A Scientific Approach to Journalism That Can Mitigate Partisanship

One of the things that stands out for me during the Trump presidency is the number of hypotheses or narratives relating to Trump and the news involving him, most notably the Trump-Russia story.  By narratives, I mean the construction of a story outline that will help explain events, and also place the key people in roles–all of which provide a context that provides meaning and explicates the people and events. For example, one narrative has Trump as someone the Russians manipulated via blackmail, using Trump to achieve their objectives, including weakening the U.S. Another narrative places Trump as a great business man and deal-maker, who has made enemies of the elite out of resentment that Trump has proven them wrong. The Russia story is merely sour grapes.

Now, my sense is that all of these narratives are driven by some combination of the individual’s political biases as well as their ability to objectively perceive and analyze the world. (By the way, the same applies to me and the running hypotheses I have formed.) Which individuals and narratives stem primarily from the latter? Which ones do facts and logic support the most? Which ones are baseless and unreasonable, so much so that we could dismiss them? The answers aren’t clear or easy to answer. Because of that, judging these narratives and assessing the credibility of the individuals that embrace them can be really difficult. The result can be confusion and a sense of being lost in a sea of information. This is especially true for those not tracking the various stories on a regular basis, seeking a variety of sources.

In this thread, I’d like to suggest a solution to this as well as present the benefits for doing so.

A Proposed Solution

My solution involves choosing a few of the most credible narratives and advocates for them and figuratively hold them side by side to analyze. This side by side comparison is really important, so I want to provide an (admittedly bizarre) image to illustrate what I mean. Imagine a distant sci-fi future (like in an episode of Black Mirror) where holograms of three or four skeletons float in front of a group. The group contains reasonable and intelligent people, representing the political left, right and center.  The skeletons represent different narratives like  the Trump Russia story, for example. Now imagine a stream of digitally projected words and images floating above the group . This stream represents the flow of relevant news and information. The group analyzes and discusses the information and through consensus picks the key facts and arguments. After that, through discussion,  the group identifies the narratives that the information seems to fit; they can also point out ways in which the information seems to weaken a narrative.  The skeletons begin to fill out or atrophy depending on whether the information supports or weakens the narratives–the more information and the better the fit (decided by the group), the more “flesh” we see on the skeletons. This process will occur on a regular basis (e.g., daily, weekly), and we should begin to get a good idea of which narratives are the most compelling and which ones are not. Additionally, I believe the credibility of the advocates and key actors should also become more evident over time.

Why I Like This Approach

Here are some reasons this approach appeals to me:

  1. The process has the feel of the scientific method rather than journalism or political propaganda and punditry. The endeavor–and the group involved–seek to identify key facts, instead of pushing a political agenda. (The politically diverse group should help with that.) Like scientists, they evaluate the hypotheses based on  facts and logic. By “holding up” the various hypotheses, the group, as well as onlookers, have an easier and clearer way of determining and distinguishing the hypotheses that are the most credible and compelling.
  2. The process can help individuals avoid getting ensnared by their own biases and narratives. Speaking for myself, I know that I can becoming enamored with a narrative I’ve constructed and as time goes on, critically scrutinizing that narrative, allowing news and information to weaken can be really difficult.  The people in the narrative that I like and the people I don’t like become the good guys and the bad guys, respectfully. The story may be really appealing as well.  For example, in the Trump-Russia incident,  Trump and his administration are the corrupt, traitorous bad guys, and Robert Mueller, with his dream team law enforcement team, are the good guys trying to bring them to justice. That narrative may appeal to me, but what if it’s not true? The process could help people like me see this.  For one thing, the  process involves examining facts and a variety of narratives, versus advocating for one and attacking others. This can help people not get too attached to any one narrative. The group of ideologically diverse individuals can help each other do this as well. They need to embrace the  objective and the principles behind the process, and work as a team to fulfill and achieve  both. This is about finding the truth, not hoping one’s narrative comes true, or attacking narratives and information that oppose it. 
  3. The process can serve as a public scorecard for narratives and individuals espousing them, creating greater accountability. One pet peeve of mine is that politicians and pundits can make false claims or promote dubious theories, but not really suffer meaningful consequences for that. Rep. Devin Nunues and Trump himself come to mind. I’d like the process and the “skeletons” to publicly displayed, keeping this scorecard in the public consciousness. My hope is that it will reveal and highlight the theories and individuals that are most credible from those that are not. And this should help lead to appropriate consequences for all involved.

Conclusion

Acknowledging that the narratives and hypotheses we construct to perceive politicians and political events can be wrong, even though we may feel utterly convinced that they are not. Indeed, an intense conviction can inhibit our ability to see and understand a situation accurately. It can lead to overreaction, hyperbole and even conspiracy thinking. I believe we could use help to avoid this, and that’s the purpose of the process above. My hope is that a process like the one above can help renew our commitment to good information, reasoned analysis, putting either ahead of our partisanship. The latter is a threat to our democracy, while the former can strengthen and preserve it.

14 thoughts on “A Scientific Approach to Journalism That Can Mitigate Partisanship

  1. Figuratively speaking, I’d like to see the following information included on a scorecard for these individuals and entities like the GOP and Fox News, posted on public bulletin board,making themconspicuous, frequently present in the minds of citizens, easy to refer to:

  2. I want to comment on this short twitter exchange to illustrate what I’m trying to achieve with the process I described above–how this exchange stands in contrast to what I’m looking for.

    And here’s one (snarky) response:

    Maybe this exchange isn’t the best example, and I might be projecting (but hopefully that won’t weaken the point I’m trying to make), but here’s my take.

    First, Shapiro sort of defends Trump in a rather weak way. Let’s say that he does this because his biases get in the way. That is, his biases prevent him from seeing the situation clearly and accurately and he ends up making a lame argument. My point: We all do this; we’re all susceptible to doing this. We’ll say things like this, and not realize this is what we’re doing. What I want is a way that we help us avoid this or at least quickly help us see what’s going on, in a way that is gentle and gracious.

    The second tweet is almost the opposite, and it’s typical of twitter. Some says something a little foolish, and many people relish the opportunity to zing that person. I don’t want that. I’m suggesting a team of people to help, instead of get a laugh at the expense of the person.

    To me, I think this will create a more congenial atmosphere, bringing people together and also placing accuracy, facts and sound thinking ahead of partisanship and factionalism.

    Edit

    Another way to say this: We all have blindspots. All of us. If we can get together with reasonable, intelligent people who don’t have the same blindspots–and these people help cover each others blindspots, then we can help people perceive and think better; we can help people get the most accurate information about the world. (By the way, this whole process can be seen as a type of filter.)

  3. Example of How Public Scorecard Would be Helpful

    I don’t know all the details, but my understanding is that a) Wynn also donated a lot of money to the RNC; b) RNC (maybe even McDaniel) quickly prodded DNC to return donated money from Harvey Weinstein during revelations of his sexual misconduct)

    The RNC response isn’t just hypocritical, but I feel like it suggests they’re less principled than the DNC, at least assuming the DNC did return the Weinstein’s money…Let me make a point here: One problem is that I have to “assume” this–meaning, I’m not sure; I can’t remember. A public scorecard would help address that, and it would allow people to see differences between the DNC and RNC, if any meaningful ones existed.

  4. This is long, so I have to take it one piece at a time.

    In the case of the FBI’s investigation, I think it’s unhelpful to construct narratives at all until we have enough evidence. The fact that so many people constructing these narratives have to submit hypotheses while we wait for more info by itself tells me it’s a waste of time, energy, and (in my case) rage to put the pieces together. Before you put the skeletons up side-by-side, why not wait until we have the info that we know is coming, unless you just enjoy watching it play out?

    I don’t enjoy watching it play out. I read enough to stay (kind of) current, but I don’t enjoy one second of the effort. I don’t have any interest in supposing, especially since I don’t think supposing is necessary. Someone’s going to have a report. It could be in a few weeks or it could be in a few years. I don’t have it in me to keep playing the what-if game if the process is going to take a few years.

    I know this doesn’t address your main point at all, but as I say, you’ve put a lot here. I’ll get to the rest soon. Ish.

  5. Unless one is completely shut off from the news, my sense is that people can’t avoid constructing narratives or hypotheses about the FBI investigation. Even just reading head lines, people will form impressions, and that subconsciously or consciously leads to the formulation of a hypothesis. What’s going on, and what really happened? You don’t the questions and attempts to answer them happened almost automatically?

    Additionally, even before knowing the truth of what really happened, we can see which hypotheses are credible and which ones aren’t. The importance of this should be obvious. For example, if the possibility that Team Trump is compromised by Russia or has a quid-pro-quo agreement is highly plausible, then the public should support the investigation, and support protecting the people doing it. If, however, the hypothesis that the FBI is corrupt seems more credible, then we should view the investigation with a lot of skepticism, and we should turn our attention to corruption and politicization of the FBI, which is also a very serious problem.

    This process will also shed light on the credibility of the politicians, pundits, and journalists as well. Those who espouse the most credible hypotheses should have more credibility, while those who promote the least credible hypotheses should receive the least credibility.

    The challenge is evaluating the various hypotheses. I’d like a process to make this easier and clearer.

  6. Oh, I don’t question for a second why the pundits and watchdogs are forming narratives. They have to keep feeding the beast and their kids. I’m just saying that my own level of participation is listening here and there and withholding judgment on any (or at least most) of whatever people are trying to put together.

    You can read a whodunnit and try to figure out who actually dunnit, or you can just read it and watch it play out. At this stage of the game, I don’t see the point in trying to figure it out. What does my “support” have to do with the investigation? The FBI is going to do what it does with or without my support. If somehow events involve my elected representatives, then yeah, I can see how my support (or lack of support) becomes something actionable, in which case I’ll make my decision in the voting booth with whatever info I have.

    As far as the credibility of the pundits, I take each on a case-by-case basis. However flawed that may be, it’s really all I can do with the time and energy I have. But honestly, the pundits have either earned or not earned credibility with me already, based on my observations in the past. It doesn’t mean they can’t get it back or lose it afresh, but on a still-developing story like this, I just take it all with multiple grains of salt anyway.

    But again, I know we’re only talking about this one example for a larger concept you have in mind. I don’t want to derail your whole proposal based on this one example, or prevent myself from actually getting into it because I’m spending all my words on this.

    It’s already clear that we have two completely different approaches to what’s going on in Washington. I don’t think this has necessarily always been the case, nor will it be the case forever. I’m in survival mode, so the rules are different for me right now.

  7. Wait, when I said “people can’t avoid constructing narratives,” I wasn’t only specifically referring to pundits and watchdogs–I meant basically everyone. When we think of Trump, the Republicans, Democrats, we all see within a particular narrative framework; we cast them in certain roles. For particular news stories like the Russia investigation, they play these roles in a more specific narrative.

    My sense is that even those who are only paying cursory attention to the news form these kind of narratives and hypotheses. For these individuals, the narratives may be very sparse, but they still exist, and people have an understanding, as flimsy as it may be, based on these impressions. If this is true, having a way to evaluate the various narratives that exist, helping people to see which ones are the most credible from ones that have little or no credibility is very important. I’m suggesting a way to achieve that.

    At this stage of the game, I don’t see the point in trying to figure it out. What does my “support” have to do with the investigation?

    Here’s an example, to answer this question: If Trump fires Mueller, and the hypothesis that Russia has compromised Trump is highly credible, then the firing may lead to massive protests. I think protests, or even the threat of protests can matter. Suppose protests don’t occur, or aren’t likely to occur. I can see this emboldening Trump, leading to worse behavior.

    Suppose the hypothesis that Russia compromised Trump is not credible, and suppose, instead, that the hypothesis that a “deep state” is trying to get rid of Trump is highly credible. The firing of Mueller might be seen as acceptable, appropriate even. We not only support Trump, but people may begin calling their representatives to show support for this, and even threaten them not to retaliate against Trump.

    In short, the public doesn’t have to wait until elections to exert a significant influence on political events.

    I’m in survival mode, so the rules are different for me right now.

    I get it, and I sympathize with this approach. What I’m suggesting above wouldn’t make much sense under your approach (or at least my understanding of it). I think your critique of the approach would be more fruitful and germane if you critiqued under the assumption of someone engaged in the news.

  8. Example of Hypothesis

    From Shadi Hamid

    >Democracies die when one side loses respect for democratic outcomes and comes to consider the other party as beyond the pale. This is a problem on both left and right, but, in some ways, it’s become a bigger problem on the left (but mostly the center-left)

    Since the center-left has no discernible ideological orientation beyond managerial “nudging” technocracy and rule of experts, to rally the base they need to focus on attacking adversaries (and being partisan) rather than inspiring their own supporters with a positive vision

    Translation: Trump and his Republican supporters aren’t really a true threat to our democracy. The Democrats, specifically those on the center-left, portray them that way because they don’t have another way to rally the base.

    This sounds like a reasonable hypothesis–at least not one that I would easily dismiss right away. Is it true? We may not be able to answer that right now, but we can evaluate the strength of this hypothesis right now; we can do things to judge whether this is a compelling theory. How? We can do this by examining Trump, what’s he’s said and done. If we want to be thorough we can compare his actions to previous presidents. If we focused on this, would there be very little evidence that Trump is a serious threat to our democracy, that he really isn’t beyond the pale? Would there be some evidence, or even a lot of evidence? If there is very little evidence then Hamid’s hypothesis looks a lot better, but if there is a lot of evidence it wouldn’t be as compelling.

    Anybody with the time and motivation could research and examine this, but large numbers of people are not like this. Moreover, the individuals that do this are also vulnerable to distortion from their biases. This is where having a team of individuals representing different parts of the political spectrum would be helpful, particularly if all of them are trying to help each other with their blind spots. Finally, we need them to publicly present the results (the “skeletons”) in a relatively quick, and easy to understand way.

    Edit: Another Example

    Do you know if Senator Cardin’s claim is accurate or not? Is it easy to know this? Whether he is right or not isn’t insignificant. Nunes was co-chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which has been investigating the Team Trump and Russia during the election. Based on the news I’ve been following since 2016, I would agree with Senator Cardin. And my impression is actually worse: Nunes reminds me of bungling ignoramus from a Coen Brothers movie. But maybe I’m saying this due to bias and emotions. Hence, a need for the process I’m talking about.

  9. So this panel will evaluate Cardin’s summation of Nunes as “having lost all credibility” to determine if Cardin is credible? It seems like a lot of effort just to agree or disagree with one person’s claim that another person is credible. I don’t even understand why anyone cares, unless Cardin is an important figure and we have to know how reliable he is.

    Or is the real subject Nunes? Now I’m getting confused.

  10. I was really thinking about evaluating Nunes’s credibility–mainly because he’s done some outrageous things–but Cardin (or anyone’s credibility is fair game). To me, I would pay special attention to any politician or public figure that makes a very bold claim–the type of claim where if it’s true it’s a bombshell, and if it’s not, it’s irresponsible. Obviously, if some serious allegation is true, the public should know. But if someone makes a serious allegation that’s baseless, the public should know, and that person should face repercussions, one of which should be a loss of credibility. My sense is that people like Nunes have been making irresponsible accusations, without any consequences. For example, he’s written a memo that makes serious accusations, and people are taking that seriously.

  11. The following thread is about the method behind the Nunes’s memo–specifically a method to discredit the investigation and key institutions involved:

    What I’m proposing here can combat efforts like the one above and reduce the amount of times it can be used again–or at least reduce the impact.

    1. “It doesn’t matter. The Narrative has now inoculated the target demo.”

      That’s what someone said on twitter in response to this:

      I worry that the response could apply to me–that the narrative I find so compelling would inoculate me from the facts, from reality. This is one of the main reasons behind the idea I’m suggesting–it’s way that I think can help prevent that from happening: Look at the most plausible hypotheses, including ones you don’t favor your politics, and then, over time, see which ones are supported by the facts and sound thinking. The focus is on finding the right hypothesis, not wanting the narrative you favor to be true; and not wanting your side to win and the other side to lose. Ultimately, winning is being able to see the truth, to see things as clearly and accurately as possible; losing is being trapped in your narrative.

  12. Scorecard website and app.

    Thinking about the scorecard being posted on a website (or via an app) got me thinking of something. What if people looking at the scorecard could weigh in–giving feedback on the claims, individuals, and institutions. The feedback could express agreement or disagreement, including the level of each.

    This lead to another idea: The website/app could keep score on the readers–tracking their accuracy and credibility over time. In addition to tracking their agreement/disagreement, their opinions could be entered and tracked and people could also rate their opinions. (A part of me doesn’t like this idea, but I’ll just leave it there for now.)

    Another idea: People could actually wager money on some of the items. (I like this idea even less.)

    While I have reservations for both ideas, what I do like is the way this would attract and engage people. If people became interested in these topics–and the experience gave the people good information and strengthened norms and values relating to accuracy and credibility–this appeals to me a lot. Helping people become more informed about important topics and increasing the numbers of people that value accuracy and credibility (especially over partisanship and factionalism)–both are really critical and worthy goals. These things could also influence politicians, journalists and institutions making them care more about accuracy and credibility, and discouraging the opposite.

    Another idea: Give people some kind of reward for being accurate and maybe a penalty for not being accurate. It could be something like points or money (I don’t care for the latter). One idea is that the people reach a certain level of points can participate in the group that evaluates claims, etc. Or maybe there tier below that, where they’re allowed to post comments. Or maybe a forum can be created and people need to accrue so many points before participating in the forum. The idea is encourage people to do good thinking–and move away from snark, insults, polarization. And this applies to politicians, journalists, etc. as well.

    ***

    Another idea: I’m imagining a table with rows and columns, and there can be a section for individuals, like politicians, etc. For example, let’s say there’s one for Trump. Every time he makes a claim, it can get added to his section. In a column next to it, as soon as we have some verification, positive or negative, the website will post the results. Again, because the group will have to have consensus, there may not be answers. Or the site can post the two different responses.

  13. A Website Showing What Scorecard Could Look Like

    I like the look of this from the politifact site. If you could have a way to compare different organizations and individuals, that would be even better.

    (Note: While I agree with the impetus behind fact-checking, I tend to think their approach is too narrow. Personally, I don’t what to just not whether statements are factually true or not, but also the significance of this. For example, a factually untrue statement might not be so significant. I guess I want more than just fact-checkers–I want people to analyze and assess credibility and the significance and meaning of the statements. I want to look for patterns and identify them.)

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