Saturday, November 21, 2009

Proof, evidence, judgment

Two matters are worth talking about here -- neither of which, it should probably be noted from the outset, has anything to do with people's inalienable right to believe whatever they want about the supernatural. But they have quite a bit to do with how journalism goes about its business.

First is the matter of proof. We can't tell from our distant living rooms if "proof" indeed is what the researcher claimed or if it's one of those happy embellishments provided by the AP. Either way, it's nonsense. This isn't like finding a notarized transcript of the Wannsee conference. To the extent it's even "evidence" (which actually does appear to be a point of contention), it has some distinctly gaping holes.

The researcher, to hear the AP tell it, is claiming to have proved a negative: the shroud isn't a medieval forgery, because "no Christian at the time, even a forger, would have labeled Jesus a Nazarene without referring to his divinity." That's an argument you can make from evidence, but it isn't proof. You can't "prove" that medieval knights didn't listen to cassette tapes by pointing out that crusader tombs to date have yielded only 8-tracks.

And no matter how good the evidence might be for the assertion that someone who would forge the burial shroud of Jesus would balk at leaving out the divinity, "proving" that something didn't happen in one century would be a far cry from proving that it did happen in a specific other century -- much less that it happened for a particular execution at a particular place. The AP is the prime offender here, but every editor along the way who put "proof" into a hed, or allowed it to stay in the story, deserves some blame too.

Now for that other little matter. This isn't just a stupid, credulous story. At the metropolitan daily that still deigns to show up in driveways three days a week here, the teaser above is the only international presence on today's front page, and the story itself is far and away the largest bit of news (700-plus words, to some 330 for the runner-up) from outside our little corner of the world. The looming Senate vote on health care is a four-graf brief. I don't see a word about either of the shooting wars the country is still involved in.

And that's the cherry-picking stuff. If you think California's higher-ed debacle might hold some lessons for the rather dire situation that looms up here, too bad for you. Are Iran or Honduras or any of the other 190-odd countries out there entering the sort of low boil that tends to spill all over the front page in a few weeks? You're just going to have to wait and see, aren't you?

No clueless wire story is going to bring the republic down by itself. But each blunder of this scale represents a missed chance to make people incrementally smarter, rather than incrementally stupider. The gasbags of the pundosphere excel at turning fictions into conventional wisdom. If you have a steady, reliable supply of actual news, it isn't hard to catch them out. If you don't, well -- lots of luck with that representative democracy stuff.

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