Sunday, June 16, 2024

BREAKING NEWS … into rational pieces

Oliver Stone thought he was quoting someone else when he wrote, “Hell is the impossibility of reason.” Other writers may have spoken similarly, for the ability to reason is arguably humanity’s greatest gift and hope for co-operation.

The words “Intelligence” and “Logic” appear in BIG Media’s logo because they align with the organization’s commitment to deliver articles that are objective and factual. It is the belief of BIG Media ownership that elements of the news media sensationalize their articles, and that such sensationalizing is carried out to manipulate their readers’ emotions of fear and anger. BIG Media is making a value proposition to its readers in claiming that it, unlike so many of its peers, can be trusted to deliver fair and objective news. Can BIG Media truly deliver objective news, all of the time? Can the reader rationally evaluate that news?

In a series of articles, BIG Media will dissect some of the obstacles to objective news reporting and news evaluation. We will take a run at our own mandate, with three ultimate goals: first, to own the difficulties of our own raison d’etre – objective news reporting – second, to show readers how even benign operators offer biased news, prey on human bias and sometimes blatantly attempt to manipulate them, and, third, to offer some tools to help the reader resist being manipulated by their news carrier. Even by BIG Media.

Rationality as a reason for being

An argument has been made by some newsmakers that readers are incapable of evaluating news rationally. Forbes published an article[1]recently advising its readers to, “Admit that you lack the necessary expertise to evaluate the science before you.” They further declare that it would be “foolish” to “evaluate the claims of experts.” The argument for all readers to completely abandon any hopes for personal agency is philosophically appalling, more than a little patronizing, and certainly belittles its readers. It is also self-defeating and logically suspect. If readers are unable to evaluate claims of truth, then how can they trust any news, including that of Forbes? Further, if we are capable of understanding what poor research is, have we not logically suggested that we are capable of understanding what good research might look like? And perhaps do just that?

In fairness, Forbes is speaking about complex subjects and the tendency of readers to draw conclusions from social media and erroneously call it research. Taking aim at insufficient, faulty, or irrelevant methods of research is laudable, and I agree with that element of the article. However, to suggest that humanity is wholly incapable of research or critical evaluation is atrocious. Nowhere in the article, or in any research anywhere, is there sufficient support for such a universal conclusion of humanity’s incompetence. A more productive article might have provided advice on how to correctly perform research or to evaluate the research of others.

Such statements of the irrationality of human beings are common, even in articles advising readers how to overcome cognitive biases. The claim in a recent article by U.K. journalist Dan Shewan, “So, now we know we’re all completely irrational”[2]is an example of this, but BIG Media disagrees. BIG Media does not dispute the evidence that human beings make cognitive errors, but rather than take these shortcomings and provide infantilizing advice as Forbes did in the article referenced above, BIG Media provides its readers with tools and advice promoting rationalism. There have been articles in BIG Media on science,[3]the manipulation of science, [4]ethics and morality in science,[5]on how to read a journal paper,[6]and how reliable that information might be.[7]Respecting readers and helping them rationally navigate and understand the events of the world is BIG Media’s reason for being. This series will explore if or how well BIG Media can provide unbiased and objective reporting. Let us begin with a discussion of critical thinking.

Is it logical to think that writers and readers can apply critical thinking?

News articles attempt to disseminate facts, also known as truth statements or arguments. Logic –or critical thinking – is the study of truth statements. Both writers and readers of news must understand critical thinking in order to objectively write or evaluate such news. Thus, it is logical that critical thinking is our first stop.

An argument is a claim that is supported by premises and evidence. There are two main types of arguments, deductive and inductive.[8]Deductive arguments are ones that must be true if their premises are true. This kind of argument depends on ideas; the strength of the ideas leads to the truth claim. Inductive arguments use premises that supply evidence that the claim is true, but not a guarantee. Inductive arguments make their truth claims through the use of data.

Deductive argument:

All mammals will die.  I am a mammal.  I will die some day.

Inductive argument:

All recent prime ministers have post-secondary education. Therefore, the next prime minister will have post-secondary education.

Deductive arguments are desirable because they give certain answers, while deductive arguments are applicable to very few events, or things. In fact, deductive arguments are only applicable to the obvious and the known. We already knew that I would die some day. Virtually all new knowledge is necessarily inductive, or uncertain, in nature,[9]and most news reports that reference unknowns will be inductive. For example, issues of science such as climate change, vaccination, and potential adverse vaccine reactions, disease, future energy consumption, the value of wearing a mask, market valuations, future happiness, or health, and virtually any predictions will involve inductive reasoning. As Laurie Weston pointed out in one of her articles on science,[10]we live in a world with at least some level of uncertainty, virtually all of the time.

Evaluating inductive arguments

If we must accept uncertainty in our predictions – and even in our news – how do we evaluate arguments? How do we identify a poor argument? How do we extend this to evaluating news articles?

Readers interested in the study of logic will find no lack of jargon or complexity in the source material.[11][12]We will attempt to minimize this. Inductive reasoning does not typically involve the same emphasis on logical structure as deductive reasoning. Evaluation of inductive arguments – their level of cogency – chiefly involves three things: the truth, relevancy, and adequacy of their evidence. Figure 1 summarizes this idea pictorially.

BREAKING NEWS … into rational pieces

Figure 1. Triangle summarizing the important elements of an inductive argument.

The truth of a premise is a straightforward thing, most of the time. In the example above, we must simply assess whether or not all past prime ministers had post-secondary education. Let us assume this checks out for the sake of this example. In some cases, readers may have to refer to source materials such as journal articles to assess the truth of a premise.

The relevance of a premise may also be evaluated in straightforward fashion, most of the time. Interestingly, errors or fallacies of relevance are quite common in arguments, including news arguments. We will discuss this a little later. In the example above, we can well ask ourselves if the level of education is relevant in someone becoming prime minister. The answer is yes, since leaders are expected to be educated and have some background under which decisions may be framed.

The adequacy of an argument is much more difficult to evaluate.[13]Adequacy is the measure of whether there is enough evidence to support the claim. The stronger, more certain, or general the claim is, the greater the requirement for evidence. In the example above, the claim is quite strong. The argument claims that the “… next prime minister will have post-secondary education.” No uncertainty is allowed. In this case, the inductive argument is inadequate to such confidence. The argument could be rewritten to say, “… next prime minister will probably have post-secondary education.” Such a revision may make the argument adequate.

The consequences of an argument’s potential falseness must also be considered in determining whether there is adequate evidence.[10] In a murder trial with a potential death sentence, the requirement of adequacy is much higher than for summary convictions such as traffic violations. Figure 2 captures the key elements that determine the burden of adequacy.

BREAKING NEWS … into rational pieces

Figure 2. The burden of adequacy increases with the strength and/or consequences.

Fallacy or manipulation?

The evaluation of any inductive argument – and therefore virtually any news article – comes down to the truth, relevancy, and adequacy of the evidence. Errors of these central tenets of critical thinking are called fallacies. Over time, names have been given to the classic, often repeated mistakes, making their reference a simple matter. And the number of fallacies has grown, taking up entire chapters in many books. There is little need to remember the names of the mistakes if the principles of truth, relevancy, and adequacy can be kept in mind.

Some scholars [14]do not refer to errors in critical thinking as fallacies. Instead, they call them irrational forms of persuasion. They further argue that deliberate use of such logical errors is, in fact, a form of manipulation. When reading news articles, bear this in mind.

Examples of fallacy

Let’s look at a few arguments and evaluate their cogency. Let’s start with the truth, and a false premise.

“If my grass is wet, it must have rained recently. My grass is wet. Therefore, it has rained recently.”

The first premise is obviously false since the grass could have been watered by a sprinkler or some other agency.

In some news articles and popular opinion, a moderate compromise is proposed.

“The sky is blue. No, the sky is yellow. Let’s compromise and say the sky is pink.”

This is an often-used example of the middle ground fallacy. The sky is the colour that the sky is at the time and place of observation. A compromise is nothing short of a lie. The middle ground fallacy is important in considering misinformation. Many things are probably true or probably untrue, and many are situational or unique, but few benefit from compromise.

Let us look at another argument with insufficient truth. This error is called cherry picking.

“Four out of five dentists like chewing tobacco.”

This would be cherry picking if the chewing tobacco company only surveyed dentists it knew chewed tobacco. Any serious argument relying on statistics must disclose their methodology, especially the selection of sample.

This next argument is hopefully not taking place in the readers’ minds right now. It is an example in which the premise does not provide enough support to justify the conclusion.

“I hate logic, all people who talk about it, and will hate all future BIG Media articles.”

First of all, no, you love logic, and this article! Second, this argument is a hasty generalization because I am only one of the writers for BIG Media, and critical thinking is only one subject we are discussing. You cannot evaluate all future articles based on this one. Besides, I am fun, and people like me. Some careful readers will feel compelled to question the truth and relevance of this last remark.

This more sensitive argument is taken from unfortunate recent family history. It also involves truth and is an appeal to coincidence though it has relevance issues as well.

“My aunt died of a cardiac infarction the day after her COVID shot. Therefore, the vaccine caused her death. I don’t believe in coincidences and the heart attack came on suddenly and without warning.”

The argument is not cogent. Applying significance to a coincidence is also a well-known fallacy, [15]though the fallacious appeal to coincidence may apply in the opposite direction, when someone claims coincidence in the face of overwhelming causal evidence. Also, heart attacks often come on suddenly and are fatal, which makes that premise irrelevant. The COVID vaccine that was delivered had no documented evidence of causing an infarction. A few cases of mild myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, are being investigated by the CDC[16]but not infarctions or valve failures. This is a case in which it would be more rational to ask questions than make claims.

Let us continue shifting gears toward the relevance requirement. This example played out in paraphrase in the first quarter of 2020. It is an appeal to emotion.

“Trump’s argument of temporarily closing international travel is wrong because I hate Trump.”

This is also an ad hominem fallacy, because the emotional bias toward this person is not relevant to the argument. And it is definitely manipulative.

This argument also involves relevance. It is an appeal to pity.

“I am a single father, thanks to cancer. I have seven children, each of whom have special needs. I won’t be able to afford insurance and drive my kids to school if I receive more demerit points. Therefore, you should not charge me with this speeding ticket.”

Sad (if true) but irrelevant.

The next example is more complicated. It has deficiencies in truth, relevance, and adequacy. It is from the Facebook page called Canadian Pride posted on May 31, 2021. Its administrator posted the following argument:

“They say wealthy families last three generations. The grandfather is a rags-to-riches-story. The father rides the grandfather’s coat tails. And the grandchildren are useless because they’ve had everything handed to them and have never had to work a day in their lives…

“That is why people like [the current prime minister] don’t understand the working class or the poor. They never have and never will!”

This is an example of another uncogent argument that fails in truth, relevance, and adequacy. The premise that no grandchild of a wealthy self-made individual has ever worked one day is obviously untrue. Where is the evidence that wealthy grandchildren work less than poor ones? It may be true, but we do not know from this argument. The family’s economic history could be challenged on relevance. How does the grandfather have a complete causal effect on the prime minister’s ability to understand economic matters? Without other supporting data, this entire argument looks like an ad hominin fallacy. Underlining a word is not a relevant premise. It is up there with saying “Wow” in sarcastic retort. The conclusion offered is also too strong to be adequate. Voters may reasonably ask if a politician’s background, education, and behaviour convince them whether that individual is likely to understand life from their perspective. However, this post provides little information to this effect, pretends to present certainty it cannot adequately support, and offers falsehoods.

Our next example is from a news report [17]and argues about risks of mutation of the COVID-19 virus with so much of the world waiting to be vaccinated. The implication is that current vaccines could be rendered ineffective with enough mutation. This is an example of a difficult-to-evaluate appeal to authority.

The reporter claims that “Allowing the virus to run amok in other countries also risks putting the entire world in jeopardy and losing any gains made in COVID-19 vaccinations.”

He quotes an expert to support his claim. “If we allow infection to spread unchecked, in a month or two months or inevitably at some point in time, we’ll have another variant that completely escapes all the vaccine,” Sampathkumar said. “We will be back to square one. We [will] have an entire world’s population that will be completely non immune and at risk for dying.”

This is a case in which an argument has incredible consequence and a strong conclusion. The burden of adequacy is extreme. Dr. Sampathkumar appears to be an expert with the correct specialization, so the appeal to her authority appears valid. A premise that the virus has a greater chance to mutate since it is spreading so widely is likely true. Suggestions that current vaccines could be less effective against a potential mutation are also true. The expert, however, does not use the words chance, could, or potential. She says the outcome is inevitable and claims everyone will be non-immune.  Since she is engaging in conjecture about the future in the natural world, we must be suspicious that she is overstating the case. Science is seldom so certain. The suggestion that we would be back to square one is also dubious, given the fact that some of our learnings and improvements in industrial vaccine production would almost certainly be applicable to mutations. Even though I have accepted this doctor’s expertise, we should still investigate the suspect premises. These points should be taken to another expert (or group of experts) to evaluate the possibility that this expert has engaged in hyperbole. Given the consequence of the prediction and the certainty of some of the premises, the article may or may not be adequate, though it should be noted that the reporter’s language was more careful than that of the expert.

As an aside about certainty, we do not need to be absolutely certain about the world in order to make policy decisions. The previous argument would have been inarguably cogent if it had been made with less certainty. Vaccines may mutate (they probably will), affecting our vaccine-derived immunity (probably), the climate will change, though perhaps not entirely in the ways we predict, and many other current predictions may or may not prove true. That is the nature of science and prediction. We still need to make decisions on vaccines, the climate, and many other things. And we should make those decisions. Rationally, and with the expectation of making new ones as we obtain new evidence.

An example in which cogency depends on time, circumstances, and consequences

Speaking of the possibility of changing our minds in the future, let us take a look at an opinion article published by BIG Media on April 6, 2021. It is entitled, “Top 7 reasons to drop the mask mandate.”[18]The truth claim being put forward is that the mask mandate may be counterproductive. The claim is weak, using the word “may”, so from this perspective the burden of adequacy is modest. The harm if the claim is wrong, however, is potentially high, so our evaluation requires significant adequacy. The premises, in paraphrase are:

  • Mask wearing carries a cost, including restricting breathing, a loss of emotional connection, and can cause rashes.
  • Mask wearers feel superior, and excessive emphasis on masks leads to inadequate attention paid to “more effective preventive measures.”
  • Mask wearing is imperfect, causing false sense of security in some, potentially promoting sick persons to go out.
  • When people don’t wear masks, they automatically stay farther apart.

The premises are mostly invalid. The cost argument for mask wearing has some validity, though ventilatory resistance is not relevant to most wearers, most of the time. The imperfection of mask wearing is of weak relevance. It may even qualify as a non sequitur. The argument that, “Something is imperfect; therefore, it should be abandoned” is not sufficient. This is also known as the “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater fallacy.” The claim that we do not need masks because people automatically separate when not wearing masks – in effect, arguing that masks were never necessary – would need support to be accepted as truthful or relevant. As stated, this premise is invalid.

For these reasons, this argument is uncogent. However, at least some elements of the cost premises were valid. There is a cost with wearing a mask, and any law infringing on the behaviour of the public requires justification. On April 6, 2021, the risk of COVID remained high enough that the burden of adequacy on the argument was higher than the premises could supply. In the near future (perhaps by the time this article is published), the risk of COVID will be lower, the burden on the argument will be lower, and this uncogent argument will become cogent, though it will be carried solely by its cost elements.

Despite bias, we can reason; we reason best in argument.

Students of cognitive bias may well ask if we are truly capable of reason. It is a fair question, since we unquestionably suffer from cognitive biases that can challenge our rational structures. This will be one of the subjects of the next article. There is one bias of logic and argumentation that we should discuss now: confirmation bias. This occurs when we accept arguments we like and oppose arguments we do not. This bias can extend to denigrating opposing research, cherry picking evidence, and designing experiments to confirm rather than challenge our ideas. Confirmation bias is important but does not deprive us of the possibility of reason.

Recent cognitive theories [19]suggest that the ability to think and communicate rationally has an evolutionary basis. Reasoning and communication were co-developed for the purposes of social co-operation. For example, to outsmart plants and other animals, and to plan and build tools and structures. An extension to this idea is that we reason best when in argument. The production of confirmation bias has been identified as a testable outcome of this theory.[16] This same theory predicts that we are most biased when producing arguments, and least biased when evaluating arguments. Most interestingly, we evaluate arguments better in groups. Behavioral studies of groups have found that teams of participants solve problems better than individuals.[20]When one individual solves a problem correctly, even in opposition to a charismatic teammate who is wrong, there is a tendency for the team to choose correctly.

Roadmap for rationality

We have not entirely answered the question of how to evaluate the rationality of news in this article. However, we have made a start. It was no accident that we ended with a BIG Media example, and one of questionable cogency. Being logical is difficult, and it is unlikely that anyone is logical all of the time, even BIG Media. It is obvious, however, that humans are capable of rationality because we can formulate the principles of logic. If we can understand reason, if we can teach it, we are capable of it. Let us take what we have learned and make a checklist that will help us evaluate arguments:

  1. Are the premises true?

Be wary of misuse of statistics, generalizations, and urges to compromise on what is true. Be aware that science has uncertainty. Do not be passive in the search for data; look for data first, ask questions before seeking conclusions. Journal or source papers are preferrable any time they are available.

  1. Are the premises relevant?

Be aware that manipulators will often attempt to misrepresent the argument or offer evidence that is not germane to the claim being made.

  1. Is the evidence adequate?

The strength of the evidence must be proportional to the consequences and the strength of the claim.

  1. Does the argument appeal to us?

If so, we should be extra skeptical of it to combat confirmation bias. We must not accept irrelevant premises just because they make us happy. If the evaluation of the argument is important, treat it as an argument and work on it as a team.

Coming back one last time to the Forbes [1] article suggesting that we should not do our own research, we maintain our disagreement. Although it is true that we may not always have the time or capacity to engage in research, and that real research is difficult, we are capable of evaluating claims. In fact, human beings may be at their most rational in argument.

In Part 2 of this series, we will discuss nudges and make suggestions to BIG Media and others to enhance quality control in the rationality and objectivity of articles.

References

[1] Seigel, Ethan, 2020, You Must Not ‘Do Your Own Research’ When It Comes To Science, Forbes, July 30, 2020

[2] Shewan, Dan, 2014, 5 Cognitive Biases & How to Overcome Them On Your Landing Pages: Wordstream

[3] Weston, Laurie, 2021, Science—there is method to the madness: BIG Media, April 12, 2021

[4] Weston, Laurie, 2021, Manipulating science—activism and advocacy: BIG Media, April 12, 2021

[5] Weston, Laurie, 2021, Science and morality – ethics and judgment: BIG Media, April 12, 2021

[6] Rolfe, Brendan, 2021, How to correctly and effectively read a journal article: BIG Media February 11, 2021

[7] Rolfe, Brendan, 2021, Sources of contention: is citing a reputable journal article really enough to end an argument?: BIG Media February 11, 2021

[8] Carney, J. D., and R. K. Scheer, 1980, Fundamentals of Logic: Macmillan, USA.

[9] Hughes, W., J. Lavery, and K. Doran, 2010, Critical Thinking: an Introduction to the Basic Skills, sixth edition: Broadview Press.

[10] Weston, Laurie, 2021, Science—there is method to the madness: BIG Media, April 12, 2021

[11] Carney, J. D., and R. K. Scheer, 1980, Fundamentals of Logic: Macmillan, USA.

[12] Hughes, W., J. Lavery, and K. Doran, 2010, Critical Thinking: an Introduction to the Basic Skills, sixth edition: Broadview Press.

[13] University of Western Ontario, 2004, Tutorial 10- Assessing Adequacy: UWO Phil021 Tutorial Notes Reasoning and  Critical Thinking

[14] Carney, J. D., and R. K. Scheer, 1980, Fundamentals of Logic: Macmillan, USA.

[15] Paulos, John Allen, 1988, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences: Hill and Wang

[16]VaST Report, 2021, COVID-19 VaST Work Group Report—May 17, 2021: CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP)

[17] Mark Gollom, 2021, Why COVID vaccination progress at home risks being undone by spread of variants abroad: CBC News, June 2, 2021

[18] Driscoll, Rob, 2021, Top 7 reasons to drop the mask mandate: BIG Media April 6, 2021

[19] Pinker, S. (2010). The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, 8993-8999.

[20] Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34, 57-111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968

Lee Hunt
Lee Hunt
Lee Hunt is the author of the Dynamicist Trilogy. He was formerly a professional geophysicist, CSEG Distinguished Lecturer, and is currently a writer and ironman triathlete.

9 COMMENTS

    • Thanks Andre. We do have an understandable tendency to want things (including news) to be simple and coherent with well defined heroes, villains and solutions, but that is often not the case. I appreciate you taking the time to read the article.

  1. Interesting article. I do wonder about your statement “Recent cognitive theories [19]suggest that the ability to think and communicate rationally has an evolutionary basis. Reasoning and communication were co-developed for the purposes of social co-operation. For example, to outsmart plants and other animals, and to plan and build tools and structures. ” as using reasoning and communication to outsmart plants seems a bit tongue-in-cheek. Certainly understanding how best to manipulate plants for optimal yield would be more appropriate, and in cosideration of our place in the food chain.
    However, given my recent experience with growing certain herbs (sorry garlic & basil plants) in my garden, maybe they have outsmarted me by withering away.

    • David, good point. I might have said that a little more coherently, or at least been a little funnier. Evolutionary theories on communication and reasoning are fascinating in themselves and could stand a more focused discussion. Believe it or not, one of the articles (the one by Steven Pinker) does briefly talk about the defense mechanisms of plants (mostly chemical, since, yes, they don’t run away).

  2. Great piece Lee, and I look forward to the sequel. You provide a great reminder that we all need to examine our thinking and our biases in figuring out where we stand on issues. I’ve learned (most of the time) to think about my responses before dashing off arguments on issues. And I spend a lot of time re-working pieces that I write for BIG Media and others, to try to ensure I’m arguing clearly and eliminating unsupported arguments and biases. Doesn’t always work, but your article will help!

    • Brad, thank you for your kind words. You are right, none of us are likely to manage perfect reasonableness, all the time, but thinking twice sure helps. I appreciated your writing on the net-zero by 2050 article. It was clear that you were trying to be fair minded. A difficult task given the size of the document you were looking at, the complexity of the issue, and the politicized nature of the subject. I thought it would be almost impossible to assess the work without taking some kind of position, or without at least being somewhat affected by circumstances, background and reaction to the zeitgeist. In any case, well done. Do you plan a follow-up?

  3. Dear Jeff: thank you for your humorous and generous comments. Confirmation bias is rather … ubiquitous. And as such it gets a bit more of a mention in the next article. There are some processes that can minimize it. Perhaps we can discuss further.

  4. OK – I didn’t sign on to this publication just to have my brain hurt! Nah…just kidding. Lee – extremely well-written article! I must admit, I don’t consider myself an unintelligent person, but this left me re-reading and pondering and doing all manner of things that one should after reading something like this. And I still only ‘got’ a portion of it – so I’ll need to come back to it a few more times.

    The big challenge for me will be – how to incorporate, when it’s just so damned easy to superficially mine the headlines for confirmation bias and avoid digging a little deeper!

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