A usual conversation about politics, when you boil it down, sounds something like this:
Person A: So what do you think about politics?
Person B: Well, I’m a Republican.
A: Oh. Well, I’m a Democrat.
B: I think being a Democrat is wrong because abortion should be illegal.
A: I think abortion should be legal because women should get to chose if they want an abortion or not.
B: But what do you think about gun control?
A: Good point. I think being a Republican is wrong because guns should be illegal.
B: I think guns should be legal because we should get to choose if we want guns or not.
[repeat with more topics]
A: I think we can agree to disagree here.
[The alternate ending involves screaming, frustration and some passive-aggressive comments the next few times they see each other in person.]
These conversations volley back and forth, but never end. Both sides give their position and then paraphrase it once the opponent replies. Notice, though, that they do not elaborate or offer supporting evidence.
You are a reasonable person. You want to be able to elaborate and offer supporting evidence, as reasonable people do. You want information — but not just any ol’ information. You want good information, the truest, most relevant, most helpful information out there. You don’t want to be like Persons A and B, who lack the facts and arguments necessary to support their opinions.
This is no easy task. How do we find high quality arguments and facts? How do we find truth in politics? More generally than that:
How do we find high quality anything? Especially in politics, where people lie to us?
If we can find a foothold in politics, where people get paid to lie, then the same strategies will also work on other topics, where people are generally honest. This article gives general principles that apply to most topics, and gives pointers relevant to politics. These will help us find an answer — not the full answer, but at least the beginning of it — to the above, bolded question.
Diversity between viewpoints – Try to listen to both sides of an argument. Everyone knows they should, but few actually do. People live in bubbles, surrounded only by people who think like they do, and never leave. If this seems false, see any of these four links: 1. 2. 3. 4. We should ask the question, “what percent of our information comes from the right? What percent comes from the left?” These answers should be close to balanced. If they are not, consider reading into the other side.
Diversity within a viewpoint – People disagree not only between social circles, but also within them. Do all people of a certain ideological group think alike? Yes: they share a common ideology… but no: because they hold various interpretations and positions within that ideology. So, dig in to the nuances of the other side; it is better to know both halves than only one.
Quality – Imbibe only trustworthy sources. How do I know which sources are trustworthy? It is hard to know, but always try. Sometimes is is obvious whether a source is good or bad, and we take the information accordingly. Some sources are of more… intermediate quality. Make sure to take them with intermediate confidence.
Quantity – Consult several dozen sources rather than one. My new fun trick for school essays, even though it becomes a pain, is to double-cite information. Everything that needs one proof has two. (Another fun rule of thumb: use 25 sources for every five pages). Likewise, do not settle for one article. Read and read, because knowledge builds on itself over time like compound interest.
Specifics – Intricate details are important, so use them. The “fact-checking” approach really does work. We can argue with a vague narrative all day long, but can we argue about a specific fact? Maybe, but it is much more difficult. In a primary debate, Rand Paul undercut Donald Trump’s argument against the TPP in this way.
Big Picture – In contrast with the previous principle, the ability to zoom out and see the bigger picture can also help. When a journalist presents specific facts, he or she could be employing selective facts to support only their stance. Take a step back to see everything and work from there. Experts call this a cohort study, a meta-study, a study-of-studies, and other terms like that. Here is a good example.
Original Voice – Listen to politicians in their voice. Don’t listen to someone else’s review of the President’s speech. Go watch it yourself. It is refreshing to hear them speak, and you can know that you are receiving exactly the message they are sending. Sometimes media middlemen don’t have that politician’s best interests at heart. Can you trust them to be accurate? By listening to politicians themselves, you cut out the middlemen.
Individual Journalists – Find a news organization you like, and go follow the individual journalists on Twitter. Don’t follow the website itself. This way, you see their unfiltered content. (And, not to mention, skip the clickbate that clogs most sites). I follow Glenn Greenwald from The Intercept, German Lopez from Vox, Nick Gillespie from Reason, and others.
Political Books – A boring suggestion, but worth it. The last one I read was about George W. Bush’s first term in office. It was so specific! It had the highest quality information I could have found. (It wasn’t helpful, because it was so out of date, but if it were still 2003? Checkmate.). Careful, probing journalism is more likely in a book — sold for money — than online — published for clicks. Buying and reading books takes time and money, so head to the new arrivals section at the local library, and skim.
Think Tanks and NGOs – Think Tanks receive funding from private donors. That makes them more biased on average than other sources, yes, certainly. But the content will be higher quality, because the funding model alleviates the click-traffic problem. The Cato Institute, for example, makes no claim to neutrality, but publishes very good studies (like these six: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Examples of good Think Tanks include the Heritage Foundation (Conservative), the Center for American Progress (Liberal), and Cato (Libertarian). NGOs, or Non-Government Organizations, handle topics that the American media often ignores. (As in, anything outside of the US). Some are specific — like the Small Arms Survey — and some are general — like Human Rights Watch. They provide minimally-biased reports, it seems. Use these for bedrock facts when questioning other sources.
Philosophers and Public Intellectuals – I love the series published by Daily Nous called “Philosophers On.” The editor gathers philosophers to write their opinion on a political issue. Why is this any different from regular people writing their opinion? Philosophy is a discipline based on making good arguments. This is their job. They should be good at it. A “public intellectual” comes close to the same thing, but without working as a professor. They also spend their days constructing arguments. Search Google for “_____ public intellectuals” to find people making very good arguments for their position. Fill in that blank with any given political ideology.
Bookmark Folder – Use Google Chrome’s bookmark feature to accumulate links. If you need information, the search function will find something support the point at hand… or provide a contrasting perspective. Mine now sits at well over 2000 links.
Critical and Scholarly Writing – Professors and scholars will take their arguments and compress them into a 15 page or so essay. These are great! They are much shorter than books, and usually the local library has subscriptions to all the publishing journals. Mine does. They include peer reviewed writing by academics and scholars in the field. Sometimes journals publish articles online without paywall, like my personal favorite for theology Themelios, or MDPI’s Social Science journal. Quality scholarship is published here first, and quoted elsewhere later. This is where “breaking news” in political science ends up.
Political Science Textbooks – After enough time, we tend to develop a vague idea of how things work, generally. What if we could have clear-cut, certain knowledge about how that thing works? Textbooks give the latter. They provide the categories, the framework, to understand everything else. Now, never go out of your way to buy these… but when a professor assigns it for a class, or you spot one in the clearance section at a used bookstore, indulge.
Rehashing – Rehash an old debate to learn something new. How else can our opinions on political issues change, or grow? Over the years I have supported drug legalization, rejected it, supported it, rejected it, supported it, and finally settled on agnosticism. These changes happened in a only a few years, all because of rehashing. The rehashing stage says “Well, now that I’ve said that, I could be more specific by saying…” and then we nuance our positions. Most of the time, this makes them more accurate.
Avoid the Sensational– Public policy should be boring. Would you rather go watch a movie in a theatre, or argue at a board meeting whether a 2.4% or 2.6% tax increase on cigarettes is better for the public balance of economy and health? Nobody cares!… which is exactly the problem. Anybody saying exactly what you want to hear is probably lying to you. Crazy headlines like “Sarah Sanders implodes while denying Comey was fired over Russia: He committed ‘atrocities’ against Clinton” is probably more spin than truth. In that example, she did not implode. She used the word atrocity, and said it so confidently that nobody questioned it until afterwords. Did that headline really capture the moment? Sensational reporting exaggerates and spins the truth at the same time.
Conclusion: Journalistic Quality
Right after the election, this chart popped up in everyone’s newsfeeds:
What a great chart! I disagree on some of the specifics, like that Fox should be further right, NPR higher, BBC higher, and New York Times just a tad further left.
Here’s another chart:
We could tinker with the chart by moving the outlets around in each direction, but the main point is the still same. There are two axes: the usual left/right axis, and then a vertical axis for Journalistic Quality.
This essay provides a practical guide to moving vertically on the chart, to higher Journalistic Quality. Notice that this axis is independent of the left/right one; there are high quality sources on both sides of the aisle. Are you an extreme conservative? Aim for higher quality sources. Are you an extreme progressive? Do the same. Are you a radical centrist without a home in either party? This essay has given advice even to you, my independent friend, since anybody of any political persuasion can move vertically on the chart.
So, dip into the other side. Explore higher quality sources on your own side. Spend time gathering a large amount of information, and double-if-not-triple-check that it is true. Look at the technical specifics, the ground-level facts, but don’t forget to zoom out every now and again to see the big picture. In it all, do not try to be right; try to find the truth.
[revised May 15, 2017]