Choose your own facts

Everyone has heard the expression, "you can choose your own something or other, but not your own facts."  Well, in a way, no.  Here's the way, according to Washington Post's Ombudsman, Andrew Alexander:

Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments. But they aren't free to distort them.

The question of whether that happened is at the core of an uproar over a recent George F. Will column and The Post's fact-checking process.

That sounds wrong to me.  Two quick reasons.  First, there seems to be a question of scale.  If we have three facts that support a claim, and 97 which don't, an opinion columnist at the post is free to argue talk about the three to the exclusion of the 97.  Let's say, for instance, that one tiny piece of evidence (of dubious origin) holds that a certain person is guilty of a crime, yet a pile of evidence shows the opposite.  The Post's Ombudsman thinks it would be fine to mention the one piece, and not the others, creating the impression that the preponderance evidence leans the other way.

Second, we have a question of context.  Facts have a context in which they are true.  In George Will's recent column (which after all is the occasion for this piece), he alleges–and this is the foundation for his argument–that there was a global cooling hysteria in the 1970s.  This may be true of the popular media, but it wasn't true of scientists (who argued that the climate was warming).  There's a fact, sort of I guess, with no context producing a rather misleading inference.  This is especially true if the audience does not have a very clear grasp of the background information (which information makes Will's columns appear ridiculous). 

Choosing your own facts, in other words, can be a method of distortion, and, in this case it was.

10 thoughts on “Choose your own facts”

  1. I remember learning about “card stacking,” as it is called, in third grade. I used it often in English papers throughout high school and college liberal arts course. It was just an accepted fact to me that individuals would shape an argument to a preconceived conclusion by presenting the facts in a manner, or order that would direct the reader / listener / viewer towards the same result. The idea was to do it so that the bias was well hidden and not as obvious, and to appear objective, while recognizing that objectivity (or the appearance there of) was only another technique. The realization that scientific methodology could be used for practical matters began to seep in during college, and the concept of agreed upon rules for logical arguments, or rather agreed upon violations or fallacies only became evident fairly recently to me. It is in the very nature of the education of journalists and English majors to have a postmodernist view that believes that all opinions and sometimes even reality is subjective. Until this is corrected, you can expect this type of world view to persistently be held by members of the media and politicians.

  2. Good point Andrew; however, it’s not only the journalists that are guilty of this. Scientists are especially prone to it because of the actual method used.

  3. First, I’m not sure that “it is in the very nature of the education of journalists and English majors to have a postmodernist view” is true. In fact, I think it is false. Second, BN, what is inherently postmodernist about the scientific method?

  4. It is in the very nature of the education of journalists and English majors to have a postmodernist view that believes that all opinions and sometimes even reality is subjective.

    First off, “postmodernist” means one of two things: one, in the temporal, history of philosophy sense, it means what comes after the modern period. In other words, post-Kantian philosophy. Here’s a short list of those movements:

    nihilism
    idealism (at least in the Hegelian sense)
    phenomenology
    existentialism
    Marxism
    liberalism
    pragmatism
    materialism
    logical positivism
    behaviorism

    All these movements are “post-modern,” in the temporal sense, and some are wholly subjective in their content, some are completely objective, some are a bit of both, and some are neither.

    There’s a second sense of “postmodernist,” which is the sense in which it refers to a literary genre that emerged in America and on the continent of Europe after WWII , as best exemplified in the novels of Barthelme, DeLillo, and Pynchon. There is supposedly a style of literary criticism which marches under the banner of “postermodernism,” but that contention is little more than a conflation of movements like Marxist-feminism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstructionism. Probably the last “-ism” on that list is what most often is mislabeled “postmodernism,” but this demonstrates both a feeble grasp of 20th century literature and the body of critcism surrounding it, as well as a vast overstating of the impact of Derrida on contemporary culture.

    There is no postmodern ethos, no founding creed. It is a nebulous term used to cloak a refusal to engage in any sort of consructive debate as some sort of informed opinion. But once we pass sophmoric stages of inquiry, we find “postmodern” to be so misapplied as to have been quite nearly emptied of real content. It has now become little more than linguisitc shorthand for any philosophical movement, literary or otherwise, the runs afoul of a certain strain of metaphysical presuppositions.

    George Will doesn’t lie and utilize dubious rhetorical tactics because of a wholesale rejection of objective truth in mainstream culture; he does it because he is a sophist and a liar.

  5. I think all of these people wringing one hand over Will’s shoddy work re-inforce the point that we’ve been making for 5 years. It’s not enough to hold the political media to the facts. That should be the minimal standard. More important is a standard of logic.

    On the most charitable interpretation, I can see that each arguer can offer the strongest possible argument from available facts. But, when that arguer is repeatedly shown to be offering bad arguments even if the facts are true, then they should be made to find some other line of work–perhaps local blow-hard at the bar (11AM shift), or internet crank.

    It’s as though the WaPo is arguing that scientists can publish whatever opinions they have, and support them with whatever data they want and infer whatever they want from the data, as long as the data is not actually mis-represented. They can select a sub-set of the data, i.e. cherry-pick, and ignore conflicting data.

    This seems to be the standard that CJR and WaPo is advancing for their profession. It seems to me that there is a basic confusion of the reporting and commenting roles in journalism. The seeming total lack of understanding of the difference would best be addressed, as John has said, by requiring some Critical Thinking 101 coursework for journalists.

  6. And I would add that I think the reluctance to engage questions of inference in opinion pieces is probably a misguided or confused form of the belief that an editor should not decide what opinions can or cannot be expressed. Some sort of commitment to the ideal of “free debate” in political matters seems to be a laudable goal for editors of op-ed pages. But, that would be consistent with holding opinion pieces to basic standards of reasoning.

  7. I think the arguments above hold strongest for the reporter role, since reporters are supposed to be presenting the news, albeit with some bias. Op-ed writers have a somewhat different, more political role, and all is fair in love and war and politics; though they may look like opening salvos in a debate, in the George Will case at least, debate (two-sided by definition) is not what is happening.

    But isn’t it debate that forces facts out on the table, and isn’t that where we can have the best chance of improving logic and getting smarter conclusions, since few of us are all that smart individually? I would like to see a “columnist” who was a debate moderator basically – each day pushing a moderated debate forward, based on “comments” to a beginning thread. I read a NYT op-ed piece, then look at the editor’s pick of the top 10 comments out of 500, and there is some good stuff there.

  8. Jem, there is nothing inherently postmodernist about the scientific method. My point had to do with the scientific method and manipulation/selection of facts(scientific data). A scientist that wants to prove his hypothesis will look for any evidence that supports it. A good scientist is one that does not “chooses his own facts” but one who looks at all the data related to his hypothesis. To some degree that’s what an op-ed is as well, you start with your hypothesis and try to prove it. In my opinion, a good op-ed is one that anticipates the strongest argument against its hypothesis and it gives a proper answer to it.

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