Tag Archives: Columbia Journalism Review

Evidence versus inference

The following line from the Columbia Journalism Review strikes me as an extremely odd position to take.   

But his point about the wiggly, lawyerly language is especially germane because this is a classic case of evidence versus inference. The Post can argue that, technically, all of the evidence Will presents passed fact-checking; and Will can then infer what he wants about that evidence—even if his inferences differ drastically from those of the scientists who collected the evidence—without journalistic foul.

If I read this correctly, CJR is asserting that the only commitment journalists have is to the facts in the narrowest possible sense of the term.  As an op-ed writer, I can assert any two facts, and, so long as they are true, I can draw any inference I want between them.  I think this is kind of dumb for a number of reasons.

One, it's the job of an Opinion-editorial writer to make inferences between facts; they're not journalists.

Two, inferences are evidence.  Will used those inferences between facts as evidence for the claim that global warming hysteria is sweeping the nation.

Three, inferences vary in type and degree.  Some of them are objectively bad, some objectively good, and some are objectively in the middle. 

Four, it does not violate anyone's freedom of conscience to deny their inferences a public forum.  Holocaust deniers, racists, and the rest make their cases with inferences between things that are facts.  The problem often lies with the inferences they draw from the available facts.  Holocaust deniers will fix on the absence of some one particular kind of evidence in order to infer–got that, INFER–that the Holocaust is a sham.  George Will has fixed on two isolated facts (which weren't as he said they were, but any, for the sake of argument) and drawn a similarly ridiculous conclusion.

Five, for the above reasons, I infer (1) that the Post ought to do a better job of editing, and more importantly (2) the smart guys at CJR ought to take a basic critical reasoning course.