More Fish

This isn't going to turn into the Stanley Fish Bashing Site, I promise, but I did want to respond to some things in his latest Think Again column. I'm at a bit of a disadvantage because I haven't read the text to which he's referring, unSpun, by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, but I think I can comment on some of his conclusions.

Fish summarizes the book this way:

The idea is that while “we humans aren’t wired to think very rationally” and are prone to “letting language do our thinking for us,” we can nevertheless become “more aware of how and when language is steering us toward a conclusion.” In this way, Brooks and Jamieson promise, we can learn “how to avoid the psychological pitfalls that lead us to ignore facts or believe bad information.”
And if that is an accurate summarization of the book, then he's right to take it to task, because it presumes that there's an objective truth out there that can always be grasped, and that it's possible to avoid spin and get at the nutmeat of every story or issue if only one works hard enough. It seems to minimize the impact of context on any given set of facts. Again, I don't want to make too sweeping a judgment of the book since I haven't read it; I'm only going on this brief summary.

Where Fish goes wrong, I think, is in his criticism of Brooks and Jamieson's example, notably the first one he uses.
The first example in the book of the spin you should be able to see through if you are sufficiently alert is a 2006 statement by Karl Rove to the effect that “Real disposable income has risen almost 14 percent since President Bush took office.” Jackson and Jamieson regard this claim as “so divorced from reality as to seem unhinged.” Why? Because the real disposable income Rove cited “was a statistic that measures the total increase in income, not how that income is distributed.” That is to say, the 14-percent increase did not benefit everyone, but went largely “to those in the upper half of society”; the disposable income of the lower half had “fallen by 3.6 percent.”

Does this prove spin? I don’t think so. What it proves is that in Rove’s view, the health of the economy is to be gauged by looking at how big investors and property owners are doing, while in Jackson’s and Jamieson’s view, an economy is not healthy unless the fruits of its growth are widely shared. This is a real difference, but it is a difference in beliefs about what conditions must obtain if an economy is to be pronounced healthy. It is not a difference between a clear-eyed view of the matter and a view colored by a partisan agenda. If the question of fact is “do we have a healthy economy?” there are no independent bits of evidence that can tip the scale in favor of a “yes” or “no,” because the evidence put forward by either side will only be evidence in the light of economic beliefs that are structuring the arena of assessment. Those beliefs (roughly, “trickle down” and “spread the wealth”) tell you what the relevant evidence is and what it is evidence of. But they are not judged by the evidence; they generate it.

Spin, as I understand the term, is the act of deliberately showing only a one-sided version of events so that they are most favorable to one's point of view, and by that definition, Rove is certainly engaging in spin. He chose a specific set of economic parameters and made a claim about the economy as a whole based on those numbers--if that's not spin, what is? Part of the problem with this example--from both Fish's and Brooks/Jamieson's perspective--is that "the economy" is sufficiently abstract that it can mean all things to all people, and it often does. It's a word like "patriotism," easy to invoke, slippery to define, but worse, because it refers to a branch of science and so has a sense of solidity it doesn't really deserve.

The real problem with Fish's criticism is that it views this spin as a yes/no dichotomy, "a difference between a clear-eyed view of the matter and a view colored by a partisan agenda," even while he acknowledges that "the economy" is more complex than that. There's no such dichotomy here because there's no single way to view "the economy." In short, there is no "question of fact" to be had in this discussion. The most accurate way to describe it, I would imagine, would be to say the economy is either healthy or strong depending on where you fall in it and leave it at that.

But it's later in his piece, when he's going after Orwell, that I think Fish really goes astray. He writes:
“First think wordlessly” sounds good as an antidote to the tyranny of words; unfortunately, it’s not something that any human being can do. “Active open-mindedness” – standing to one side of our beliefs and assumptions in the service of unbiased observation – is another name for having no mind at all. Open-mindedness, far from being a virtue, is a condition which, if it could be achieved, would result in a mind that was spectacularly empty. An open mind is an empty mind.

It's easy to break down an argument when you define terms carelessly, and Fish does that with the term "open-mindedness" here, I think. Open-mindedness, active or otherwise, does not require that one set aside one's assumptions in service of unbiased observation--it simply requires that one recognize alternative points of view and consider their potential validity. Fish seems to argue that active open-mindedness requires an incredulous acceptance of uncontextualized fact, but being open-minded requires adding context to any observation. Being open-minded allows me to see that Rove isn't lying when he says the economy is strong--he's simply talking about a very limited subset of the population. That active open-mindedness also lets me make the judgment that what Rove considers a good economy isn't good for me as an individual, or for the majority of my fellow citizens. Open-minded means to be open to possibilities, but it doesn't preclude judging those possibilities and ranking them by quality.

He's not completely off track, though, and his conclusion does point out what looks to be an overreaching by Brooks and Jamieson. He says they're arguing that if only we as a public can learn to see past the spin, we can eventually live in an unspun world, and he rightfully calls bullshit on that. But I think he goes too far when he claims that spin "is the very content of thinking and judging." He's equating spin with critical thinking here, and the problem with that is that spin, in political terms--and since that's the context of Brooks/Jameison's book, that's the definition at play--is deliberately limited. It's one-sided. It's dishonest, because it purposely discounts or ignores contrary evidence. The problem with Fish's equation here is that he's trying to expand the definition of spin beyond the bounds of the examples he (and one would presume Brooks and Jamieson) is using. Spin isn't critical thinking because it doesn't criticize--it argues, but that's not the same thing.

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