January 10, 2007

The ultimate nightmare becomes an everyday reality

According to The Next Hurrah ("A wolf in gay sheep's clothing: Corruption at the London Times" 1/4/2007):

This week the Sunday Times of London published a pack of lies so transparent, so thoroughly discredited, that its appearance can't be chalked up to mere journalistic sloppiness. Rather, the timing of the piece, its willful disregard of the truth, and the behavior of the journalists themselves indicate a deliberate political hit job purposefully dressed up in the garb of one of the most internationally respected newspapers.

Harsh words, but apparently true. Except maybe the story wasn't "a deliberate political hit job", but just an example of the arrogance and incompetence of (some) journalists. And maybe it wasn't a pack of lies, exactly, but rather an example of a different rhetorical category.

It's true that the Times article baldly asserted multiple blatant falsehoods about research by Charles Roselli. One simple and concrete example out of many: the article asserted that "The animals’ skulls are cut open and electronic sensors are attached to their brains", while in fact, the cited experiments involved no surgery of any sort -- rather "Pregnant ewes (n = 10) were treated with the aromatase inhibitor 1,4,6- androstatriene-3,17-dione (ATD) during the period of gestation" and the effects on the sexual preferences of their offspring were observed. (Though it doesn't matter, there was essentially no effect.) For an inventory of other falsehoods in the story, you can read the long discussion in the cited blog entry and its links.

And it's true that the anti-vivisection group PETA was the source of at least some of these falsehoods. However, a quick web search doesn't turn up any evidence that the writers Isabel Oakeshott and Chris Gourlay are spear-carriers for PETA, or for gay-rights groups either. (It does turn up at least one earlier case where Oakeshott has been accused of making things up, but the victims were conservative politicians rather than biologists.)

But even if ideology motivated the writers, it seems surprising that they (and their editors) would be willing to print such plain and easily-refuted whoppers. You'd think that an accomplished journalist who wanted to trash Roselli's work would have taken the time to craft a slanted article that didn't actually tell any out-and-out lies. And there doesn't seem to have been any external reason for deadline pressure getting in the way of this, since the research in question was published in June of 2006, and PETA's complaints about it were published (and debunked) last August.

The Next Hurrah asks

Is this just journalistic sloppiness? If they had googled "charles roselli" they would have seen my post debunking these claims, fifth hit from the top. If the reporters had read Roselli's papers, they would have known they got the conclusions wrong.

It's certainly puzzling. Oakeshott and Gourlay apparently never bothered to read Roselli's article (C.E. Roselli et al., "The effect of aromatase inhibition on the sexual differentiation of the sheep brain", Endocrine 29(3) 501-11, 2006); and it appears they didn't do any significant web research -- or at least they didn't pay any serious attention to what they found.

But on balance, it doesn't seem likely to me that their Times article was "a deliberate political hit job". Rather, it seems to have been one of the modern "bible stories" that are published so often these days in the guise of science journalism.

You start with a grabby narrative with mythic resonances -- here it's one about scientists using neurosurgery and hormone injections into the brain to "cure" homosexuality, testing their techniques by cruel experimentation on cute little sheep. This can come from a publicist's press release, or a story circulating on the dinner-party circuit, or an author on a book tour, or a catchy tale from anywhere at all -- this one seems to have come from the PETA web site and from the anger of Martina Navratilova and other gay-right activists at what they perceived as anti-gay science. (According to Michael Grew, "Gay sheep experiments outrage campaigners", Pink News 1/2/2007, Navratilova wrote a letter of protest to Roselli's university in November.)

Then you add journalists and editors eager to create some buzz. The fairy tale about fixing gay rams with brain surgery is definitely buzz-worthy, sure to rile up the anti-vivisectionists and the gay rights activists, and maybe the religious right too. Does it have any correspondence whatsoever to the facts of the world or even to the claims of the research? Who cares? Not the reporters or their editors, apparently. So they bang it out in the form that's appropriate for their medium, and we're off.

But it's important to note that these people are not lying, exactly. They simply don't care one way or another about what the facts are, and this shifts their work out of the category of lies and into the category for which Harry Frankfurt has suggested the technical term bullshit:

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

Timothy Noah asked "Why should bullshit be so prevalent now?" and answered

The obvious answer is the communications revolution. Cable television and the Internet have created an unending demand for information, and there simply isn't enough truth to go around. So, we get bullshit instead. Indeed, there are some troubling signs that the consumer has come to prefer bullshit. In choosing guests to appear on cable news, bookers will almost always choose a glib ignoramus over an expert who can't talk in clipped sentences.

But my own guess is that the desire to create a buzz, regardless of the facts, has always been strong among journalists, and is only kept in check by a concern to avoid a high probability of significant damage to individual and corporate reputations -- or bank accounts. As Tim Jackson recently observed on the BBC's World Service,

The only time that a- that a journalist, whether it's television or radio or newspaper uh tends to actually be subjected to really detailed scrutiny of what he or she is doing is if there's a court case. But I believe in a growing trend this ultimate nightmare is actually going to become an everyday reality for journalists around the world. The oddity is, and what I think what the newspapers fail to grasp, is that something has changed in the world of journalism.

Indeed. Thanks to the democratization of media by the internet, a much larger fraction of journalistic bullshit is effectively challenged in the court of public opinion.

In other words: it's not that there's more bullshit, there's just more bullshit detection.

This doesn't usually lead to libel judgments, but it sometimes affects careers, as Dan Rather and Eason Jordan can testify. It remains to be seen whether this will lead to a different ethos among journalists. One sign to look for: will writing and publishing a story full of obvious and blatant falsehoods have any impact on the careers of Isabel Oakeshott, Chris Gourlay and their editors at The Sunday Times? My bet, alas, is on "no".

The media may not enforce accountability unless blatant falsehoods are printed about powerful people, or travel vouchers are falsified, or one newsroom faction wins out over another. But there's still a cumulative effect on public opinion. A generation of young intellectuals is gradually learning the lesson that everything they read and hear is likely to be bullshit, even when it comes from sources like The Sunday Times or CBS News. This is a bad thing for society at large, but it should be especially bad for the (employees and stockholders of the) news media. So if the economists are right about rational choice, you'd expect sooner or later to see some news sources that claim to tell the truth, and put real effort into ensuring that the claim is not bullshit.

[Update: Ben Goldacre has an excellent piece on this case in the Guardian: "Gay sheep? Let's get the facts straight", 1/13/2007.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 10, 2007 07:18 AM