Sunday, July 20, 2008

Context and Bias

In my role as Assistant Village Idiot, I again point out the obvious, because it seems not to be noticed.

In any persuasive essay or discussion, you are trying to give evidence for a particular point of view. You are not obligated to make the other chap's argument for him. But in the larger scheme, you are not supposed to be proving one point of view, but arguing a side with an eye to all of us getting nearer the truth. You believe your view is closer to the truth, someone else believes theirs is, and together you press on toward a better understanding.

This is perhaps discussion rather than argument, though it is argument in its higher and better sense. It involves some listening, some granting that the other disputant has made some valid point.

It is different in a court of law, where an attorney is obligated by profession to give ground only for tactical reasons, and a certain obscuring of the facts is part of the process. When an attorney negotiates for you outside of a formal hearing, s/he might engage in more give-and-take, but the understanding in a formal hearing is that you grant nothing, and make the other side prove everything. This is because it is a judge or jury, a (hopefully) neutral hearer with no dog in the fight, is making the decision. Without this - if the attorneys had to resolve the dispute between themselves - the line of questioning would be different.

I don't understand why this specialised type of questioning is considered proper in political arguments, journalism, or in online discussion. A paid advocate must act like an attorney, perhaps, but even an op-ed writer, if seeking after truth, acknowledges some justice in the other side, even as he seeks to answer it. Political cartoons are unfair and one-sided; editorials should be fair, not intentionally ignoring information to score a point.

National journalists must think they are prosecuting attorneys. Their goal does not seem to be arriving at the truth, but in being as challenging as possible, even if unfair. Let Governor Buncombe make his own argument. My job is to undermine it. No, not really.

Isn't it true, doctor, that you prescribed this treatment knowing that death was one of the possible side effects?
MD: Well, this particular treatment...
Just answer the question, doctor: yes or no?
MD: Yes.

We consider this fair because we know a cross-examination is coming next - the doctor is going to get to give the context of how likely the side effects are, what precautions, he took, and what his other choices were.

Ms. Wintergreen, isn't it true that you pushed and elderly lady to the curb and she injured herself?
Ms. W: Well I had to because...
Yes or no, Ms. Wintergreen.
Ms. W: Yes.

The other attorney will take the line of questioning which reveals that the elderly lady was pushed in order to get her out of the path of a speeding vehicle.

Why should we admire this type of questioning from journalists? Why do they consider themselves not only justified but downright noble when they do so? How is it that advocates for causes con themselves into thinking they are being righteous when they do this? Why is it okay to ignore or dismiss known truths for the sake of the Cause?

Yeah, that's the same question, asked four different ways.

Whether live or online, I seldom stay in discussions with such people. Whether they be fool or knave is no matter - there is nothing to be gained.


bs king said...

Harumph. I made this point about a journalist who was blasting the "green movement" to you two earth days ago, and you never ceded the point. That was the one where she went on and on about how the enviros has gotten DDT banned and that now caused the death of children in Africa, blah blah blah, but she never mentioned that her gripe had become a non issue six months earlier when DDT was allowed back in use. I thought that omission showed bias, and I remember getting cranky when you disagreed. I should probably look that up and make sure I made that point and you actually didn't cede, but I'm late for work.

Personal moment aside, I'd never made the journalist are trying to be attorneys connection, but it explains so very much. I like the analogy. I've always liked the point that in most cultural arguments people are fighting on two different questions (i.e. Is it a woman's choice what she does with her body vs. Is abortion murder?) They prove their case on their question, and then don't see why the other side won't give's easier to win if you fight a battle while the other person is fighting one three miles away and to the left.

Dubbahdee said...

Mr. Idiot (can I call you Assistant?)

Isn't it true that you are asking these questions just because you want to be able to push old ladies into the street without having someone ask you tough questions about the incident on television?

Just answer the question. Yes or no?

bs king said...

Alright, I scanned the article I mentioned. She was in the op-ed section, but I did conclude with the point that I wondered about her integrity elsewhere when she left that out.

Oh, and yes, I am being petty, I know, you don't have to tell me.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

No, not petty. I remember the discussion well. I had several other points I might have made, but they weren't devastating. You had a credentialed source that was going to carry more weight with you, so I just let it be as "question raised." His points did cause me to look up and modify my view - the fact that there are two types of mosquito which require different approaches, for example. But I still thought he had glossed over some points and taken the "official line." I came to regard the original article by the journalist as oversold but still valuable.