Just a… (The Mistreatment of Theory by Journalists and Politicians)

1. You Decide

Objectivity is a prized concept in journalism. While it’s easy to point toward a dictionary definition of the term, it’s not quite clear how it is to be applied to reporting. Not being a professional journalist, perhaps there is something I don’t know. Nonetheless, hearing from those who tout their brand of reporting and journalism as superior for being objective, it seems that the term is geared more toward defining how a news outlet does not what to define itself and the type of accusations against which they would like to shield themselves.

The ultimate insult to level at journalists it seems is to accuse them of bias or being in bed with a political party or large social organization, perhaps labour unions or major corporations. In a story that brings forth two opposing viewpoints, for example whether or not a large government stimulus is an effective means by which to create employment, no organization wants to be seen as actively touting the viewpoint of one side.

Sometimes the consequences are downright absurd. In order to maintain the facade of objectivity and neutrality, journalists completely remove themselves from the debate, taking on the role of mouthpieces rather than analysts. In the talking-head circus that pervades at least the major cable news networks, what we’re left with is a platform for various political consultants and representatives of think-tanks to climb up on their soapbox and spew their respective talking points.

Little is done after the fact to assess which side’s worldview is indeed correct. After all, for example, it cannot be the case that same-sex marriage has no effect at on the well-being of children and that it does prove detrimental to their welfare. There must be data and the potential to investigate both claims that will confirm one argument or at least illuminate the reality of the matter at hand.

The great Jay Rosen recently proclaimed that this has officially become a problem and a threat to journalistic duty and integrity. CNN, Rosen claims, is prone to “leaving it there,”

CNN thinks of itself as the “straight down the middle” network, the non-partisan alternative, the one that isn’t Left and isn’t Right. But defining itself as “not MSNBC” and “not Fox” begs the question of what CNN actually is. To the people who run it, the answer is obvious: real journalism! That’s what CNN is. Or as they used to say, “the news is the star.”

Right. But too often, on-air hosts for the network will let someone from one side of a dispute describe the world their way, then let the other side describe the world their way, and when the two worlds, so described, turn out to be incommensurate or even polar opposites, what happens?… CNN leaves it there. Viewers are left stranded and helpless. The network appears to inform them that there is no truth, only partisan bull. Is that real journalism? No. But it is tantalizingly close to the opposite of real journalism. Repeat it enough, and this pattern threatens to become the network’s brand…

The well-intentioned but ultimately foolhardy principle underlying CNN’s approach is that they are empowering the viewer. CNN and many other major outlets hold that it is imperative that the viewer make a choice. Not only this, but that they as an outlet have no role in this choice other than as a conduit through which those who quite frankly have their respective biases and vested interests may convey their message.

In an interesting bit of irony, networks actually fail in their aspiration to be moderators or to empower viewers to make a choice. Instead of arming citizens with analysis and a thorough examinations of the viewpoints presented, networks, as Rosen argues, leave viewers in the dark. They’ve heard a lot, but are not quite sure what to make of it. They’ve heard multiple versions of the truth put forth with a great sense of certainty, two viewpoints which are clearly irreconcilable and cannot possibly both be true at the same time, but do not have the necessary further information to actually make an informed choice.

This whole phenomenon is an interesting cultural curiosity. I don’t wish to venture into a talk radio host style harangue about political correctness gone mad, but it’s difficult not to notice our seeming need to “hear both sides” and in turn avoid concrete pronouncements of truth or fact and also to refrain from calling bullshit wherever it may lurk.

2. Just a Theory

The real point I want to make here concerns theory and the way that term and actual theory is treated within the context of a journalistic culture that needs to “hear both sides” and strives for “balance” or takes an approach of “We report. You decide.” The word theory seems far too often to be preceded by the words “just a…” and followed by a plea to hear other views, which in turn is followed by no attempt to assess the veracity of each view.

A couple of things are implicit in these pronouncements. First, it implies that theory is not certain or indicative of real knowledge. Any theory, of course, will consist of some degree of uncertainty and present conditions for further research and testing. The phrase “just a theory,” however, is far more dismissive than simply recognizing the need for further examination, which itself requires accepting what the theory has already offered.

Second, “just a…” puts theory on equal footing with a guess or any idea at all. If a theory is just a guess, then it is no more valid or acceptable as knowledge or truth than any other idea. It is here that we get the find the premise for teaching “intelligent design” or “creationism” in a classroom alongside evolution. Evolution, after all, is just a theory.

The problem with such claims is that they are built upon an utter misunderstanding of what theory is. Rather than just being a wild guess or a position held out of faith, theory, when done well, is the best means we have of understanding how the world works.

Franco Henwood, in a thorough and excellent piece distinguishing between theory and speculation, borrows from Jerry Coyne’s definition of theory:

Evolution is a theory, but that does not make it speculation. In science a theory is much more than speculation about how things are: it is ‘a well thought-out group of propositions meant to explain facts about the real world.’ Second, for a theory to be scientific, as opposed to mere speculation, it must be ‘testable and able to make verifiable predictions’ and, third, ‘the scientific theories can be tested against other theories.’

Verifiable predictions, or observable implications are at the center of all good theory. King, Keohane, and Verba, the go to source for theory in the social sciences, borrow that key premise:

…to make sure a theory is falsifiable, choose one that is capable as generating as many observable implications as possible. This choice will allow more tests of the theory with more data and a greater variety of data, will put the theory at risk of being falsified more times, and will make it possible to collect data so as to build strong evidence for the theory.[1]

KKV states furthermore that “[a]ny theory that does real work for us has implications for empirical investigation; no empirical investigation can be successful without theory to guide its choice of questions.”[2] Theory is essentially a series of propositions meant to establish causal relationships between real world phenomena. One must set out implications of these propositions that can be observed in the real world.

Volumes upon volumes have been written about theory and how to execute it so I cannot hope to capture every facet of it here. What I simply want to illustrate is that theory has become something of a dirty word among politicians as well as a label to attach to an idea in order to dismiss it. Calling something “just a theory” is used as a means to actively promote some other idea, usually one that is truly without foundation. Whereas evolution has been tested against real implications and refined time and time again, intelligent design is simply something made up that cannot be treated as a theory.  Theory, once again, is a matter of understanding real world phenomena through observable implications. It is not a matter of faith or belief, but of rigorous reasoning and empirical testing.

This is not meant to be a rant against religion or faith. I am not making any comment whatsoever on the nature of faith or the validity of any belief system. Rather, I simply mean to illustrate that theory is not just a guess or position of faith, but a distinct way of understanding the world and also the best means we have of comprehending real world phenomena. To dismiss proper theory as nothing more than speculation and to put it on par with intelligent design or any other quack ideas for the sake of hearing both sides or maintaining balance is irresponsible and does a disservice to the real value of theory.

One cannot help but be disturbed at the willingness of many seeking office, especially that of the most powerful individual on the planet, who so easily drop the “just a theory” motto and with equal ease promote another “theory” that is entirely baseless. One must be just as disconcerted by the amount of journalists and reporters who fail to interject with a lesson on what theory means and why it is distinct from mere speculation. Failure to do so only brings us full circle to “leaving it there” and allowing citizens or students in the case of the classroom to decide upon different viewpoints without actually understanding how a theory came to be and why it is or is not valid based on real world data and observations.

To reduce theory to nothing more than speculation is, as I’ve said, a catastrophic misunderstanding of what theory is and why it is the best tool we have for understanding our world. To simply “leave it there” in a standoff between proper theory and faith positions only distorts public understanding of these positions and the evidence supporting them as well as the means used to reach their respective conclusions.

“Leaving it there” is simply not in the public interest because it provides no new knowledge of the positions being presented or any understanding of how theory works, which in turn would really allow the public to properly choose between two positions. Simply teaching both sides as if they are of equal value as theory is simply asinine and disrespectful to one of the grandest traditions in the history of human knowledge, theory.


[1]Gary King, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba. 1994. Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research., pp.23

[2]Ibid., pp.28

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1 Comment

  1. Rajin

     /  November 9, 2011

    Had an opportunity to hear Andrew Coyne speak on why the media “always gets it wrong”. The same important point was made: the media here too insists on presenting two sides to a story, even if those two sides are a artificially constructed in the pursuit of objectivity. His own example was astronomers vs. astrologers.

    And then the issue of climate change coverage in the media arose. In 2004, there was a study by Boykoff and Boykoff that looked at over 600 climate change-related articles in the American media over 14 years. They not only found that the media provided more or less equal time to climate scientists and climate skeptics (wildly out of touch with the actual scientific consensus), but that it distorted the public’s perception of where scientific opinion on the matter actually rested.

    It’s clear that the media has to go beyond the balancing of two opinions, and I’m glad you’ve got me thinking about it. Great piece once again. Looking forward to the next one.

    Boykoff and Boykoff (one of them is coming out with a book this month that will go into more depth, “Who speaks for climate change”, Cambridge University Press)


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