This report by Scientific American is a hoot for its blatant hypocrisy. With the title of their piece, "Getting Duped: How Media Messes With Your Mind,", it appears that Scientific American is trying to set itself up as the bringers of truth to all those confused by the "surreptitiously" misleading media. Their piece is ostensibly a warning on how the media is misleading us all. Their subtitle even declares how they are about to tell us of the media's misconduct.
Statements made in the media can surreptitiously plant distortions in the minds of millions. Learning to recognize two commonly used fallacies can help you separate fact from fiction
So, with that, what would you expect from the rest of the piece? Perhaps some examples of how the media misleads us? Maybe a few New York Times lies, or gaffs from network news outlets, or even the cable news stations? If you would expect examples of media lies in a story sold as one about the media, you'd be disappointed because all the examples Sci. Amer. gives us are from politicians and commentators, not the media. And guess what else? Nearly all the examples of "lies," "misleading statements," and "straw man arguments" are from Republicans and/or conservatives.
Scientific American's chief argument is that too often Americans get their impression of current events and political issues through the "straw man" argument. This is an oft times successful debating practice whereby one mischaracterizes the opponent's position and uses that as a basis to attack their entire stance on any issue or series of issues. Sci. Amer. also delves into a related convention whereby a person attacks the opponent's weakest argument and inflates that weak argument to symbolize the opponent's entire oeuvre.
I have to say that some of what Sci. Amer. says in relation to the actual issue of the straw man argument is good advice. But, to see where Sci. Amer. itself is misleading one has only to consider the way they go about proving their case.
Like I said, this article is sold as one about the media. The title, and the subtitle point to the media as the culprit. But, right away, the initial three paragraphs abruptly changes the focus away from the media and squarely onto the shoulders of our politicians. It quickly becomes obvious that Scientific American has itself misled the reader and turned what promised to be an expose on the media into an attack on the war effort in Iraq, George W. Bush, conservative activist David Horowitz, and commentator Bill O'Reilly -- with one mild jab thrown in at Bill Clinton from his 1996 campaign, perhaps to show a faux balance.
While claiming that "the media" either have an agenda or are just guilty of sloppy work, Scientific American sloppily slips in its own agenda to mislead the reader. The hypocrisy is so thick in this piece it almost seems to have been penned for a Comedy Central late night TV show.
To prove their point, that Americans are misled by "straw man arguments," Sci. Amer. gives us the example of president Bush saying in a 2005 speech that, “We’ve heard some people say, pull them out right now. That’s a huge mistake. It’d be a terrible mistake. It sends a bad message to our troops, and it sends a bad message to our enemy, and it sends a bad message to the Iraqis.” This, Sci. Amer. says, is a mischaracterization of the anti-war position. No one, they say, was ever saying that we should immediately pull out of Iraq.
The statement that unnamed “people” are advocating a troop withdrawal from Iraq “right now” is a straw man, because it exaggerates the opposing viewpoint. Not even the most stalwart Bush adversaries backed an immediate troop withdrawal. Most proposed that the soldiers be sent home over several months, a more reasonable and persuasive plan that Bush undercut with his straw man.
Of course, there were many people, then and now, that say we should pull out "right now." Democratic Party presidential candidates Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel both said they wanted to pull troops out of Iraq "right away." So did the so-called peace Mom, Cindy Sheehan. So, for Sci. Amer. to claim that no high profile critic of Bush's policies in Iraq ever said they want to pull out "right away" is an untruth in and of itself.
They then use a Bill Clinton "straw man" example.
In his acceptance speech at the 1996 Democratic Convention, for instance, Bill Clinton opined: “… with all respect [to Bob Dole], we do not need to build a bridge to the past. We need to build a bridge to the future.” Dole did discuss restoring the values of an earlier America, but Clinton falsely implied that Dole was only looking backward (whereas Clinton was looking forward)...
Maybe this was their effort to hide behind a veneer of being "balanced" in their targets? After all, they attack Republicans and Conservatives several times, and Bill Clinton once... so now they can say they hit "both sides." But, notice the contrast here? Bill Clinton is shown to have used the "straw man" for a simple, more benign vote getting measure. On the other hand, they show Bush as lying about war! Clinton's example seems to pale by comparison.
Next they hit Bill O'Reilly with an example where the commentator expounded on how the New York Times was hoping for our defeat in Iraq. Sci. Amer. claims that the NYT didn't say they wanted defeat there. Once again, we get "lies" or "misleading" statements in support of Republicans, conservatives or victory in Iraq as a negative example.
Lastly they go after conservative firebrand David Horowitz.
Weak man arguments are pervasive. In a 2005 editorial in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, conservative writer and activist David Horowitz picked on ethnic studies scholar Ward Churchill, formerly at the University of Colorado at Boulder, whose views he described as “hateful and ignorant.” Horowitz then went on to claim that Churchill’s radical “hate America” convictions “represent” those of a “substantial segment of the academic community.” Thus, he used the example of Churchill (the weak man) to argue that “tenured radicals” have made universities into leftist political institutions and subverted the academic enterprise, thereby failing to acknowledge the presence of more highly regarded and politically mainstream scholars in academia.
This by Sci. Amer is really dishonest. To act as if David Horowitz has never found any example of leftist professors in our Universities except Ward Churchill is completely untrue. Horowitz has dozens of such examples and has made a crusade out of highlighting them and exposing these examples of leftist bias in our educational system. Horowitz has chronicled many "Ward Churchills" in academia but for Sci. Amer. to boil Horowitz' entire argument down as if it's based only on this one Ward Churchill incident is as misleading as they claim Horowitz to be.
Scientific American's last paragraph can easily be turned against the rest of their own article.
Nevertheless, an astute consumer of the news can catch many straw man and weak man fallacies by knowing how they work. Another strategy is to always consider a speaker’s or writer’s motivation or agenda and be especially alert for skewed statements of fact in editorials, television opinion shows, and the like. It is also wise to obtain news from more balanced news sources. An alternative approach is to try to construct, in your own mind, the best argument against what you have heard before accepting it as true. Or simply ask yourself: Why should I not believe this?
I have, indeed, asked myself why I should believe that Scientific American has my best interests at heart? They claimed they were showing us bias in the media, yet provide no examples of media bias. They claim to be showing how to find a balanced view of events, yet flood us with examples that make Republicans and conservatives look as bad as possible and their strict focus for most of the piece was anti-Iraq war. Almost no example of leftist bias is give, no leftist agendas are exposed, and no pro war sentiment is employed.
So, why should we believe Scientific American when their own agenda and misleading of the reader is so plain?
You tell me.
h/t Guy Giesbrecht