SNC-Lavalin And Why It’s So Hard To Watch The News (For The Truth)

I’ve noticed recently (maybe it’s just because I’m paying more attention to political news lately) this very annoying trend when it comes to news stories that get even a little bit of attention. This video by Vox is talking about the Green New Deal, but I feel like I feel the exact same way about the SNC-Lavalin incident, to name just one recent example.

I’ve been feeling for the last year or three that whenever a big news story breaks where opinion could potentially break across political lines, all the news spends all of its airtime just talking about the political impact and outcomes of the story, and if the story still has traction in the days or weeks afterwards, you’ll hear endlessly about what other people are saying about it now.

I really don’t like when this happens with the news, because it does nothing to inform the public about the actual issue at hand, it just applies a partisan lens to every news story.

With the SNC-Lavalin ‘scandal’ news story, the Liberal government’s alleged pressure on the attorney general’s office to avoid prosecuting the company directly, we see a great example of this, in my opinion.

How I have experienced news coverage of SNC-Lavalin

When this story first came out, the narrative was that of a ‘scandal’ from the highest echelons of the federal Liberal government, with the office of the Prime Minister being accused of applying pressure to the attorney general in dealing with a bribery case with SNC-Lavalin and the Libyan government.

From the time details started to come out, I was already looking to journalists and the news to understand what actually happened, to figure out if anything improper had taken place. However, what I found on the news, on Twitter, and from every pundit and opposition politician, is outrage that the Prime Minister would do something like this.

Even the sparse details I put in the paragraph above were pieced together over a few days, and I still don’t feel like I really fully understand all that actually took place leading up to and after the events of the ‘scandal’. I am not of the opinion that absolutely nothing improper took place, or that an investigation should or shouldn’t happen (it probably should).

I actually feel like I still don’t have enough details about the case to know whether I think deferred prosecution was the right call in the original case, much less whether anything unusual or improper took place afterwards. My main point in talking about all of this is that in spite of trying to stay up to date on the news surrounding this story, I feel woefully uninformed and end up hearing “Politician calls for Trudeau to resign” as the much bigger headline that “Here’s how deferred prosecution works, and the attorney general needs to remain independent”.

I don’t know about you, but hearing that the head of the opposition thinks the current Prime Minister should step down (especially when it’s a conservative saying that about a liberal), is not a headline that should really exist (because he says it all the time). That’s a separate conversation altogether from considering what I would say is a more reasonable headline, which is “Should The PMO Get Involved In Federal Prosecution Cases?”, or something like that.

What Can We Possibly Do About This?

There’s no easy answer to this question. Staying informed is key, but it’s difficult to get partisanship on an issue out of your head once it wriggles its way in. The best thing I can think of to try is to be very careful when reading news to think about who is paying for it, how they are funded, whether the writer or editors might have a reason to be biased, and whether the objective facts are likely being described in the story.

Using any social media to follow the news, whether you follow news organizations, or just friends and family, is very difficult, because many people are just there to push their preferred version of a story, or end up reinforcing biases and digging in even deeper on opinions and positions formed emotionally.

Reading the news in general is easier than ever with the internet, but it’s also easier to write and publish anything you want, and otherwise legitimate news organizations can get caught up in this kind of bad journalism too from time to time. Nothing is black and white here, and pretending it is damages journalism and divides us in ways we don’t even consciously realize.

The “Your Child” Test (Society is Changing, Part 2)

This is the second section of a multi-part piece I’ve been thinking a lot about, which I’m calling ‘Society is Changing’. You can read part 1 here, which will provide some context for this section.

There has been a ton of energy, brainpower, blood, sweat and tears that has gone into political movements throughout history. As has happened many times in the past, several places in the world seem to have come up against particularly challenging political climates of late. Ideological conflicts like Brexit and the 2016 American election, in addition to armed physical conflicts like the battles raging in several parts of the Middle East, point to the notion that civilization might just be approaching an ideological inflection point.

At times like these, it can be disheartening to see and hear that about half of your country or region seems to hold such rigidly opposed views to yours. In part one of this story, I discussed how ‘society’ as city folk like me see it is changing, in ways that rural Christian communities 50 years ago would see as unacceptable and sinful. It’s absolutely vital to understanding modern politics that those rural communities still exist today, and many of those same beliefs are still firmly held.

Those voters have watched Democrats (for the last eight years in the US) shred some of what they consider to be sacred tenets of their belief system. It’s only natural that those voters would be scared about what might happen, especially as their elected officials have been spouting nonsense about racial minorities ‘taking over’ and the government ‘coming for your guns’.

There’s a lot more to say about the ways society is changing to become more divided, but for the rest of this piece I want to focus on a principle I’ve been thinking a lot about this year. I’ve been calling it the ‘Your Child’ test, and it works a little something like this:

Before you judge somebody, consider how you would feel about them if they were your child.

Give them the absolute benefit of the doubt before criticizing or attacking them. Ask questions to make sure you understand their point of view. If your child wants to do something you disagree with, have an open mind and talk about it. The same should be true for any other human, because we’re all just people.

We all have to share the space on this earth, and we have for the most part agreed on a set of basic human rights (life, fresh water, access to food, to name a few). Taking those as a given, if you’re not hurting anybody, I think most other ideas should be up for discussion.

Imagine if your child told you they wanted to convert to Islam.

Imagine if your child told you they were gay.

Imagine if your child told you they didn’t feel comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Imagine your child’s skin looked different than yours. Would that really make you love them less?

Humans make a lot of mistakes. We are inherently flawed. This doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to be loved and treated with respect like anybody else. In this divisive time, I’d encourage you to think about how you’d react to your child in a given situation. I’ll bet if we all did this, trading in judgment for compassion, we’d all be a lot happier together.

Weaving Social Fabric (Society is Changing, Part 1)

In a world where tensions are high, stability is a luxury, and critical aspects of decent society seem to be crumbling before our eyes, it’s easy to rush to angry judgment. The people of the world are becoming more polarized than ever, and this trend shows no sign of slowing.

Humans are flawed. We are good at spotting patterns (even when none exist), and adapting to change when necessary, but we mostly suck at everything else. One big example of this is large numbers. Humans are astonishingly bad at thinking about numbers larger than a few hundred.

Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, suggested in the 90s a correlation between primate brain size and the number of social linkages maintained by an average member of the species, now called Dunbar’s Number. In humans, that number of relationships comes out to around 150. Robin relates this number to the typical maximum size of a social circle most people can maintain.

In addition, this figure of 150 is only for groups under survival pressure, and would require substantial ‘social grooming’ to maintain. That being said, the principles that give rise to Dunbar’s Number likely extend even further than this.

At least in North America, over 80 percent of the population lives in urban environments. This kind of lifestyle lends itself to a larger range of connections than rural living can, and our social connections bear that out. While a typical city block varies broadly in size and density, consider a block downtown littered with apartment buildings. At any point, one of these blocks could house hundreds of people, all living within minutes of each other on foot. There is no way that any individual person could have time to know and maintain relationships with even a fraction of their neighbours in this kind of living situation.

Now, take the opposite situation. There are small towns in North America that are populated by members of one or two extended families, where even dating prospects are limited to the one other family, or your own relatively close cousins. In these instances, where your average day might only include interactions with the same 100 or so individuals, it would be easier to keep in touch and follow the lives of almost everyone you see on a regular basis.

There was a time not too long ago when most people lived in this second situation, and a new person coming to town would be a cause of great interest, because people’s social ‘dance card’ was actually relatively empty. Of course, if somebody new moved to your urban city today (which almost certainly did happen), if you even knew about it, it would not be news, or even interesting to anyone.

Social relationships are complicated these days, at least in part because our social biology hasn’t yet caught up to the realities of modern life. The horrific act of violence, natural disaster, or political scandal du jour is broadcast all over the internet, through traditional news media outlets, and is the topic of conversation at water coolers and street corners across the country.

This visibility of news has a way of polarizing those who read it, especially when so much of the media isn’t reporting on news and events so much as running them through a filter. This is a problem in left-leaning media as much as it is in right-leaning media, and since the market for objective, rational media coverage is effectively non-existent, the whole thing is entirely self-sustaining. Pew has done some great research on polarization, and how huge the divide between political ideologies is these days.

Taking a step back, consider the following: no news isn’t good news anymore. Look no further for evidence of this than in scientific research. Scientists are faced with tightening budgets, increasing accountability for funding, and losing credibility without publishing their work. However, an increasing number of journals are choosing not to publish negative results or confirmation studies.

This means that research which fits a hypothesis is published, while subsequent studies following up on that research aren’t done, and further research that doesn’t turn up more or better evidence is shelved or thrown out. Anybody with an ounce of sense and a few minutes to think about it can see that this leads to a system that pumps out misleading or error-prone research, and suppresses the error correction that makes the scientific method so appealing.

The same thing is true in the news media. A sensational story with little fact or evidence will make its way around the world several times before any thought is given to its validity. Later, the story is clarified, parts are retracted or modified, and the much less interesting truth never really filters through major news channels like the original ‘story’.

Put another way, if there is an interesting angle to a potential news story, nothing else matters. Whether the resulting press coverage of an issue is true or false, whether people’s lives or careers are ruined, none of this matters because everyone is looking for the next scoop already. And when it’s uncovered that a story isn’t as interesting as originally advertised, i.e. there’s no news, there’s no money in correcting that error.

All of this brings us to an interesting point about the human race as it exists today. At any moment, I could, in theory, get into direct written (or possibly visual) contact with almost anybody on the planet. I would estimate that for at least 9 out of every 10 people, that conversation could begin within seconds. We’ve all become intertwined with social fabric that something happening to a few people on the other side of the world can be the most interesting and relevant thing we hear about on a given day.

Our ‘family’, in the small-town sense of the word, has grown so quickly that many of us, especially in younger generations, now consider celebrities and people in popular culture worthy of being included in the <150 people we hold in our tightest social circles. That leads directly to the rise of vlogging and podcasting as mediums of growing popularity, because these forms of media draw in their fans so they feel they’re included in the narrative.

At the moment, I’m not saying whether this revolution of sorts is good or bad for society. I think in general, time will tell and everything will mostly just work itself out. However, since we currently have access to the largest potential number of personal social connections than at any other time in history, we naturally tend to filter our social groups down more and more into the people we have the most in common with.

The ‘filter bubble’ is a well-known phenomenon caused by algorithms giving you only the news or opinion you want to hear, but there’s a real world version of that as well. Before the Internet, if you met somebody who had a different opinion from you, social norms meant you talked and learned each others’ points of view, and perhaps even changed your mind on something. Increasingly, as social groups become more reliant on communication at a distance, these encounters with different opinions are becoming more rare, and in many instances can be avoided completely.

As a result, groups of people spending time together tend to all like and think a lot of the same things, and anybody who doesn’t share these views or ways of thinking may increasingly start to be seen as more different, and may perhaps even be scary.

As for what this means, well…it’s not good.

Part 2

Editor’s Note: When I started this piece almost two months ago, I actually wanted to make a totally different set of points, but when I started writing, here’s what came out. While I think this piece stands on its own just fine, I am already planning a follow-up wherein I address how the changes described above have made us all less empathetic, and what could be done to address that.