what sustains free speech?

My remarks last week at a small conference on “Tolerance, Citizenship, and the Open Society” at the Tisch College of Civic Life …

We human beings did not evolve to take a broad view of justice, to collect information from diverse sources, to reason impartially, and to be responsive to other people who differ from us. These acts do not come naturally to us.

But we are capable of building prosthetics. For instance, we did not evolve with the skill to tell time precisely, which is now useful for coordinating behavior in mass societies. So we wear wristwatches, hang clocks on our walls, and display the current time on most of our electronic devices. A clock or a watch is a prosthetic device that extends our natural capacities.

An invention (in this case, a clock) will not suffice on its own. Many people must use it. That requires some kind of system that creates incentives or requirements for producing the devices and using them widely. A market with supply and demand can work; so can a state mandate. Either one is an institution.

We have created institutions that extend our ability to deliberate about justice. An example was the metropolitan daily newspaper from ca. 1910 to ca. 1990. Always very far from perfect, it nevertheless delivered important, mind-broadening information to about 80% of Americans every day in the year 1970. They (and advertisers) paid for the local press because it also provided sports, classified ads, comics, and whole package of goods–but with the most important news on the front cover, where it could not be missed.

A university is another institution that supports inquiry and discussion about important matters. It is more complex than a newspaper. Its revenues may include tuition, government aid, grants, gifts, intellectual property transfers, and clinical fees, among other sources. The goods it produces include skills and knowledge of value to each learner; virtues and skills that have public value; the pure public goods of basic knowledge and culture; monetizable forms of knowledge, such as patents; services, such as meals, art exhibitions, and clinical care; and credentials and entry to the middle class.

The skeptical view of such institutions is that their underlying economic motivations determine the ideas and discussions that they support. For example, newspapers are owned by tycoons or faceless corporations that just want to maximize profits. Universities sell social stratification and individual advancement. This analysis always merits attention and explains some of the phenomena. But it is one-sided, because these institutions are also the result of human artisanship–of people creating the means to sustain better thinking at a large scale.

For instance, the metropolitan daily newspaper can be interpreted as the product of the media industry, but it should also be seen as the product of the press. Traditional newspapers tried to distinguish the two by separating the newsroom from the publisher’s suite, but those subsystems were connected. For instance, plenty of publishers were former shoe-leather reporters. Their motives were mixed. That is good because mixed motives produce scalable public goods.

Too simple a theory would yield two predictions about newspapers that both proved incorrect. In 1900, you might predict that millions of people would never spend their own money voluntarily to purchase relatively impartial and challenging daily news. But they did–in part because they were also buying comics and box scores. In 1970, you might predict that we would always have a press, because it meets a social need. But the press has collapsed (half as many people work as reporters today compared to ten years ago) because the Internet has killed its business model.

As with other forms of artisanship, nothing is for certain. Ingenuity, commitment, and perseverance are required. The institutional structures that support broadened understanding depend on intentional work.

The results are always flawed. The recent scandals with college admissions just bring home the flaws of universities, for instance. We should have a free, open, informed, and consequential discussion about how to improve them. But no discussion can occur outside of a viable forum that depends on an institution. We don’t spontaneously gather to discuss; the discussion always happens in a university or a school, an op-ed page of a privately-owned newspaper, Facebook, a union hall, a church basement, a party convention, the state legislature–somewhere that draws resources and assembles users.

These institutions then structure and limit the discussion. There is no view from nowhere, only a permanent struggle to discuss as wisely as we can in various forums. We don’t create these forums deliberatively; most of them arise as the result of accident, power, or leadership. Because they are all flawed and limited, it is essential to have many of them, with diverse forms, competing and checking one another.

This is a “civic” perspective because it emphasizes our ability to shape the world of discourse through artisanship. And it broadens our attention so that we consider not only the rules for speech within an institution (e.g., campus speech codes) but also–and usually more importantly–the underpinnings of the institution itself.

See also a civic approach to free speech; Sinclair and Bezos: media ownership and media bias; don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic; prospects for civic media after 2016; China teaches the value of political pluralism; polycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economy.

the Historovox

Corey Robin’s essay, “Why Has It Taken Us So Long to See Trump’s Weakness?,” is mainly interesting as an argument about trends in reporting. Robin criticizes

a new genre of journalism that forgoes the pedestrian task of reporting the news in favor of explaining it through the lens of academic research. Ensconced at Vox, FiveThirtyEight, dedicated pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, and across Twitter, the explainers place great stock in the authority of scholarship — and in journalists who know how to wield the authority of scholars

He argues, “There’s a bad synergy at work in the Historovox — as I call this complex of scholars and journalists — between the short-termism of the news cycle and the longue durée-ism of the academy. … When academic knowledge is on tap for the media, the result is not a fusion of the best of academia and the best of journalism but the worst of both worlds.”

An obvious objection is that there are more than just two genres of writing about politics (academic analysis and pedestrian journalism). I’d place Robin’s “Historovox” on a longer list.

  1. Old-school deadline-driven political reporting: The writer tells you what happened yesterday. The lede is an event: a speech, an endorsement, a vote, an indictment. Subsequent paragraphs tell (or remind) you what happened earlier, leading up to this new event. To the extent that the news is explained, the available explanations include: what the actors and their spokespeople say happened, how their critics reply, and the tactical advantages that will result for each. An imaginary example: “The Senator traveled to Wisconsin today to talk about jobs. This follows on the heels of her speech about the environment in Los Angeles last week. People involved in her campaign said that she is engaging two important constituencies. Her opponent charged that she wants ‘to rake in the dollars from spoiled Hollywood liberals.’ Of course, prospective presidential candidates always test their support in key states.”
  2. Positivist, mostly quantitative academic scholarship: The writer looks for statistically significant patterns in representative samples of data (rather than “anecdotes”). She poses and tests explicit hypotheses. She situates her original results in the context of peer-reviewed literature. For instance, “Some previous studies suggest that candidates mainly appeal to donors. Other studies suggest that they focus on ordinary voters. Our analysis of 256 campaign events finds that donor-appeal explains 11% more of the variance in decisions about candidate travel.”
  3. Ideological advocacy: The writer hopes to advance conservatism, or socialism, or environmentalism, or whatever, and uses recent political events as evidence and as a “hook” to persuade the unconvinced and mobilize the base. “The Senator made a great speech about jobs in Wisconsin but needs to remember why unions have declined. It’s no accident that wages have fallen as union membership has fallen: these are the results of neoliberal policy choices.” This style extends from opinion magazines and op-ed pieces deeply into academic journals.
  4. Theory-building: The writer is primarily interested in developing and defending general social theories, which may have both normative and explanatory components. She is trying to develop, for example, a new version of civic republicanism or intersectional feminism or social capital theory. As in #3, recent examples serve as illustrations and “hooks,” but the argument is less predictable, less topical, and may be considerably more complex.
  5. The “Historovox” is a fusion of #1 with #2 and/or #4. Its typical style is to “explain” a concrete recent event by summarizing some relevant positivist social science (#2) and adding an interesting social theory (#4). The very bright, broadly-educated reporter works by searching the scholarly literature and interviewing academics. This style claims to avoid #3, which is seen as politically biased, in favor of “research.”

Robin offers a subtle defense of #1–traditional deadline journalism–by way of quotations from political theorists who might be seen as “particularists”: highly skeptical of generalization and concerned with attending to details:

Everyone knows and cites Orwell’s famous adage: “To see what is front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Less cited is what follows: “One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.”


the job of the scholar is to recall and retrieve what the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin described as “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present.” The task is not to provide useful knowledge to the present; it is to insist on, to keep a record of, the most seemingly useless counter-knowledge from the past — for the sake of an as-yet-to-be imagined future.

If I read him right, Robin is not saying that we need writers to express opinions about each event and record what they have opined. Rather, we–readers, citizens–should do that. Journalism gives us the raw material for our daily opinion-formation, and we should hold ourselves accountable by checking our views as new data arrive.

As a bit of a particularist myself, I find these quotes resonant, and I start with the premise that we badly need paid professional reporters to cover events. But the objection to #1 is that it was never theory-free, never just a record of what happened yesterday. Instead, it always embodied a problematic general theory, according to which history results from explicit decisions by self-interested professional politicians who compete with each other. Absent are deeper causes, issues ignored by the major parties, areas of agreement, and the work of citizens. Thus deadline journalism never served citizen-readers as well as it should have. It served up the wrong mix of “news events” for us to form opinions about.

#2 is valuable but has its limitations. As I argued right after the 2016 election, positivist social scientists mostly failed to predict Trump because their job is to detect trends in data collected already (i.e., the past). They can’t see that something is about to shift fundamentally, and when that happens, they retain a bias in favor of treating the new event as one outlying datapoint that doesn’t threaten the theory. A classic version of that critique is Robert C. Lieberman, “Ideas, Institutions, and Political Order: Explaining Political Change.” American Political Science Review 96.4 (2002): 697-712.

Another problem with #2 is tempo. The process of collecting representative data, analyzing it, and publishing it in peer-reviewed form takes many months or years, by which time events have moved on. Citizens cannot benefit from analysis unless they can use it in time.

Everyone criticizes #3–editorializing in support of an ideology–yet ideologies are indispensable heuristics, and each case of advocacy can contribute to a rich public sphere as long as you read it critically along with other views.

The advantage of #5 is translation. It connects social theory and empirical data to the news, allowing readers/citizens to learn from scholarly expertise. The big disadvantage is that there are theories for every fact. As Robin observes, when Trump looks strong, it’s time to cite the literature on authoritarianism. When he’s weak, we dust off the literature on the weak presidency. Historovox writers have a Malcolm-Gladwellish tendency to discover a new idea and find evidence of it everywhere for a while. Then events change, interests wander, and they find a new idea. As he argues, this is no way to learn.

But I think several commentators on Crooked Timber are right that explanatory journalism strives to address a real need. If we only had the first four categories listed above as separate streams, we’d be crying out for linkages. Sites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight (and The Conversation) don’t do this perfectly, but they seem fairly self-reflective and dedicated to self-improvement, and nobody could pull it off perfectly at first.

See also: why political science dismissed Trump and political theory predicted him; why political science dismissed Trump and political theory predicted him, revisited;

a civic approach to free speech

I argued in a recent post that libertarians, social democrats, American liberals, and most US Constitutional scholars share a sharp distinction between the state and the private sector–but this distinction does not reflect our actual experience of the social world.

One result is a certain way of thinking about freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, religion, and petition (the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, which are also important rights in other democracies).

A typical first step is to identify which institutions are public or state bodies. They should be prevented from interfering with other people’s speech and assembly, and they should be constrained from expressing themselves in certain ways. For instance, the US government may not express support for any specific religion, although anyone else in the society may.

The next step is to safeguard the freedoms of non-public groups, including their freedom to discriminate and exclude. For instance, the Catholic Church is not required to ordain non-Catholics (or women) as priests. Such requirements would violate its freedom of assembly and religion.

Then we face two recurrent debates. One is whether various private associations (universities, web platforms) should act like states, even though perhaps they don’t have to under the Constitution. For instance, should a private university accord its students untrammeled freedom of speech? The other debate is whether hybrid institutions (state universities, political parties, public broadcasting services) are more state or private. Do they have First Amendment rights or must they safeguard others’ rights, or both?

The debate about the role of speech in our democracy thus centers on questions like comment-moderation, inviting or disinviting speakers, speech codes, hate speech–all of which have a legalistic flavor. The question is who has a right to say what, where.

If I actually had any influence, I would not seek to upset the apple cart of American constitutional thought. The categories that we have drawn (public/private, freedom/restriction) reflect some accumulated wisdom and offer some practical advantages. I would give a Burkean justification for how we employ the First Amendment: it is how we have learned to operate.

But the distinction between state and private sphere is at odds with the reality of how institutions work. They are almost all hybrids, partly public and partly private, exercising power but also allowing voice, including some and excluding others.

So what if we started instead with a population of people–individual human beings–who come together in a wide range of organizational forms to define, discuss, and address problems? I think these are the important points for them to consider in relation to freedom of speech:

  1. They need structured, reflective discussions that encompass a diversity of views and respond to good reasons or insights, not to power. They don’t need consensus, but they must continuously learn from others.
  2. Good discussions take institutional forms, from op-ed pages to seminars to town meetings. All institutions have rules, norms, resources, and incentives. Incentives are necessary because participation in a discussion has costs. It takes time and energy to discuss, and the conversation may cause discomfort. Individuals don’t have to participate. Successful institutions for communication or discussion find ways to lure people in. A classic example was the package of the local daily newspaper: comics and sports to encourage subscriptions, and a sober front page to direct your attention to serious matters. The demise of this business model is an important example of what we should worry about.
  3. Any good discussion is a common-pool resource. It requires voluntary contributions, it serves all who participate, but it is easy for individuals to ruin. There are principles for the management of fragile common-pool resources.
  4. On the list of principles you will not find a requirement to discuss all the rules and incentives all the time. On the contrary, groups must economize on disagreement. They can’t handle too much of it. And any discussion assumes a prior solution to a problem of collective action. People didn’t automatically want to show up and talk; they were drawn in. This means that discussions generally rely on founders, small groups of leaders, or past generations of participants. We don’t make our own discussions; we join them. The structure of the institution constrains the discussions that take place within it, but there is no such thing as an unstructured discussion.
  5. Given the fragility of institutions for discussion and the importance of building institutions that match various needs and interests, they must be plural. We need lots of overlapping but heterogeneous forums–face-to-face, online, big, intimate, ideologically coherent and ideologically diverse. Each one will set rules for what speech it allows, but the rules will also determine who participates, the costs and benefits of participation, the scale, and a range of other issues. No set of rules is ideal; it’s the whole ecosystem that matters.

None of this is original. It reflects well-developed lines of argument from the sociology of communication and other fields. But it is an alternative to the US discourse of free speech, which is all about rights and restrictions. It focuses instead on the design of multiple institutions for communication–their resources, boundaries, rules, and norms.

Sinclair and Bezos: media ownership and media bias

These two stories ran on the same page of the print New York Times on April 2: “Sinclair Videos Renew Debate Over Media Ownership” and “To Trump, It’s the ‘Amazon Washington Post.’ To Its Editor, That’s Baloney.”

Both articles are about possible bias in powerful, for-profit media companies. Donald Trump has opinions on each case. He thinks that Sinclair (which owns 193 local TV stations) is a “far superior” media company that is being smeared by liberals. But he suggests that the “Fake News Washington Post [is] being used as a lobbyist weapon against Congress to keep Politicians from looking into Amazon no-tax monopoly.”

I start with the opposite assumptions: Sinclair is a creepy would-be monopolist, while the Washington Post holds power accountable. I’m no fan of Amazon, but I assume that Jeff Bezos’ investments in the Post strengthen democracy by enabling the newspaper to do more investigative reporting. I see two threats to the First Amendment: Sinclair’s goal of owning more than 200 local TV stations, and a president–who sits atop a regulatory state–threatening the owner of a newspaper.

But imagine that you admired Trump rather than despising him (as I do). You might then reverse the polarity. The biggest threat might seem to be the billionaire with the national newspaper. You might be a little cynical when the Post‘s executive editor, Martin Baron, says, “There isn’t anybody here who is paid by Amazon … Not one penny.” Technically true, but Bezos, who makes his money from Amazon, bought the Post for $250 million, and, “Buoyed by [these] new resources, it has added more than 200 newsroom employees.”

I want to control corporate influence on politics, but when people point out that newspapers also influence politics, and they are corporations (or owned by corporations), I cry “First Amendment!” When Rupert Murdoch builds Fox News, I see a billionaire colonizing the public sphere, but when Bezos expands the Post, I am grateful to him.

It’s important to be principled, not arbitrary or reflexively partisan, in making such judgments.

The economics are complex. You can make money selling news that you don’t agree with, or lose money by selling views you like. (Generations of owners of The New Republic will testify to that.) There is evidence of media effects: news companies change public opinion. But consumers also choose which news to buy and thereby affect the production of news.

The sociology is complex. Sinclair Broadcast Group is a publicly traded company that maximizes returns for its shareholders. It is also an organization with a CEO and other leaders who have leverage over the shareholders. And it employs reporters, who can be understood as members of a profession that is committed to the public good. It would be naive to ignore the corporate structure, but cynical to ignore the professionals. An anonymous anchor interviewed by Maxwell Strachan said,

most of the people who are commenting on this have never even watched our local newscast. … They see that we’re a Sinclair station. They assume what they want to assume about it. But we produce good news here. Sinclair does not tell us what to cover, who to talk to, or what to say in terms of local coverage. Our local news, it doesn’t have bias. If people are looking for it, they won’t find it. So don’t call me a zombie. I do damn good work on a daily basis and anybody in my community would tell you that.

Whether he is right or not, his point that many critics have never watched a Sinclair Station’s local newscast applies to me.

Finally, the politics is complex. I have no doubt that Donald Trump is a terrible leader, but I choose to consume news that mostly reinforces that view, and I rarely delve deeply into the other side. We should make judgments and take a stand. Forming a judgment is not a form of bias. But we must recognize our fallibility.

Ultimately, you can’t render appropriate judgments without taking a closer look at both the products of these companies (Are their stories any good?) and the detailed ways in which they work. I presume that the Post has a strong firewall between its business operations and its newsroom, but that is an empirical assumption that can be tested. I find this kind of language in Sinclair’s employee handbook disturbing: Sinclair “may monitor, intercept, and review, without further notice, every employee’s activities using Company’s electronic resources and communications systems.” But I don’t know whether anything similar applies at the Post.

All of this plays out in a marketplace. We’d like journalists to have market power over their employers. But for newspaper reporters, the market is terrible:

According to a new Knight Foundation report, “In the decade since the last recession hit, newspapers have shed 26,300 newsroom employees — 46.1 percent of total employment. … In contrast, local TV news employment is up 4.9 percent in that same time frame, and most TV newsrooms are at their highest level of staffing ever.” Many stations are hiring former newspaper reporters and editors.

Despite the rising number of employees in broadcast journalism and the generally tight labor market, Sinclair has leverage over its employees, perhaps because there are just a few TV stations in any community. The anonymous Sinclair anchor says,

These jobs? they’re very hard to come by. And if I quit, I owe the company 40 percent of my salary, plus a percentage of the [redacted] years remaining on my contract, plus any bonuses that they’ve paid to me and any reimbursements that they’ve paid to me. And they’re going to take me to court for it. And in the time that I’m in court, I’m not employable.

See also: media literacy and the social discovery of realitydon’t confuse bias and judgment.

how information relates to power, according to C.V. Wedgewood

C.V. (Veronica) Wedgewood’s The Thirty Years War is almost a century old, but it remains an inexhaustible source of insights. TaNahisi Coates loves it, too: “Take this for whatever it’s worth but she writes better than any historian I’ve ever read. Like all of my favorite writers she paints in all colors. … This is just a thrilling book. Sometimes it’s too pretty, and the details are too on point, but the insights are so thorough and the narrative so gripping that it’s hard to turn away.”

Here’s an example. Wedgewood asks how dynastic politics–births and marriages–could have been so influential. The Hapsburg Empire, for example, was the greatest power in Europe and it formed because of royal weddings. “The dynasty was, with few exceptions, more important in European diplomacy than the nation. Royal marriages were the rivets of international policy and the personal will of the sovereign or the interests of the family its motive forces. For all practical purposes France and Spain are misleading terms for the dynasties of Bourbon and Hapsburg.”

(Wedgewood doesn’t mention the Ottomans, but they were also a family, not a people. The Ottoman Empire was proudly multinational, not Turkish, and it was defined by the fact that the Sultan was the lineal descendant of Osman I [1258-1326]. In Topkapi, marriages weren’t relevant, but it mattered which heir obtained the throne.)

How could the fates of millions be determined by who married whom in a few families?Wedgewood thinks the reason is information:

This is an interesting explanatory thesis. Perhaps it could be restated thus: Everyone has political interests. But in order to act on their interests, people need information and the ability to coordinate. Without information, the peasants and most of the middle class were rendered powerless ca. 1600. That left the great aristocrats to govern, and they could best understand and use their own relationships to shape the world. (They presumably had poor information about things like economics and demographics.) Their relationships were transparent to the masses–for example, everyone knew when the king got married–so the most likely point for popular involvement was in supporting or blocking a dynastic union.

This thesis also raises questions about our own time. Today, we have information by the gibibyte. What we lack is the ability to focus attention on the important stuff. It’s easier to grasp Donald Trump’s marital and extramarital relations than to follow how HHS is undermining Obamacare. One dominant man holds extraordinary power–and celebrity–in China, Russia, India, Turkey, and many other countries. It’s conceivable that the 21st century will look more like the 16th than the 20th in this respect.

media literacy and the social discovery of reality

If you’re concerned about media education in the current fraught moment, you should read danah boyd’s “You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You?” and Renee Hobbs’ response in Medium.

In my crude summary: danah boyd surveys some media literacy programs and sees a simplistic set of assumptions about the way media does–and should–work in our world. Hobbs replies that the actual field of media literacy education, which she has labored skillfully to build, welcomes complexity and diversity of views and nurtures sophisticated programs that boyd has overlooked. Hobbs also wonders why boyd selects media literacy education as her target instead of big media companies that are making money by degrading the public sphere.

I’m no danah boyd, and I’m no Renee Hobbs, but I recognize the appeal of both perspectives from my own work in different fields, such as service-learning, civic education, and deliberative democracy. There’s a role for the relatively detached critic who raises basic questions, but also for the field-builder who tries to create networks that enable experimentation and debate.

In the case of media literacy, I can offer my own view of the philosophical issues at stake, for what that’s worth. I don’t know to what extent people working in the field agree or disagree with the following ten theses. As I present them, I’ll use climate change as an example. Climate scientists make strong claims about truth, professional reporters must decide how to cover their claims, educators must decide whether climate change is a fact or rather a topic for debate, and the public is deeply polarized about all of the above.

  1. Truth claims are social. At least, that is true of claims like “human beings are causing the globe to warm by burning carbon.” No individual can have a justified true belief about the global climate, all by herself. No one can read all the secondary literature, let alone check all the analyses in that literature, let alone reanalyze all the data, let alone collect all the data, let alone create the methods and instruments needed to collect the data, let alone train all the scientists, let alone pay for all of that. We can each check some other people’s work, abstracting it from the rest of science. But we must leave most of the edifice unchecked. When people tell you they have “looked into” climate science and found it either true or false, they are exaggerating their personal expertise.
  2. Institutions require trust. An individual must trust the scientific enterprise as a whole in order to believe its specific results or even to take them seriously. Trust is directed at people, institutions, or social processes, not at facts. Many institutions do not merit trust.
  3. Social institutions represent power. For example, scientific labs, universities, and newspapers are funded, staffed, and managed. The human beings who manage them are exercising power. Most other people do not have the same power or equivalent degrees, titles, educational pedigrees, access to information, etc. Thus we are asked to trust people who have power over us. That is easier for someone like me–a colleague of climate scientists who works in a Boston-area research university–than for someone far away and in a different cultural setting.
  4. Truth is deeply intertwined with values. We really are warming the globe by burning carbon. But if that implies that we must regulate economic activity–even at the expense of liberty–it becomes a value-claim. Also, we know that we are warming the climate because we have invested in certain kinds of research. Motivating those investments are concerns about the globe as a whole and about the long-term aggregate welfare of people plus other species. If your concerns were different, you wouldn’t spend the money to collect the data that has produced these facts.
  5. Politics is about values and power. When we disagree about values or about who has power (or both) we are engaged in politics. Thus politics is necessarily involved in topics like climate change.
  6. Ideology is an unavoidable tool for managing complexity and uncertainty. The word “ideology” has different meanings in different circles, but if we mean fairly general heuristics that allow individuals to make sense of the world, then we all depend on it. Ideology is unavoidable. And it tends to merge causal theories, value-claims, and identities.
  7. Some values are better than others. I’ve said (see #4) that climate science depends on values. But the underlying values of climate science are good ones. We should be concerned about all human beings, about other species, about natural systems as intrinsic goods, and about the long-term. If we were only interested in the short-term wealth of US citizens, we wouldn’t care about climate change, but that would be a worse moral stance. Values are contestable, but our responsibility is to choose the best values.
  8. Truth can be socially discovered, not just socially constructed. Knowledge emerges from human institutions, like laboratories and newspapers. Change the people and the way they work together, and you will probably get different results. That is a causal claim. For some, it implies skepticism. But people do obtain justified true beliefs–for example, that we are heating the globe by burning carbon. This is not socially constructed knowledge; it is socially discovered. The discovery requires cooperation, just as it takes a bunch of sailors to reach a destination by sea. But their ship can actually find a new place, not merely “construct” one.
  9. Institutions for discovering truth are scarce and fragile. Behavioral science has uncovered an immense number of human cognitive and motivational limitations, many rooted in our biological origins as hunter-gatherers. We are ill-equipped to make sense of large-scale phenomena and are unlikely to care about issues that affect other people far away. Yet we have built institutions like universities and newspapers. These are highly problematic and fallible entities, with long records of errors and abuse. They are also miraculous achievements that defy the prediction that homo sapiens will never want to discover truths or succeed in that effort.
  10. Media literacy thus means exhibiting the right mixture of trust, support, skepticism, and critique. It’s possible for people to trust a given institution, such as a newspaper, too much. And it’s possible for them to trust it too little. Trust is an emotion that is related to personal identity, but it ought to be informed by good values and rigorous knowledge as well.

See also: the Pew climate change survey and the state of sciencemini-conference on Facts, Values, and Strategies (which led to a special issue of The Good Society, now in production); why we miseducate children to think of values as opinions; a media literacy education articlethe history of civics and news literacy educationis all truth scientific truth?don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalisticCivic Science; pseudoscience and the No True Scotsman fallacythe press loses its leverage; and generational change and the state of the press.

22 million new voters by 2020

With The LAMP, a New York City nonprofit that works on media and digital literacy skills, my colleagues at CIRCLE are launching the 22×20 Campaign, which has the tagline “22 million new voters by the year 2020.”

For the night of the State of the Union, 22×20 helped organize Action Parties in “New York City, Washington D.C., Austin, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco with partners such as Austin Public Library, Mikva Challenge, DoSomething.org, KQED, OZY, Sony, and YVote.” Students were encouraged to discuss, analyze, and share their reactions. More information about how to organize such events is here.

The campaign also provides educational resources. For example, you can find lesson plans on media literacy and tutorials on how to create videos using news clips. I thought the guide entitled “Ten Easy Steps to Fact-Checking” was a perfect resource for viewers of the State of the Union.

More events are coming up. Follow the campaign on Twitter (@22millionVotes) or by using the hastag #22×20CIRCLE also has an explanatory blog post on “Teens and Elections” with valuable background data. 

don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic

Beginning in the late 1960s, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman shook the prevailing assumption that human beings can plan and make decisions rationally. Their experiments demonstrated that we use “simplifying heuristics rather than extensive algorithmic processing” to make decisions. We err in predictable ways even when we want to think rationally (Gilovich & Griffin 2002).

Tversky’s and Kahneman’s revolutionary program spread across the behavioral sciences and constantly reveals new biases that are predictable enough to bear their own names. Attribution Bias means explaining one’s failures as the results of difficult external circumstances, while others’ failures must flow from their bad choices. The Control Illusion is the tendency to overestimate how much we control events. The Halo Effect causes us to overvalue work by people whom we have previously judged as talented. And the lists go on for pages.

These phenomena are held to be deeply rooted in the cognitive limitations of human beings as creatures who evolved to hunt-and-gather in small bands on African plains. Not only has the burgeoning literature on cognitive biases challenged rational market models in economics, but it undermines the “folk theory” of democracy taught in civics textbooks and widely believed by citizens and pundits. The folk theory holds that “Ordinary people have preferences about what their government should do. They choose leaders who will do these things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, what the majority wants becomes government policy” (Achen and Bartels 2016). Citing the research on human cognitive limitations as well as other evidence, Achen and Bartels argue that this folk theory is not only false as a description of actual politics in the United States; it is impossible.

Such evidence should be taken very seriously. No reform program will work that doesn’t address human cognitive limitations. But we can design solutions. For example, people are not very good at measuring time, but most of us carry little prosthetic devices on our wrists that tell us what time it is. We’ve also sprinkled our walls and computer screens with clocks that are synchronized so that we can coordinate billions of people’s time.

Similarly, a newspaper is a prosthetic device for telling us what important events are occurring around the world that are relevant to our decisions as consumers, workers, and citizens. We didn’t evolve to know the news, but we have built tools that tell us the news.

To be sure, human cognitive limitations make the news business a hard one. We human beings are not very good at separating reliable information from misinformation, at seeing the world from perspectives other than our own, or at absorbing information that challenges our prior assumptions. We are not automatically motivated to pay for reliable information about public issues.

Some of these points have been known for a very long time. Francis Bacon, for example, was an acute observer of human cognitive limitations. Around 1880, there was no such thing as a professional, politically independent, reliable press in the United States. If people had considered the many reasons to doubt that human beings can know or value the news, they would not have set about to create the modern press.

Instead, naively, they went ahead and built the press. And they made it work by selling a desirable package that included entertainment and advertising as well as hard political news. The metropolitan daily newspaper had a pretty good run until new forms of advertising and entertainment finally shrank it in our century. Behavioral science would have predicted the demise of the independent newspaper–but about a century too soon. In fact, “the press” (reporters, editors, journalism educators, and others) sustained the newspaper as a tool for overcoming human cognitive limitations for decades. Nor is the newspaper the only such success story. Behavioral science would not predict schools and universities, research labs, or public libraries, either.

The moral is to be sober about the limits of reasonably rational and ethical human behavior without ever giving up on our ability to create better tools and contexts.


  • Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016)
  • Thomas Gilovich and Dale Griffin, “Introduction–Heuristis and Biases: Then and Now,” in Gilovich and Griffin (eds.), Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

See also: hearing the faint music of democracyJoseph Schumpeter and the 2016 election.


why Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet)

(Washington DC) Kevin Drum imagines how a Trump fan receives the president’s tweets:

You’re at home, watching the Factor, and O’Reilly is going on about the crime problem in Chicago. It’s outrageous! The place is a war zone! Somebody should do something!

Then, a few minutes later, you see Trump’s tweet. “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible “carnage” going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” Damn straight, you think. They need the National Guard to set things straight there. Way to go, President Trump.

This exchange is good enough for you–on its own. You don’t really want Trump to send the feds into Chicago, whatever that might mean. If it would cost money or create a precedent for federal intervention in your town, or anything like that, you might actually be against it. But your media stream will never give you an update on whether Trump sent in the feds or what happened to the murder rate in Chicago. You are immersed in media that consists largely of bad news about places you don’t like. You are satisfied that the guy in charge shares your opinion and has announced he’s on it. He even quotes verbatim the same stats you just saw on O’Reilly. It’s a magic solution–at last.

I think more or less the same will happen as a result of Trump’s announcement today that Mexico will pay for the border wall via a 20% import tax. That is highly unlikely to occur, because Congress would have to enact the tax, and I’m guessing the economic effects would be awful if it did; but Trump’s fans will probably never get an update. They may hear about battles between the president and Congress over taxes, but those will take the form of specific insults flung from his end of Pennsylvania Ave. up to the Hill, which they will endorse. Each exchange will be an event unto itself.

I happen to think that this kind of politics has yuge political limitations for Trump. Most people already disapprove of him, and his welcome is going to wear even thinner when people’s actual lives fail to improve. In turn, massive disapproval will weaken his already shaky position. But it’s still a very dangerous situation, at best, and is very far from any reasonable model of a democracy.

My explanation is that millions of Americans have lost all expectation that leaders will be accountable to them. At the national level, they are not getting very good results from the government that purports to represent them. At the local level, they have lost the kinds of institutions that used to depend on people like them. To reprise a graph from a recent post, here is the trend in the proportion of people who belong to a church and/or a union:

For all their flaws, these are the kinds of institutions that make promises and then have to deliver. If they fail, their members know about it and complain, act up, or walk out. A union or a church has a real covenant with its members. When people have no such expectations of accountability, they are much more likely to be satisfied because the boss just tweeted something they agreed with. Again, I think Trump’s own appeal will wear even thinner than it is now, but the underlying problem is a lack of accountable organizations in many communities.

prospects for civic media after 2016

Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice is a new book edited by Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis. I contributed the introductory chapter, “Democracy in the Digital Age.” On Nov. 16, I joined Eric, Paul, Ethan Zuckerman (MIT), Colin Rhinesmith (Simmons), Beth Coleman (University of Waterloo), and Ceasar McDowell (MIT) for a book-launch discussion that focused on the role of media in the 2016 election and the prospects for civic media in the near future. Here’s the video.