Journalism, epistemology and conspiracy theories

I have an acquaintance that has tried numerous times to persuade me that Osama bin Laden was not killed in a commando raid in Abbottabad in 2011, but actually died of natural causes back in 2001. Just look at the photos of bin Laden in the press from the last ten years on! They are “obviously” doctored!

We all know that one guy, or several. They’re devotees of their favourite “what the government doesn’t want you to know” web site. When you tell them that such claims, while interesting, suffer from a dire lack of peer review and corroboration from credible sources, that just amps them up even more: “I don’t need the megacorporate disinformation machine to know what’s true. I think independently. Free your mind! Look at the photos and judge for yourself; could the World Trade Center towers really have collapsed due to fire?”

There’s no arguing with conspiracy theorists. The conversation is complicated by the fact that established media certainly have, in their history, disseminated their share of outright lies, or, far more often, omissions and skewed narratives. Mainstream media often disseminate Official Truth in any country and political system, and, in more democratic societies, this is sometimes done under the guise of hard-hitting investigational journalism and putative independence. Yet, anyone who’s grown beyond the infantile thumb-sucking stage of critical thinking understands that the idea of media as a professionally neutral conveyor of consistently objective truth is, at a minimum, complicated and caveat-ridden, and perhaps even slightly risible. Furthermore, amidst the noise on and there are, in bits and pieces, some kernels of truth.

Such a polemic cannot be made intelligible by arguing about “the facts”, as people are wont to do with conspiracy theorists. This is a trap. What does the idea of “the facts” even mean? To my mind, this issue goes back to the very nature of our knowledge about the external world, and is, at heart, a philosophical issue.

In a sense, it’s a fundamentally defeatist stance, because if we’re going to interrogate the pillars of our construction of “the facts”, we have to be very honest about the limits of what we can justifiably claim to know. It’s the only reasonable thing to do. However, our loony friends aren’t going to reciprocate our concessions; you may not be completely sure about anything (because you cannot reasonably be, as I’ll discuss below), but the guy writing at about how 757s don’t just smash into the Pentagon like that? He’s sure. Very sure. Your vague, slightly noncommittal scepticism is no match for his positive assertions. And yet, there are reasons why it’s more justifiable to believe The New York Times account than his.

For those who slept through their Philosophy 101 course (or an introductory course to scientific methodology), let’s revisit a well-beaten horse. There are two types of reasoning recognised in logical argumentation: deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning.

Deductive reasoning is the kind that is used to reach certain conclusions based on ironclad axioms of logic. It is used in self-contained systems of well-defined rules, such as mathematics. The kinds of proofs you used to do in geometry class are deductive in nature, because the conclusion follows certainly from the premises.

The simplest illustration of a deductive claim is a syllogism such as:

  1. All men are yellow;
  2. Alex is a man.
  3. Therefore, Alex is yellow.

Alex’s yellowness follows from the premises (the first two points). It cannot be otherwise. Given the premise that he’s a man and that all men are yellow, he must be yellow.

Note that we haven’t considered the question of whether all men are, in fact, factually yellow. That is not essential for this claim to be deductively true. Maybe not all men are yellow. Maybe Alex is not a man (though, I’m pretty sure I am). The claim is simply that given that all men are yellow and that Alex is a man, he must be yellow.

Deductive logic has relatively narrow applications in the grand universe of human endeavours. It’s usable in bounded systems that meet the Closed-World Assumption, most notably in the field of mathematics, but also, in a more applied dimension, in finite deterministic systems, such as for example in electronics.

Inductive reasoning is the other kind of reasoning. Inductive claims are probabilistic in nature. A strong inductive claim is a “good bet”, not a guaranteed or certain conclusion. An example of an inductive claim would be:

  1. The Sun has risen every day.
  2. Tomorrow is a new day.
  3. Therefore, the Sun will rise tomorrow.

There’s no guarantee the Sun will rise tomorrow merely on the basis of the fact that it has done so in the past. It could explode overnight. You never know. But, it’s a pretty good bet that it will rise tomorrow; it’s had a pretty consistent track record of doing that. Of course, to flesh out this claim realistically requires quite a bit more premises about what we know to be true about the Sun, quite apart from the fact that it rises. But even if we add all the scientific knowledge in the world, there’s still no logical guarantee that the Sun will, in fact, rise tomorrow. Maybe it won’t. But it probably will. And that’s the essence of inductive reasoning.

Pretty much all human knowledge is based on inductive claims. Pretty much anything humans say to each other, ever, is based on a giant cascade of inductive claims. There’s not much that we know about the outside world that could be said to be deductively true. Deductive claims participate in inherently synthetic universes. That’s why it’s a bit silly when a person arguing with another about who really shot John F. Kennedy says: “Your logic is terrible!” The other party’s logic is probably not wrong–at least, not in the sense of deductive logic. Most intelligent people are pretty good at basic deductive logic. The disagreement is generally about the truth or falsehood of the premises, or about their evidentiary relationship to the conclusion being advanced. Lee Harvey Oswald may have been on the top floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository with a rifle, but how can you be sure he shot Kennedy?

Even direct human sensory experience can be called into some doubt: just because you’ve seen it with your own eyes doesn’t mean it’s true. The very idea of perceived physical reality as being “true” has been the subject of ongoing philosophical contention. It relies on a lot of metaphysical assumptions, such as that causes resemble their effects (just because you feel like you’re sitting in this chair and it feels very “chair-like” doesn’t mean the underlying object–if it even exists–is essentially “chair-like”). 

Worse yet, inductive logic is not deductively valid. The Scottish philosopher David Hume famously pointed out that the justification for inductive logic uses circular reasoning, because the only real justification for inductive reasoning is that inductive reasoning has worked in the past–itself an inductive claim. “Induction, because induction” isn’t very persuasive, and it certainly isn’t what most people would intuitively call “logical”.

But, this wouldn’t be a very interesting post if I ended it on a note of “so, you really don’t know anything at all, period”. Let’s skip over the metaphysical issues and assume, among other things, that our direct sensory experience of reality is mostly accurate, in the sense that the underlying reality meaningfully resembles our apprehension of it through our five senses.

So, back to journalism. When you open the The New York Times, do you really know that anything you see is true at all? Have you ever even been physically present, in a position to directly observe any occurrence that the Times has reported on? I’m not sure that I have. Most people haven’t either. And even if you have, it’s probably something that happens a few times in a lifetime, unless you’re the President.

The metro section says there was a fire on 125th St. It’s got photos of fire engines and a menacing blaze. Were you there? Did you see it? Probably not. Maybe it’s all fake. Maybe the whole story is a fake. Maybe there was no fire.

Maybe. But it’s probably true. It’s true because you can’t think of a compelling reason for the Times to make something like that up, a matter of fact seemingly without any ideological valence or political magnitude. It’s true because other articles on similar events in the past have been supported by the testimony of people you know. It’s true because the same, or substantially similar report is also carried by other local newspapers, television stations, and online sources, and an elaborate conspiracy among them all to convincingly report a fake fire is unparsimonious. It’s true because the Times would not be considered a credible news source if it just made stuff up all the time.

And yet, all of those are inductive claims. The last premise is particularly ludicrous, as it is circular: the Times is credible because it’s credible. Certainly, it could be that all of these different sources of information that you’re cross-referencing and integrating elaborately conspired to report on a fire that never happened, motivated by reasons unknown to us. It doesn’t pass Occam’s Razor, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time they’ve reported something that was subsequently shown to be completely false; Gulf of Tonkin incident, anybody? And yet, when I say “shown”, was it shown to you? No, it was “shown” by other sources that you believe to be credible, because you’ve experienced them as having credibility in the past.

Well, that’s very inductive of you. And it’s deductively illogical. You can’t prove any of it. Your justifications are just other inductive claims; things you reasonably believe to have a high probability of being true, but you are in no position to directly verify. Indeed, it’s safe to say that ninety nine percent of human knowledge–which we utilise with great conviction every day–is that way: for all our cosmopolitanism, there’s not a whole lot in the range of an individual human’s direct observation and experience. You’ve probably never experimentally verified whether hypothermia truly sets in at or below 35C. Have you ever personally tested whether antibiotics really work? You’ve probably taken them, but what if it was just your awesome immune system? Want to give yourself and your friends a menacing infection and really explore it with some rigour? Be sure there’s a control, someone’s got to get the placebos!

Most of the time people are arguing about any matters of fact in the outside world, they are arguing about things they have never seen or touched; they just read about it somewhere. I confidently contend that you can land a Cirrus SR22 (given a longer runway) without flaps safely because a pilot told me so, citing the Cirrus operator’s manual. But hell if I’ve ever tried. I don’t even know how to deploy the flaps on a Cirrus. I don’t even know how to get it up in the air. Yet, I’m perfectly comfortable making this claim to you, and I’ll bet you $1000 it’s true.

Have you ever been to Niue? What if Niue doesn’t really exist? But surely it does! And yet, all the reasons you have for supposing so are based, foundationally, on other inductive claims, few or none of which you’ve directly verified. You simply suppose that atlases and maps generally reflect geographic fact, and that if there’s an entry in Wikipedia, it must be true. How gullible of you! (Incidentally, there have been plenty of fake entries on Wikipedia. What if the entry for the planet Jupiter is one of them? Is Jupiter a real thing?)

Even the meaning of everyday work of researchers and specialists in scientific fields relies on their belief in inductive assumptions that are widely held in their field. These inductive assumptions are sometimes invalidated, and, throughout history, have undergone massive upheaval and revolution. It’s actually quite possible to invalidate decades or centuries of scientific labour with a shift in high-level assumptions. (There is an entire field, Philosophy of Science, that seeks to properly capture or describe the process of how all this actually happens at a theoretical level, as well as to sometimes make prescriptions about how it ought to work.)

I think we’ve satisfactorily illustrated that nearly all knowledge about the external world is premised on a complex, interdependent house of cards, where the cards are inductive claims. Where it leads us with regard to journalistic credibility is this:

It is reasonable to say that The New York Times occupies a higher place in an inductive “hierarchy of believability” than does or something Alex Jones said. It is higher in that hierarchy because, on average, the things written in it correlate much more extensively and profoundly with other sources of (inductive) knowledge that we draw upon elsewhere. We believe that the Times is a more professional journalistic enterprise that goes to greater lengths to check its facts, review its sources and report the truth, because of other things that we believe to be true about journalistic organisations that do and don’t do that (the latter are seldom cited as a source of truth across a wide spectrum of human endeavours).

None of this guarantees that any given thing written in the Times is true. I personally cannot say that the World Trade Center towers definitively did not collapse due to a controlled demolition. But, Mr. What-They-Don’t-Want-You-To-Know can’t say that they did so, either, and that’s what he’s missing. Like me, he wasn’t there, and he’s no more of a structural engineer than I am. What’s more, my secondhand source is better than his.

Provable? Absolutely not. It’s just a better bet.