Does our media need science training?

BY David Waywell   /  22 January 2018

Last week, the Channel 4 journalist, Cathy Newman, made headlines after receiving death threats as a result of her interview with Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. The interview, which has since appeared in full on Youtube, caused considerable debate. To some, it amounted to a right-wing demolition of a left-wing position. To others, it was simply celebrated as excruciatingly awkward TV.

The interview is worth watching because it was precisely neither of those things. Instead, it was fascinating in the same way that a difficult university tutorial can be fascinating. Newman began playing the role of the interrogator but soon became the student going toe-to-toe with a fully-engaged professor who refused to concede his points to solipsistic arguments. That’s certainly not an unhealthy place to be. It was, rather, refreshing to see two people visibly engaged in the hard business of thinking; a rarity in these days of neatly-packaged opinion and firm convictions in all things.

The fact that the interview has been perceived otherwise really has nothing to do with Newman and attacks on her are as disgraceful as they are symptomatic of the cultural sickness whereby emotions of all kinds are routinely considered the final arbiters of truth. It’s a malignancy that is encouraged by that large section of the media that has itself become unaccustomed to rigorous debate and, in that sense, Newman was really proxy for some greater force at work in our society. It wasn’t that she asked the wrong questions or did not fully understand the answers. It was that audiences expect bold assertions and easy denunciations and consider it shameful when anybody makes the kinds of concessions that Newman made.

“Gotcha!” said Peterson, playfully, at one point.

“You have got me. I’m trying to work that through my head”, replied Newman.

And how refreshing was that?! How rarely do you see that in the media? Yet how routinely do we all experience that when having difficult debates with people who understand their subjects? It also bears worth asking: since when has the simple of act of thinking become anathema to debate? Since when has it become wrong to say “Hmm… I hadn’t thought about that. Let me just think about that for a moment…”?

Thinking should never be lampooned as a “weakness” but celebrated as a step towards enlightenment. Yet that’s precisely what has become increasingly absent from much of our news, which is structurally unsuited to difficult subjects. Interviews last a certain number of allotted minutes and points boiled down to easy sound-bites. There’s room for neither mistake nor doubt. Confident non-experts are preferred to hesitant experts. News anchors routinely couch worldviews in simple terms but there are only a few journalists brave enough to respond with a “well that’s not quite the whole picture…”

Peterson comes, however, from a very different arena. Ignore, if you can, much of what he said but consider the way that he said it. He brought an argument based on his lifetime of research in his chosen discipline. He had facts to hand and observations based, he said, on empirical evidence. Newman, on the other, repeatedly attempted to shift the argument into some fairly conventional topics currently much loved in the media. It was the stuff of “equality” and “fairness” and, more broadly, an argument against the patriarchy. More crucially, it was an argument that sounded like it had rarely — if ever — been seriously tested. It meant that when Newman heard Peterson’s points, she instinctively tried to repeat them in a more convenient formula; erecting straw men, arguments that she could easily counter with hackneyed truisms. Take this fragment of the 30 minutes as an example:

Newman: You have also called trans campaigners “authoritarian”. Isn’t that…

Peterson: Only in the broader context of my claims that radical leftist ideologues are authoritarian, which they are…

Newman: So you’re saying that somebody who is trying to work out their gender identity, who may well have struggled with that, had quite a tough time…

“Peterson: No doubt they have struggled with it, yes.

Newman: You’re comparing them with Chairman Mao who saw the deaths of millions of people.

Peterson: No. Just the activists…

Newman: Well the activists are trans people too. They have a right to say these things…

Peterson: They don’t have the right to speak for their whole community.

Newsman: Isn’t it grossly insensitive to compare them to Chairman Mao or Augusto Pinochet? This is grossly insensitive, isn’t it?

Peterson: I didn’t compare them to Pinochet…”

This is the kind of miscommunication which wouldn’t normally get aired and the key phrase throughout the conversation was one that Peterson came back to a number of times: “I didn’t say that”. And that was true. Peterson would cogently state a difficult argument (whether he’s right or wrong is not the point) and then Newman would restate that argument in a much-moderated form. Peterson would then object to the way that his argument was being misrepresented and attempt a requalification.

Again, the fault isn’t Newman’s but, rather, that of the medium. TV too rarely affords the time it takes to express specialist knowledge and to pin down exact meanings. Arguments that can’t be expressed in 300 or 500 words are considered, in some places, unpublishable. Difficulties are routinely avoided for something which might more broadly be defined as “viewability”. The convention is that one interviewer sits between two people, each of whom represents the polar opposite ends of an argument. Immigration is either “good” or “bad”. The war in Syria is about a “them” versus an “us”. The Trump administration is the “greatest” or the “worst”. People are either “for” or “against” Brexit. You either support Israel or you support the Palestinians. The examples are endless.

Yet to each of these, there are countless arguments which are more nuanced and, arguably, far more interesting: that immigration is much needed if badly implemented; Syria is geopolitical posturing in a context of a tribal quagmire; Trump’s failures might have inadvertently produced a few successes; the result of Brexit is indeterminate; or that peace in the Middle East will be a problem until the issues are no longer shaped by extremists on both sides.

Yet none of that is considered good enough for the viewer. Nuance doesn’t sell newspapers and fills more time than can be afforded on air. The result is a media that seeks to reduce complexity to simplicity and an audience who increasingly think in unrealistic terms. The result is a preponderance of bad ideas on both the Right and the Left sides of the political spectrum. On the Left, the #MeToo movement is presented only in terms of its good intentions and never in terms of the authoritarian instincts that underpin it. Identity politics are expressed in terms of a great and good unraveling of our arbitrary codes (or, counter to that, as a foolish descent into relativism and unpicking the norms of our civilization).

Those on the Right are often just as guilty but their chosen fields of ignorance/certainty are different to those on the Left, from global warming, through the wisdom of markets, to a certain romanticising of traditions and history. Gender issues are routinely expressed in terms of the “common sense” attitude of the layman rather than anything explainable by experts in the sex chromosome.

The reluctance to engage in difficult topics is understandable. Science makes no allowances for what we “feel” might be right. It is the crucial disjunction that happens when it meets religion. We “feel” that there must be some greater reason for our existence but it’s a consolation that science cannot offer or, rather, can only offer in a vastly different form. The media, in turn, is increasingly likely to reflect what we feel rather than report what is necessary and true. It’s why royal weddings are reported over famines. It’s why all forms of liberation are presented as “clean” liberations and why revolutions are expected to be bloodless.

The good news is that not all of our media follows the paths of least resistance. Long-form journalism is on the rise, as are non-fiction sales. Meanwhile, digital media continues to offer alternatives to more traditional media. For all the talk of extremism, conspiracy theories, and teenage Vloggers, social media also provides a medium for expert debate. Youtube is also a peerless source of information, lectures, and lengthy debate. Science is becoming fashionable again and, with it, new generations are being taught to think critically.Hopefully, some of that will rub off on the news media where a little science education would not go amiss.

All of which is why the Cathy Newman’s interview with Jordan Peterson (again, worth watching on Youtube) was so refreshing. That’s not to say you should agree with Peterson or disagree with Newman but, rather, enjoy something that was gnarly, difficult and, challenging. It might not have been the interview that Newman expected but it was an interview that will be remembered and discussed. And when was the last time you could say that about any news interview?