Speaking to the OCRPL’s conference on Fact vs. Rumor in Istanbul, Turkey, Gilder recalled listening to “Dragnet” on his transistor radio as a child and being taken with the program’s signature phrase “Just the facts, Ma’am.”
That simple phrase was “the theory of knowledge that brought me into journalism,” said Gilder. “I will call it the ‘epistemedia’ of my youth — the explicit and implicit theory of journalistic and scientific knowledge that I was taught at Harvard.”
Gilder fondly remembered his early days in journalism when a “fact” was only worth his time if it was testable. Everything else was meaningless mysticism or hearsay.
Journalists still claim to subscribe to this standard of the testable fact, Gilder argued, but the “impregnable authority” of facts is actually long gone. The role of facts and rumors has subtly and completely changed, yet journalists don’t seem to have noticed.
Gilder pointed to the way journalists report on debated issues in Environmental Science as proof of this change. Gilder questions whether journalists should even deal with it as a “science”.
Environmental Science “has the same relation to science as does so-called ‘Christian Science,’” said Gilder. “As physicist Richard Feynman once observed about adjectival sciences: ‘If a science has an adjective it probably isn’t.’”
The chief sins of environmental-science reporting are what Gilder calls the pseudo-facts of man-made climate change due to CO2 pollution and the depletion of fossil fuels.
“There is no evidence at all for this proposition,” Gilder asserted. “The climate is always changing. By all the available long-term data series, such as ice cores and the Sargasso Sea residues, confirmed by historical accounts, temperatures are currently a little colder than the average of the last 3000 years.”
But Gilder argues that empirical and historical records don’t matter to global-warming believers in journalism and the general public. Instead, they base their stories and opinions on an alleged “consensus” of scientists, which Gilder equated with shadows in mirrors in Plato’s cave. Meanwhile, journalists ignore the 18,000 scientists that petitioned against the supposed consensus on climate change, he added.
While Gilder charges that religious facts pollute many areas of the news, he says an anti-capitalist religion has infected environmental reporting especially. And global warming is that religion’s myth of the moment. Anyone that raises empirical questions about the myth just gets cast out as a heretic.
Gilder blames the disappearance of the fact on another example of the consensus problem: journalists’ infatuation with and confusion about the news value of public opinion. He says that Walter Lippmann’s critique should have put this question to rest a long time ago, but it didn’t.
Lippman showed that even when one can identify something resembling a “public”, this vague group rarely has detailed opinions on anything, said Gilder. But media still love to report public-opinion findings, which are little more than an echo of the media’s own opinions, as “facts”.
“The key input in any public opinion poll is the choice of questions and the way they are framed by the media,” Gilder remarked. “The outputs of public opinion are largely determined by these media inputs.”
For this reason, Gilder argues that facts have morphed into religious tenets. They are fervently held beliefs, but they are not necessarily true. Instead modern “facts” are a kind of dogma beyond refutation, validated by sacred texts like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or myths like global warming.
In this environment, Gilder suggests that rumors have achieved an ironic triumph in modern media. While rumors are not “facts” as facts have been historically understood, they do function like facts once did.
Most importantly, rumors are still humble enough to be tested.
“Truth is defined by the willingness of the truth tellers to forgo consensual applause and submit their beliefs to empirical test,” Gilder concluded. “Rumors are far more scientific than ‘facts’ are because rumors don’t make claims of irrefutable truth that stifle further research.”
Presentation originally given at The Media Project's conference “Fact vs. Rumor: Journalism in the 21st Century”.
Summary Article by Richard Potts, The Media Project staff