Robust debate is the best antidote for bad thinking

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Believe nothing you hear, and only half of what you see. - Edgar Allen Poe, 1845

Rationalizing one’s own beliefs and behavior is an innate human tendency, and many participants in political discussions focus on “winning the argument” versus determining the best answer. Typical tactics are to ignore or gloss over inconvenient facts and place unreasonable limitations on the discussion.

Liberals seem to be among the worst offenders in this regard, if only because they have grown accustomed to dominating the discussion of political issues in this country. And if conservatives hope to win their share of the arguments, they need to call out intellectual opponents who stray from the principles of honest reporting and debate. Whoever decides what is true will rule,
3/30/15.

The foregoing may prove easier said than done, as the intellectual and cultural elites in this country are predominantly liberal and have promulgated their views far and wide. Herewith some examples of the potential consequences:

•Arguments based on experience may fall flat if the relevant history (e.g., past failures of socialist regimes) is no longer taught in schools.

•Citing provisions of the Constitution may prove fruitless if it has become accepted that the Constitution is a “living” document, which judges should freely reinterpret in the light of changing circumstances.

•Claims that economic decisions should be made by investors and firms operating in free markets may be dismissed on grounds that the “experts” know better.

Conservatives have found ways to fight back, e.g., by patronizing new information channels (talk radio, Fox News et al., and the Internet) as the mainstream media (most newspapers, magazines and TV networks) migrated left. Some thoughts follow about the current state of play.

I. Academia – There may have been a time when professors were more or less equally divided between liberals and conservatives, so that college students would be predictably exposed to ideas from both ends of the political spectrum, but liberals are in the ascendancy now. Liberal professors outnumber conservatives nearly 12 to 1, study finds, Bradford Richardson, Washington Times, 10/6/16.

Published in Econ Journal Watch last month, the study looks at faculty voter registration at 40 leading universities and finds that, out of 7,243 professors, Democrats outnumber Republicans 3,623 to 314, or by a ratio of 11 1/2 to 1. *** Out of five departments analyzed by the authors, the field friendliest to conservative scholars is economics, where there are only 4.5 liberal professors for every conservative. [Liberal history professors] outnumber conservatives by a 33 1/2-to-1 ratio.

Irrespective of their political affiliations or activity, most professors view themselves as open-minded and tolerant of other viewpoints. Critics have questioned, however, whether such claims are credible. Academic bias widely acknowledged, Jace Gregory,
academia.org, 8/16/14.

“Liberals, especially in universities, profess ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerance’,” Grove City College professor Paul Kengor said during an interview with the Young America’s Foundation.  “In truth, they only tolerate things they agree with—which, of course, isn’t really tolerance. What liberals really practice is, at best, a selective tolerance and a selective diversity.”

The lack of political diversity in academia tends to limit the type of issues that are studied and the conclusions that are reached. Liberal bias in academia is destroying the integrity of research, Naomi Schaefer Riley, nypost.com,
10/12/14.

[Take] a paper about the “denial of environmental realities” [that was published] in the British Journal of Social Psychology. When subjects exhibit the “denial of the possibility of an ecological crisis” or the “denial of the danger of disrupting balance in nature,” the authors characterize them as tapping into a “primitive” belief system. In other words, if you don’t subscribe to modern environmentalist propaganda, you might as well be Caveman Og, swinging your club at wooly mammoths.

Are liberal professors using their position to brainwash college students? Despite claims to this effect, the answer is probably “no.” What does seem true, however, is that professors and students at prestigious universities share a liberal worldview without much challenge from the other end of the political spectrum. The impact of academic bias, Cathy Young, reason.com,
3/8/07.

Being left of center is the norm, and it is freely assumed that other people around you, be they students or faculty members, will share in your joy at the Democratic victories in Congress or your dismay at the passage of a ballot initiative prohibiting racial preferences in college admissions. This can translate into not only a chilly climate for conservatives but in some cases outright hostility.

The solution, it seems to us, is that institutions of higher learning must face up to the need for intellectual diversity and take affirmative steps to maintain it – even if this isn’t the popular thing to do. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg aptly made this point in a commencement address at Harvard. Academic bias widely acknowledged op. cit.,
8/16/14.

The role of universities is not to promote an ideology. It is to provide scholars and students with a neutral forum for researching and debating issues—without tipping the scales in one direction, or repressing unpopular views … Intolerance of ideas, whether liberal or conservative is antithetical to individual rights and free societies and it is no less antithetical to great universities and first rate scholarships … neither party has a monopoly on truth or God on its side.

Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber sounded a similar note in an
11/11/16 statement about “this year’s divisive and bitterly contested” presidential election. While acknowledging the disappointment of many in the university community, he suggested the need for a broader focus.
 
As we go forward in a troubled time, it is essential that we work together to sustain and promote a culture of open discussion where all voices are heard and respected, and where we can pursue the teaching and research urgently needed to make this world a better place. 

II. Mainstream media - Republicans are decisively outnumbered by Democrats in most media firms. Just 7 percent of journalists are Republicans [in 2014 vs. 25.7% in 1971], Chris Cillizza, Washington Post, 5/6/14.

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True, a growing percentage of journalists identify as Independents, but given abundant evidence of overall journalistic bias they probably lean left in practice. The top 50 liberal media bias examples, Warner Huston, westernjournalism.com, 12/10/11.

This is not to say journalists always support liberal candidates/leaders and push liberal policies to the exclusion of all others; the typical outcome is groupthink versus a left-wing conspiracy. Conservative Caucus hears talk on political bias [by David Freddoso], SAFE newsletter,
Winter 2014.

. . .if 90% of the people in the newsroom all feel the same way about a given personality or issue, the corrective effect of informal exchanges between reporters competing for stories and their editors tends to break down because there isn’t anyone around to say “no, that’s not a fair statement” or “you need to dig deeper and find out what is going on.”

Left-leaning journalists can find it hard to constructively engage with conservative subjects because they don’t understand how they think. Liberal news media has a serious effect, Timothy Carney, New York Times,
12/21/15.

Conservatives are an alien species in many newsrooms. The resulting slanted (and occasionally hostile) coverage leaves conservatives rightly distrustful that the news media will cover them fairly. This breeds perceptions that the MSM is out to get conservatives [and reduces the likelihood of meaningful dialog.]

People who aren’t satisfied with the information reported by the mainstream media (MSM) can access alternative communication channels, notably, talk radio, Fox News et al., and the Internet. The availability of these alternatives gives conservatives a fighting chance to communicate their viewpoints to the public, which would seem to be a constructive result.

Some equate the decline and perhaps eventual demise of the MSM, however, with a lowering of standards that will undermine public understanding of what’s going on in the political sphere. Mainstream media’s decline, Peter Rosenstern, huffingtonpost.com,
9/1/16.

•Like many in my generation, I grew up reading a newspaper. One in the morning and another in the evening. There were three networks where you got your television news — ABC, CBS and NBC. People’s lives were often organized around watching the 7 p.m. or 11 p.m. news and we hoped to get an understanding of the world. Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were respected reporters and anchors.

•Today, we have 24-hour cable networks like Fox, CNN and MSNBC. They have to fill endless hours and feature hosts who don’t have the gravitas of the anchors on the three basic networks. They rely on filling hours on the air talking to commentators and campaign surrogates who are biased and provide no news, but rather simply opinion. Usually the same people over and over whose phone number is on the hosts’ or producers’ speed dial.


Even conservative journalists experience nostalgia for the “good old days.” The mainstream media is dying a slow and painful death, Floyd Brown, westernjournalism.com,
9/8/14.

•Only old people – really old people – still read their news on newsprint, watch the nightly TV news, and listen to news and talk radio. When I was 25, the idea that legacy news operations would be shrinking was unimaginable.

•[Today,] news is considered old after it’s been online for 12 hours. It has cycled on and off the digital news engines of today before it can even get to the pressroom for printing. And while TV news has a shorter cycle, the younger generations are too busy to be bothered to watch TV on a schedule. They watch shows on Netflix and Amazon on their own schedules. Heck, Americans are now more likely to get their news from a friend on Facebook than they are to read it on a modern and technically proficient website.


III. Silicon Valley – Like professors, journalist and Hollywood entertainers, most employees of big computer technology firms seem to have an affinity for the left. Tech innovator prosecuted for political nonconformity, Dave Taylor, newsmax.com, 10/13/16.

[I]ncreasingly, the liberal bias that pervades the celebrity-powered clime of Hollywood is migrating north to Silicon Valley. There’s plenty of innovation happening outside of Google, Facebook, Apple, and the rest of the blue-chip tech companies based in and around San Jose, California, but that area is still the epicenter of a lot of innovation. And increasingly, Silicon Valley is not just blue, but is pressuring those who might have different political views to march in lock-step with their liberal tech leaders or suffer the consequences.

Could it be that the ingenious innovators at Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, et al. will develop platforms and protocols that reinforce liberal views? Maybe, but we’re inclined to be optimistic because Silicon Valley is primarily focused on making money versus politics and de facto censorship would be bad for their businesses.

#SEARCH RESULTS – There have been periodic suggestions that the Google search engine is biased in that liberal-leaning pages are easier to find (show up on the first screen or two, which is all that most searchers look at) than conservative-leaning pages. Google search results can lean liberal, study finds, Jack Nicas, Wall Street Journal,
11/21/16.

An analysis by online-search marketer CanIRank.com found that 50 recent searches for political terms on Google surfaced more liberal-leaning webpages than conservative ones, as rated by a panel of four people. *** [The results varied depending on the term selected for search.] Search results for “minimum wage” slanted liberal, for instance, while results for “does gun control reduce crime” slanted conservative. Some searches delivered a nearly even mix of liberal, conservative and nonpartisan pages, including those for “financial regulation,” “estate tax,” and “federal reserve.”

Similar concerns have been expressed about search results for political candidates, as in this analysis of a 12/1/15 search re stories on presidential candidates. Why Google search results favor Democrats, Daniel Trevelli et al., slate.com,
12/7/15.

Donald Trump had four positive and three negative search results on the first page. Hillary Clinton had five positive results and only one negative on the first page. Ted Cruz had more negative results than anyone else, and Bernie Sanders was the king of positivity—with nine “very pro” results and not a single negative. 

Google denies any political bias in its procedures and attributes problematic search results to what’s posted on the Internet in the first place plus the operation of complex algorithms that take hundreds of variables into account. In the absence of specific information to the contrary, such claims seem plausible.

SAFE has some practical experience in this area. Our website has not traditionally enjoyed a high profile, but member Davis Jefferson has been endeavoring to use the Google procedures to improve its visibility. Here are some examples of SAFE’s current Google search results on the worldwide web (Nil = not on the first two screens), which for a low-key operation like ours (talk about a small frog in a big pond) seems pretty good. We certainly don’t feel SAFE’s posts are being suppressed for ideological reasons.

Screen Shot 2016-11-26 at 4.54.07 PM


#FAKE NEWS – There is plenty of misinformation circulating on the Internet: conspiracy theories, false reports of celebrity deaths, publicity-seeking claims, etc. If a story sounds implausible and isn’t confirmed by other sources, it’s probably untrue. Thus, a recent report about Melania Trump filing for divorce was quickly discredited. Snopes.com,
11/13/16.

Such cases are relatively easy to process as truth or falsity can be settled based on objective facts. In other cases, opinions rest on interpretation of the available information. Accordingly, complaints about the spreading of “fake news” should not necessarily be accepted at face value – and may well be politically motivated. The long history of liberal fake and suppressed news, Gary DeMar, constitution.com,
11/23/16.

The new tactic is to claim that “fake news sites” are the real culprit. But who gets to define what’s fake? If a liberal gets to decide, then a fake news story is any story that a liberal disagrees with. The facts aren’t the issue. The propaganda value of the narrative is what matters.

Consider some of the conservative sites that have been characterized as disseminating fake news, seemingly because of their coverage of subjects the MSM has chosen to ignore versus the quality of their reporting. Red State - The Blaze – Breitbart - Fox News. Do any of these sites ever exaggerate their points or get a story wrong? Sure, but so do left-leaning sites: Huffington Post – Slate – Mother Jones – MSNBC. Using fake news [claims] against opposing views, Kelly Riddell, Washington Times,
11/24/16.

Fake news sites do exist, complete with names (e.g., WashingtonPost.com.co) and formats designed to make them look like real news sites, but they aren’t all run by conservatives. NPR finds “godfather” of fake news is a liberal Democrat in California, Joel Pollak, breitbart.com,
11/24/16.

Once [Jestin] Coler agreed to an interview, he told NPR that the purpose of starting his fake news empire in 2013 was “to highlight the extremism of the white nationalist alt-right” — or, in Coler’s exact words: “The whole idea from the start was to build a site that could infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right, publish blatantly false or fictional stories, and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction.”

Much of the angst about “fake news” stems from liberal disappointment about the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, but if conservative coverage of the campaign got strident at times, the same goes for the MSM coverage. Why the mainstream media is responsible for fake news, Gaston Mooney, conservativereview.com,
11/22/16.

For years, our major news outlets have tried hard to maintain the facade of objectivity. *** But when tensions rise and ideological victories are on the line — as in, say, election season —the veneer of honest journalism comes tumbling down. And in its place comes the corruption of ethics, collusion with political players, and unsubtle agenda peddling.

The best defense against fake news is probably a healthy degree of skepticism. Is the story plausible, does someone have an ulterior motive for pushing it, is the publication or site reliable, is there conflicting information available? But many Americans tend to accept reports at face value, particularly the young. Most students don’t know when news is false, Sue Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal,
11/21/16.

By age 18, 88% of young adults regularly get news from Facebook and other social media, according to a 2015 study of 1,045 adults ages 18 to 34 by the Media Insight Project. This risks creating an “echo chamber effect,” because social media tends to feed users news items similar to those they’ve read before, says Walter C. Parker, a professor of education at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Complaints have been lodged to the effect that Facebook should be doing more to fight fake news, and the firm is reportedly working on the problem – not with the intent of playing a censorship role but simply to provide better service to its customers. Mark Zuckerberg explains how Facebook plans to fight fake news, Deepa Seethharaman, Wall Street Journal,
11/20/16.

The first and most important step is to rely on technology to better classify misinformation and “detect what people will flag as false before they do it themselves,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. Another step is to make it easier for users to report fake stories, he said. Facebook has long relied on users to flag objectionable content, including fake news. *** It is also exploring a product that would label stories as false if they have been flagged as such by third-parties or users, and then show warnings to users who read or share the articles.

OK, but remember that decisions about what constitutes misinformation are generally a matter of judgment. Would Facebook block stories challenging the validity of the manmade global warming theory, for example, which many people (ourselves included) regard as far from proven? The best way to avoid this is to refrain from empowering Facebook (or any experts it might consult) to rule on such issues in the first place.

IV. Government intervention – So long as decisions about what facts and opinions to believe are left up to the private sector, we’re relatively optimistic about the outcome, but all bets are off if the government gets involved.

Consider the frightening future imagined by George Orwell. War is peace: Can science fight media disinformation, Lawrence Krauss, Scientific American,
12/1/09.

English novelist George Orwell was remarkably prescient about many things, and one of the most disturbing aspects of his masterpiece 1984 involved the blatant perversion of objective reality, using constant repetition of propaganda by a militaristic government in control of all the media.

Accordingly, it’s disturbing that a possible need for government action is being suggested. For example:

•In the US, there seems to be a desire to convert dissemination of political information into a national security issue. Russian propaganda effort helped spread “fake news during election, experts say, Craig Timberg, washingtonpost.com,
11/24/16.

T
wo teams of independent researchers found that the Russians exploited American-made technology platforms to attack U.S. democracy at a particularly vulnerable moment, as an insurgent candidate harnessed a wide range of grievances to claim the White House. The sophistication of the Russian tactics may complicate efforts by Facebook and Google to crack down on “fake news,” as they have vowed to do after widespread complaints about the problem.

•German Chancellor Angel Merkel, who is planning to run for reelection, has expressed concern about misinformation being spread on social media and the need to consider regulating it. Merkel fears social bots may manipulate German election, Caroline Copley, yahoo.com,
11/24/16.

In her first speech to parliament since announcing plans on Sunday to seek a fourth term as chancellor, Merkel called for a debate on how fake news, bots and trolls can manipulate public opinion. "In order to reach people, to inspire people, we need to deal with this phenomenon and - where necessary - regulate it," Merkel told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Our take: the cure might prove a good deal worse than the disease.

**********FEEDBACK**********

The media is driving the hard left line so forget any meaningful debate. – SAFE director
Comment: True for the mainstream media, but they have some competition.

This so-called "fake news" problem is just a way to silence conservative voices on the Internet and YouTube.  I watched a lot of conservative news on YouTube and these sources were constantly saying that the mainstream media has it wrong.  Those YouTube guys were right! – SAFE director

Well said, I agree completely. – Retired judge

Last evening the Nightly Business Report included a segment on the NY Times.  Their stock price has gained significantly since Nov 8th -- allegedly because conjectures parade as facts on the Internet (per the editor/CEO of the Times).  I'm waiting until the Liberals complain about media bias.... – Retired IBMer.

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