Book Review True Enough: Learning to live in a post-fact society
Books, New in Ceasefire, Science - Posted on Sunday, October 17, 2010 22:18 - 6 Comments
By Sebastian Meznaric
Most people rely on mainstream media institutions to deliver the news to them on a wide range of topics. Of course we all want, above all, to consume news that is free of bias and as close to the truth as possible. Could it be, however, that it is partly our own behaviour and desire for truth that actually drives the media to give us the news that paints the world in a biased way? Well, in True Enough, journalist and author Farhad Manjoo examines the driving forces behind the media presentation of news and calling upon a number of scientific studies that had been undertaken on the relevant psychological phenomena.
One such study concerns what psychologists call “biased assimilation”. It is the idea that people tend to understand any new information they consume in a way that conforms to their pre-established beliefs. Lee Ross and Mark Lepper, from Stanford University, got hold of two empirical studies concerning capital punishment. One set of data indicated that the existence of capital punishment had a detrimental effect on the murder rates, while the other study indicated the exact opposite.
Taking the two studies together, it seems difficult to use them to conclude either way. And yet, when the two sets of results were presented to groups of students, one supporting and the other opposing capital punishment, the majority of the students did in fact reach a conclusion. As you might have guessed, the students interpreted the results in a way that agreed with their preconceived notions. More than that, the presented data reinforced their views. In the same situation, a dispassionate person who might have held preconceived opinions would be expected to have moderate their views. What’s even more important, is that the people in the study did not realise they had interpreted the data in a skewed way – they believed themselves to be objective and that it was a fact that the studies supported their view.
If, as suggested above, each of us considers our own view of the world to be objective, then we must also view anyone who disagrees with us as being either biased, unreasonable or brainwashed. In order to verify this hypothesis, Ross and Lepper decided to do another study. In 1982 a Lebanese Maronite Christian political party, the Phalangists, commited a massacre killing hundreds of refugees in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. At the time, the city was under Israeli occupation and both camps were in fact surrounded by Israeli forces when the massacre took place.
Immediately after the massacre many of the details surrounding the events were rather murky and it was not clear who to hold responsible (indeed, the debate continues to this day).
To investigate the way we perceive news, Ross and Lepper recruited 144 Stanford students from three different groups – a pro-Arab student society, a pro-Israeli student society and people from the introductory psychology courses (this group was presumed to be neutral on the issue).
The students were shown a series of news clips from a variety of news networks covering the event. The selection of the clips was made so that they were, in the eyes of researchers, as neutral as possible. The participants were then asked to rate the fairness and objectivity of the reports. The results were rather interesting. The neutral group did indeed consider the clips to be rather objective. The other two groups, however, did not agree.
The pro-Israeli group found that the accounts focused too much on the Israeli involvement and too little on the responsibility of the other parties. They consequently felt that the programs blamed Israel when they would have excused some other country. The students believed that whoever had produced the news was probably very pro-Arab and that a neutral viewer would be convinced by the clips to turn against Israel.
The students from the pro-Arab society experienced the exact opposite. This is how Ross described the results: “If I see the world as all black and you see the world as all white, and some person comes along and says it’s partially black and partially white, we both are going to be unhappy.”
The media owners and executives are very well aware of these psychological phenomena. In our society, different groups of people are served by different types of media. For example, 64% of the Daily Telegraph readers intended to vote for the Conservative party in 2005, while for the Guardian the numbers were 48% for the Labour party and 34% for the Liberal Democrats. This tells you that in order to maintain their credibility, these publishing houses must provide news that is coloured in a way their readers will expect. If they do not, they will be seen as biased, unreasonable and generally bad at reporting. The media are therefore quick to grab anything that can easily be interpreted to their readers’ liking.
Manjoo finds that facts are actually not what determines our belief systems. With the development of technology, everyone can publish and be heard. This has led to views such as “AIDS is not caused by HIV”, “Bush planned 9/11” and so on to spread more widely than ever before. Everyone can find people who, like them, believe the same nonsense as they do.
It is becoming more difficult than ever to distinguish facts from fabrications, be they intentional or not; and the book leaves us none the wiser in this respect. However, it does address deep and important questions about the society we live in as well as about the ways we consume information. Perhaps more importantly, it shines some light on the process through which information is gathered and eventually delivered for our viewing. No matter what your political views are, this book is an essential read for any observer of politics, the media and international affairs.
Sebastian Meznaric is a theoretical physicist and doctoral reseracher at the University of Oxford. His areas of interests include the study of information theory in quantum mechanics. He is also a keen observer of politics and current affairs.
pp 256 pages, Wiley (March 17, 2008)
Is available at Amazon
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