I'm about to do one of those things that annoys the hell out of me when
other people do it, namely taking a well-defined technical concept and
trying to generalize it in order to make some big sweeping statements.
So I start with apologies, but I think this goes to the heart of many of
the problems we've been seeing with journalism and the public discourse
(and also explains much of the difficulty that a lot of us run into
when we tried to address those problems).
If we think of orthogonal data in the broad sense as something that
brings in new information, it gives us a useful way of thinking about
the discussion process. I'm thinking in a practical, not a theoretical
sense here. Obviously a mathematical theorem does not technically bring
any new information into a system, but in practical terms, it can
certainly increase our knowledge. By the same token, a new argument may
simply present generally known facts in a new light, but it can still
increase our understanding. (You might argue at this point that I'm
conflating knowledge and understanding. You'd probably be right, but, in
this context, I think it's a distinction without a difference.)
My hypothesis here is that (putting aside literary considerations for
the moment), good journalism should be judged mainly on the criteria of
accuracy and orthogonality, with the second being, if anything, more
important than the first. Instead, we often see indifference to accuracy
and barely concealed hostility toward orthogonality. We do see a great
deal of lip service toward diversity of opinion, but the majority of
that "diversity" is distinctly non-orthogonal, falling on the same axes
of the previous arguments, just going the opposite direction.
For example, imagine a disgruntled employee locked in an office with a
gun. "He's willing to shoot."/"He's not willing to shoot" are
nonorthogonal statements even though they contradict each other. By
comparison, "he doesn't have any bullets" would be orthogonal. I'd put
most of the discussion about liberal bias in the mainstream media
squarely in the nonorthogonal category, along with every single column
written by Bret Stephens for the New York Times.
Nonorthogonal debate has become the default mode for most journalists.
What's more, they actually feel good about themselves for doing it.
Whenever you have an expert say "is," you are absolutely required to
find another who will say "is not." This practice has deservedly been
mocked in cases where one of the arguments is far more convincing than
the other (as with global warming), but even when there's some kind of
rough symmetry between the positions, it is still a dangerously
constrained and unproductive way of discussing a question.
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