

    * Footnote: “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.” Boswell: Life”

  37. Ikonoclast
    May 25th, 2011 at 12:38 | #37

    Further footnote.

    If I were to attempt to refute Berkeley, I would play around with the idea of material events leaving all sorts of “trace evidences” that appear to support materialism but would not be strictly necessary for a facade of idealism. However, that would fail to the idea of the Deity’s “perfect idealism” replete with as much ideal support evidence as necessary.

    Finally, I would appeal to the fact that with an all-powerful deity propounded as the ultmate cause, the operative difference between idealism and materialism loses its meaning for us. Thus the debate is pointless and pure idealism and pure materialism are functionally indistinguishable to any contingent entities (like humans).

  38. may
    May 25th, 2011 at 13:14 | #38

    Steve at the Pub :That’s right Douglas, it is the job of the ABC to push the Green’s political line. Crikey, what is the country coming to when the ABC reports actual news, & the punters make up their own minds!

    crikey, ABC board murdoch mouthpieces?

    crikey ,what’s the country coming to when fair and balanced is expected to be not a commercial slogan.

    yes and that tax payers drain on bandwidth actually has to answer to not the market.

    markets define content.

    of course they do and the invisible hand always lets the loser die in a ditch.

    that’s life sucker.

    there are punters,non punters and mug punters.

    crikey.

    poor old steve tried to commercialise the potential in stingrays.

    i wish he hadn’t done it,he is sorely missed.

  39. Fran Barlow
    May 25th, 2011 at 14:01 | #39

    @Ikonoclast

    You make the meaning of “opinion” so broad you conflate the most absurd fanciful opinions with carefully attested empirical knowledge (facts) which have not yet been refuted by any test or experiment.

    Is this a sound objection or an appeal to (unpalatable) consequences attack?

    Your appeal to common parlance to support your broad definition of “opinion” is fraught with danger and exactly where your category error occurs. … Frankly, you can’t “do” serious philosophy in common parlance.

    Actually, what I said first was: strictly speaking, all apparent facts are inferences both about the existence of a reality to which it refers, and its attributes. and then described the common parlance term: opinion. So I wasn’t trying to do philosophy with common parlance. I was challenging the view that describing something as an opinion inevitably made it unreliable, compared with things said to be facts. The delusionals and culture warriors on climate change cite “facts” all the time, and some of these really are well-attested (e.g. “the climate has always changed”; “CO2 lags temperature”; “Trenberth wanted to hide the decline”), albeit that they are exercises in cherrypicking, misdirection or some other logical flaw. These really are inadequately founded opinions masquerading as (salient) “facts” and when others whose inferences are the result of rigorous work challenge them what grants these “opinions” a different and higher status is precisely the integrity of the theory of which it is a part.

    It is fair to say — and I’ve said it often enough myself, that while everyone is entitled to an opinion, nobody is entitled to one’s own facts. That’s an appeal against simply misstating observable reality. Yet it does not follow that opinions are inferior, in some epistemic sense to facts, because in the end, all facts are mediated by humans, analysed, recomposed, and modelled to found inferences which can be the basis of rational conduct by individuals and groups. So when PrQ said:

    The fact that, with no observable exceptions, the US Republican Party relies on delusional beliefs for most of its claims about economics, science and history has been obvious for some years

    he was making an inference from his observations of the world. Many share it — with qualification, I do* — and it may well be a fact, but it’s certainly an opinion. As a mental exercise you might try expressing the salient values in an algorithm specifying how the value of reliance on delusion could be measured by a device and compiled to a result. Good luck with that.

    * the phrasing is a little confusing — no observable exceptions is very sweeping and sits oddly with most of its claims about economics, science and history. I put this under the heading of hyperbole. It’s not clear that the Republican party has a single set of claims about economics, science and history, though they fit together in rough fashion like an unruly student household. Much of what they say in these areas is not substantially different from what is claimed by the Democrats. I’d be surprised if Pat Robertson and Bob Barr would agree on very much. The dogwhistling and messaging is of course, quite another matter.

    What PrQ probably meant to say was that the US Republican Party seeks to garner support for its claims about economics, science and history by reliance on delusional beliefs about the world and has been doing so for long enough for at least some to have adopted these delusional beliefs as if they were their own.

    Large sections of US society are in ruins, culturally. The differences between rich and poor are egregious and raw. Large swathes of the poor and even the not so poor are suffering profound existential angst. The Republicans — the non-delusional ones — know full well that they have nothing to offer. Any solution they might propose that could begin to address the felt needs of the bottom half of US society would trample on the rights of the largest property holders — their backers — and smell dangerously like something most Americans would (in their ignorance) call socialism. If they are to maintain any kind of control over those who are fearful and harness their anger to ride into office and protect the privileged they need some new kind of political currency — and that lies in the politics of agnotology and delusion. It’s the only way that disparate numbers of people can be pressed into service behind a program which threatens to intensify their disadvantage. The struggle over authenticity — best exemplified by the birther idiocy, but which plays out in bizarrre claims of scientific conspiracy, claims about the loss of US sovereignty to world government, socialism, “Algore is fat”, “bureaucracy”, “Washington is broken” “carbon traders”, “undocumented workers” “illegals” etc — is the lead candidate here.

    Once one sees this, one need not decide whether any Republican activist actually believes what they say (though it seems that Glenn Beck may actually believe his own nonsense), much less relies on it to devise policy. Nor need we conclude that Roger Ailes or Rupert Murdoch believes it. They utter delusion because they must do so to serve their immediate social needs, and it is in this sense that the misinformation is culturally produced i.e. agnotology.

  40. may
    May 25th, 2011 at 14:14 | #40

    thanks Fran
    çouldn’t have said it better myself,

    and that is not an opinion.

  41. Ikonoclast
    May 25th, 2011 at 14:38 | #41

    Fran, my opinions certainly coincide with yours in your last two paragraphs. I concur with them completely and you express it well. I think we could both back such opinions with a vast amount of very firm evidence. I won’t get bogged down here and now calling the more objective part of such evidence “empirical facts” (shorthand) or “objective scientific evidence comrpising knowledge to a high degree of certainty that it is currently unrefuted by a great many observations and experiments” (slightly longer hand). Not to mention that we could show that the hard part of our evidence (climate evidence, sociological evidence etc.) integrates with all essential aspects of broader hard science. Seeing what the USA has become is to see both a travesty and a harrowing tragedy.

    On the epistemological issues where we disagree it is perhaps a matter of emphasis rather than any really wide difference. I see you are being a bit close to post-modernism or philosphical relativism. You probably see me as being a bit close to logical positivism. In both cases, I think such labels would be an unfair and simplistic caricature of our real positions.

  42. John Quiggin
    May 25th, 2011 at 15:46 | #42

    @Alex Wow, that explains a lot. Most commentary so far had him down as overcompensating for being married to a Labor pollie.

  43. Jason
    May 25th, 2011 at 16:56 | #43

    Politico a GOP House journal? Have you read it lately?? Constant complaints in comments about its Democrat leanings!

    http://www.politico.com/opinion/

  44. Freelander
    May 25th, 2011 at 17:37 | #44

    @John Quiggin

    If you listen to ABC radio, in particular NewsRadio, it is clear that the Howard era has been shockingly successful in repopulating the ABC with libertarian whack-jobs who are having no shame when it comes to spinning the news whether domestic or international.

    This morning there was yet another great example. Overnight, the BBC had reported that the CEO of budget airline, Ryanair, was having a spray against the air regulators in Britain about their handling of the volcanic ash from the latest Icelandic eruption. The regulators had identified a ‘red zone’, a dangerous concentration of volcanic ash, over Scotland. The Ryanair CEO responded “… the combination of bureaucratic incompetence between the Met office, with these nonsensical charts, and the CAA closed the skies over Glasgow”. ‘Earlier, Ryanair claimed the “red zone” over Scottish airspace where ash has been classified “high-density” was invented by the Met Office and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).’ The CEO also claimed that Ryanair had flown a test flight through the red zone and demonstrated that their were no problems. He also claimed that airlines were better placed than the regulators to know whether it was safe to fly or not, and trotted out the old line about companies having incentives to be concerned about the safety of their passengers.

    The regulators responded that based on tracking of the Ryanair ‘test’ flight by their radar: “The CAA can confirm that at no time did a Ryanair flight enter the notified area of high contamination ash over Scotland this morning.” Ryanair’s response to that was that the CAA was ‘covering’ itself.

    Anyway, ABC NewsRadio, for some reason, although entirely consistent with libertarian spin, chose to give extensive coverage to the Ryanair CEO’s many claims but carefully failed to mention the CAA response. That NewsRadio spins the domestic news is nothing new, but that it is even spinning international news is becoming somewhat Orwellian.

    As for Ulhmann, there is plenty of evidence that sexual preference is not a perfect guide to political preference. Ulhmann, being a former seminarian, as was Tony Abbott, has to make him somewhat suss regardless of who he sleeps with.

  45. Freelander
    May 25th, 2011 at 17:41 | #45

    @Jason

    Complaints because, as we know, reality has a well-know liberal bias.

  46. Fran Barlow
    May 25th, 2011 at 19:25 | #46

    @Ikonoclast

    On the epistemological issues where we disagree it is perhaps a matter of emphasis rather than any really wide difference. I see you {as} being a bit close to post-modernism or philosophical relativism. You probably see me as being a bit close to logical positivism. In both cases, I think such labels would be an unfair and simplistic caricature of our real positions.

    Very probably so. I have never doubted the existence of a material world — and thus see myself as an epistemological realist, in the Lovell framework. That’s not the same as asserting that one can in practice connect one’s observations and inferences with certainty to the material world to which each of us seeks intellectual access. Our knowledge is necessarily provisional and partial.

    I’m not a relativist however, since I don’t accept that all ostensible insights have the same provisional standing or accept the possibility of mutually exclusive truths. As to POMO, it’s almost paradoxical to try defining it and I am no kind of post-modernist — whatever that might be. It is amusing to interrogate culture using the language of literary critique and sometimes one can identify concepts that one might miss adopting other techniques, but beyond that, I see no value in POMO at all.

    I ce

  47. Donald Oats
    May 26th, 2011 at 02:58 | #47

    @Alex

    If what you claim re Uhlman is fact and not opinion (as per the parallel discussion taking place on this thread :-) ), then my opinion of the ABC as a stooge of the Rightwing-whack-job/Christian Fundamentalist/IPA/Neocon/Murdocracy version of media I now elevate to fact.

    I don’t mind seeing the occasional IPA or Christian or right side of politics on the ABC The Drum, especially as it is meant to be opinion; surely though, some level of editorial responsibility lies with the ABC to ensure that while opinion pieces are sought, they are not PR puffery or peddling demonstrably incorrect claims about what is fact and what is not; opinions need to be factually-based, not fantasy based, surely, when presented upon the national broadcaster’s web-site.

    On the topic at hand, I suspect Pr Q is irrepressibly optimistic; perhaps all that is changing is that some in the US media no longer want to risk being tarred with the dark stain of reporting unreality as though it was reality—no one wants the GOP to turn on them and to be blamed for the failings of the GOP, so I’d suggest that in the calculus of propaganda, some previously unreality-based reporters of GOP tenets have decided for themselves that the benefits of remaining in unreality are outweighed by the exposure to significant future costs.

    Such costs are that as American citizens reach that “heeey, wait a minute!” moment, and as they realise that they’ve been conned on some otherwise easily checked and proven things—Obama’s birth location for one—the question as to what else they’ve been conned on must arise, and this exposes any unreality reporters caught peddling unreality as that collective “Doh!” exclamation point is attained by the affected citizens. When the first rat leaves a ship, the others must pause and wonder momentarily: “What does that rat know about this ship that I don’t?”, and then jump ship as well. The clarion call has been made, so will the unreality rats leave the GOP unreality ship, or stay and risk drowning? We’ll see.

  48. Freelander
    May 26th, 2011 at 05:55 | #48

    It is difficult to see Uhlman as something other than a “stooge of the Rightwing-whack-job/Christian Fundamentalist/IPA/Neocon/Murdocracy”simply from observing the way he behaves. Also, given the way the ABC has gone, they wouldn’t put him in the position he is now in if he wasn’t. The ABC still has some specially ‘picked’ ‘liberals’. You can probably identify them yourself. They are suitably silly self-parodying members of the looney left, who present outlandish views that the wise folk who now run the ABC probably recognise almost no-one would want to be associated with. Choosing such caricatures suits the libertarian mindset.

    A good example of that mind set was Uhlman trying to characterise Bob Brown as wanting the immediate closing down of every aspect of the coal industry. If Bob Brown did believe that, the new ABC would hire him on the spot to provide ‘balance’. The ABC becomes more ‘fair and balanced’ every day.

  49. Alice
    May 26th, 2011 at 07:09 | #49

    @Rationalist
    Thankyou for the compliment Ratio.

  50. aidan
    May 26th, 2011 at 10:21 | #50

    @Alex Thanks for the heads up re Uhlmann. I remember Paul Osborne (now CEO of the Parramatta Eels NRL club). Now I don’t quite know what to think about Uhlmann.

  51. Jim Birch
    May 26th, 2011 at 10:23 | #51

    Then again, what’s worse: journos who are failed politicians or politicians who are failed journos.

  52. aidan
    May 26th, 2011 at 11:34 | #52

    Yeah … but (always a but), Osborn was, well, weird, wacko, lazy and stupid. To throw your lot in with him I really question Uhlmann’s judgment. Maybe he saw himself as the power behind the throne? Who knows. Still, very strange. I notice there is no mention of this in his official ABC biography.

  53. Donald Oats
    May 28th, 2011 at 02:49 | #53

    Abbott endorsed Uhlmann only recently, in the sense that he pointed refused to complain about ABC bias with regards to current journalism on 7:30, ABC News, Lateline, Four Corners, ie the news and current affairs section of ABC TV (free-to-air). When I read of that and then saw the footage (of Abbott), I wasn’t aware of Uhlmann’s ticket as an independent, or that he was pursuing a range of agendas including killing bills that were labelled “pro-abortion”, or “pro-euthanasia”, or “pro-injecting-room”. I’m guessing now that this is why Abbott thinks Uhlmann is fair and balanced—after all, they both have similar views with a common Roman Catholic bent. Far from Uhlmann bending over backwards to not be seen as a Labor stooge (which could be the default assumption, based on his marriage to Gai Brodtmann (Canberra)), he is fairly cosy with the neo-con or at least conservative Liberal party elements. Perhaps he can shake this off and be more neutral in his journalism as he claims he can; his interviewing style will need some major tune-up though.

  54. James Haughton
    June 1st, 2011 at 10:34 | #54

    As an example of sudden turns towards reality, Adam Creighton of the CIS had a piece in Crikey yesterday advocating for higher wages and pointing out that “95% of Australia’s nine million or so taxpayers have taxable incomes below $130,000 a year”- though to be fair to the CIS’s non-reality-based credentials, I’m not sure that he realised that’s what he was advocating.

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