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. 

6 thoughts on “Evidence versus inference”

  1. I think of the scenes in All the Presidents Men, where because they want to claim malfeasance they are held to evidentiary standards that would meet the legal standards of libel laws.

    It seems as though the WaPo, and CJR, and perhaps the profession generally thinks of journalistic ethics primarily as meeting a bare minimum standard (a sort of legal compliance).

    Under the cover of being “fair and balanced” the editors allow all sorts of intellectual irresponsibility as we’ve been documenting for years now.

    The WaPo and CJR seem unable to distinguish between the virtues that belong to the activity of reporting facts and those that belong to the activity of making arguments. They seem to think that making an argument is just asserting an opinion, and since, we shouldnt’ regulate opinion, we shouldn’t regulate arguments.

    Once again, this points to the need for “logic checkers” at the major media outlets.

  2. jcasey, I agree with your overall argument; however, don’t you think you’re a little guilty of a false equivalence here? global-warming deniers = Holocaust deniers?

  3. I didn’t make that comparison.  My claim is that Holocaust deniers could claim to merely be inferring between agreed upon facts.  The point is that inferences do a lot more work than the editors suggest.

  4. yes, it’s like you use to say: build your opponent’s best argument and then take it down.  It seems that this is too challenging for some.

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