About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck

I just got out of this movie directed by George Clooney and superbly interpreted by David Strathairn (if he doesn't get nominated for an Oscar, the Academy should quit!). Powerful stuff, and of course eerily reminiscent of current affairs (not by chance, obviously). It is the real story of CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and of his fight against witch-hunting US Senator Joseph McCarthy during the early 1950s.

McCarthy, ironically, has inspired some of the best movies, plays and novels of the second half of the 20th century, and now apparently extends its influence into the 21st. Inherit the Wind (1960) loosely based on the 1925 Scopes "monkey" trial in Tennessee, as well as Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953), about the Salem actual witch trial of 1692, were both scathing criticisms of the atmosphere of ideological terror that McCarthy was able to create for a brief but memorable moment in post-war America.

Good Night and Good Luck (the words with which the real-life Murrow signed off from his tv audience) is beautifully shot in black and white, with plenty of original clips featuring McCarthy himself. The eerie thing is, the Senator sounds a lot like Dick Cheney or George W., with the crucial difference that the modern-day intellectual descendants of Murrow have opted to tout the official government line on lies such as the build up to Iraq.

It is sometimes hard to conceive how modern journalism is become so enthralled with alleged "balanced" coverage, interpreted as either giving equal time to serious and idiotic ideas (e.g., evolution vs. "intelligent design"), or as sheepishly catering to both political parties (as in asking the "opinions" of alleged experts on both sides, who turn out to be paid consultants from ideological "think" tanks).

The irony is that all these themes were already present in Murrow's time. CBS had to contend with the threat of sponsors such as Alcoa pulling their support from controversial newscasts, and of course with the political pressure brought upon the network by McCarthy himself. But people like Murrow, and the CBS executives who backed him, obviously had balls of an astronomical size compared to those of the anchors that are beamed into our houses at the beginning of the millennium. Good Night and Good Luck ought to be required viewing in all journalism classes.


  1. Just finishing reading "The Republican War on Science". The issues with our current reporters looking to be fair and balanced, only sometimes involve science, yet, the principles (or lack there of) are the same.

    The current administration says what it wants without regard for the facts, or selectively interprets facts. When challenged never addresses the substance of the issues raised.

    I approached the book thinking it would be a review of a lot that I already knew. Yet, the pervasivenss and the depth of both the erosion of our laws and the blatant lies about science are much much more than what thought I knew.

  2. Required reading for journalists should be The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. In it, they explain that "fair and balanced" is not one of the key prinicples of journalism because the concept is too vague to be applicable.

    What is important is providing context, transparency, and objectivity of your methodology. That way the reader knows how your conclusion was reached and can judge for themselves whether they agree or not.

    See, I don't think just training journalists in this stuff will have much impact, though. The problem isn't with them so much as its with the structure of the media itself, and unless the public figures out that journalists are not fulfilling their duty of being the people's watchdog and the mediators of democratic discourse then nothing will change.

  3. A few months ago I wrote a post in my blog about "Bad Media". Here are some excerpts:

    This is actually an excerpt of an excerpt from another blog:
    The media is really bad about informing the public. The media has a tendency to:

    -Treat Democratic and Republican arguments as equally honest and equally extreme, no matter what the factual merits are.

    -Ignore political coverage in favor of celebrity trials

    -Replace reporting with punditry, and stupid, shouting match knee jerk punditry at that.

    -Decide political stories' importance based solely on how many other people are talking about it, and at what volume.

    -Dumb down complex issues--especially in matters of law, science, economics, and national security.

    All of this rewards dishonesty and extremism. If they're going to treat you as equally truthful no matter what you say, why tell the truth when a lie might be more useful? If they're going to treat you as equally moderate or immoderate no matter what you do, why compromise if you don't have to?

    Second excerpt:
    The media is very good at creating "fake controversies”. They do so by presenting as equal the views of pundits without regard for the facts or how many people actually support either side of a debate. This was clear in the Terri Schiavo controversy where polls showed upwards of 75% of people did not approve of the congressional intervention. Yet, from watching all of the debate shows (which are not “news”, but just “opinions” and “speculation”) one might come to the conclusion that the country was evenly divided.

    Furthermore, because the media doesn’t seem interested in any investigative and objective reporting, most “fake controversies” linger far longer than they should. For example: If during the election one candidate said he believes the "Earth is flat..." and the other countered "No its a sphere...", today's media would simply quote both and "report" that a controversy rages. They would put on pundits from either side of the debate on talk shows where they would proceed to yell at each other, misinform and distort. But few (if any) main stream media outlet would actually investigate and review the data and come back and say: "Well, our findings pretty much confirm the Earth is a sphere..." That doesn't make for good television and worse, it might be construed as “bias”.

    And finally an excerpt I had included in my post from a satire in a recent April Fool's spoof in Scientific American entitled "Okay, we give up":

    In the editorial Scientific American editors apologized for endorsing the theory of evolution because “As editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence”. While the editorial is satirizing the evolution/creationist debate it does hit the mark with biting satire that can be applied to the mainstream media.

    "We owe it to our readers to present everybody's ideas equally and not to ignore or discredit theories simply because they lack scientifically credible arguments or facts... Good journalism values balance above all else... Nor should we succumb to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or best-selling novelists do. Indeed, if politicians or special-interest groups say things that seem untrue or misleading, our duty as journalists is to quote them without comment or contradiction. To do otherwise would be elitist and therefore wrong"


  4. The last part of what Alan posted is pretty much in line with what I was going to say: people have the same illusion that science should be "fair", all opinions should be equally respected, etc.

    While it might sound reasonable to the laypeople, it's definitely and fortunately not true. Science is NOT a democracy, it is (and should be) a meritocracy - at least from an ethimological point of view. Theories succeed based on their scientific merits, survival of the fittest ideas. Well, you might consider science a democracy (or at least not a "dictatorship") in the sense that everybody can take part in the process, if they follow the rules. But that does not invalidate the merit part.

    Of course somebody will now say that the whole of science is actually just a big conspiracy against the "new and revolutionary" ideas like "intelligent" design... :-)


  5. j said,

    "While it might sound reasonable to the laypeople...'

    Hey now, I'm a laypeople and it doesn't sound reasonable to me!
    (Not really mad dude, just playing.)

    Actually, I don't understand why so many people have a problem with this point. I'm a machinist by trade. That means I've been to school and have gaind experience to do things like:

    1) Calculate the proper RPM's for a 3/4 in. carbide cutter on
    O-1 steel.

    2) The proper tap drill size for a 1/4-20 tap.

    3) The CNC code for making a counter-clockwise tool path on a CNC lathe.

    Now, the average person with an interest in this field may learn quite a bit about it, but that doesn't mean that they should have a say in how my job works. Only those in related fields should.

    Same with science. I'm not the one with the training. I'm not the one who digs for, then sifts through, then tries to make sense of the fossils. I'm not the one who runs the experiments. How can I tell you what's wrong with your job.

    And for those of you who want to point out dissenting voices in the feild, well, let me ask you this:

    Is there ANY other professional feild in which you would accept the opinion of the minority (professionals that is, not yahoos)
    over the vast majority.


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