Sunday, November 30, 2008

Public Editor Ideology

Tibor R. Machan

I need to be especially careful in using that term, “ideology,” since I have been a frequent critic of others’ use of it. In casual talk it means “simplistic viewpoint.” But when used in a more serious discussion, “ideology” means “phony and psychologically devious viewpoint.”

That is to say, an ideology is a position someone holds not because it was reached through research and reasoning but because it serves an agenda or merely buttresses how one feels about something. In the hands of Karl Marx, for example, the term was used to discredit the views of his opponents. If they invented those views so as to serve some class or personal (especially economic) interest, well then they didn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Today the term is deployed a lot by pundits and commentators who want to dismiss ideas of which they disapprove but do not wish to defend their dismissal of those ideas. Just calling in an ideology, or labeling someone an ideologue, serves to demean the position of those who hold it. Scientists, when they do science, would be the farthest thing from ideologues and science from ideology. That’s because it is still widely believed among intellectuals that observation is the sole basis for rational judgment and that all science is based on observtion.

This was, if I may be somewhat ironic, the ideology--or, put more respectfully, the philosophical stance--of a great many educated people at the early and middle part of the 20th century. That famous motto of the state of Missouri, “Show me,” pretty much said it all--if you can’t, well there is nothing to what you are claiming.

This outlook fell on hard times when it was noticed that advocating it had itself no observational foundation. The idea that observations ought to back up all our claims to know things turned out not to be subject to observational support! It was an article of faith, at least by the terms of the very people who proposed it.

But this didn’t kill the position as it ought to have. To this day many people embrace the supposedly hardheaded doctrine of empiricism, namely, that only knowledge based on sensory evidence counts, nothing else. And with this idea came another very seriously wrong and harmful one, namely, that no value judgments could be rationally defended, none could amount to knowledge.

The public editor of The New York Times appears to be among those who still cling to the discredited idea that nothing counts for knowledge that includes value judgments. In a recent piece in which he tries hard to distinguish between writing news or analysis and writing editorials or opinion pieces, he approvingly quotes Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, saying that “Op-Ed columnists have ‘greater license to write from an ideological viewpoint and be prescriptive’,” than do news writers and analysts.

So, apparently, Mr. Keller and public editor Clark Hoyt believe that prescriptive commentary need not bother much with providing support and evidence because these are produced “from an ideological viewpoint.” This is what used to be labeled “being biased” and, therefore, containing mere attitudes or feelings. That is what the early positivists argued about all non-scientific claims, including those in ethics, politics, aesthetics, and religion.

Now it is sad to find the public and executive editors of The New York Times pretty much dismissing all the material on the editorial and Op Ed pages as being written from an “ideological viewpoint.” All of it is “prescriptive,” meaning, as they implicitly do, that such writing fails to be well grounded, could not aspire to being true, cannot be subjected to critical scrutiny.

When one dismisses--editorials, opinion pieces, etc.--as prescriptive or ideological, one is of course dismissing one’s own opinions as no more than that. And if so, then why bother taking it seriously, why even read it?

In fact, ideological viewpoints are every bit as subject to critical scrutiny as are scientific positions, only not by the same criteria. Some (few) ideologies are sound, others are not. That is also the case with prescriptive statements, the stuff of morality and politics.

There is no sharp division between discourse about values and about facts--values are just different kind of facts, facts about how we ought to act, something vital to human life and not to be relegated to the class of unfounded, emotional utterances.

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