Incurious Black Magic
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Categories: Modern, Not an expert

Incurious Black Magic

a keep and church atop a hill with cloudy sky in the background
Burg Freundsburg over Schwaz, Tirol.

This fall, I have been thinking about why some communities did not feel right for me. I enjoy learning from different types of experts, from craft workers to retired thugs to academics, but the kind of journalists who write opinion pieces and columns always gave me a bad feeling. I have trouble talking about feelings, but I think I can articulate two reasons why I feel this way.

Opinion columnists are chronically intellectually incurious. Its not just that they often spend 20 years publishing the same essay in different words, its that they don’t ask questions about what makes a strong argument. They don’t do the work to show that their methods are reliable ways of reaching the truth, they just present them as a finished product. In the early days of blogging, one of the things which made journalists uncomfortable was that these upstarts on the Internet were finding and linking to sources not keeping them secret and just doling out a sentence at a time to the hungry public. Rich newspapers and news magazines sometime pride themselves on their fact-checking, but they keep this hidden and just give the results. Outsiders can’t see it, but they can see that analysts rarely suffer for making one false prediction after another or pushing a disastrous policy, that their transcriptions of speech don’t always match recordings of it, and that if they are famous enough they can commit chronic plagarism and their employer will do its best to ignore it. And even now that most journalism is web-first (Macleans magazine in Canada often releases stories online months before they will appear in print) most papers have been slow to link to or cite things other than other news articles and tweets: its not uncommon to read a press release about a new research study which does not give the DOI or title and journal.

The incuriosity of columnists makes me really frustrated, because I can’t make someone curious and skeptical if they don’t want to be, and because its so hard to tell the difference between an expert giving their best guess and a smooth talker babbling if they don’t show their work. Several times in my life I have been broken hearted when I thought people wanted to have a source-based discussion of one of my special interests and it turned out that they just wanted to emit argument-shaped words to support a fixed conclusion. And I read news and opinion pieces to hear from people whose thinking and experiences are different than mine, so I am very confused when the people writing them don’t want to explore my experiences and way of understanding them.

Many kinds of journalism are acts of black magic: they make something real by saying it in the right place with the right rituals. Saying that a policy is “moderate” or “unacceptable with voters” makes it more or less acceptable. Saying that a candidate is “unelectable” costs them votes. Where the first problem could be blamed on a lack of education, this one also affects the people who make predictions based on polls who see themselves as scientific. Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent came out in 1988, but many news organizations don’t seem to accept the moral responsibilities which they undertake by speaking to a mass audience … many Canadian newspapers still explicitly endorse parties or candidates, aside from the implicit endorsements in their reporting and opinion pieces. This bothers me because if you seek great power, you accept great responsibility.

Speech which is intended to make something false true makes me want to scream, because in my heart I know that that is not what language is for. Language is for communicating information.

Criticizing the organizations which employ these intellectually incurious black magicians in late 2020 feels a bit like trying to relitigate the Grape Crush Incident with my father in early 2020 would have, because they are dying. The old media were financed by the monopoly power of printing presses, cable networks and radio broadcasts, and now that information is shared over a common Internet infrastructure all the government subsidies in the world can’t save them. The more propaganda they printed and broadcast (both in the ‘advertising’ section and in the ‘news’ and ‘opinion’ sections) in a desperate attempt to keep revenue high, the more people stopped reading or listening. Most of my younger friends in Innsbruck don’t seem to have gone through a phase of following the news like I did (an interesting article is Rolf Dobelli’s Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet via Alexiares‘ “For Heaven’s Sake, Don’t Tell them Anything!”).

But as we work to find ways to support honest local reporters separately from the pompous columnists and the soothsayers divining the future with R code instead of bird signs, we can think about what parts of the media of the late 20th century are not worth rebuilding. We can create the values of this new journalism together, not just accept whatever values cliques in distant bars and boardrooms chose to adopt.

Edit 2020-12-03: T. Greer’s post “Public intellectuals Have Short Shelf Lives- But Why?” has three answers, one biological (brains become less plastic around the age 35) and two sociological (people jetting around the world giving talks and attending wine receptions with businessmen and journalists and politicians are not collecting new data and putting their ideas up against people just as smart as them but different) but also (if someone is truly successful at spreading their great insight, it ceases to feel new and exciting)

Edit 2021-09-05: See also Alexiares, “Not So Ineffective Words, Again” (2019-11-11)

Edit 2022-06-15: see also this 2019 quote from Audrey Watters:

these stories (about the future of work and education) get told to steer the future in a certain direction, to steer dollars in a certain direction. … I think, more accurately, “the best way to predict the future is to issue a press release,” “the best way to predict the future is to invent statistics in your keynote.”
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1 thought on “Incurious Black Magic

  1. Why Digitizing Sources is Important | Book and Sword says:

    […] scientists bash Aristotle, or engineers talk about a “thousand year dark age,” they are not speaking to describe the world, they are speaking to show that they have learned their community’s prejudices. But if one […]

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