Correcting Untruths

We here at the Quantum Pontiff value truth in all its forms: theorems, lemmas, statistical inference, and hard experimental data, to name just a few. So I feel compelled to highlight the following.

In his column on the New York Times website, Author S. Brisbane states,

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.    …

[An] example: on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,” a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected…

As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?

What are we teaching journalism students that would lead them to ask this question in ernest? After double checking my calendar to make sure it wasn’t April 1st, I continued reading:

If [reporters should call out lies], then perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the president has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less:

“The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”

I’m not sure which is worse… that Mr. Brisbane feels he, a professional journalist, needs to ask his readers for their opinion on how to be a journalist, or that he doesn’t know the answer to this question which looks (to any scientist at least) to be completely obvious.

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” as a fellow once said. If you don’t know the answer to your question, Mr. Brisbane, then you are a stenographer, not a journalist, and you need to ask yourself why you would bother giving column inches in your newspaper to misinformation and distortions without bothering to correct them. Some things are true; you are not “biasing” anything by printing true statements.

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8 Responses to Correcting Untruths

  1. Robin says:

    I love the fact that “Related posts:” apparently include “Self-Correcting Quantum Computers”, Parts II-IV. Were those lies??? :)

    Seriously, excellent point. I wish it were being made in more forums, not just physics blogs.

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  2. John Sidles says:

    In principle, mathematicians should never squabble regarding the correctness of a proof (although in practice such squabbles sometimes happen), but mathematicians have often squabbled regarding the naturality of the proofs supplied by a given formalism.

    Similarly, perhaps Mitt Romney is speaking the truth within his political narrative  in which case the logically appropriate response is to deconstruct Romney’s narrative formalism.

    Such deconstructions — of any political narrative — mark the boundary between (what IAS historian Jonathan Israel calls) the Moderate Enlightenment and the Radical Enlightenment.

    Should 21st century STEM professional embrace the Radical Enlightenment (as Steve’s post, in effect, recommends)? That is one of those questions that has simple answers, safe answers, and true answers  but (IMHO) it has no answers that are simple, safe, and true.

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    • aram says:

      I think the people who are annoyed at the NYT don’t find Romney’s statements do be any great offense against the Truth. It may well be that he has a good explanation for why they make sense given his political perspective.

      What is annoying is that the NYT doesn’t ask him why his claim is true, and press him on his answer if it doesn’t make sense. You don’t need to believe in absolute truths to consider this part of the job of the press.

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    • Steve says:

      I think the fact that the parties involved were Mitt Romney and Paul Krugman just obscures the broader point. Replacing them with anyone else of similar stature or switching their political roles would lead to the same broad point.

      The point is that journalists should at least adopt a “coherentist” point of view, that things people are saying should make sense in a given context, including the context of known facts. If the comments don’t pass this test, the journalist needs to inform the readers directly and unequivocally.

      If that sacrifices “safe” in your classification, John, then I’m okay with that. :)

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      • John Sidles says:

        LOL … yet if we adopt a “coherentist” point-of-view, it is arguably Ron Paul’s ardent libertarianism and Paula Bachman’s ardently christian views, that are the most coherent of any candidates in the primaries (as their supporters will tell you). Whereas in contrast, the pragmatic, frequently self-contradicting, and even outright muddled political practices of centrist presidents like Clinton and Eisenhower, or of statesman like Lincoln and Jefferson, would rank poorly by any coherentist measure.

        And yet historians rank Clinton, Eisenhower, Lincoln, and Jefferson very highly, despite their often self-contradicting belief systems. Why is that?

        It seems to me that, in the 21st century, the folks who have the tough job (IMHO) are the journalists … and the STEM professionals, because reporting/teaching the facts is manifestly insufficient (in our world that is drowning in facts), and yet arraying the facts within a narrative requires the nonunique choice of a narrative.

        Past generations hoped for help from mathematical and scientific logic, along the lines of Leibniz’ dream “Come let us calculate together.” Yet in today’s world, which supports both William L. Burke’s samizdat classic Div, Grad, Curl are dead and Moritz Schey’s Div, Grad, Curl and all that — a world in which mathematicians differ profoundly and irreconcilably as to how best to teach elementary geometry — perhaps it’s not feasible to settle these matters by pure logic.

        In mathematics and physics (and especially in quantum theory) it is very helpful to thoroughly embrace more-than-one formalism (preferably three or more). Perhaps that is true in politics too? Was that narrative flexibility the key to the creative success of Clinton, Eisenhower, Lincoln, Jefferson, just as formal flexibility is creatively helpful in math and physics?

        Certainly a great portion of Lincoln’s prose supports multiple readings …

        If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

        Lincoln provided no answer to his own question, and in that deliberate ambiguity resided a large portion of Lincoln’s political genius and leadership greatness.

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        • aram says:

          Deliberate ambiguity is definitely a good political strategy. You don’t have to look any farther than Obama ’08 for that.

          I don’t think politicians will be necessarily punished for incoherent positions; it’s just that we’d like journalists to consider it their job to try to resolve the ambiguities.

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