Andrew Gripp, Book burners, Censorship, Fact Checkers, Fox News, Kevin D. Williamson, Marketplace of ideas, Politifact, Snopes
I witness so many calls for censorship on a day-to-day basis that I find it astonishing. This in a free society, and from people who fancy themselves liberal. They prefer a form of censorship that carries criminal penalties for speech that does not meet with approval by media “fact checkers”. Which fact checkers shall we choose? Will they be fact-checking juries of our peers, or a new cadre of officials donning armbands?
Does anyone truly believe that the branch of the media engaged in “fact-checking” is objective? Andrew Gripp covers this topic, demonstrating that the assessment of “facts” often doesn’t stand the test of time. Fact checkers will call a statement false, only to rule otherwise years later, or vice versa. That’s just how it went down with President Obama’s pronouncement that “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan”. True in 2008, false in 2013. Would Obama receive an exemption under this approach?
But that is just one way in which the fact checkers go wrong. More basic is the fact that the assessments they make are essentially opinions! Gripp puts his finger on the primary weakness of the fact-checking industry:
“… it is important to remember that old Enlightenment figure Giambattista Vico’s verum factum principle: the truth is made — made by people with their own biases, limitations, and subjective standards.“
As part of the same censorious narrative, I sometimes hear that Canada “bans” Fox News. This is patently false, as Snopes asserts. Another trope is that Fox News lies 50% of the time, or 82% of the time, or some such claim that should immediately set off the BS alarm of any discerning observer. I get aggravated with certain things I hear on Fox too, but as an empiricist, this just smells like BS. Kevin Williamson shreds these reports as exercises in bias in a piece entitled “How Stupid Happens“:
“The most obvious problem — though certainly not the only problem, not even close — is selection bias: PolitiFact is a readership-driven online publication, and thus it exercises a great deal of discretion about which statements it chooses to evaluate and why. The most obvious factor is that it evaluates only statements that are disputed. Specifically, it evaluates only statements that are disputed and that its editors believe will be of some interest or benefit to its readers. …
But the fact is that unsupportable, boneheaded claims … will live forever, because people are mostly interested in having their biases confirmed and their values affirmed rather than learning new things about the world and how it works. True, much as I like yelling at people on television, it is pretty hard to feel too bad for Fox News and MSNBC over an exercise in confirmation bias, but this sort of sloppy thinking and malicious manipulation does have the effect of leaving the polity a little dumber than it absolutely has to be. And that is an unforgivable sin.“
In many respects, it feels like this topic is hardly worth a blog post, because the wannabe censors exist in an impenetrable ideological bubble. But on the other hand, they are little tyrants, not merely content to seek a monopoly over the market place of ideas, which is bad enough. They also seek to criminalize statements with which they happen to disagree. There is no doubt that they would burn books. Their ideas are dangerous and should not be treated with respect in a free society.