There have been some interesting developments with NPR recently. A long time veteran of the organization, Uri Berliner, wrote an essay lamenting that the organization has gone from and admittingly left-leaning but still rigorous and fair journalistic enterprise to a politically driven monoculture that lets ideology drive its reporting. NPR, he says, no longer facilitates viewpoint diversity or permits any dissenting voices – leading NPR in turn to suspend Berliner after he voiced his dissent. Berliner resigned shortly thereafter. 

Naturally this got a lot of attention, and people have recently started highlighting a TED talk given by Katherine Maher, NPR’s new CEO and former CEO of the WikiMedia Foundation – the parent organization for Wikipedia. In her TED talk Maher made the following comment:

For our most tricky disagreements, seeking the truth and seeking to convince others of the truth might not be the right place to start. In fact, our reverence for the truth might be a distraction that’s getting in the way of finding common ground and getting things done.

Now, there’s obviously reason to be concerned when someone heading a major journalistic organization is worried that holding an excessive respect for what’s true is an obstacle to getting things done. But that aside, I think she’s got things exactly wrong here. Seeking the truth, and holding a reverence for truth, is the best chance we have to find common ground. Indeed, it may be the only way to do so. 

An opposite worldview to the one she espouses was described in a fun video on the Veritasium YouTube channel, outlining the history of how mathematicians calculated values for pi and how Issac Newton revolutionized this process. (Well, I think it’s a fun video anyway – your mileage may vary!) At one point, the discussion turns to Pascal’s Triangle and Derek Muller, the host of the channel, mentions how Pascal’s Triangle was independently discovered by multiple mathematicians at different times and from very disparate locations. Discussing this with math professor Alex Kontorovich led to the following exchange at the six minute and twenty-five second mark:

Muller: The thing that fascinated me when I started looking at those old documents was how even though I don’t speak those languages and I don’t know those number systems it is obvious, it is clear as day, that they are all writing down the same thing, which today in the Western world we call Pascal’s Triangle. 

Kontorovich: That’s the beauty of mathematics! It transcends culture, it transcends time, it transcends humanity. It’s going to be around well after we’re gone, and ancient civilizations and alien civilizations will all know Pascal’s Triangle. 

All these mathematicians were able to converge on common ground despite different cultures and being separated by thousands of miles and centuries of time because they were all dedicated to working out what was true. Now, admittedly I’ve made things easy on myself by using an example from mathematics. Things are much harder when moving to more ideologically and emotionally charged issues such as religion or political ideology. But I agree with G.E. Moore that the difference is merely a matter of difficulty and not a matter of kind. Comparing errors in moral reasoning to errors of mathematical reasoning, Moore wrote:

If we find a gross and palpable error in the calculations, we are not surprised or troubled that the person who made this mistake has reached a different result from ours. We think that he will admit that his result is wrong, if his mistake is pointed out to him. For instance, if a man has to add up 5 + 7 + 9, we should not wonder that he has made the result to be 34, if he started by making 5 + 7 = 25. And so in Ethics, if we find, as we did, that “desirable” is confused with “desired”, or that “end” is confused with “means”, we need not be disconcerted that those who have committed these mistakes do not agree with us. The only difference is that in Ethics, owing to the intricacy of its subject-matter, it is far more difficult to persuade anyone either that he has made a mistake or that that mistake affects his result.

But this additional difficulty does not mean that we ought to abandon our attempts to seek the truth, or that reverence for the truth is a counterproductive distraction. It means we need to heavily emphasize a reverence for the truth as a necessary counterweight to our personal flaws and biases in these matters. To see examples of this in the real world, consider the idea of adversarial collaborations. The idea has been promoted by Scott Alexander, such as his description of one particular instance of it working:

Let’s go back to that Nyhan & Reifler study which found that fact-checking backfired. As I mentioned above, a replication attempt by Porter & Wood found the opposite. This could have been the setup for a nasty conflict, with both groups trying to convince academia and the public that they were right, or even accusing the other of scientific malpractice.

Instead, something great happened. All four researchers decided to work together on an “adversarial collaboration” – a bigger, better study where they all had input into the methodology and they all checked the results independently. The collaboration found that fact-checking generally didn’t backfire in most cases. All four of them used their scientific clout to publicize the new result and launch further investigations into the role of different contexts and situations.

Instead of treating disagreement as demonstrating a need to transmit their own opinion more effectively, they viewed it as demonstrating a need to collaborate to investigate the question together.

And yeah, part of it was that they were all decent scientists who respected each other. But they didn’t have to be. If one team had been total morons, and the other team was secretly laughing at them the whole time, the collaboration still would have worked. All it required was an assumption of good faith.

These researchers were able to find common ground precisely because of their desire to seek the truth and because of their reverence for the truth. And if combatting disinformation is among the things you want to get done, doing so effectively requires knowing things like whether fact-checking has a backfire effect. So, on both counts, Maher is wrong. Truth-seeking is what we all ought to be engaging in – journalists or otherwise.