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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