“Fake News” and the Responsibility of Philosophers

”Fake news” is not actually a new phenomenon. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber document in their book Trust Us, We’re Experts, that it is an invention of the public relations industry that is as old as the industry itself. The First Amendment makes it pretty hard to prevent such efforts to manipulate public opinion. That’s the price it appears we have to pay to live in a free society. It wouldn’t be so serious a problem as it is if people in the field of higher education didn’t fall down on their responsibility to alert alert the public to it.

A recent case in point is an article entitled Study: For-Profits Match Similar Nonprofits in Learning Results,” that ran in the January 11th issue of Inside Higher Education. The third paragraph cites the study as claiming that “[i]n all six comparisons, students at proprietary institutions actually outperformed the students at the nonproprietary comparison institutions.”

Who would have thought that? I mean, really, aren’t the for-profits infamous for having poor learning outcomes? One doesn’t actually even have to look at the original study, however, to realize that something is fishy with it. The first red flag is the fact that the study uses the euphemism “proprietary” institutions rather than the straightforwardly descriptive “for-profits.”

The study is described as measuring “learning outcomes in six areas for 624 students from four for-profit higher education systems, which the study does not name, and then compar[ing] the scores with those of a matched group of students from 20 unnamed public and private institutions that were selected because they were similar to the for-profits on key measures related to academic performance” (emphasis added).

The second red flag is the “matched group of students.” Matched in what sense? That isn’t explained.

The third red flag is that neither the traditional nonprofit institutions nor the for-profit ones are named.

The fourth red flag is that the nonprofit institutions were selected because they were “similar to the for-profits on key measures related to academic performance.” Really? Since for-profits are reputed to have abysmal results in terms of academic performance, they must have searched long and hard to find nonprofits that had similarly abysmal results, if indeed they really did find such institutions, which cannot be verified since they are “unnamed.”

The whole thing reminds me of an old television commercial for Rolaids. Someone dumps a white powder into a beaker of what appears to be water with red food coloring in it, then stirs the powder, which gradually becomes clear again, while a voiceover announces “In this test with Rolaids’ active ingredient, laboratory acid changes color to PROVE Rolaids consumes 47 times its weight in excess stomach acid.”

There was no way, however, to prove that the beaker had actually contained acid, or that what had been dumped into it was really Rolaids’ “active ingredient,” or indeed even that the change in color represented Rolaids’ “absorbing” anything let alone acid, not to mention how much acid. I credit that commercial with starting me on the road to becoming a philosophy professor because even as a child I found it outrageous that someone should expect I would take it as proving anything.

One of the chief duties of philosophers, I believe, is to expose errors in reasoning and man were there errors of reasoning in that commercial. I learned very early that commercials were not to be trusted. Most people know that, I think. Most people know to be skeptical when, for example, a commercial claims that some detergent removes stains better than any other detergent ever invented and presents what it purports is proof.

Most people know to be skeptical about claims made in commercials. Unfortunately, most people do not know to be skeptical about claims made in what is presented to them as “news.” That’s why I use Rampton and Stauber’s book when I teach critical reasoning. I feel it is part of my responsibility as a philosopher to alert my students to the pervasiveness of the practice of dressing up propaganda as news.

Back to the education “study.” Even if the study were genuine, the results are pretty much useless because the whole study is circular. That is, the study admittedly sought out “matched” students at “similar” institutions. It thus isn’t surprising that the for-profits come out looking better than one would expect if the selection of students and institutions had been random.

The study was conducted by a group called the Council for Aid to Education, or CAE. The “Executive Summary” (p. 2) of the study makes it very clear where the CAE stand on the for-profits. “The proprietary education sector stands at a crossroads,” it begins.

Proprietary colleges and universities are key providers of postsecondary education in the United States, enrolling over 1.7 million students. However, the sector has seen its enrollment decline since its peak in 2010 due to the growing employment opportunities following the Great Recession, the heavy regulatory burdens imposed during the last six years, and the perception that education at proprietary institutions is not on par with that offered by their non-proprietary peers.

The Council for Aid to Education (CAE) believes this junction presents a critical time to explore the efficacy of proprietary institutions and to document the student learning they support.

If there were doubt in anyone’s mind concerning the study’s objectivity, the opening of the “Executive Summary” should remove it. The CAE set out to show that the for-profits were doing as good a job of educating students as are traditional nonprofit institutions of higher education.

Of course the CAE is within its rights to do this. The problem is not so much the the CAE’s clear bias in favor of the “proprietary education sector,” but Inside Higher Education’s failure to expose that bias. Inside Higher Education purports to be “an independent journalism organization.” This “journalistic independence is critical,” IHE asserts in its “Ownership Statement,” “in ensuring fairness and thoroughness” of its “higher education coverage.”

The thing is, Quad Partners, “a private equity firm that invests in the education space,” purchased a controlling share of IHE in 2014. That is, Inside Higher Education is now an arm of the “proprietary education sector.” So the purported “independence,” “fairness,” and “thoroughness” of its reporting on issues in higher education appears now to be only so much more propaganda in the service of the for-profits.

Doug Lederman, the editor of Inside Higher Education protested to me in an email, after he saw an earlier version of this article that appeared in Counterpunch, that he and the people over at IHE had had their own suspicions about that piece and that that was why they had given is only a “barebones Quick Take.”

“What confuses me,” he said,

is why you viewed our minimalist and questioning treatment of the CAE research as evidence that we are in the tank for the for-profits because our lead investor has also invested in for-profit higher education––rather than as proof that our ownership situation has changed us not at all.

I fear Lederman may be right in protesting that IHE had not been willingly shilling for the for-profits. It apparently didn’t even occur to him that the suspicions he and others had had about the study should have led them to do a full-scale investigation of it (an investigation that would have involved actually reading at least the “Executive Summary” of the study to which they included a link in their article) and to publish an exposé on the study as a piece of propaganda for the for-profits rather than a “barebones” article that presented it as “news.”

What concerns me is not so much that the for-profits are trying to manipulate public opinion to make it more favorable toward them. What concerns me is that the editors of a leading publication that reports on issues in higher don’t have the critical acumen to identify what ought to have been readily identifiable as a piece of “fake news,” or the journalistic experience and expertise to know what to do with it once they have identified it as such.

That’s disturbing.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of Counterpunch.)

 

 

The Land of Smiling Children

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“Komm ins Land der lachelnden Kinder,” “Come to the land of smiling children,” intones a voiceover to the tune of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” at the beginning of a popular German YouTube video. The video is a montage of some of the most grotesque elements of American culture: a smiling JonBenét Ramsey in full beauty-queen regalia, children using firearms, police beatings and shootings of unarmed citizens, celebrations of conspicuous consumption and contempt for the environment juxtaposed with videos of street people combing trash cans, an execution chamber, a row of Klansmen, and, finally, a man accidentally shooting himself in the leg.

“Alles Spitze in Amerika!” “Everything’s great in America,” the refrain announces over and over again as one horrific scene after another assaults the viewer. The video, “Ein Lied für die USA,” or “A Song for the USA” begins and ends with someone accidentally shooting himself. One could argue that it’s heavy handed, but it makes a devastating point: We are destroying ourselves.

We have arguably always lacked the veneer of civility that typically characterizes older cultures, and yet it seems that public discourse has recently taken a particularly savage turn. The left is as responsible for that as the right. Trump didn’t become “evil” until he ran for office. Before that, he was merely a buffoon. Now, suddenly, he’s “Hitler” and his supporters are uniformly denounced as “racists” and “fascists.” Don’t get me wrong, Trump was not my candidate. He’s not who I want to see in the White House, but he’s not Hitler. Obama said himself that Trump’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Democrats dismissed well-reasoned arguments against Clinton’s candidacy, or her positions on various issues, not with similarly well-reasoned counter arguments, but with charges of “mansplaining.” Nothing shuts down dialogue so quickly as hurling invectives at your opponents. British comedian Tom Walker makes this point brilliantly in the viral video of his alter ego U.K. newsman Jonathan Pie’s commentary on the election.

A recent case in point is the infamous Christmas-Eve tweet of academic George Ciccariello-Maher: “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” The tweet was characterized by Mike King in “George Ciccariello-Maher vs. the White Power Alt-Right” as “inflammatory.” The point, Ciccariello-Maher explained in The Huffington Post, was to “mock” people who believe in the concept of “white genocide.”

King writes that “the anti-racist message and satirical intent [of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet] is clear to anyone familiar with the term [white genocide] and its longstanding usage within the political culture of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in the U.S.” Fair enough, but was it reasonable of Ciccariello-Maher to assume that all of his 10,000 plus Twitter followers would understand the term in this way? Was it reasonable of him to assume that everyone to whom his tweet would be retweeted would have a similarly sophisticated understanding of the term and hence grasp the satire?

King calls Ciccariello-Maher a “vibrant anti-racist voice.” Ciccariello-Maher’s Christmas Eve tweet was apparently not his only inflammatory one, at least not according to the conservative websites that have expressed outrage over it. Unfortunately, I can’t check that because only confirmed followers now have access to Ciccariello-Maher’s Twitter feed.

Inflammatory rhetoric goes over well with many college students. It gets them excited about “scholarship” because it makes it seem “sexy” in this culture where sex and violence are inexorably intertwined. It goes over well with young people who are already sympathetic to the cause it purportedly serves. Unfortunately, it tends not to go over well with anyone else.

Demonizing people who disagree with you isn’t very effective at persuading them that you’re correct. It can, in fact, even push people who are on the fence over to the other side because it is ugly. It evinces the same lack of respect for the basic humanity of one’s opponent no matter which side in an argument does it. It’s a kind of bullying and engaging in it further erodes what semblance of civility we have left in this country.

King refers to the “outrage” of “white victim politics” as “contrived.” No doubt some of it is. But, sadly, there are legions of white people in this country for whom the outrage, even if misguided, is genuine. The situation of working-class white people is not so different from the situation of working-class men described so well in Susan Faludi’s books Backlash and Stiffed. Nearly everyone is losing ground economically. There is no rising tide now to float all boats. Nearly everyone is sinking, but instead of banding together to effect positive economic change, we have begun drowning one another in savage efforts to stay afloat.

The line at the beginning of “Ein Lied für die USA,” “Come to the land of smiling children” is an allusion to “Das Land der Lächelns,” or “The Land of Smiles,” a romantic operetta by Franz Lehár. The title is an ironical reference to the purported Chinese custom of smiling even when one is unhappy. One doesn’t need to know that, however, in order to recognize the irony in the video.

We are a nation of desperately unhappy people. Though racism still exists, most working white people have little direct experience of it. They look around even as they are sinking and see affirmative action for everyone but themselves. Compounding their sense of injustice is what sometimes appears to be contempt on the part of the liberal elite for their plight.

Enter George Ciccariello-Maher. I don’t mean to suggest that Ciccariello-Maher is really indifferent to the plight of white working class people. It is not so hard to see, however, why many might think he was. Ciccariello-Maher is righteously angry about racism, so he lashes out at those he views as racist. But is that going to reduce racism? He purports to be a socialist, but his is not the rhetoric of Tolstoy or Gandhi. Rather than serving to make clear to all working people that their interests are in fact allied, messages such as the one delivered by Ciccariello-Maher’s Christmas Eve tweet drive deep divisions among them––which ultimately serves the interests of the wealthy few who control this country.

I agree with Ciccariello-Maher and his supporters who argue that that a commitment to free speech is more important now than ever. There is another commitment, however, that is also important: the commitment to decency and civility. Without that, free speech will simply fan flames of anger and outrage that will end up consuming us all.

The problem is, you can’t legislate a commitment to decency and civility. Drexel is right to stand by Ciccariello-Maher’s right to express his views in whatever way he sees fit. There’s no formula for determining what’s offensive and what isn’t. That’s why we need vigorous defenses of free speech. I’m offended, for example, when Richard Dawkins makes public pronouncements that effectively associate religious belief with feeblemindedness. The prospect of censorship based on taste is even more frightening to me, however, than is the specter of inflammatory rhetoric and the damage it can do.

I’m not comfortable giving anyone the right to curtail speech based on his or her subjective conception of what is offensive. Neither am I comfortable, however, with granting the unrestricted right of free speech to people who are not only indifferent to whether their speech gives offense, but whose rhetoric is deliberately designed to inflame. Rights, philosophers tell us, bring obligations. The right to free speech brings with it the obligation not to abuse it. The right to free speech is believed to rest on the foundation of the inherent rationality and dignity of all human beings. It is necessary to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be heard. But when it is abused, it creates a din that drowns out many of the voices it was designed to protect.

Plato thought the freedoms associated with democracy would ultimately destroy it. I explain to my students, however, that that is because there are no other values in Plato’s democracy than freedom. Democracy, I argue, combined with a commitment to humanistic values, with respect for the dignity of individuals, of all individuals, can work.

No progress will be made by spewing venom at one another in the name of free speech. On the contrary. When we use speech as a weapon rather rather than as an appeal to reason it is all too easy to injure ourselves with it.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the 2 January 2017 issue of Counterpunch. The illustration is by Marie Schubert. It comes from a book by S. Weir Newmayer and Edwin C. Broome entitled Health Habits (American Book Company, 1928) from The Health and Happiness Series .  I am indebted to Gui Rochat for the reference to Franz Lehár’s “The Land of Smiles,” and to Catherine Goetze for correcting the errors in the German.)