The debate has ramifications throughout the entire Talmud up until our present day. Which is stronger: Nature or Nature? The answer not only solves this long-standing debate, but also teaches us something surprising about the news we read and write.
The Two Camps
We know politics are polarized into two camps (conservatives and liberals). But there was once hope that journalism was different somehow.
Most of us today realize that journalism is not immune to this polarization. For instance, if even the facial expressions of news anchors can affect a presidential campaign, then how about a journalist that has a hidden (or not so hidden) agenda to present?
As we all rely on the news for information about current events, obviously we would like this medium to be as objective, and truly “fair and balanced” as possible. While we can’t stop an anchor from curling up the corners of his lips, what we can do is deepen our search for this elusive thing we call “objectivity”.
There are two approaches to achieving this objectivity. While both are based on empiricism, on contextualizing headlines based on objective information (and not opinions), their methodology is as polarized as the political arena they both cover.
On the one side is Data Journalism, led by Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight.com website. On the other, Explanatory Journalism led by Ezra Klein and his Vox Media, Vox.com website.
What is the road to objectivity?
Both Nate and Ezra recently wrote manifestos to explain their respective approaches (you can click on their names to read). But instead of quoting from each, I’m going to sum of their positions. After reading their manifestos, if you have questions about this analysis, I would be happy to explain further.
Data Journalism: Nate says that generalizations about new events can be extrapolated from old data: “Suppose you did have a credible explanation of why the 2012 election, or the War of 1812, unfolded as it did. How much does this tell you about how elections or wars play out in general, under circumstances that are similar in some ways but different in other ways?”
Explanatory Journalism: Ezra says that math skills stop mattering when they come in conflict with something called Identity-Protective Cognition. This means that we care more about what people in our social groups think about our opinions, than the facts, the math behind the subject itself. Ezra hopes that by explaining stories clearly, readers will become open to seeing past the reactions from one’s social groups.
Data or Explanations?
So which is it? Does infusing news stories with data make reporting more objective, or does clearly explaining a topic help to whittle away the effects of social pressure? The answer is actually both. Although it may seem that Nate and Ezra are operating at two polar extremes, in actuality their approaches read like two sides of the same coin.
Whereas in the past we explained that Nate’s approach corresponds to the sefirah of chochmah (wisdom), and Ezra’s to binah (understanding), what we did not mention was the means to reconcile the two.
Our search for common ground led us to travel back in time about 1700 years.
Nature vs. Nurture
You probably recognize this heading. But now it’s time for you to ask the prize winning question: What does the nature vs. nurture debate have to do with Nate Silver and Ezra Klein’s approaches to journalism? I’m glad you asked!
While we will not now go into the details of the Talmudic dispute (Kidushin 80a) between Reish Lakish and his brother-in-law Rabbi Yochanan (see here), what is important for us to realize is that the debate between stems from each’s psychological assessment of human nature and behavior.Yonatan Gordon