In a compelling but slightly unnerving blog post today, Amy Gahran argues that journalists should accept the fact that people are, in many ways, psychologically wired to resist the truth. Fighting it is pointless, she says. Instead, “to help people understand how things really are,” journalists must find ways to “to accommodate—not deny—these psychological tendencies.” But where, I worry, does that approach lead?
Gahran’s post was sparked by her reading of Seth Mnookin’s Panic Virus, in particular its discussion of the various cognitive quirks that lead people to cling to misguided beliefs in spite of demonstrable facts to the contrary. There’s nothing new about these psychological phenomena, but as Farhad Manjoo argued in True Enough, the Internet can serve to reinforce them. Through the fragmentation of media, it’s easy for believers to find plenty of sources that confirm rather than challenge their ideas. While a few might relish challenging themselves intellectually, most don’t.
So for journalists, Gahran argues, facts are no longer sufficient in themselves. Somehow, in presenting those facts, you have to take into account the predilection of readers to disbelieve or ignore them. Gahran says it isn’t clear how to do that, but feels certain—and I think she’s right—that posing as a detached, uninvolved observer doesn’t work.
To put it another way, it’s not enough to be a presenter of the truth. You must be an advocate for it. You must want to make people accept it.
But I wonder: when you’re dealing with anosognosics—people who can’t recognize their own cognitive failings—is there any way to get them to accept reality without wrapping it in deception? Can you give such readers what they need without, perhaps impossibly, also giving them what they want? Does your goal of truth telling somehow imperceptibly slip into propaganda?
Faced with such questions, I tend to throw up my hands in despair and fall back on a selfish impulse: “This is my search for truth here. You can take it or leave it.”
That’s fine for me, but not for journalism. Truth-telling is transactional. As Gahran suggests, if journalists can’t find ways to get people to listen, they will have failed. The trick will be to do so without bending the truth in the process.
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Do we mistake truth for knowledge? Seems to me truth is what one believes in terms of one’s faith. Thus truth (and faith) cannot be debated. But knowledge can be debated and is all the time.
I’m reminded of a book I read called Knowledge From What, which was a critique of social science research methods. After reading this you might conclude that knowledge does not even exist, in part because of the incredibly faulty research methods we as journalists, marketers, social scientists and others use to gather and report information. So much bias enters the process at every turn, not to mention errors due to lack of resources and time (and knowledge?), not caring, political or social agendas, or laziness or who knows what else.
Still so many others rely on anecdotes, which must never be mistaken for research, as evidence to maintain wrongly-held beliefs (faith and truths, not knowledge). And these anecdotes are used as examples in reporting because they are said to add depth or color.
And then there’s the Woodward and Bernstein requirement of having a minimum of two confirming sources. Is there a maximum?
Perhaps a better question is: Does it matter? Or is knowledge more of a long-term goal than a short-term one? Isaac Asimov’s psycho-history could predict behavior over thousands of years, but not over one day. Time might give us knowledge (wisdom, more probably) as some of us filter out the unpleasantness of failing recognition as you indicate. We are human after all, born incompetent, struggling every day to understand.
Those are my principles. If you don’t like them I have others. — Groucho
Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, uh… Now you tell me what you know. — Groucho