May 27, 2024


Science It Works

Science Voice: Ignoring the messenger | Opinion

A man comes in shouting and waving his arms telling you that a massive boulder is rolling down the hill on a direct collision course with your house. Utter destruction, he says, is mere seconds away. 

But you have heard about this guy. You’ve heard he is chronic liar and regularly pulls off pranks against his neighbors. You don’t really know him but from what you’ve heard you don’t agree with his politics or his religion or have anything in common. This latest warning seems like just another one of his pranks you have heard about. There is a kind of roar growing louder but you assume it is a semi out on the highway.  You tell him you don’t believe him and to go play tricks on someone else. Seconds after he leaves, the boulder crashes through your living room window and your house explodes as if it were make of toothpicks. 

How we relate to those around us, who we trust and don’t, depends upon the reputations of those people and our own personal ‘filters’.  But it is a foolish man who ignores the warning of impending destruction no matter who brings the news.  You have committed a fallacy of logic known as ‘kill the messenger’.

You are watching the news. There is a woman making a claim. But you don’t really hear the claim because you despise this person, though you have never met her.  But you’ve heard all kinds of bad stuff about her from your favorite opinion person on Cable News.  So everything she says you question, even guessing at her ulterior motives.  You speculate and hypothesize and soon her message is washed away by your personal biases. Yet in formal logic the messenger is largely irrelevant, and the message is examined based upon its own merits. 

Essentially this fallacy in this instance means dismissing, belittling, making fun of, or ignoring a proposition or position because of a bias (religious, political, etc.) you might have towards the person making it or his or her reputation. Whether or not your views are warranted is irrelevant for the purposes of logic.  In formal logic, reputation, i.e. gossip, is considered hearsay and also ignored.  Generally the reputation of the person making the statement is irrelevant, and only the material presented is considered. (A statement is not first filtered through doubts about the presenter or consideration of his or her personal life or actions. The statement is considered ‘stand alone’.)  There is also no attempt to second guess or interpret or speculate on the motives of the presenter. Judgment is made solely on the proposition without bias.  Or as Joe Friday used to say: Just the facts, Ma’am.  

In a court of law things might be a bit different. In certain instances it is permissible to attack the ‘credibility of the witness’, but ideally those attacks are made based of factual evidence and not personal bias or rumor. In other words there should be first hand knowledge to support the accusation of a lack of credibility. Because if there is not first hand knowledge (eye witness accounts, which may stray into the realm of opinion), then the attack is itself merely hearsay. And once the credibly of a witness is attacked, the opposing side can introduce witnesses to counter those attacks.

It is not unusual to doubt reported stories based upon who is reporting them. Everyone has a bias as a matter of human nature and few take the time to make a logical assessment. Having written ‘hard news’ for a newspaper, I am well aware of the ease at which a report of an actual incident can be slanted just by emphasizing certain points and minimizing or omitting others, which, unfortunately, makes a lot of news mostly suspect no matter which flavor of news outlet one chooses. It is unfortunate that one can find a news source that matches his or her political or religious biases.  News, it seems, has to be ‘spun’ to suit a particular target audience. These are corporate decisions to increase viewership, and come as a disservice to the public.

But this is nothing new. For most of the history of this country, news outlets were unapologetically biased according to the views of the owners and publishers. However, there was at least an attempt to limit those biases to the opinion page and editorials.   Yet one can go back to the invention of writing thousands of years ago and see the almost immediate emergence of biased propaganda. Empires bragged about their victories and were silent on their losses. They made excuses for their atrocities. The ‘other’ was always the enemy and was vanquished by the reported strength and wisdom of the leader and the exaggerated God-given powers and connections he possessed. Nonconformists, heretics, and people who asked pertinent but embarrassing questions were scrubbed from history as much as possible. The winners always got to tell their story but the conquered were forever rendered silent and usually vilified.   

But there was at least an excuse in ancient times. Logical thought and objective reasoning were in their infancy. People made decisions based primarily on emotion and fear and personal gratification and prejudice and myth and superstition and the desire to go along with the herd.

Oh, wait. How is that different from today?