January 23rd, 2007


Knowing Things that Aren't So

Dinesh D'Sousa uncorks a few old myths still floating around out there.

Here's a sample:

In Iraq we’re getting into a religious war that’s lasted for centuries. This theory, espoused among others by John Murtha, holds that the Sunni and Shia are fighting in Iraq because these two groups have been fighting everywhere since the seventh century. So who wants to get into the middle of an ancient conflict that shows no signs of abating? This would seem to be an argument for America to get out of a religious quarrel that it has no way to settle, and that shows no sign of abating.

But the Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq is not a religious conflict. How do I know that? Because there are no substantial religious differences between the Shia and the Sunni. And these two groups have not been fighting for centuries. In fact, they haven’t been fighting at all. There are no wars that have been fought between the Shia and the Sunni in the past. Historian Bernard Lewis points out that our notion of Shia-Sunni conflict seems to be an ethnocentric projection of the Catholic-Protestant model onto the Muslim world. As late as the 1980s, Shia and Sunni fought shoulder-to-shoulder to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan.

Not, of course, that exposing the myth will have much effect on those who hold it: they'll just assume that they shouldn't be reading the article. See "Problematize".
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How to Read A Newspaper Story

Begin by realizing it was told by a guy who doesn't particularly have any reason to tell you something. He's talking to his editor.

Have a conversation. Get out your pen, and start to scribble on the paper.

Ask some questions. Here's a common list:

(1) What kind (genre) of journalism is it?

(2) What kind of occurrence or event produced the news story?

(3) Why is this story in the paper?

(4) Was this event created in order to get coverage?

(5) What is the writer's background? (if none is given, assume none)

(6) Is there obvious bias on the part of the writer of the article (or the writer of the headline)?

(7) Is it possible to verify the information in the article? (Are there other papers covering it? What do they say?)

(8) What sources are used in the newspaper article? Are some apparently made up?

(9) What kind of play is given to the story?

(10) What is omitted or left out?

(11) How is the event framed? Is there a "larger story" we are supposed to infer? If so, did this story distort the reporting?

(12) What are the "latent" values being transmitted by the news articles?

Like many people my age, I have seen the newspapers cover events that I have been part of: I have never been able to think that they did a good job when I know about the event myself. That same thought should be applied to their coverage of other events. I have particularly come to recognize that words used to characterize people are rarely useful, and are usually actively misleading: "conservative" "liberal" "fundamentalist" come to mind as words which are almost invariably misapplied or used to conceal, rather than reveal, the truth. Some newspapers recognize, at least implicitly, that they are losing readers, (sometimes noticing it), and want to make a joke of it. A few of us notice that certain papers will report well, and switch to them.

Finally, for those interested in evaluating the reasoning of an article or editorial, I recommend this.

Skeptics Fall For It, Again

It always amazes me that people who think of themselves as hard-headed skeptics are so gullible.

They have the picture in their head of what they think should be true, and then go out to confirm it. In this case, going into the section of the bookshop with religious myths and deciding that one of them is the "official" version, as promoted by the people who fit the pictures in their heads.

Yet, sadly, this is a kind of mistake we are all prone to make That and overconfidence.