STEM Major Takes A Humanities Course: A Hot Take

“—the freedom of Speech may be taken away—and, dumb & silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.”

From George Washington to Officers of the Army, 15 March 1783

Soon after the Supreme Court decision of New York Times vs. Sullivan in 1964, Justice Brennan said, 

“At the time of the First Amendment was adopted, as today, there were those unscrupulous enough and skillful enough to use the deliberate or reckless falsehood as an effective political tool… That speech is used as a tool for political ends does not automatically bring it under the protective mantle of the Constitution.  For the use of the known lie as a tool is at once at odds with the premises of democratic government and with the orderly manner in which economic, social or political change is to be effected.” 

– Justice William J. Brennan Jr.

Throughout reading chapter 4 of the book Freedom for the Thought That We Hate, by Anthony Lewis, one thing kept popping into my head: statistics.  Statisticians deal with data. They are asked to collect, calculate, and communicate.  Out of all the responsibilities, I believe, communication requires the most meticulous care because it has the potential to affect society most profoundly.  I relate journalism to statistics. The general population is not capable, or even interested in being responsible for directly sourcing all of the information that might be useful to us.  It would be inefficient. And so we have journalists and statisticians. Both journalists and statisticians, or the institutions that cut their checks, have the power to control the narrative and interpretations of information.

Information is not innately bad, information is information.  Perhaps I should leave any discussion about what “truth” is for a philosophy class, but generally speaking the better the process of collection, and method of calculation relates to how close the information is to the truth.  What can make or break the legitimacy of reporting or study is how successful journalists and statisticians are at being objective in their communication to the public. 

We see examples of biased reporting and intentionally inaccurate interpretations of data flooding the most popular websites and networks.  Our country has always faced this. The founders, to some extent even forsaw it. In this digital and political age, more than ever, I believe it is our responsibility as the collective to continue to support the finite number of institutions that reward and promote objectivity.  We have made great strides to promote this. Public Radio and Broadcasting stand as powerful examples of our commitment to the ideals of a democracy. Freedom of speech is crucial, but it is only the first step.

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