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How to Bounded Distrust
Scott Alexander points out that the media, from The New York Times to Infowars, very rarely lies explicitly and directly.
Alas, the media often misleads. It implies and insinuates that which is not. It abuses the language. It selectively omits. It is highly motivated by partisanship and ideology and its own interests. It does not do or understand the research. It is terrible at interpreting science. It confuses cause and effect. It purports to use technically accurate data to show, even prove, conclusions known to be false, in ways that are designed to mislead and obviously in bad faith.
Nor does it much care.
They cite someone else, and claim this excuses them from all responsibility. All they said was ‘police say this guy is guilty’ or ‘this ‘expert’ found irregularities he says shows fraud.’
The rules are not what they used to be.
Then there are the op-ed pages and headlines, which are far worse.
A shorter, more practical version was needed.
This attempts to offer that. It leaves a lot out. Consider reading the long version.
What are the Rules?
Some special rules about the headline. They also apply to op-eds. Headlines are:
Not chosen by the author.
Allowed to lie.
Allowed to blatantly contradict the article’s content.
Laying out a Narrative the source wants you to believe.
The body of a news article is more reliable. The rules are simple. The article:
Has a Narrative, likely revealed by the headline.
Is not allowed to lie, in a way that could count as being physically falsified.
Is not allowed to assert facts without reliable sources.
Is allowed to do almost anything else.
Is often part of an implicit conspiracy to suppress true information or spread false information, without explicit denial of the true info or explicit claims of the false info.
Is allowed to repeat any claim if it attributes that claim to its source.
Can call anyone an expert. Expert consensus means three people. ‘Some investors’ and similar phrases mean two (as does ‘surrounded by.’)
Is allowed to withhold or not seek relevant information, selectively quote, frame, insinuate, imply, condemn via association, misconstrue. This includes calling true things lies or ‘misinformation’ if they imply disliked things.
Is allowed to change meanings of words in different contexts or over time.
Will draw conclusions in ways that defy logic, or that would be obvious errors to anyone with ordinary skill in the art. This is allowed.
Can and will find an ‘expert’ to support anything they want.
Will maximally shape the story to fit the Narrative and reality tunnel.
Will face potential negative reputational and other consequences for breaking these rules, and sometimes choose to break all of them.
Won’t face consequences for breaking these rules if everyone else is also breaking them to the same degree in similar spots.
Will face other negative consequences for insufficient Narrative support.
When the expected consequences of rule breaking exceed any plausible benefits from breaking the rules, you can mostly trust that the rules above are followed.
When the stakes are so high that the consequences could be seen as worth paying for either the reporter or the outlet, they might do that, which can be called using the one time. You must be extra careful.
The reporter is allowed to lie in order to get the story, the way a cop can lie during their investigation. Both often do so.
Three Approaches to What to Do About This
As described in the long version, now that you roughly know the rules the media uses, there are three general approaches.
Careful reading of media in combination with other sources.
Stop caring so much about the news unless it impacts you physically.
Outsource the work to some combination of other sources, including here.
The remainder of the post is a guide to using the first strategy, when it is needed.
Consider the Source
There is no getting around the need to consider and examine the original source.
For each source at all levels, and each class of source, one must track what rules they can be assumed to be following.
Any superficially credible source screwing up and endorsing a statement can start an information cascade no one will feel responsible for. See the origins of the false ‘more athletes died in the last year than in the last 38 years’ claim. This type of logic-washing does not only applies to one side.
As long as the direct source is named, the original (primary) ‘source’ could be mistaken, lying, non-credible. Circular citations are a thing. E.g. Wikipedia cites X, Y cites Wiki, Z cites Y, Wiki cites Z instead of X, everyone forgets who X was, and Y and Z are media. Or the original source is selectively quoted. Within the rules.
As long as they quote their source, nothing more is required. There is zero obligation for media to verify their source is not spouting obvious nonsense.
If the source is a politician, assume they lie, about everything, all the time.
Some sources, especially governments and corporations, have different rules, and in some contexts engage in bounded lying where they shift expectations a fixed amount in a positive direction. This is where 'good harvest’ means ‘we will all starve’ and ‘glorious harvest’ means ‘good harvest.’ Watch out for using the one time.
Also examine the direct source. The media outlet or reporter will, on rare occasions, choose to ‘say that which is not’ and take the consequences. Ask: Do they see the stakes as high enough to consider this? If yes for the reporter but not the outlet, would the editors and fact checkers catch it?
The old Soviet joke is that Pravda always lies and so it is useful, whereas The New York Times is not as useful because it sometimes tells the truth.
Once you realize articles are sculpted to be maximally supportive of Narrative, it becomes possible to read them as a Soviet would Pravda. Every word is present for a reason.
A stronger version, with less qualifications or weasel words, would have been against the rules. This tells you where you are at.
Every piece of evidence that was found and helps the Narrative will be present. It will be taken out of context, sculpted, engineered to do this to the extent possible.
Every known detail that is not present would not support the Narrative, or at least would not support it sufficiently to justify the space necessary to include it.
Odd word choices (given the house style) are not coincidences. The standard word choice could not be used. The lack of direct statements can be very strong evidence. Pay attention to Exact Words, the use of weasel words, the Law of No Evidence and Suspiciously Specific Denials.
‘Legal reasons’ can also explain such choices.
Drawing vague flimsy associations between the target and Bad People tells you that this was the best they could do.
The choice to write the article or say anything at all is also a choice. Ask why.
This is similar to when a lawyer cannot tell you to do something that carries any legal risk, or someone is avoiding providing medical care or advice. Think about what they are being careful not to say.
This is a very different Bayesian calculus. Notice what is missing or unsaid and what qualifiers could not be left out. Ask why is this being told to me rather than something else.
Where this leads to a ‘that’s funny’ investigate further.
When you see the kinds of attacks and tricks the rules favor, that’s all they have.
For non-media sources, one must figure out what rules set applies and act accordingly.
Not that simple. The problem gets easier with practice, but is anti-inductive.