Sunday, April 19, 2020

Rhetorical Orthogonality


 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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