Einstein got that right – so did the acclaimed journalist Walter Lippman who said the news and the truth are not the same thing.
Lippman believed many people, including journalist, make judgments by condensing ideas into symbols that are stored in the brain and released when triggered. When journalists take this shortcut, it is their opinion, not fact, that influences public opinion.
Once triggered, these shortcuts to judgment are a cognitive map governing the processing of new information – denying some and inventing other.
Here, ‘cognition’ can be used to refer to the mental models, or belief systems, that people use to perceive, contextualize, simplify, and make sense of otherwise complex problems. Put more simply, cognitive maps are a method we use to structure and store spatial knowledge, allowing the “mind’s eye” to visualize images in order to reduce cognitive load, and enhance recall and learning of information.
Hurricane Katrina created a host of complex problems that triggered an explosion of mental maps – many stemming from the handling of insurance claims.
In many cases, public opinion on the new and complex problems of post-Katrina Mississippi was shaped with little or none of the discernment, analysis, and evaluation needed to form a solid judgment that reconciles scientific evidence with common sense – critical thinking.
Critical thinkers gather information from all senses, verbal and/or written expressions, reflection, observation, experience and reasoning. Critical thinking has its basis in intellectual criteria that go beyond subject-matter divisions and which include: clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, and fairness.
No where has the absence of critical thinking been more noticeable than in the rush to judgment over the intended meaning of facts contained in the various legal documents related to the federal indictment of five including attorney Dickie Scruggs and the public indictment of others such as Attorney General Jim Hood – bringing to mind the everyday application of Einstein’s wisdom – if facts and theory conflict, ignore the facts and keep the theory.
All would do well to remember this simple rhyme from one of Rudyard Kippling’s Just So stories – The Elephant’s Child – else they, too, may be seeking something they’ve already seen and denied:
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
Today’s Clarion Ledger contains a related guest opinion column, Tendency to Oversimplify Scruggs Case. Marc Harold, senior counsel and visiting professor at the National Center for Justice and the Rule of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, noted In certain cases, media outlets have exaggerated the impact pretrial motions may have on the outcome of the trial itself…
…the media almost inevitably attempt to simplify the events or stages of the trial process. This is not a negative, in and of itself. One of the major goals of any type of news reporting is to distill information into a digestible format for a broad audience… In most interviews, the “expert” is asked to put the legal or procedural issues “in simple terms… While explaining the law in lay terms can certainly be helpful in informing an interested general audience, oversimplifying what is not simple can act to misinform rather than educate…
The motions are often based on complex legal theories; in other words, like in math, sometimes giving the answer without “showing your work” is of little value.
Finally, and perhaps most damaging, is our desire to predict. Admittedly, this can be fun, and everyone likes to ultimately be proven correct…
In most of the interviews the legal “expert” is asked to speculate on the strategy of the prosecution or the defense. Attorneys should always be hesitant to engage in this type of speculation. Again, as in other facets of news coverage, it can, when undertaken irresponsibly, act to misinform rather than educate as the line between speculation and fact can become blurred…
Exactly Lippman’s point and ours as well– the news and the truth are not the same thing.A journalist’s version of the truth is subjective and limited to how he constructs his reality. The news, therefore, is “imperfectly recorded” and too fragile to bear the charge as “an organ of direct democracy.”