The statistics look more and more ominous (for some) each passing year as the American public moves further from mainstream news and further into the alternative media. Americans are flocking in droves to the likes of alternative news sites on the internet and, in particular, to alternative news productions on youtube. Statistics confirm that comments sections in mainstream news website articles are more influential of public opinion than the articles themselves. It is as if there is some kind of wholesale rejection of mainstream thought. What is behind this trend? To explain this, a brief digression into political ideology is needed, but I’ll make it brief.
Prior to about the 14th Century western culture was dominated by a normative confirmation bias that pervaded human thought: religion was the normative confirmation bias that shaped and defined how we viewed and understood our world. Virtually nothing in people’s lives was unaffected by this lens. Whether it was science, society, family, politics or any other matter, religion framed how we understood everything. Even explaining the cosmos had to pass a normative confirmation bias test; for if whatever idea one advanced about the workings of the cosmos was incongruent with the religious lens, it was rejected. And within western religion there were differing “flavors”, different sects of religion which occupied the populace in endless debate over which one represented the real “truth”. But oddly, what seldom occurred to those living in this time was that religion itself might not be necessary. While there were atheists in that day and age for sure, for most people it was not widely known or understood that one could actually just not believe in religion (or “god”) itself, whether that meant continuing to believe in a god in your own way or not believing at all. To promote this idea widely could severely jeopardize one’s own self-preservation, so wherever the view was held, it was held in private and the very idea that religion itself was not needed to understand our world was not a widely discussed debate. Some scholarly elitists debated it as time went on, but this was mostly after the Enlightenment, and much more so beyond the 14th Century. But that brings us to the next point. The idea that we might explain our world without a need for religion didn’t suddenly appear overnight. It gained wider popularity in the general population gradually over time. This breakout into public discourse began during the Enlightenment and slowly expanded over the next two or three hundred years.
But what seems to have escaped the attention of the larger discourse was the fact that normative confirmation bias dies a hard death. To explain this, we should first try to characterize religion more generally in this context so as to provide a more objective way of identifying normative confirmation bias, whatever guise it may assume in different times and places. The key feature of religion vis-à-vis normative confirmation bias was the fact that religion provided a general theory by which the universe could be explained and one only needed to deduce specific conclusions from that theory to know how to interact with their world. It was, in a sense, a simplex way of thinking. But what the enlightenment taught us was that there was another way to understand our world, a duplex way of thinking. Instead of applying a general theory as a given, we could empirically observe the world around us to induce – vice fabricate of whole cloth – a theory of how our world works. Once such a theory is established, we could then deduce from that how to interact with our world. This was the birth of empirically driven reason. By observing our world in a series of “experiments” we could from those specific cases induce a general understanding of how the universe worked. Once established, knowing how to rationally interact with our world became a simple matter of deduction. Thanks to established theory, we then had a predictive tool to guide our actions. What this lesson should have taught us was that general theories not founded in empirical observation were the mother of normative confirmation bias. But alack, we did not learn this lesson. We merely rejected religion (to some degree of approximation) and failed to apply this same logic to everything else. And that is partly due to the fact that the tools of empirical observation were limited in the scope of subjects to which they could be applied. Anything that escaped our capacity to empirically characterize therefore, remained in place as a potential “mother” of normative confirmation bias.
As the years wore on, our capacity to empirically measure previously vague and inscrutable matters such as sociology improved. While this capacity to empirically measure our sociological world, our understanding of how to manage society based on an understanding of that sociology remained fixed: we continued to base decisions on the management of human society on theories derived whole cloth which were independent of those measures. To be sure, most of these theories had considerable thought put into them, but that is not the same thing as an empirically driven understanding in which a theory is induced from specific experimental observation. But this wealth of intellect and thought in those theories was no different in form to those same theories applied in the religious context which we came to know as theology. Neither of them were theories born of empirical observation. Thus, to the surprise of many today, just as it was a surprise to the adherents prior to the 14th Century, neither religion nor political ideology is necessary to understand our world. Today, our capacity to empirically measure social indicators and effects is robust but our mental paradigm is still stuck in the past on theories of political ideology which were either devised hundreds of years ago or have antecedents in the same. We can trace most western political ideology today to the Enlightenment to such philosophers as Aristotle and Plato. Certainly, more has been added since, but the basic methodology hasn’t changed. What we see today in political ideology is a mélange of ideas from various philosophers of the past, ideas that were born whole cloth long before the empirical ability to measure sociological factors existed. In the same way that religion fueled ignorance and superstition, political ideology relegates our understanding of how to manage society to a simplex method devoid of any true empirical foundation. Of course, we can argue semantics and call this view itself political ideology. But there is a fundamental distinction here that renders that view suspicious: this new understanding of how to manage society is a duplex method based on a direct appeal to empirical observation of society upon which law and economics should operate. In this enlightened view we attempt to inform our understanding of law and economics on means and methods consistent with the scientific method. It will not be complete for sure, since our capacity to measure sociological features of our universe are limited, but the change is a paradigm shift.
Small, weak steps in this direction have been evidenced by academics who attempt to understand the effects of policy on society but the universal failing in all of them is the mere fact that political ideology as a thought paradigm exists and is pervasive (normative) in the same way that religion was before the 14th Century. Thus any academic, for example, who tries to empirically observe the universe in a world dominated by religious thought will encounter the same normative confirmation bias and the results will reflect that bias. They will “see” their data through the lens of religion and will inexorably apply a religious world-view to it. That’s why it is called “normative”. Thus, what humanity needs is a Reformation of thought, a Reformation of Enlightenment that removes this confusion so that those living today can realize, first and foremost, that political ideology isn’t needed to understand how to manage human society. As it stands today, most cannot even see that obvious fact and falsely believe that political ideology is somehow a necessary construct. But as we saw with religion, this is not true and is believed only because the “thought system” of political ideology is normative in the present. This means that the very basis of governance, the systems of government that exist today, need reform and the best way to do that is to do what adherents did to reform religion: the role of the priest class must be diminished. In the same way, the role of the political class in our systems of government must be diminished. This can be done by increasing direct public participation in governance. While direct democracies do not work, we need not accept the ad reductio absurdum for progress. What we need is a system in which an elected political class determines public policy by consultation and participation of the public directly, in much the same way that Western Courts rely on juries and judges to operate together to render verdicts. In Western Courts, judges render juries competent, but juries provide the “conscience” of the Court. Judges provide uniform (hopefully) jury instructions and other rules of operation by which the jury operates. The jury provides the conscience of peers. In a similar way, statute and public policy should be created. This is, indeed, the future of neo-liberal western democracy. I’ve spoken of this in other contexts where I mention how technological agency is making this Reformation all the more urgent, but this article explains more of the background to this reasoning and the “why” behind what is happening.
So, what does all this have to do with the death of mainstream journalism? What the death of mainstream journalism is revealing is that technological agency (in this case the information age) is forcing this Reformation upon us and we need to be informed as to the “why” behind it so that we can make wise choices to guide this Reformation, lest the “Reformation” lead to chaos. The only way to control this Reformation being forced upon us is to increase direct public participation in governance, and we must do it as quickly as possible. Unlike the 14th Century, today time cycles move quickly and we don’t have two hundred years to sort this out.
Finally, I can prescribe my opinion on what mainstream journalism can do to save itself from irrelevance and destruction. In the past, with the normative confirmation bias of political ideology holding sway, journalists attempted to report on the “who, what, when, why and where”, the five W’s. But because of normative confirmation bias they tended to try to “go a little deeper” and report the “true” news by identifying the 5 W’s of a given story, which I’ll call an event, in order to discover the “true” event narrative. This meant that some if not a lot of effort was spent in trying to discount or “disprove” any other competing event narrative. In other words, each story had any number of event narratives which could be applied to it and journalists attempted to “discern” which narrative was the “true” narrative. But the reality is that, in stories that inherently involve subjective matter it isn’t possible to always do this. Only by applying a confirmation bias could the “true” narrative be “found”. One exception to this, in a pure sense, would be matters of pure scientific fact. But rarely does a story involve only pure scientific fact. In almost all stories reported, there is some element of subjectivity either in the core of the story or in the details surrounding it, even when a core scientific fact can be established. In other words, seldom if ever do scientific facts stand alone as the only issue at hand in a story. As an example, we can take anthropogenic climate change as a case study in which a core scientific fact can presumably be established by a journalist. But the story of anthropogenic climate change involves more than just that core scientific fact. In other words, there are competing narratives of “truth”, each with its own set of the 5 Ws. In this case, the “what” is the veracity of the scientific consensus. What journalist do today is they try to validate one of these narratives by applying normalized confirmation bias; usually political ideology, and thereby reject competing narratives, usually by not reporting on them at all, or incompletely. The role of a reporter is to report on all the narratives by providing a complete accounting of the 5 Ws of each narrative, rather than trying promote one narrative or the other. There is no need to do this. There is no need for political ideology, or any other form of normative confirmation bias. The obvious objection to this is that it is an idealized way of understanding reporting since we know that a “true” narrative, at least sometimes, does exist. At least a true “what” exists.
And it is this dissonance between the ideal and the practical that is the cause of the decline of mainstream journalism.
Let me explain. In the information age the consumer has the option of patronizing those outlets that comport with their own confirmation bias. Therefore, in an unrestricted society of free speech the consumer will simply ignore any “mainstream” outlet that “chooses” an event narrative inconsistent with their own confirmation bias. Ultimately, this will result in the evaporation and disappearance of any mainstream outlet since all surviving outlets will be outlets of personalized confirmation bias, choosing event narratives for each story according to the presumed confirmation bias of their consumer. The effect of this is ignorance and superstition, to put it bluntly. This is the result of genuine choice for the consumer. Thus, the only way for a mainstream outlet to avoid self-destruction is if they take the ideal tact; that is, they must report on all conceivable event narratives for each story in complete form, providing the 5 Ws for each. By virtue of the fact that they are mainstream, most consumers will stop there because, in the midst of that report, they will apply their own confirmation bias to choose their own event narrative from those provided.
The advantage is that the mainstream outlets are still seen as valuable by the consumer because, if the narrative that comports with one’s own confirmation bias is presented, the consumer does not associate the other narratives with the mainstream outlet itself. Otherwise, in the presence of choice, the consumer will simply flee and ignore the mainstream outlet (and find it untrustworthy).
In order to ensure this outcome, mainstream outlets must provide all the 5 Ws of each conceivable narrative in factual depth on each W with opinion avoided as much as possible. Unless and until normalized confirmation bias is expunged from human society, this is the best one can do. But in terms of the bottom line of mainstream outlets and their advertising revenue, this is a total coup. Almost all consumers will consume the mainstream news at least when first learning of a story, and the majority of traffic will be satisfied with that report. But how do I know this? Empirical observation. The rapid growth of alternative news on youtube demonstrates my point. The most popular alternative outlets are, surprise, factually shallow and mostly cheerleaders of a particular political ideology. This is because they are specialized toward a particular confirmation bias and must be shallow to garner wide consumption. The factual depth they provide is adequate for most consumers and comparable to what is offered in the mainstream outlets now (at least for the one narrative each presents). If the mainstream outlets spent more time on factual depth and broader narrative reporting, they could report in the same space they always have by removing the opinion and rather transparent attempts to dance around inconvenient narratives. One of the key ways the mainstream outlets expose this dancing is how most mainstream stories obviously are leaving out details (sometimes by increasing verbiage!) because the stories make little sense without them. It has the motif of a meme or sound bite and the consumer senses something is missing. This same thing was sensed by citizens of the Soviet Union for 70 years. And that’s another reason why people in the West today go to alternative outlets.
But won’t bias always exist? Of course it will, to include many forms of bias beyond simple confirmation bias. The distinction made here is in how I am, for the purposes of this discussion, defining normalized and episodic bias. A bias (or bigotry) is normalized when the recognized authorities of that culture promote that bias by action or inaction. A bias is episodic when an individual bears it.
The key change created by the Protestant Reformation was that the role of clergy was diminished. Over time this had the effect of reducing the normative confirmation bias that existed in western culture due to religion, ultimately rendering it episodic vice normalized. The same thing will happen to the normative confirmation bias created by political ideology once the role of the political class is diminished. For the activist, the best strategy here is to promote greater participation of the public in governance in the manner described here rather than getting into the weeds of the rationale that accompanies it. The reason for that is that the very same normative confirmation bias of political ideology will work against the goal. But the notion of greater public participation in governance is an idea ripe in our time and should be nurtured.
P.S. For more info on what we mean by reducing the role of the political class and how direct democracy can be made feasible, see the intro (click) to General Federalism.