Monday, June 27, 2011

Are There Academics Who are Satisfied with the Way Their Discipline is Portrayed in the Media?

Every so often, something will show up in the news, such as last week's Slate piece on Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia, or anything that is ever on the New York Times's Stone blog, and people get all pissed off about how any writing for the general public that has any philosophical content whatsoever guaranteed to be absolutely terrible. How we need to change this. How if the APA knew what it was doing we wouldn't be in this mess. Or whatever. Maybe I just made that last one up.

But I was thinking about the time last year when they found "arsenic-based" life-forms. Or earlier in 2010 when they found evidence of life on Mars. Or this Ph.D. comic. And it seems to me that scientists are usually pretty annoyed with the quality of science reporting. And engineers, too. So I was kind of wondering if there is any academic field whose practitioners are generally content with the level of quality of the media reports involving its area of study or making use of its results.

--Mr. Zero

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

If they were they would not be real Scotsm--ah--Academics.

Anonymous said...

If you made up "whatever", that definitely belongs on your CV somewhere.

Mr. Zero said...

Service to the profession.

Anonymous said...

Though I can´t disagree that media oversimplify scientific or scholarly matters on a regular basis, it wouldn´t be fair not to acknowledge the presence of articles in the The Stone series of good quality. They make philosophy fun for a wider audience.

Mr. Zero said...

Agreed. I liked Jason Stanley's recent piece on silencing a lot.

Anonymous said...

We historians sure aren't too pleased.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that most academics are displeased with how their respective professions are portrayed in the media. But of course this is a function of the fact that they are uniquely well-suited to see the flaws in the articles being published for general consumption. And I think it is useful to keep in mind that although really inferior work presented to the public ought to be condemned for that very reason, the standards of excellence in this arena are very different than the standards of excellence in an academic journal. So I think sometimes we academics are too hasty to claim that some recently published popular piece is terrible on the grounds that it wouldn't get published in Phil Studies, when in fact it's a perfectly serviceable popular article.

Anonymous said...

It frustrates me that the Stanley article gets a free pass. I suspect that if it had been written by someone else--say, not a regular poster on Leiter or a Rutgers faculty member--it would have been torn to shreds.

It's not bad, but it's not good. I think that it's comparable, if a bit better, than the ones torn to shreds.

There are big, glaring problems that a charitable reader can fix in interpretation, but that would, in another article, lead immediately to the conclusion that the whole thing is garbage from beginning to end.

Two main problems:

1. Bait and switch. He starts with an apt example of "silencing": if no comes to mean yes, then you are silenced, because you can't in practice say no. (Of course, this is exaggerrated, since there are multiple speech acts for "no," so demonstrating that one of them has been dismantled doesn't mean you're silenced, but that's a lesser problem. It's probably worth noting that another author would be mocked mercilessly for using a cheesy phrase like "stealing the voices of others.") Of course, this example doesn't serve his political claims. But none of his political examples are apt. In every case--heroism, freedom, taxes, presidential and media trust, there is no "silencing," and Stanley makes no attempt to argue that there is. In the first examples, there is value laden framing that weakens, but doesn't take away, our ability to express that something is valuable or not--it diminishes the rhetorical power of speech not silences it. In the latter cases, there is just a loss of trust, which is not clearly related to silencing at all. Moreover, he doesn't make the case, allowing us to believe that these examples are analogous to the first one and don't have to be argued for.

2. Once he's left behind the purported topic of silencing completely for the topic of trust, he makes a self-defeating case. His general charge is that these are strategic political misuses of language, since they aim to politically manipulate not communicate. But if the result "silences every news organ" and makes us believe "there's no such thing as fair and balanced" then it would not be effective and would not be cause for worry. After all, no one will believe Fox or the conspiracy theorists, if that's true.

I can only conclude he doesn't know what he's talking about, has absolutely nothing of value to say, and should be mercilessly mocked. [kidding!]

Mr. Zero said...

Hi anon 6:47,

I see what you're saying, but I don't share your overall dim view of the article. For one thing, I think we have to keep in mind that it was written for a popular audience. If Phil Studies asked me to referee it, I'd have rejected it. But it's in the NY Times.

I don't see it as a bait-and-switch. I see it as making a non-obvious connection between obvious instances of silencing ('no' means "maybe") and other, non-obvious (possible) instances (e.g. death tax). It seems to me that Stanley is right in thinking that the purpose of calling it a death tax is to make it impossible to effectively communicate support for the taxation of certain transfers of wealth between an estate and its heirs. Just as making 'no' mean "maybe" makes it impossible to effectively communicate that you have withheld your consent to sex. Maybe they're not the exact same thing, but they're similar.

Second, you say,

if the result "silences every news organ" and makes us believe "there's no such thing as fair and balanced" then it would not be effective and would not be cause for worry. After all, no one will believe Fox or the conspiracy theorists, if that's true.

I'm not sure I agree with you about this. I think that nobody would believe Fox in those circumstances only if they were pretty rational and had thought it through completely. A person who was a little irrational or who hadn't thought it through might continue to trust Fox, because Fox says stuff he already agrees with and he likes news that confirms is pre-existing opinions.

Anonymous said...

My guess would be that journalism departments (the few left) aren't unhappy. But I'm not sure they qualify as academic programs.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Zero,

First, sorry to derail the topic--if this is too much digression, no need to post it.

I do think the article is better than most, and I agree that, as a popular piece, it needn't be held to as high a standard.

I'd say it's good despite problems, but adding that it's not so *very* much better than the ones many commentors on the phil blogs go into critical conniptions over. None are great, some are better, but they're not as bad as often made out to be, and I don't think they're consistently held to the same standard.

Maybe Stanley does intend the view you suggest, but it's not convincing. The purpose of calling it a death tax is to get thoughtless people to oppose it without examining it closely. It doesn't silence one's opponents but deafens one's supporters. It's a complementary but distinct strategy.

I think this is an important difference, since "silencing" in the age of the internet is a futile strategy, but contemporary media is very well suited to "deafening," both by enabling a lazy reluctance to examine opposing views and by excessive noise, making it impossible to filter in the good info and arguments.

I do agree that, among the semi-irrational, skepticism will fall more heavily on sources that contradict prior beliefs, prevent the strategy's self-defeat. But if so, I think that undermines Stanley's final claim of a growing view of all media as insincere and untrustworthy. Instead, it suggests a more dangerous outcome: a conveniently narrow skepticism that reinforces trust in media sources that mirror our prejudices--a corresponding growth of trust as gullibility.

Mike said...

I don't understand why we should take our cues from other Academics when it comes to this. There might be another problem involved. Academics have become too detached from the lives of their students. It's the holier-than-thou attitude that makes people hate professors.

If you don't like an article write a letter to the editor. Don't critique from the sidelines.

There is a long history of public philosophers in the U.S. from which to take heed when it comes to this sort of thing. Dewey did it, Russell did it. And Peter Singer and Cornel West are doing it right now. What are you afraid of?

dominic said...

I know a psychologist who says that he has given up expecting even to be quoted accurately in the papers.

But it is not just academics. Is there anybody anywhere who expects their area of expertise to be represented accurately in the media?

Mr. Zero said...

The purpose of calling it a death tax is to get thoughtless people to oppose it without examining it closely. It doesn't silence one's opponents but deafens one's supporters.

But isn't that literally what happens when you make 'no' mean "maybe"? You deafen her "partner" to her refusal. Maybe that shows that "silencing" is somewhat of a misnomer; I don't think it shows that calling it a death tax is not akin to making 'no' mean "maybe."

One thing that is different is that in the classic case an old word is given a new meaning, whereas in the contentious case an old concept is given a new, misleading name. So the mechanism is somewhat different.

if so, I think that undermines Stanley's final claim of a growing view of all media as insincere and untrustworthy. Instead, it suggests a more dangerous outcome: a conveniently narrow skepticism that reinforces trust in media sources that mirror our prejudices--a corresponding growth of trust as gullibility.

Agreed.

Anonymous said...

I have found it to be an iron-clad law that any newspaper article about anything I know something about will contain at least one factual error, even if it's just getting the name of a street wrong. It bothers me that this doesn't seem to do much to shake my general confidence in the accuracy of newspaper articles.

Joshua Harwood said...

I thought that the consensus was that media portrayals were a sort of necessary evil to generate wider interest in academic specialties.

Keep in mind that the job of a journalist often demands condensing difficult material into something that Joe the Plumber would read. I expect a lot of dumbing-down at the cost of precision.

Dominic, you wrote: "Is there anybody anywhere who expects their area of expertise to be represented accurately in the media?"

That's a more poignant observation.

I think it helps to think of academics as Trekkies who found a means to survival at educational institutions. Of course they can crap all over "laypeople" for messing up the details, and that's got its own paying audience; but I personally wouldn't take the time to crap on everybody who, say, misunderstands Löb's theorem, or suffers the use/mention fallacy, etc.