UPDATE: PHILOSOPHERS’ ARGUMENT CHECK IS NOW A PART OF THE PEBBLE. SUBMISSIONS SHOULD BE DIRECTED ACCORDINGLY. With this post we start a new series here at PEA Soup: Philosophers’ Argument Check. The idea is to assess arguments before the public using the tools of philosophy but in a way that is designed to be accessible to non-philosophers. The format should mimic the “fact check” format used elsewhere. All are welcome to send us submissions for this new format. Think of this as part of the effort to demonstrate that philosophy teaches us tools that are useful in thinking about issues that matter to us all.
PHILOSOPHERS’ ARGUMENT CHECK:
“The news media does not determine the outcome of elections.”
VERDICT: TRUE BUT IRRELEVANT
All of the major news organizations now tell us that President Elect Biden has won the election. In an effort to persuade us that the election has not yet been settled in favor of President-Elect Biden, many Republicans have pointed out that the news media does not determine elections, the people do. And that is obviously right. President Elect Biden won because of how the people voted, not because the news media called the election in his favor. When functioning well, what the media does is not make it true that someone won, but rather to reliably indicate to us when the available information about how people voted settles the election. And they have tended to perform this role quite accurately.
Consider an analogy. Suppose it is important to me to know what the temperature is outside. A reliable thermometer indicates that it is 40 degrees. I am tempted to think I thereby learn that it is 40 degrees. But someone comes up to me and says, “Thermometers don’t determine the temperature!” And there is something right about that. It is not 40 degrees because the thermometer says so, rather the thermometer says so because it is 40 degrees. But that is no reason to doubt that I can learn what the temperature is by reading the thermometer.
The appearance of a legitimate argument here is a result of ambiguity concerning the word “determines.” In one sense of the word, thermometers do not determine the temperature. It is not cold because the thermometer says so, rather the thermometer says so because it is cold. In another sense of the word, I can reliably determine, or correctly assess, the outside temperature by consulting the thermometer. Even though President Elect Biden did not win because the media said so, we can learn the fact that he won the election by seeing that the media said so.