[This is G again. Something I heard on NPR’s last fundraiser stuck in my mind, and I can’t get rid of it. The network rep. said, if you out there like the way we “curate” the news, you really should contribute  $10 dollars a month, or whatever, to our operation.  Now, I have no quarrel with fundraising. People who like NPR should support it, if they want to. But what in the world is NPR doing when it “curates” news, and how is that different from reporting it? I went to my handy Compact Oxford English Dictionary to find out, but that really didn’t help.

The COED says “to curate” is to “select, organize, and look after the items in a collection or exhibition.”[1] A curator is a “keeper of a museum or other collection.”[2] Frankly, I never thought of world events as something to keep or look after. How would a network select or organize such a collection? If there weren’t enough wars at any given time, should it go out and try to start more? How about tornados, hurricanes, recessions, earthquakes and so forth? Who would want to collect those and really, what museum is big enough to hold them?

I suppose other events, say of the human variety, could be affected [or even effected], shaped or designed by skillful news curation, but should networks do that kind of thing? Who gave them the right to interfere with, or to organize us? Or am I just showing my limitations? Curators, after all, generally are high-status people, with good credentials and plenty of money to spend on the collections they manage. So perhaps that’s the true meaning of news curation. Networks are the home of experts who are free to do what they want; and we, the public, should appreciate that, admire their productions and support them with lots of money.

You know, I never realized it before, but I’ve been lucky in my life.  In most places I’ve lived, most of the time, I’ve been surrounded by experts – by people who knew everything. All I had to do was listen, and learn. Even when I was 12 there were kids who were clued in about the important stuff, like sex, sports and, well, sex. And they would teach if you listened, and demonstrate if you didn’t say much. Then there was high school which was more of the same, except with alcohol and cars. Drugs weren’t a problem then; they came later. And, of course, if you were a teenage male [girls were exempt] you had to face the draft.

Why? Well, it was the Cold War, don’t you know, and there was always a possibility that the U.S. might have to fight here or there, or everywhere. Luckily we had the newspapers, radio and television to explain why and, of course, they were the experts and we didn’t talk back. Did you ever try to talk back to an old-fashioned TV? Do it and you look odd, and it isn’t very rewarding. Also back then it wasn’t nice to ask too many questions.

Some of us were lucky, and went to college; if so, we got a draft deferment that might last until graduation. That all depended, of course, on how much our Government needed warm bodies in the Army, etc. at any given time. This became a real issue in the Vietnam era; when that war heated up so did the draft; and lots of young men found their lives interrupted for a time by military service. As everybody knows, some didn’t survive the experience. Others were wounded, or disabled.

But the great advantage of college was that colleges had teachers, with advanced degrees, who specialized in the subjects they taught. So if you went to one, especially if you lived on campus, you met lots of experts, and they were certified. They were scholars in their fields, I guess you might say, and taught in their areas of competence. So students would have civil conversations about the things that mattered, and no doubt in four years would reach consensus on the big stuff. At least that was the theory my freshman year. But by the time I left graduate school everybody was arguing about everything; about sex and drugs and rock and roll; about national policy, especially the Vietnam War; about politics and how hateful politicians were; and about everything else. There were opinions and experts on all sides; all were absolutely sure that they were right and the others were wrong; and there were no agreements. Does any of that sound familiar?

The military, I later discovered, operated differently. They were quite skilled in what they did, but really, didn’t seem to rely much on expert opinion to formulate policy. Mostly they followed orders. On the other hand, I rarely met a military man [remember, women were draft-exempt] who thought he knew everything. Why? Well, perhaps actually fighting a war, rather than just talking about it, tended to make them more realistic. There’s an old military adage that plans are obsolete once the shooting starts. That’s what President Eisenhower meant in the 1950’s when he said: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”[3]

Or perhaps the know-it-alls just didn’t survive in battle for long. William Tecumsah Sherman, a famous general of our Civil War, warned that war is hell. “There is many a boy here to-day who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”[4] He knew about that. He fought in what is often called the first modern war, and the casualties were horrendous.

Anyway, I moved to the DC area in the early 1970’s and here I remain, in the land of experts, of every stripe and ideology, supported by oodles of think tanks[5] and numerous media outlets, all geared to curate my news, tell me what I need to know, how to think or where to live. The problem is they don’t agree and they can’t all be right. So what do I do? How do I pick the right ones? Is there an algorithm I can use?

You get the idea. Well, as I said at the beginning, I can’t get this out of my mind, so finally I started calling people. Only Phil answered the phone that morning, but at least he was civil, and he did agree to help me disentangle my knotted thoughts. Probably you won’t believe what he said.]

Yes they will, because they’ve heard this sermon before. Today I’m going to take my text from Jeremy Bentham; not that Bentham is a substantive expert on current issues. He died in 1832, but he did know a thing or two about political philosophy. Bentham was a Utilitarian. He believed that the job of legislators, and Government in general, was to “foster the greatest happiness of the greatest number”[6] of people. All new legislation, he thought, should be evaluated by that standard.

The concept was revolutionary and today we might call Bentham and his ilk change agents; they certainly wanted to shake things up in the 18th and 19thth Centuries; but, of course, they had opposition. Lots of folks – including some legislators – were comfortable with and profited from the way things were, and wanted to protect it. To Bentham such people rejected the principle of utility, and anyone who did that was “an enemy to the community.”[7]

But typically the Establishment of the day didn’t  admit that was their agenda. Instead they used debating tricks and devices to distract legislators [and the public] from reform. Bentham wrote a book about these techniques; he called it the Book of Fallacies; and described many of them in great detail. Collectively he called such techniques political fallacies.

Political Fallacies

Let’s take an easy example of one.  Legislator A proposes a new tax, and argues that it will yield substantial revenue to aid the poor, rebuild infrastructure, and for other worthy purposes.

  • Suppose Legislator B opposes the tax on the ground that it will not yield anywhere near the revenue forecasted, and may in fact disproportionately affect local small business, etc. That’s a perfectly reasonable debate to have.  It’s focused on the merits of the proposal, and is directly relevant to it.
  • Now let’s suppose Legislator B takes a different approach, and says he’ll vote against A’s proposal because A is a Communist, or has strange sexual preferences, or once was a member of the Young Republicans, or something like that.

The second group of arguments are political fallacies. They are personal attacks, designed to distract the public, and have nothing to do with the merits of a tax proposal.  They are inflammatory, but irrelevant. Moreover, lack of relevance is the key to understanding all such fallacies.   “Whatever be the measure in hand, [political fallacies] are, with relation to it, irrelevant.”[8] They raise issues that have no bearing on the actual thing being considered.

The Appeal to Authority

Now let’s move on to a more complex political fallacy: the use, and abuse, of authority and expert opinions. How much influence should experts have over our lives or our laws? When might their opinions be discarded? These are important questions; so much so that they’re at the beginning of his book.[9]

For openers, it’s important to note that he distinguishes between fact and opinion.[10] Anybody – even an expert – can testify as to facts, for example, as to what happened in an automobile accident. That’s not a problem; there’s direct evidence; people can understand what’s being said; and they can draw their own conclusions about what happened. They don’t need an expert opinion to help them along. Authorities are useful, but only when they’re needed. It’s a fallacy to use them when they’re not.[11]

Bentham was suspicious of authorities. Not of all of them, however; he liked scientists, especially the ones who turned up or checked their own data[12], and other professionals with specialized knowledge. He thought it was sensible for legislators to listen to the opinions of such people, so long as they testified in their areas of competence. “In matters touching medical science, chemistry, astronomy, the mechanical arts, the various branches of the art of war [etc.] no other course could be pursued.”[13] Why? Because they had expertise that other’s didn’t share, and were careful to update their information..

Other authorities were more problematical. Authority in Bentham’s day came from many sources. There was authority derived from power; people always listened to the powerful; authority derived from opulence; the rich were powerful, and also impressive; and authority from reputation; retired generals, prime ministers and similar dignitaries might have that.[14] Today, of course, we have numerous other groups and people who are authorities to some: media people, sports figures, economists and the like. The point is that people often listen when these figures speak.

The problem is, guess what? Not all people with apparent gravitas are equally competent to have opinions. Some may lack the necessary training and background; others may be thoroughly co-opted by one side or the other to a dispute, and therefore unable to be impartial. Bentham was seriously concerned about this latter point. At one point in his dissertation he attached an Appendix entitled, “Examples of descriptions of persons whose declared opinions upon a question of legislation are peculiarly liable to be tinged with falsity by the action of sinister interest.”[15] He was especially distrustful of lawyers in this regard.

So opinion evidence should be avoided if at all possible. But if it’s wrong to rely on authorities when you don’t need them, why do people do it?  Well, we don’t always; but politicians will if (i) they don’t have a better argument on their side, and (ii) they think the public are imbeciles, incapable of “forming a judgment” on their own. [16] Often they believe we’ll accept just about anything, just to avoid the work of making up our own minds. “If [we] submit to this insult, may it not be presumed that [we] acknowledge the justice of it?”[17] That’s Bentham’s “fallacy of authority” in a nutshell.

And of course a bad opinion by an authority, tainted by self-interest, is irrelevant to the merits of what we’re considering; it’s just there to mislead and confuse us; and that’s why it’s a political fallacy.


[Well, thanks for your help, but I’m not quite sure why it’s helpful. Although you’re right about one thing; everybody here in D.C. has an agenda; they all need policy papers to support what they want or need; so it’s natural for the market to react. Experts for hire congregate here, and interested buyers shop to find the ones they need. If you have money, it’s like finding a lawyer; just check credentials and hire the one who has the right attitude. But I’m not in the market for representation; I just want to know, who do I believe?

I guess Bentham’s answer would be, don’t believe anybody. Do your own work, and make up your own mind; and if you need the opinion of experts, or authorities on a given issue, try listening to or reading a lot of them. Also check their references. There’s probably truth hiding somewhere in the pile of white papers you’ll no doubt accumulate.

And if you want someone to curate your news, try doing it yourself. Use your remote. It’s not really that hard to surf channels. After all, you don’t have to look at all of  them.]

[1] See Compact Oxford English Dictionary (3rd Edition, 2005) at curate, p. 240.

[2] See id. at curator, p. 241.

[3] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition, 2004) at Dwight D. Eisenhower, p. 298, n. 17. Richard Nixon is the source for the quote.

[4] See ODQ at William Tecumsah Sherman, p. 734, n. 17.

[5] One report lists 6846 think tanks worldwide, with about 2000 in the U.S. See University of Pennsylvania, McGann, 2015 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report (2015), at p. 30, available at http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=think_tanks . In 2012 the Linktank blog published a list of the “most popular” DC think tanks, at http://blog.linktank.com/most-popular-think-tanks/2/ . In 2008 the New York Times listed the more prominent ones, at http://ideas.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/10/think-tanks/?_r=0 .

[6] See Bentham & Bingham, The Book of Fallacies: From Unfinished Papers of Jeremy Bentham (Hunt, 1824, Nabu Reprint, circa 2010) at p. 46. Hereafter the book will be cited as Political Fallacies at __. Nabu reprints are basically photocopies of the original, so page citations necessarily will be to the original.

[7] Id.

[8] See Political Fallacies at p. 359.

[9] See Political Fallacies at Fallacies of Authority, p. 31 -122.

[10] See Political Fallacies at p. 31

[11] See Political Fallacies at p. 44-45. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying Bentham’s point, but I don’t think so. You be the judge. He actually said: “The case in which reference to authority is open to the imputation of fallacy, is where in the course of a debate touching a subject lying in such sort within the comprehension of the debaters – authority is employed in the place of such relevant arguments …” either side might have used.

[12] See Political Fallacies at p. 51: “In mechanics, in astronomy, in mathematics, in the new-born science of chemistry,- no one has at this time of day either effrontery or folly enough to avow, or so much as to insinuate, that the most desirable state of these branches of useful knowledge, the most rational and eligible course, is to substitute decision of the ground of authority, to decision on the ground of direct and specific evidence.”

[13] See Political Fallacies at p. 44.

[14] See Political Fallacies at p. 35-36.

[15] See Political Fallacies at p. 57-63.

[16] See Political Fallacies at p. 46.

[17] Id. at p. 47.