Saturday, November 15, 2008

Making stuff up: Don't do it

Q: Is it still making stuff up when your motives are pure and your cause is just?
A: Why -- was some part of "don't make stuff up" not clear in the instructions?

Here's the case in point:
The U.S. Army promoted the first female to four-star general in its history Friday in an emotion-laden ceremony that sparked hopes among women that the role for female troops will continue to expand.

A question like "how do you know that?" involves a stack of questions:
*Are you asserting something that can be known?
*What sort of knowing does it involve?
*What steps do you have to take to know it?
*Have you taken any of those steps?
*Guess not, huh?

That's not to say the assertion is wrong (accepting the null hypothesis would be the same mistake as rejecting it, only in reverse). It's to suggest that whatever we're claiming isn't something we can know under any conditions the writer presents or implies. It's a statement about what ought to be true, which makes it very hard to distinguish from the product on offer over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. When Fox tells you that Concerns Are Growing about the socialist bent of certain presidential candidates, or that hanging around with Unrepentant Terrorists is a major policy issue, it isn't stating anything that's observed "objectively"; it's talking about what it thinks should be the case if only people would get the wax out and start thinking correctly. It's hard to think of some way in which that's substantively different from what McClatchy is doing here.

The conjecture in the McClatchy piece might indeed be true, and I'd certainly be happy if it was true, but news isn't supposed to be about stuff that ought to be true. News organizations that don't want to be mistaken for Fox need to demonstrate that difference in method as well as in topic.



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