Question any aspect of Black Lives Matter, and you’re called a racist. Disagree with opening borders to immigration, and you’re labeled a xenophobe. Question the #MeToo movement, and you must be a misogynist.
The media often makes these sorts of generalizations. What’s the problem? They’re based on flawed reasoning, and they tend to misrepresent people’s actual positions and values. The world isn’t this black or white, and these sorts of oversimplifications disregard the nuances inherent in our society. They can also be used to stigmatize certain views or opinions, making the people who hold those views seem bigoted, prejudiced or intolerant, thus undermining their arguments.
Journalist Cathy Newman did just that in a Jan. 16 interview with University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, and the subsequent media coverage continued the trend. We examine both using The Knife’s spin, slant and logic analysis, as well as mathematician Eric Weinstein’s Four Quadrant Model.
The interview — A lesson in logical fallaciesIt’s important for journalists to rigorously challenge the arguments made by the people they interview and ask them frank, and perhaps uncomfortable questions. Ideally, the point of such a discussion would be to get closer to the truth by testing the boundaries of each other’s arguments and see where they have merits and weaknesses.
However, human nature tends to get in the way. Instead of pursuing truth, we are often more concerned with confirming our pre-existing beliefs, because we feel emotionally tied to them. Many times, we are willing to use flawed reasoning or misrepresent others’ views in order to prove our point. And if audience members aren’t well-versed in critical thinking, they may just fall for it.
This appeared to be the case in the Newman-Peterson interview. Several times in the discussion, Peterson would present a nuanced argument and Newman would attempt to prove her point by misrepresenting his views and using logical fallacies.
Read more: How the Knife rates media outlets for bias
Here’s an example:
Newman: … that 9 percent pay gap, that’s a gap between median hourly earnings between men and women. That exists.
Peterson: Yes. But there’s multiple reasons for that. One of them is gender, but that’s not the only reason … we break [the pay gap based on average earnings] down by age; we break it down by occupation; we break it down by interest; we break it down by personality.
Newman: But you’re saying, basically, it doesn’t matter if women aren’t getting to the top … You’re saying that’s just a fact of life, women aren’t necessarily going to get to the top.
Yet that isn’t what Peterson said, and here Newman uses a black or white fallacy. If Peterson says gender isn’t the only reason for the pay gap, does that mean he thinks “it doesn’t matter if women aren’t getting to the top”? No. It’s also a strawman fallacy — Newman misrepresents Peterson’s argument, removing the nuance and turning it into a caricature of the original, making it easier to refute. However, if we’re not well-versed in critical thinking, we may accept Newman’s claims and dismiss Peterson as a misogynist or insensitive to gender-based discrimination, even though his words and actions say otherwise.
Newman used the above fallacies repeatedly throughout the interview (watch the complete video and see how many you can spot). If society buys into this faulty reasoning, people will likely be discouraged from having views that differ from popular opinion and political correctness. Such a phenomenon, which appears to already be happening, will stunt our public discourse and our ability to make sense of the complexities of our world.
The media coverage — Enter spin and slantLet’s move now to the media coverage of the interview. The main outlets that covered it mostly supported the view that Newman was the target of abuse by Peterson’s followers. She did indeed receive disparaging comments, such as being called a “b — — — -” in more than 500 online comments, according to the Daily Mail. Such behavior is troubling, but it’s only one aspect of the story and is dramatized by the outlets.
Most of them had a high degree of slant — our analysis found that the Daily Mail and The Guardian were 82 and 78 percent slanted, respectively. This means they favored information supporting just one point of view, and omitted data supporting others. What key information did they leave out? What was actually said during the interview. All the outlets we analyzed focused on how some of Peterson’s “followers,” to use HuffPost’s word, threatened Newman after the interview. There’s little to no mention of the multiple times Newman mischaracterized what Peterson said. This doesn’t justify any real threats, but it could frame the story as one in which Newman was just doing her job and was attacked by Peterson’s supporters, and that Peterson is guilty by association with his audience.
More on the Knife: How biased news harms democracy
HuffPost and The Guardian also included information about Peterson that was inaccurate, or at least misleading. HuffPost said Peterson was “known for refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns for transgender and non-binary people who request them.” The Guardian similarly said he argued his “right to free speech meant he would not use gender-neutral pronouns.” However, during the interview, he said such claims about him were “not actually true.” He said he wouldn’t follow “compelled speech” laws mandating the use of such pronouns. This doesn’t mean he wouldn’t use someone’s preferred pronoun if personally asked. That’s different from “refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns.”
Next, let’s look at how media outlets use words that are subjective or dramatic in nature (which The Knife refers to as spin). The articles in the Daily Mail and The Independent were 62 and 40 percent spun, according to our ratings, meaning they used many of these words. They help reinforce a perception that Peterson is prejudiced against women, undermining his actual arguments. Here are a few examples used to describe Peterson, his views and the interview:
The Four Quadrant ModelEric Weinstein, mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital, has developed a powerful model that can be used to illustrate what happened in the Peterson-Newman interview, and similar cases where people have been stigmatized in the media for expressing views that go against the main narrative. It’s called The Four Quadrant Model.
We found the model insightful and asked Weinstein to discuss it in-depth with us. For a more comprehensive explanation of the model based on that discussion, click here.
If you apply Weinstein’s model to the Newman interview, here’s what you get:
More on the Knife: Is social media harming democracy? That’s NOT what Facebook said.
This is a pattern in the media that you can witness over and over, whether it be coverage of Black Lives Matter, the #metoo movement or arguments for restricting immigration. Those who offer criticism of any of these may be labeled a racist, bigot or misogynist, regardless of their actual views, values and political leanings.
Why does this matter?Logic is a wonderful tool that allows us to build knowledge and handle information in complex ways. Yet, that tool can also be misapplied and used against us. This is commonly referred to as sophistry, which is clever yet fallacious reasoning that is used to get people to agree with deceptive arguments. Why do they work? They tend to appeal to our intuitions and emotions. Yet this keeps a society uneducated, not self reliant, and very dependent and controllable — the opposite of where we all want to go.
For a truly civilized society, being able to engage in civil discourse that helps us progress and improves our quality of life is crucial. Critical thinking is the means to get there. The Knife seeks to counteract sophistry, exposing when people use such techniques — not to discredit them as people, but to shine light on the disservice this does to all of society.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News