Monday, January 30, 2017

It is a mystifying spectacle

From A Parliament of Clocks by Shannon Love. A most pertinent column from way back in 2007. Well worth reading in its entirety.
Essentially, a parliament of clocks votes on the correct time. (Even scientifically, this is true.) By fiat, we say that the clocks that deviate from the consensus time are inaccurate, but logically that need not be so. Different technologies or different levels of care in setting, winding or servicing the clocks could lead to the minority clocks being more accurate. However, if all the clocks agree, then no lay person will have grounds for suspecting that the majority clocks don’t keep accurate time.

As a practical matter, articulate intellectuals face the same problem. They deal in areas in which no means exist for easily or quickly falsifying and testing their ideas. Like the king with the clocks, lay people looking at their work from the outside cannot evaluate the accuracy of their work. No means exist to make an objective measurement that would determine the accuracy of a particular literary criticism. Historians agree that certain events occurred at certain places and times and then argue furiously over the events’ import and consequences. Journalists do the same thing. Various theories in many academic fields knock around for decades before simply fading away, apparently because people grow bored with them.

In order to maintain their power and position within society, articulate intellectuals must convince the larger population that they really do have a superior understanding of the issues they study. The do so using a parliament of clocks. By enforcing rigorous conformist standards on their members, they seek to create the illusion of accuracy by making it appear that all people knowledgeable in a particular field all reach the same conclusion. If all the supposed experts in a particular field all tell the same story the lay people are much less likely to guess that none of the experts know what they are talking about.

You can see this effect quite clearly in the herd mentality of journalists. Researchers have shown that journalist rapidly converge upon the same perspective on even very complex stories. Why? Well, how does an ordinary consumer of news media judge whether a particular news story is accurate? Simple, they check with another news source. What if the different sources disagree? What grounds does the consumer have for determining which source is correct? The consumer might conclude that none of the sources are making an accurate report and they may stop consuming news media. The media prevents this from happening by converging on the same story. If every source that the consumer can reasonably check tells the same story, then the consumer won’t have grounds for doubting any of the sources. (Notice that news outlets brag that they get stories before the competition, not that they provide superior information to the competition.) Back in the ’70s when a tiny handful of media outlets dominated, trust in the media ran very high. Only with the coming of cable and the Internet did trust in the media begin to seriously erode when consumers began to see that not all news sources held the same perspective. Like the king, they began to wonder just which shops really sold the accurate clocks.

The desperate attempt to substitute consensus for accuracy shows up in the articulate intellectuals’ perspective on everything from artistic critique to climatology. When people really cannot prove what they believe, they must resort to peer pressure to keep people from questioning them. Yet history, both recent and ancient, shows that elite consensus fails far more often than it succeeds. Without some means of objective falsification such as experimentation, functional technology, military victory or business success, the consensus of any group merely serves the social needs of the group and not the decision making needs of the broader society.
There is a common trope that the mainstream media are Democrats-with-bylines and in terms of observed behaviors, it is reasonably true. Even the bulk of political donations from journalists at Fox News goes to Democrats. But that is an observed outcome, not an explanation.

Why would the mainstream media be so ideologically aligned. My explanation has been that it is primarily a function of shared circumstance - that they are all college educated, upper income, city-living and that those are the drivers of the outcome. Universities in general, and humanities in particular, are overwhelmingly Democrat. Cities are overwhelmingly Democrat. They are a product of their environment.

I have also made the point that there is a strong element of virtue signaling in any community. It pays to be seen as among the in-group and you signal your status in the in-group by virtue signaling which leads to conformity.

Love introduces a new element, which now that I read it, I suspect is true. There is the further pressure among journalists to conform with one another in order to, guild-like, protect their collective brand and shared commercial model.

Seen from this perspective, the frenzy of hysteria, fake news, partisan reporting, irresponsible reporting, etc. which has been so marked since the election begins to make a little more sense.

I can remember the election of seven presidents (four more elections when you count second-term challengers who lost) - Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and Trump. In all cases, with some ebbs and flows, the mainstream media was always derogatory of the Republican candidate and reasonably oppositional during their administration. I do not, however, recall any period of such blatant and almost unhinged partisan opposition as we are seeing at the moment. So what is different?

It in't enough to simply claim that Trump is different. All the allegations of mental inadequacy, ignorance, erraticism, ideological intransigence, etc. were certainly present with Reagan (and the others) though he is now held in high regard.

My suspicion is that Love's insight is part of the explanation. What is different this time is that there is a crack in the oligopoly of mainstream media. Their power has been eroding for some decades but I wonder if perhaps this election reflects a tipping point which has spurred the hysterics. They were not, despite their best efforts, able to deliver the win for their overwhelmingly preferred candidate. If they are not able to deliver when they are in lock-step, then likely they are concerned about their perceived future relevance.

Certainly Trump's use of Twitter and YouTube to circumvent the media is part of the equation. Layer that on top of the public's distrust (only 8% have a great deal of trust in the media) and you can see where, as a guild of news purveyors, they might view their business model as under threat. Finally, with the increasing influence of non-guild members - Drudge, Breitbart, Daily Mail, and legions of others, it begins to seem likely that the perceived threat of loss of influence is what is driving the craziness.

An outsider looks at the behavior and sees it as unprofessional and disqualifying but if you are inside the bubble, I am guessing that it seems to make sense to appeal more strongly to your kin-spirited in-group readers by being increasingly partisan. It is essentially doubling down on the only business model you know, despite its declining effectiveness. This, perhaps, isn't about Trump but about loss of influence, loss of prestige, loss of money, and loss of relevance. The same dynamic is affecting two close-allied guilds, universities and entertainment and so the panic, both intra-guild and inter-guild is likely self-fueling and disorienting. Thus explaining what we are seeing. For the other 95% of the citizens, it is a mystifying spectacle.

Regardless of what Trump does (and almost certainly he is in the short term, good for media business), in the longer term, members of the guild will have to become accustomed to being a specialized rump purveyor of information to a minority of consumers, or they will have to broaden and diversify their orientation. It is not clear to me yet which way they will evolve.

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