Why Now?
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
  Black & White

I was listening to All Things Considered and Drew Westen had a report titled: "Media Takes Advantage of Brain’s Shortcoming".

His basic premise was that the media has been presenting a barebones story and then having two commentators argue about the story, the assumption being that there are two, and only two, sides to every story and the sides have equal weight, without regard to facts.

Anyone who checks out the Daily Howler is familiar with this situation, and the run up to the election provided multiple cases of this behavior in the major media, often with the media providing both sides of every issue without any attempt at fact checking or even a basic review of the logic of the two sides.

Mr. Westen went on to discuss research that people seemed to ignore the facts and accept the version that makes them feel better. There doesn’t seem to be any critical thinking involved: people may be exposed two sides, but they only hear the facts and views that agree with their beliefs.

Special interest groups have been using this for years to promote their causes. Consider the Evolution/Intelligent Design battle. One side is a true scientific theory based on evidence gathered for over a century, and the other is a construct put together with the single purpose of opposing Evolution. People who have academic credentials are presented as experts to debate the issue.

This entire mess is a form of the false dichotomy: if you disprove A, B must be true, or, more often in certain forums, if you can’t disprove A, then B must be false.

The first problem I have with this trend is that there are usually more than two sides to important issues. I have investigated two-car fender-benders and have come away with a half dozen differing versions of what happened, and none of them matched the physical evidence at the scene. As any long-time investigator will tell you, there is almost nothing as unreliable as eye-witness testimony. As we now understand, the brain has a habit of filling in details from memories already stored and those memories are not usually exact matches for reality.

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the situation is that there is no rational filtering of the claims of the two sides that get presented. If one side is presenting documented facts and the other is presenting opinion, that should be noted and more weight should be given to the facts.


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