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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Evidence or it didn't happen

Government needs to be more open about evidence that supports or refutes its assertions.

T hese days it often seems the only value to reading newspapers is to find the most outrageous bit of fake news to report on—not as a news item, but as evidence of how bad our journalists are at distinguishing facts from opinions.

Editors know this, but they're in a bind: if they told the truth, their side would lose. That creates the often-noted phenomenon where only those who already agree with their opinion read their articles. This is the real reason they're moving toward paywalls to stay afloat.

It's not clear when it happened, but this has now spread to government. Government officials have started pushing narratives that are intended to justify their point of view, while denying access to evidence that could support or refute it.

When the news media, Facebook, and Internet pundits try this, we can ignore them, but people have an innate desire to trust their own government, because to do otherwise opens a bottomless ocean of dread.

The Democrats all agree among themselves to pretend that the “Russia collusion” and “Russia election meddling” narratives have already been proven. The Republicans, for the most part, agree to pretend that the “Assad used chlorine on civilians” narrative has been proven.

It's a remarkable social phenomenon: before the attack on Syria there was widespread skepticism. Afterward, as if by magic, it changed to agreement that President Trump must have had inside knowledge which was not available to us.

The claims might be true, but we cannot know by plausibility arguments alone. Our response ought to be: evidence or it didn't happen. The presence of chlorine, for example, is pretty easy to prove. Unlike Novichok, there's no danger of spreading any secrets: everyone who cares to check can learn how chlorine is manufactured. It's not enough to just say “experts say so.”

There was excellent documentary the other day discussing the Katyn massacre, where the Germans during WWII discovered that the Soviet Union had murdered 20,000 Polish officers. The USSR tried to falsify the evidence, but the evidence was overwhelming. With credible hard evidence on their side, even the Nazis were believed. Without solid evidence, all people could have done was launch accusations against each other.

Even GW Bush tried to use evidence to convince us to support his invasion of Iraq. There may or may not have been a good reason to invade Iraq—I talked about one plausible idea here—but the idea of attacking a country because they might be planning something bad should have been thoroughly discredited by the aftermath.

It wasn't. The news media claim instead that Bush had said that WMDs actually existed, so that they can discredit him for not having found them. In fact Bush's primary claim was that Saddam was trying to build them. Somehow this got changed into a demand that they must exist.

The usual reason for hiding evidence is that the average person doesn't have the background to understand it. This is circular reasoning: it creates a motivation for further weakening our educational system. An uneducated public has no choice but to believe whatever they are told.

In a free society the government cannot compel our agreement. It must present factual evidence that can be understood and challenged. The physical evidence must have a provably intact chain of custody. Verbal evidence must be backed up by public recordings that can be inspected for tampering.

In scientific articles, the writer is required to back up any assertion of fact with a description of their method, the source of all their materials, and an exact description of how they know the result to be accurate. In scholarly articles, every quote must have a citation to a publicly available source so that its accuracy can be verified.

There are, of course, academics who get grants for fake research, propose something that couldn't possibly be true, somehow come up with evidence for it, get a grant and tenure, and then “discover” that it couldn't be reproduced. I know a few personally. Climatologists too have discovered that allowing their field to be associated with falsehoods and exaggerations has a high cost.

But scholarly procedures, not our trust in the integrity of college professors, are the basis for the credibility still largely accorded to scientific and scholarly reports. If the news media wish to regain our confidence, they must follow these procedures as well. It would mean more effort for reporters and more openness for government agencies. It will make convincing the public more difficult. But the alternative is to regard the government as just another source of narratives that may or may not be true. It would fundamentally change how we interact with the government: just as in the Soviet Union, they can compel our obedience, but not our belief.

After the 1960s we abandoned the idea that the government should be given the benefit of the doubt solely because it had information that we did not. After the 1990s we abandoned the idea that the news media were capable of reporting any information accurately. Now, out of party loyalty or just plain laziness, those attitudes are returning. It will guarantee, sooner or later, that the disasters that followed them will return as well.

apr 18 2018, 6:29 am

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