Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Reality-Based Community

Some people like to call themselves the "reality-based community". They read a lot of news and serious books, and believe this gives them a command of the facts such that the right policies become obvious. The implication is that anyone who doesn't agree with their policies must be ignorant of reality.

"Reality" seems to mean first-line deductions from facts. An example would be whether there was a statistically significant difference in the number of hurricanes in 2010 versus 1910. That sounds pretty factual, but there is no universally agreed on definition of statistical significance, and one can easily question whether the definition of a hurricane has changed over the years, how credible wind readings were 100 years ago, whether records were lost or altered, and so on.

Calling your opinions reality-based implies that you have a good way of discerning the "real version" of events based on the prestige press. But is this possible? Before the election, Hillary said Trump's refusal to categorically accept the election results was "horrifying", and the New York Times said that was an understatement. Then after the election, they said the supposedly hacked election was..."horrifying." Which one reflects reality? Can't be both.

This is not a only progressive thing.  The Iraq WMDs are too easy a target, so here's a fun example from aviation. There was a recent World Trade Organization ruling concerning subsidies. Here were the press releases from two affected parties. Airbus: "WTO delivers knockout blow to Boeing's record-breaking subsidies." Boeing: "Today's decision is a complete victory for...Boeing." Those are two mutually contradictory (yet self-serving) versions of reality.

And here is an interesting pair of headlines. On October 19, CNN assured us that "No, the 2016 presidential election can't be hacked." But on December 15, they wrote, "Intel analysis shows Putin approved election hacking." Which is reality?

These aren't just cherry-picked examples. I wrote a whole blog post listing how many times different sources said Trump's campaign was "imploding" (that precise word). But you can find lots of sources that said Trump's campaign was genius. And being a journalist means you can call Trump a genius campaigner after the election, even if you said he was a disaster before the election.

I won't even get into the various tweets of the President-elect himself. But to be fair, he doesn't call himself a journalist. In fact, I think his views on whether you should rely on other people's versions of reality are much like my own.  It's almost as if he's saying, "I'm a billionaire and just won the Presidency, and even I'm totally full of crap. So are you going to believe those dopes over at the Washington Post?" Foolish doings and all, except I know I'm a fool.

Now, in science, our version of reality evolves. You can find papers that contradict earlier papers. The difference is that good scientists don't get their egos tied up in a theory, so that they can acknowledge all reasonable objections as well as the idea that all science is tentative. Also, if they change their minds, they explain why. The news almost never does this. Some people will tell you science is just a careful version of our normal human thought processes, but that's absolutely not true. It is nothing like normal human thought processes, otherwise it wouldn't have taken a million years for humans to discover the law of gravity. The news is, in fact, a slightly more careful version of normal human thought processes. And normal human thought processes are just a bunch of stories we make up.

Liberals used to express an essentially Marxist view that history and journalism were inherently skewed by the class interests of publishers. They liked to go around asking profound questions like "Whose history?" in the coffee line at humanities conferences. That all stopped years ago. Now they think that if it's in the New York Times, then it's true.

Maybe the reality-based community doesn't read the same news as the rest of us, instead getting their facts from a special, secret, very competent newspaper. Maybe it's called the Real New York Times or something. But I rather doubt it. No, I think the more likely explanation is that they read the same stuff you and I do, but they never stop to consider that most of it is agenda-setting guesses congenial to some powerful faction, usually a faction in the government. In fact, most journalists are thinking of themselves when they write about the reality-based community. That's what people mean by an echo chamber.

I used to be a member of the reality-based community, so I know how they think. But what do you do when you lose confidence in your ability to get the facts? If you think you can learn from the news what the aims of some rebel group in Syria are, I'm sorry, but you're a damned fool. (I'm a fool, but not a damned fool.) But if the average American can't hope to understand the situation, what should we do about Syria? We can't base a policy on the considered opinions of informed citizenry, because there are no such opinions, so there is no democratic way to form a policy. Maybe the policy that makes the most sense is not to get involved in Syria in the first place.

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