Saturday, April 05, 2003

On Moralizing Rationalism (I'm gonna have a little fun with this one.)

Only in this country- I'm getting sick of this phrase but it applies- do we have debates about objectivity, especially regarding news.
The reporting of the news is a form of argument, and argument is not a science. The history of science is not science, no more than the history of mathematics is mathematics. 'Confirmation bias' is not a disease to be cured, but merely a symptom of life. The ideal of objective neutrality and objectivity in the American press does not even begin to work. It's nothing but the remnant of a logical positivism that lives on in Libertarianism and conservative economic theory, that argues in a way similar to Antonin Scalia, that without strict order there is only chaos. Referring to an article in Slate, comparing CNN and Al Jazeera, and arguing for an "adversary system," Mark Kleiman comments: "[the] proposal makes sense only from the sort of postmodern perspective that denies the difference between truth and falsehood, leaving nothing but opinion behind."
First of all I'm not sure why 'having an Arab bias' should be a problem, let alone 'a clear sympathy for the Palestinians.' After all, I have a 'clear sympathy' for the Palestinians, as do millions of others.

More importantly, objectivity should not - can not - be a policy any more than justice can, or should, be. Objectivity is an illusion. Truth, however, is not. Like justice, truth is a GOAL. When we defend both we defend a process, not an isolated, and perhaps erroneous result. To have justice as a policy is to define it in ways that can not be done without eventually doing it harm. [Scalia, for example, does just that.] In times of crisis - a court being a place that is only used during a crisis- neither Kleiman nor I would want a lawyer who declares himself neutral, any more then we would want someone to legislate what is or is not true.

If one does not want to use the adversarial system of justice as an example, we can use the gentler [or at least less overt] dialectics of historical argument. Has there ever been a history written without bias? Would we want to read one? While every author will hope to reveal some aspect of truth, has an historian ever claimed, without winking, to have achieved more than limited, and even temporary, success? There will never be a 'final' record of the Civil War, or a final bigraphy of Lincoln. Has the study of history therefore come to ruin?

We live our lives based on assumptions. Every novel ever written concerns their failure to accommodate the unexpected and unwished for. Objectivism, Libertarianism and Logical positivism all operate under the laziest, most wishful, and in some cases most cynical assumptions -the American Enterprise Institute's definition of life-as-greed being the most dangerous these days- concerning our behavior, and have been proven wrong logically and morally again and again.

As I've said recently (3/25), public intellectual debate in this country is thin, as in academia it is obtuse. We try to resolve issues that are irresolvable, to scientifically 'fix' errors by some rhetorical slight of hand, to create logical theorems that plug-and-play into our chosen ideologies, as if somehow by understanding the problem we have somehow changed our behavior. My god, it is beyond me how so many people can understand so little about themselves.

In this post Kleiman links to 'Jane Galt' and Arthur Silber. Silber discusses the 'confirmation bias' mentioned earlier. He has discovered the obvious. If he'd read Jane Austen instead of Ayn Rand he'd have learned this years ago.

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