Politics & Policy

Occam’s Spoons

When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.

William of Occam (or William Ockham) was a Franciscan scholar born in 1285. He was best known for being able to hold 14 boars’ snouts in his mouth at one time. Unfortunately, this was in his early fraternity years and nobody ever found out. Later, after he got a publicist, he became well-known for the phrase “Occam’s Razor.”

Now, Occam’s Razor, like all of these philosophical catchphrase-concepts, can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be. My Oxford Companion to Philosophy begins its explanation of Occam’s philosophical approach by saying that he rejected “atomism in favor of hylomorphism, he practiced poverty in metaphysics….” I’d finish the sentence but I don’t have enough coffee to conquer the narcolepsy it would induce and, besides, it might require me to look up “hylomorphism.”

Anyway, Occam is widely believed to have said, “Entities ought not to be multiplied except from necessity” (Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem). But my couch insists he actually never said that, sort of like Abe Lincoln never said “You cannot fool all the people all the time,” and Al Sharpton never uttered “I’ll just have a salad.”

Occam certainly did say that “It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer,” a principle which, if applied, would put viagra out of business. Anyway, the modern phrase that captures the idea behind Occam’s Razor is: “When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.” Now that I have pointed this out to you, you will notice that it has been used on every medical TV drama ever, that is, if you spend a lot of your time watching reruns of Marcus Welby and St. Elsewhere.

Anyway, the idea is simple: Don’t go for the complicated explanation when the simple one will do. If you smell rotting fish and the old sweat of a hundred men, you’re probably near a fishing trawler and not Michael Moore, the docu-propagandist. Etc., etc. If you hear hoof beats, you’re probably going to find horses outside your window and not zebras (Although I would love to know if they reverse the saying in Africa).

I bring all of this up because I gotta write a column about something. No, actually, I bring this up because I want to write about liberal media bias but I’d rather unclog a paper jam in an industrial photocopier using only my tongue than do it the old-fashioned way one more time. So bear with me as we return to the age of bad dentistry. (But if you just hate all of this pointy-headed gobbledygook than just zoom down a few paragraphs and start reading when you get to the sentence, “Well, I was reading the Washington Post…”).

For centuries, European astronomers were told, “Sure, explain how the universe works. But don’t overturn Aristotle, don’t question the idea that the universe revolves around the Earth, and don’t use too much frontal nudity.”

This was not a top-down kind of thing, the way we’re taught in school and on TV. Scientists during the medieval and renaissance periods were not noble secular atheists on a Nietzchean mission to purge society of all religion and piety. Galileo, for example, was a profoundly religious man whose undoing was orchestrated as much as anything by an envious competitor named Schreiner forcing the Church’s reluctant hand (think of Salieri in Amadeus, Frank Grimes in The Simpsons, or Ben Finney in episode 15 of the original Star Trek, the “Court Martial”). Indeed, Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton all believed that they were revealing the laws of God, not those of a cold, dispassionate vending machine of a universe (for more on the anti-Church spin in the Galileo story see this ancient Goldberg File.)

This state of affairs often resulted in some bizarre and Byzantine explanations where simple ones would do. Imagine trying to explain how a car runs while fervently believing not only that the internal combustion engine and gasoline cannot exist, but also that if you even raised the possibility you could get in a lot of trouble.

When you read about the lengths to which brilliant men like Galileo went to provide plausible explanations that didn’t violate any political, religious, or scientific taboos, it’s a wonder we ever invented the rising-crust pizza, let alone put a tourist in outer space.

So, in the medieval period, Occam’s Razor was often more of a spoon, curving to scoop around the obvious, rather than cutting right through it.

Aha! The Point!

Now, you might ask, what does all of this have to do with media bias, or really with anything at all?

Well, I was reading the Washington Post yesterday, specifically, an interesting article by its national political reporter, John Harris, in the Sunday Outlook section. Harris provides a long, interesting, and insightful explanation to why Bush is getting better treatment from the press than Bill Clinton did in his first hundred days.

He’s not actually wrong about anything in particular. Rather, like some medieval scientist giving too much weight to weak evidence and too little to strong evidence in order to keep the focus on the wrong celestial body, Harris is determined to make the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy the center of the story.

We are told that Clinton’s early troubles in the press were not the result of anything but mean conservatives beating up on an “illegitimate” president. Meanwhile, Harris thinks that the press is soft on Bush now because there’s no Vast Left Wing Conspiracy out there to undermine Bush. “Who is the liberal version of Rush Limbaugh, who so colorfully rallied opposition to Clinton?” he asks. The folks on the Left can’t do the same thing with Bush because “They simply aren’t as well organized.”

In short, the blame for Bill Clinton’s problems lies not in himself or with the media but in the stars of the conservative heaven. Harris sounds like he’s afraid that some inquisitor will sew a half-starved ferret into his stomach if he points out that the press is liberal.

So let me make the simple case. Journalists are liberal. Everyone knows this except for a few people on the extreme Left and journalists themselves. Indeed, according to one survey, 70% of self-defined liberals think the media has a liberal bias. Eighty-nine percent of journalists voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. The network of conservative think tanks and publications that Harris identifies exists precisely because the media have blocked conservative viewpoints. Media bias is, as Casey Stengel used to say, “a true fact.”

But I confess that such arguments make me physically ill from the tedium. The only reason it is an even remotely interesting issue is that elite journalists themselves refuse to acknowledge their bias, like a kid who refuses to admit he ate the cookies, even though he was caught with his hand in the jar, his face smudged with chocolate, and actual crumbs pouring out of his mouth when he says, “I didn’t do it.” Dan Rather still thinks media bias is a “myth”; Tim Russert still looks like someone said the Earth is flat whenever an interviewee suggests the press is biased. And they offer explanations of media coverage that make Occam’s Razor look like a crazy straw.

So, without renouncing the conventional explanations, here is my unconventional take on media bias. Journalists can’t admit their liberalism for the same reason that medieval scientists couldn’t overturn Aristotle; their entire worldview is dependent on the idea that they’re objective. Political journalists need government to be important in the same way that art critics need art to be important.

According to their worldview, the role of government is to fix things, to be the engine of progress. And, the more important government is, the more important the people who cover government become. This is why network anchors are so nostalgic about the Cold War; those high-powered summits and interviews made them really important too. This is an ideology married to self-interest.

But it’s more than that. It goes to the very understanding of how History with a capital H moves. Progress involves government solving things. Government provides the verbs for journalistic sentences. Those verbs can only convey either forward motion or backward motion. When government passes laws, it is moving forward. When it repeals them, it is “setting us back” and allowing the greedy and the corrupt to reclaim lost ground. To admit that this formulation is inherently liberal would be to topple a vast array of interconnected assumptions as dear to many earnest and honest journalists as Aristotelian physics was to various Church bureaucrats.

I just read Daniel Schorr’s memoir and it was stunning to see how passionate he is about his “objectivity” while at the same time remaining completely convinced that presidents were Leaders doing Great Things when they spent money like pimps with a week to live. When Presidents — Democrats or Republicans — cut programs of any kind, they were, ipso facto, opposed to progress. Schorr believes that Nixon was opposed to — and I am quoting — “social betterment,” because he didn’t work to continue the Great Society more than he did.

This is the point that Harris misses. Bill Clinton’s famous flip-flops — gays in the military, Lani Guinier, the BTU tax — were examples of Clinton flopping from the Left to the Right. This upsets journalistic sensibilities about the forward-moving direction of government. The Right didn’t care that Clinton changed his mind on Lani Guinier or the BTU tax; changing his mind was what the Right wanted. The Right demanded flips; the media hyped and denounced the flops.

Meanwhile, almost all of George Bush’s flip-flops have been from the Right to the Left. Journalists don’t see this as a moral failing; they see it as “responsible,” as “mature,” as “growing in office.” For example, Harris suggests that Bush’s concessions on vouchers and on a smaller tax cut would have caused a firestorm under Clinton but have caused few sparks under Bush. Well, exactly. The press can’t put itself in the position of denouncing a conservative president when he does the “right” thing and then moves to the center.

But when Bush extended precisely the same policy on arsenic that Bill Clinton held until the last hour of his presidency, the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy turned out to exist after all and the press gave it a free pass. Suddenly Bush was a pawn of corporate interests. Indeed, whenever Bush keeps a promise or does something conservative, he is denounced as a hireling of “Big Oil” or some other nonsense.

In all things the dial must move from right to left. Anything else is moving backward.

Now, I realize that this explanation, like this column, violates Occam’s Razor too. It would have been simpler and a lot easier to have said, “They’re a bunch of liberals.” But that’s one great problem with Occam’s Razor: It can be really, really boring.


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