#74: On the Difference Between Scientific and Mythological Thinking

Plato already talked about the difference between logos and mythos. Put very simply, the first, λόγος, stands for truth, reason, and science, whereas the second, μῦθος, stands for story, narrative, and mythology. Both can describe approaches to learning and truth, but they differ critically in how they function and of use they can be to society.

Mythological thinking is focused on beginnings, on genealogies, on staying within a system. In order to understand a story, you need to follow it from the beginning. If you enter it later, you will need to backtrack and figure out what happened before. Mythologies lay building block upon building block, and the building itself always aims for completion. Stories, as Aristotle reminded us, have a beginning that is not arbitrary, and an ending that conclusively ends the story and that brings to a close what was started in the beginning. The final goal, the telos (τέλος), beings to fruition what was laid out in the beginning. If we pay attention throughout the narrative, we may figure out the final goal, the endgame, the purpose of events. Everything has a deeper meaning, nothing happens by accident, signs and portents are everywhere to be found, and the truth can be revealed by those with special knowledge and insight that know how to interpret the flow of events.

In a way, mythological thinking appears to be core to human nature. We are natural storytellers. All human cultures have stories explaining their origins, their culture, their unique identity. Narrativity is what drives societies through their respective cultures. Narratives give us our sense of self, our sense of hierarchies, of destiny, of past and future, of meaning – for better or worse. They are deeply connected to language, and individual words have deep meanings steeped in history, power relations and ways of thinking.

Individual thinkers, philosophers and artists, have an enormous influence on mythologies.

Mythologies can tolerate variance. Any attempt at systematizing mythological narratives will need to make exceptions for multiple versions. Some core tenets of such a narrative may remain constant, but surrounding factors will change, irrespective of the mode of narration. Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies may each center around a specific pantheon, but some details may vary from narrator to narrator, from time period to time period. Gods will have many names, or many bynames signifying different origins or interpretations. Stories about the gods will vary depending on the author, the specific culture, time period, etc. Mythologies can evolve over time, and emphasize different core elements even transcending specific mythological or religious narratives. The myth of the “Great Goddess”, for instance, sees its main deity in different religious contexts, whether it talks about Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Demeter, or Mary, for instance. The demigod Hero who saves the world after undergoing a variety of self-sacrificing trials can be called Prometheus, Hercules, Odysseus, Jesus, Luke Skywalker, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But behind this variation stands a clear anthropological truth. Religion cannot be disproven because it is not about facts but about deeply held anthropological / psychological / theological / mythological meaning. What we think about reality is deeply influenced by our narratives.

Scientific thinking is different. Beginnings matter in different ways than in narratives. Science does not care about narratives. It does not care what Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Archimedes, Richard Dawkins or even Neil DeGrasse Tyson my think. While there is Norse mythology according to Icelandic or German traditions, to Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, Wagner or Tolkien, science is the same everywhere. It matters not one iota whether Einstein discovered Special and General Relativity, somebody else would have eventually – or not. Science describes reality, and reality does not care about narratives. You may need narrative power to explain science (and none do it better than the likes of Dawkins and Tyson), but again, science does not care. It is true regardless.

Whether we know how the universe truly began may or may not inform important technologies derived from our scientific knowledge about the beginning, but knowledge about its beginning is immaterial to our contemporary reality. The so-called laws of science are mere descriptions of reality. Planck did not disprove Einstein, who did not disprove Newton (as it is frequently said). Quantum physics describes a different lens on the same reality as Einsteinian relativity or Newtonian mechanics. Relativity is an important consideration when discussing very fast objects, but for our day-to-day lives, Newton does just fine. No matter how fast humans move on Earth, we will never even approach the speed of light, and time dilation does not matter to us. And unless we look at very small particles, we need not contend with quantum physics. Whether space has 3 dimensions or 4 or more does not change our day-to-day lives.

If Darwin made a mistake, that does not unravel the theory of evolution. Einstein underestimated the importance of quantum physics, but that does not take away from quantum physics. Newton did not think about objects traveling close to the speed of light affecting their passage of time, but that does not disprove his theory of gravity. Why? Because science is based on observable reality, on repeatable experiments and observations, on falsifiability, and on a community of free-thinking scholars all eager to compete with each other in the discovery of scientific principles underlying reality.

In mythological thinking, beginnings matter and individual thinkers can make a big difference. In scientific thinking, the latest and newest findings matter, and individual scientists – as accomplished and justifiably famous as they may be – do not matter with respect to their discoveries.

We see this difference being played out right now in the times of Coronavirus. Those believing that it is all a big conspiracy will point out that early in 2020, some scientists said masks do not make a difference, and the conspiracists will assume that this was somehow an original truth and what scientists say now (that masks matter) is a lie. But science only analyzes the data. We learned that the virus spreads in ways that indeed make mask wearing necessary to protect yourself and others. (We also were able to make more masks in the meantime and do not have to ration them for hospital workers as we had to in early 2020).

In science, the majority opinion matters because it is based on the competitive attempts of all scientists to discover reality. In science, of a specific hypothesis or even theory is disproven, science benefits even more – and scientists will applaud this, bruised egos aside. There cannot be “renegade scientists” – because all scientists are, in a sense, renegades already. “Scientific consensus” means that the burden of evidence supporting a hypothesis or theory is so great that the likelihood of it being wrong is low; but should there be evidence overturning a specific way of thinking, it will be welcome, and will be invited with great interest as it serves the larger interest, the search for truth.

In the end, the great seeker of compromise, Stephen J. Gould, spoke of science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria. Science and religion (or mythology) seek different answers, both, ideally, speaking to our human quest for meaning. But when it comes to confronting a real-world problem, whether it is a pandemic or climate change, I prefer to listen to the majority of scientists over singular renegade voices focusing on narratives and conspiracy mythologies.

Mythos may be good for the soul, but logos ensures our survival.

#72: Can We Trust The Media?

I. Introduction, because this is a Longer Text and it Needs Headings

There appears to be a sense among many people that there is a problem with “the media.” Trust in media seems low, and there is a societal division with regards to which media is seen as reliable, which as misleading or fake. These divisions appear along most frequently along partisan lines. If it wasn’t such a serious problem, it would be quite humorous to see how different media (and their supporters) criticize their competitors as being unreliable, yet they themselves believe steadfastly in their own reliability (and so do their supporters).

Indeed, we seem to have moved away from a consumer attitude towards media, and instead to a supporter attitude. The media you consume defines you more than ever before, it seems.

As to the criticism, specifically news media engender a suite of response archetypes:

  1. I trust everything media sources supporting view A are saying, and distrust everything from view B. I read to reinforce the views I already have, whether consciously or not. A media outlet that has proven trustworthy in the past will be given the benefit of the doubt; but if a media outlet (and their corporate or ideological sponsors) are suspect for a variety of reasons, I steer away from it.
  2. I am generally skeptical of everything I read, see and hear. I try to verify everything I read, even of news sources that I am more skeptical about.
  3. I do not believe anything from establishment media – whatever their alleged ideological background – and am relying instead on alternative forms of information.

These are, of course, stereotypes. Nobody falls into any category neatly, and may change their views over time, depending on life circumstances, mood, or social circles. In general, position 1 may be the most common. Position 2 is probably aspirational, and position 3 the biggest source of social division right now. Even if you’re in opposing ideological camps, if you are still in position 1, you inhabit the same universe as everyone else. Media is essentially self-referential, and hardly an hour may come by in which those holding view A will not somehow reflect about and position themselves towards view B, and vice versa. Opposites do not just attract, they require each other like opposing parties in a game – and just like in a game, you hope both are playing fair, but you suspect they won’t always (except your team is always right…).

But let us contextualize this critique a bit more. What do we mean by “media”?

II. A Brief Excursion into Media Critique

A medium is that through which information is channeled, through which the world becomes represented through us. We have no direct means of accessing the world; even our sensory organs mediate existence to us, and our brain interprets it. In his Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes our reality as seeing merely shadows of reality represented on the wall of a cave, but as never being able to see reality itself directly (Republic 7.514a). Through education, specifically philosophy, he hopes we can unshackle ourselves from that scenario and see the real world, and see the ideas and the divine on our own without needing to rely on representations of them – viz. without the need for media.

Plato gives a second example (Phaedrus 274e-275b) when discussing the consequences of writing, and comes to a depressing conclusion:

“You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”

Furthermore, once the speaker is replaced by an author that is no longer available for conversation, texts replace conversation. This eliminates the human element from the equation, and creates distance, and opens up the possibility of a distortion from truth, from nuance, from interpretation and dialogic engagement. Culture – as transmitted through media – cedes to be a community-centered activity; it becomes an industry.

Theodor Adorno (yes, we are making a more than 2200-year jump) pointed out the dangers of such a culture industry, informed by his experiences with the Nazi propaganda machine, but worried about the possible rise of a machinery of entertainment, disinformation and commodification of truth in the West.

Both Marshal McLuhan (“the medium is the message”) and Neil Postman (“Amusing ourselves to death”) pointed to the properties inherent in technology itself to shape the any message mediated through it. We cannot ignore that the purpose of television is always entertainment. As Postman notes, in our obsession to be afraid of the Orwellian scenario of constant state supervision, we have given in to Huxley’s scenario of voluntary abdication of truth in pursuit of entertainment.

Gloomily, Michel Foucault, echoing Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, kept reminding us that any form of speech, any discourse, is imbued with a form of power. There is no neutral information, no neutral discourse, no escape. All we can do is become aware of the power of discourse, and to keep this power dimension in mind always.

Finally though, there can be a source of constructive optimism also if we follow Jürgen Habermas’ relentless exhortation to create a new and functioning public sphere, after the old one (the Greek Agora, the Roman Forum, the Renaissance and Enlightenment era salons of thinkers and dreamers, the old style newspaper landscape) is hopelessly lost. But if we aim for deliberative democracy, aim for the recognition of humanity of each other, and create an ideal space for discourse, we may just find a solution and do not have to abandon all hope in this post-Dantean infernal chaos.

What are we supposed to learn from this?

There is no neutral medium, and no media product – whether news, web sites, television, film, books, etc. – should be consumed uncritically. While some media products may manipulate to a high degree, there is no media that is not in some way manipulative or biased, whether through active commission of lies, or through omission of unwelcome truths.

III. Today’s Culture Industry: News Media and Corporate Ownership

While the critique of media pertains to non-news items also, most criticism is reserved for news media, but this is a short-sighted approach. If we follow the money, we will see that old-style media critique is still relevant.

By considering corporate ownerships and relations, we may gain some insight into possible influences on news reporting that may compromise the neutrality of some, if not all news outlets. That does not mean that all news and commentary originating from them may be tainted or unreliable, but it may point us as the audience towards being a bit more skeptical overall about what is reported and how, and what is left out. Money talks, and if corporations and governments are involved, there might be a specific bias. Ties to non-democratic countries that fight against complete freedom of the press (like China, Russia and Qatar) certainly will limit perspectives. Also, in cases where a company owns several news sources, you may find yourself in the same universe of similar news re-confirming themselves. Big media conglomerates also demonstrate that there are clear corporate ties between news, entertainment, and technology companies.

Current corporate ties for major news sources are as follows (see also: Wikipedia, TitleMax):

  • CNN: AT&T, Warner, HBO, Turner Broadcasting (upcoming theme parks in Zhuhai and Beijing, China, non-democratic)
  • FOX NEWS: NewsCorp – which means New York Post, Wall Street Journal, The Times (UK), The Sun (UK); the non-news division of FOX belongs to Disney now
  • MSNBC + NBC News: Comcast, Hulu, Universal, Telemundo (upcoming theme park in Beijing, China, non-democratic)
  • ABC News: Disney (operates theme park in Hong Kong, China, non-democratic)
  • CBS News: National Amusements, Viacom, Paramount, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon (upcoming theme park in Chongqing, China, non-democratic)
  • PBS News: Corporation for Public Broadcasting, donor- and subscriber model, solidly trying to be neutral
  • Yahoo!: Verizon
  • LinkedIn: operates a censored Chinese branch
  • Washington Post: Amazon
  • Russia Today: controlled by Russian government (non-democratic)
  • Global Times: controlled by Chinese government (non-democratic)
  • Deutsche Welle: controlled by German government
  • France24: controlled by French government
  • BBC: independent from UK government
  • Al Jazeera: controlled by Qatari government (non-democratic)
  • Breitbart, Parler: Mercer Family Foundation
  • Guardian, Boston Globe, New York Times, The Hill, Politico: currently independent

This list is certainly incomplete, and is just supposed to illustrate the complexity of the problem.

IV. Ideology

We certainly know that ideology of the news channel or paper certainly plays a role (what I described as “side A” and “side B” above).

I am split on what the consequence of that is. Do viewers already gravitate to a specific view, and then consume news conforming their bias? Or is their own bias created by a one-sided diet of news? I suspect this is a chicken-and-egg problem.

One more consistently raised but very valid criticism is the increased blending of news and commentary. You could add also the undue influence that any editorial stance – even if it may be contained to a commentary section – may exert over the entire enterprise.

Is news supposed to help people make up their own mind, or is it telling them what to think? Can it even make them do that – at which point would they risk them switching the channel, or buying a different paper?

V. The Decline of News Journalism

The real story here, of course, is the decline, if not outright destruction of real journalism. I am talking about newspapers – not because I am old-fashioned, but because that’s where most of real journalism actually still happens.

Television news is first entertainment, then commentary, then news – of course that is a polemical opinion, but especially in the American context it rings true. (In the German context, it depends on the channel – the society-supported subscriber-based channels ARD and ZDF do have functioning news rooms, and are focusing on news. Private channels like SAT1, RTL and PRO7 are more entertainment. Similar probably in the UK with regards to the BBC vs. independent television news).

I may have watched to much Superman and have been influenced by its Daily Planet, but aren’t newspaper newsrooms still more important than we all think? Where does your news come from? Who is typically cited on TV? News agencies (Reuters, DPA, etc.) and Newspapers, I presume.

More and more big newspapers are streamlined, news rooms made smaller, commentary enslaved by Twitter and Facebook, content syndicated, and small newspapers are disappearing or managed in bulk. This destroys the very fabric of our society. Who reports any more on local corruption and malfeasance? Certainly it is still happening, despite there not being any stories in the local newspaper – if you still have one.

If Media are still to be the fourth estate, they need to still exist in all parts of the country, and report on anything possible, and monitor and critique every single aspect of society, culture and politics.

VI. Balanced Skepticism

Returning to the sentiment with which I began: Are we in a position now where we seriously cannot trust the media at all anymore? No. But we all need to do our work, conceptually, and financially by supporting the news sources we do consume and trust.

Can we trust the media? As long as the media still mainly trusts us to make up our own mind, I would say yes, and would welcome the diversity of voices that can be heard on all sides of any debate.

In the end, there is only one truth. There are facts and non-facts. Something is either true or false. Beyond those distinctions though, there are grey areas of opinion, commentary, selection bias, spin, framing, etc. We need to be aware of the limitations of each news source, and we need to do our work as citizens to look beyond just one source of news. This is the only scientific and democratic attitude that can prevent us from being lodged in too deep our own filter bubbles.

Thus, if a news item only occurs within a specific news ecosystem and is ignored or not reported everywhere else, this should raise concern. If there is a definitive slant in opinion and commentary all the time, and it may affect what is reported in the assumedly neutral news as well. That does not mean there has to be bias, but we should assume there can be. An overall skeptical attitude is always a good thing.

That being said, we can indeed be skeptical of everything, but we also must put this in perspective, and our skepticism should be balanced. Reality is murky, and just as we cannot trust everything automatically, we also cannot distrust everything automatically. We need to follow the saying that “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out,” as suggested by Carl Sagan. I have come to believe that it pays to listen to Carl Sagan most of the time.