The redundant story: math and the future of journalism

June 1, 2009

I have long argued the rather unoriginal position that journalism’s mission to inform has its roots in religious ‘infotainment’ both popular and intellectual – moralising editorials replaced moralising sermons, etc.

But I’ve been struggling to express why that mission seems such a recurrent trope in history. The use of stories for entertaining and moral purposes is clear as early as Ugaritic, Akkadian and Homeric myths.

The replacement of those myths and parables with ‘real’ stories for the purposes of secular instruction begins with the classical historians. As Thucydides notes (in Hobbes’ translation):

To hear this history rehearsed, for that there be inserted in it no fables, shall be perhaps not delightful. But he that desires to look into the truth of things done, and which (according to the condition of humanity) may be done again, or at least their like, he shall find enough herein to make him think it profitable.

That tradition, that underpins the humanities, the story-ing of the past – a rationalization of our own intuitive method of self-management and self-definition – is under threat as practised in contemporary journalism. Not because stories have ceased to be popular, but journalistic stories have lost out as entertainment to alternative methods of manufacturing stories (e.g. ‘reality’ television), and lost out intellectually because stories no longer capture value.

What do I mean by that? Well, the great intellectual divide of our age is not cultural or religious – it is linguistic. And it’s not a divide between Urdu and Spanish, English or Mandarin, but between all languages and math.

The divide goes beyond C.P. Snow‘s idea of the two cultures – the arts and the sciences.

Just a small glance at the impact of mathematization in one minor field of advertising will serve as a reminder.

Math has demonstrated its superiority over verbal reasoning in almost every area of human endeavour, chiefly perhaps because of its reproducibility.

Adorno‘s insights into American popular culture were delivered in the opaque, academic German of the Frankfurt School. Lazarsfeld‘s insights were delivered in numbers. Polls can ‘concretize’ words by turning questions into percentages. Figures also capture something of the currency of words. But words alone remain salmon slippery.

The inability to express oneself mathematically is as profoundly disabling for anyone wishing to engage with the intellectual challenges of our age, as was the inability to understand Latin in medieval times.

Even then, scholars understood the importance of the new language over the ancient. As one of the most important intellectual figures of the fourteenth century, Thomas Bradwardine, wrote: “Mathematics is the revelatrix of truth, has brought to life every hidden secret, and carries the key to all subtle letters.”

But Bradwardine’s enthusiasm for mathematizing theology revolutionized worldly, rather than religious understanding.
In our time the revolution in knowledge is coming through data and the means of interpreting it and modelling it. People who are able to engage with that revolution are more generally, and more consistently valued than those able to deploy verbal dexterity.

The idea of hidden information revealed as morally transforming or cleansing remains the popular – indeed the mythologized – journalistic standby (see the Telegraph and MPs’ expenses). A revelation, appealing to intuitive moral feelings, remains a powerful journalistic trope. But not a consistently valuable one.

In Bradwardine’s time the idea of revelation through direct acquaintance with a hidden text – the Bible – inspired John Wyclif, who thought that salvation lay in such knowledge. The result of his work? An eventual ubiquity of Bibles, rather than mass moral transformation.

Journalism today, if it wants to pursue value (economic or intellectual), has to give up the two sides of revelation – showy glamour and moral appeal – in favour of generating and presenting mathematized knowledge. Sounds boring. But so too does most of what we don’t understand…

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