Seeking reason in a sea of sound bites

By Leslie Campbell, July 2016

Here’s to a summer of books, reason and love.

Bertrand RussellAS AN ANTIDOTE to the bombardment of modern life, I’ve turned to reading more books. Even when their message is unsettling, wallowing in a good book is somehow calming. And they certainly quench my thirst for deeper understanding more than the sound bites offered up by the news media. 

So I’ve been reading more books in general, and—returning to my roots—more philosophy books in particular. 

In so doing, I’ve been reminded that philosophers revere a good argument. As Socrates advocated, “follow the argument wherever it leads.” 

“Argument” to philosophers does not have the same meaning as it does to many non-philosophers—that of people angrily, even abusively, hurling insults at each other or making threats and demands. 

No, a philosophical argument is simply a reasoned analysis drawing from a set of premises or facts, and showing step by step where logic leads. This means avoiding what are called fallacies.

These days fallacies seem all the rage. Ad hominem attacks, red herrings, hasty generalizations, shifting the burden of proof, begging the question, appeals to motive, emotion etc. I once taught university students how to spot them, but I still commit them myself occasionally.

Our media for our messages—social media in particular—don’t help as they encourage sound bites over sound reasoning. Twitter comments these days often are the news. Strange times indeed.

The well-reasoned, civil argument seems to have gone out of style. Mark Kingwell, a philosopher who comments on contemporary issues, opened a piece in the Globe & Mail recently this way: “It can seem as if we are living in a world where fact, truth, and evidence no longer exert the rational pull they once did. Our landscape of fake news sites, junk science, politicians blithely dismissive of fact-checks, and Google searches that appear to make us dumber, renders truth redundant.”

I plan to read one of Kingwell’s many books this summer (Measure Yourself Against the Earth is his latest). Another book I’ll read is James Hoggan’s I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up. Hoggan is interviewed in this edition by Amy Reiswig. While not a philosopher, Hoggan interviews some in his book, as well as cognitive scientists, sociologists, and spiritual leaders, all towards understanding and reducing the smog of propaganda and adversarial rhetoric that pollutes the public square. 

A book with similar themes that I am reading is philosopher James Garvey’s The Persuaders: The Hidden Industry That Wants to Change Your Mind (Icon Books, UK). Garvey likes to make philosophy super-relevant and accessible. Another book by him is The Ethics of Climate Change. 

This latest book tackles the mammoth corporate PR and lobbying industries whose budgets dwarf those of journalists, scientists and other truth-seekers. These industries, in the employ of corporations, political parties and governments, have discovered numerous sophisticated techniques for persuading us—whether it be to buy something or go to war or ignore the risks of climate change or tobacco. Everything from astroturfing, viral marketing, agenda setting, newsjacking and decoy pricing is employed to influence you—estimates are hundreds to thousands of times each day, certainly far more often than you are given a logical argument from facts. 

Not only do these techniques influence our behaviour, they are also removing reason from the whole equation. Why work out a solid argument when pushing an emotional button works better? 

Here’s how Garvey explained what is happening—and why it’s so dangerous—in an interview a few months ago: “We’re in the middle of a revolution in persuasion, a shift away from giving reasons to something that operates outside reason. As a result, we’re starting to lose the ability to argue, as a culture. Listen to Prime Minister’s Questions or the literal dick measuring going on in debates between Republican presidential candidates. The ability to argue, to think critically, spot fallacies and work together towards the truth is a kind of intellectual self-defence at the heart of democracy. If we lose that, we lose what it protects. We’re also less able to get along with one another if all we can do is shout back and forth. Modern persuasion undermines not just democracy, but our chances of living happy lives in a peaceful, interconnected world. It would be good if we could learn to listen to reason again. A lot hangs on it.”

So how do we “learn to listen to reason again”? Obviously it would help to educate ourselves and be encouraging of those who do use more reasoned approaches to issues, while discouraging those who rely on other techniques. Garvey feels if enough people—a critical mass—get wise to the “persuasive” techniques used on us in the marketplace and community, there’s hope. If people understand what’s happening, they’ll get angry about being so tricked by others, usually for money or political gain. That anger, he admits somewhat paradoxically, will rise to the defense of reason. “It’s in a kind of measured, focused, thoughtful anger that a strategy of struggle lies,” he says at the end of his book. 

The media can be influential here as well, and certainly in the past was relied on to act as a check on corporate and government power, by digging for facts and exposing the lies. But given what’s happened to traditional media’s funding in the past decade, the resources for investigations have dried up. The people-hours we saw applied in the movie Spotlight to expose the Catholic Church’s massive cover-up of abuse by priests just couldn’t happen anymore. 

Who has the largest newsroom in BC? The government. This is not limited to BC. On  government and corporate beats, journalists have to work with or try to stick-handle their way around “communications” people who work to control the message. Labour statistics from 2011 show there were four PR professionals for every journalist in Canada.

It’s not a good situation.

But it makes David and me and Focus writers even more determined to produce well-reasoned, fact-based analyses of issues—sometimes even investigative reports that take months of work. We don’t have all the facts, or the final word on anything, but what we report on might move this community closer to a clear understanding of what is going on—whether it be on sewage or seniors, pipelines or railways—so better decision-making stands a chance.

In this edition, David Broadland’s investigation of how politics rather than facts lay behind our current sewage treatment “debate” illustrates the severe impact on a community that starting with false premises can have. Besides the waste of money ($70 million spent so far with a billion-plus to come), oft-repeated falsehoods about contamination have blinded us to the more serious sources of toxic contamination of near-shore waters.

The billions of dollars at stake in the sewage solution are a precious resource. If the citizenry is not properly informed about the evidence, those billions are likely wasted—misdirected from helping solve other problems in our community, like homelessness, seniors care, and climate change.

When facts are not the sole basis for decision-making we get ourselves in trouble. We also get in trouble if we don’t follow democratic principles. The public needs to be involved in decision-making, so it needs to be granted all the facts and all the “logic” used along the way. Too often the facts are mediated through layers of politicians, bureaucrats and spin doctors, and sometimes simply buried out of sight. Consent is manufactured, engineered, rather than won through reason.

I’ll end with a thought from one of my favourite philosophers. Asked about what lessons he would like to pass on to future generations by a BBC interviewer in 1959, Bertrand Russell, then 87, said he’d like to say two things—one intellectual, one moral. “The intellectual thing is, when you are studying any matter…ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. Look only and solely at the facts.” 

The other lesson, the moral one, was this: “Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things we don’t like…If we are going to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance…”

Something also worth reflecting on over summer.

Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus. You can find the interview with Bertrand Russell on Youtube—but he also wrote some great books. Have a wonderful summer.