Month: January 2010
I have just read Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies.
It’s an excellent account of the forces distorting the news as reported by mainstream newspapers and television. He covers the ideological biases of owners and journalists, and the needs of both owners and journalists to ingratiate themselves with the politically powerful. However, the biggest distortion of all is the fact that finding out the truth takes time and resources, while printing whatever lands in your inbox is quick and cheap. Under commercial pressures, even the most respectable media sources rely heavily on wire services and press releases, while the wire services themselves mostly pass on the news that is given to them.
What is frustrating about the book is that Davies doesn’t look at the demand side. His thesis is that prior to the 1980s, newspapers and journalists sought out stories and checked them, out of professional pride, and that that diligence was squeezed out of the system under commercial competitive pressure from the 1980s onwards. He seems to assume that the media could have got away with that “churnalism” at any time, but chose in the good old days to assume higher standards.
What I wonder is whether there used to be pressure from customers to do proper journalism, and only in the last 20-30 years has it become profitable to print junk instead, due to changes in the audience. Basically, I would like to answer the following questions:
Do readers care whether what they read is true?
Do they believe that what they read is true?
My guess, and it’s just a guess, is that journalism was originally targeted at a market of people who really wanted the truth, though it may have supplied other people as a by-product. Today the people who need the truth have other ways of getting it, and the key newspaper audience simply doesn’t care whether the stories they read are true or not.
Another theory would be that a textbook Market for Lemons has developed – readers want the truth, and know that they’re not getting it, but they don’t have any way of getting it. A newspaper that spent more money to do proper journalism would cost more, but the consumer wouldn’t be able to tell that it was really any better, and so the expensive option would lose in the marketplace. I don’t think this is likely, because I think it would be fairly straightforward to establish a reputation for avoiding the kinds of bad journalism that Davies describes.
A third theory is that proper journalism has suffered from Baumol’s cost disease, and become too expensive. The early-20th century journalist came from the literate lower-middle class, and provided human judgement at low cost. Human judgement has become the critical component in the modern economy, and a journalist’s time is now too expensive for him to be sent around the country sniffing for interesting stories.
Nick Davies is a leftist, but I don’t think the book suffers from that. He tries hard to be fair, and his bias comes through mostly in his examples – it is much easier to spot abuses by one’s political opponents. However, one of the key results of the process he describes is that when there is controversy, both sides will manipulate the media in the ways that have become so easy, and so the reader of his book can easily spot the examples on the other side that he has missed. His argument includes the fact that the ideological bias of media owners, while still significant, is milder than in earlier eras.
I’ve always – at least as far back as I can remember – considered myself a scientifically oriented person. When I was a child, the highlights of TV were the scientific and mathematical programmes or segments presented by David Bellamy, Patrick Moore, and, most of all, Johnny Ball.
These presenters made science seem, not just a collection of facts, but as connections and patterns that made sense. Their science you could see for yourself, and not just copy down out of a textbook. That’s also what drew me to computers – the stuff I know about computers I know not because I read it in a book or learned it on a course, but because I’ve done it and seen it for myself. That was as true of the 12-year-old me with his ZX-81 and his Think of a Number as it is today.
Science was about what could be demonstrated. I can’t imagine any science programme in the 1980s that talked about “consensus opinion” holding the same interest for me. And so I just wonder, is it a coincidence that all three of these people who led me into science are on record as not believing in global warming?
The theory has been going around recently that dealing effectively with climate change is impossible due to democracy. I think it may have been triggered by an article in Der Spiegel, published in a translated form at Roger Pielke Jr’s blog.
As a sceptic of both global warming and democracy, I have no dog in this fight. If Climate Change means we have to ditch democracy, that’s OK with me; on the other hand, if democracy means we can’t do anything about climate change, that’s just fine too. Nevertheless, the intersection of the two obsessions that this blog seems to have settled on demands my attention.
So let’s take the argument, attributed to David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith, that democracy is incapable of taking the collective action made necessary by the threat of climate change. I haven’t read their book, so I am dealing with a summary of their ideas, for instance from these articles by Shearman.
The weakness of the global warming argument doesn’t necessarily invalidate the claim that democracy is unequal to the challenge it presents. To defeat it on that basis, you would have to show either that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is not just untrue, but impossible, or else that the determination of democratic governments to take any measures necessary short of action is primarily the result of well-founded doubts about the science.
Take these in order: first, is it possible that some such threat as global warming is claimed to be could actually be true? I would say that it is much less likely that some such threat would materialize than that a false threat would be promoted by opportunists, but I cannot say that it is impossible. The global warming scare itself cannot be dismissed out of hand (despite the attempts of some sceptics to to so), but can only be ruled out on the basis of a close look at the evidence.
So we can go on to ask the second question: if AGW or something like it were actually true, would the political structures that we have make it impossible for the necessary collective action to be taken?
It’s plausible, but, at least in the brief articles if not in his book, Shearman does not make that case. He relies on the fact that meaningful action has not, in fact, been taken by democratic governments. That might be, as he says, because they’re not capable of it, but it might equally be that the stalemate is the result of opposition from those who, in my view correctly, believe on the basis of the evidence that such meaningful action is not in fact warranted.
Assessment of this issue is complicated by a feature that global warming alarmism shares with other religions: many people even at an individual level say they believe it but act as if they don’t. I’m not sure it makes much sense, descending into familiar arguments about cheap talk versus revealed preferences, to ask what such people “really” believe, but I think one has to say that to some degree they are unpersuaded by the evidence, even if they say otherwise. Given that, there is still the possibility that the doubt which they have but deny is not reasonable doubt, but is founded on a psychological unwillingness to internalise inconvenient truths.
If this contradiction were limited to the common people, it would be a point in Shearman’s favour. The plebs are not fit to govern, therefore the wise must rule them. However, the inconsistency seems to me to be just as widespread among the powerful as among the mob – I have previously observed, for instance, that investors do not rate sea level rises as significant in their valuations of commercial property.
So for me, Shearman’s argument fails, unfortunately. I suspect that, despite its faults, our democratic governments (in the sense of old democracy, of course) would be able to take sufficient action on climate change, were it really necessary. The reason they are not taking such action is that it is not necessary. The reason they say it is necessary, while not actually taking it, is that they are are lying as usual.
The real link between democracy and global warming is quite different, and is adequately summarised by my guru Mencius Moldbug. In short, the global warming scare and its associated bureaucratic outgrowths are the sort of thing you would expect a democracy to produce – indeed, the kind of thing they always have produced.
The scare originated in democratic countries, spread through democratic countries, and has only been accepted by non-democratic countries after they were pressured or bribed to do so by democracies.
There’s nothing new here, but I think I can put it more simply and clearly than I’ve managed to do before.
Obviously many “democratic” governments exist, and when we normally talk about democracies, these are what we mean. What I’m talking about here is the theoretical idea of democracy, where policy is controlled by the voters. This is the distinction I made previously in Two kinds of democracy.
Political systems can be changed, either by invasion, overthrow from within the territory but outside the government, or subversion from within the structure of the government itself.
All governments devote a large part of their effort and resources to protecting themselves against being changed. It can be assumed that any governments which do not do so, get changed.
To protect the political system, the government needs to correctly identify the threats that exist to it, and devote sufficient resources and attention to resisting them. The chief premiss on which I base my argument here is that this is hard.
If those inside the government structures do not have the freedom of policy to protect the system, they will be unable to do so and the system will be changed. Most commonly, it is subverted from within, until those within the system do have the ability to hold onto power.
If the system is truly democratic, office-holders within the system do not have freedom of policy. Policy is dictated by voters. This is the line I am drawing: I am not attacking some straw-man “perfect” democracy, but any in which the voters can overrule the elite on matters of policy. If they cannot, then it is an “old democracy” and potentially stable.
Voters do not have sufficient inside knowledge of the political situation to choose the policies that will preserve their democratic power. Further, they do not have sufficient interest in doing so – the value of having a vote is in being able to influence policy according to one’s preferences, and that is always likely to take priority over preserving the present system.
There are many examples of democracies voting to get rid of democracy – 1930s Germany and Italy being the best known. What I say is that democracies always vote to get rid of democracy, if not directly, then by not voting to prevent the system being subverted from within. That produces the “old democracy” I wrote about previously, in which the influence of voters is minor, and real power lies in institutions which are capable of perpetuating themselves
There could be an important exception to all this. If the franchise is limited in some way to a distinct minority of the population, then the chief threat to the system is from the disenfranchised. The voters will be well aware of this, and will have a clear and obvious interest in preserving the system which keeps power for their class. Such a system will be more stable than a true democracy with a universal or near-universal franchise.
This breaks down if there is no clear distinction between the ruling class and the disenfranchised. In that case, one faction or other within the ruling class can always benefit by a small extension of the franchise. The result is a ratchet causing the restricted franchise to eventually become universal.
Thus classical and 19th-century democracies were somewhat more stable than new democracies created today. The voters were aware that the current system was what kept them in a privileged position, and were very aware of threats to the system. From the point of view of a voter in a universal-suffrage “young” democracy, democracy just isn’t worth voting to defend.
This doesn’t mean that the fact of there being elections doesn’t have an effect – just that the actual opinions of the voters don’t.