On Jan. 6 of last year, noted political commentator and podcaster Dave Rubin and his friend, economist Eric Weinstein, met in Rubin’s home studio. They discussed many of the then-popular theories about the Trump presidency that had yet to come to fruition. For two hours, they examined the issues in detail for Rubin’s podcast, satisfying the skyrocketing demand for long-formatted discussions that examine issues television shows simply can’t handle.
Weinstein and Rubin had spoken previously, in 2016, and had a similarly thought-provoking discussion. Rubin, a former progressive and a member of “The Young Turks” network, had recently turned to a far more libertarian view of society and has since been called a “classical liberal” because of his ardent support for free speech. Weinstein, however, has remained far more politically left of Rubin, though he differs from today’s mainstream Democratic focus on identity politics and progressivism.
The two opened their conversation by discussing Weinstein’s educational background, which is deeply rooted in mathematics, physics and finance. Specifically, they talked about the struggles Weinstein had in college at Penn before earning his Ph.D. at Harvard. Rubin and Weinstein then transitioned into political dialogue, demonstrating remarkable civility as they debated immigration policy, Trump’s rhetoric and Peter Thiel.
Rubin pivoted the conversation to ask Weinstein about his response to the 2017 version of the Edge Foundation’s annual question, “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”
“In 2017, I chose the Russell Conjugation,” Weinstein said. “The thing that I was searching for: What words should I use that sound like synonyms but, emotionally, are antonyms? Turns out Bertrand Russell had been here earlier and, in 1948, was on the BBC. (There) he looked at three constructions: ‘I am firm’ (positive empathy), ‘You are obstinate’ (neutral empathy) and ‘He, she or it is a pig-headed fool’ (negative empathy).”
A seemingly simple linguistic object, the Russell Conjugation demonstrates how the use of emotionally charged language can influence one’s point of view. It can easily explain why so many claims of “fake news” are spouted by both sides of the aisle.
It’s become harder and harder to fake objective journalism through the use of false or misleading information. The rise of organizations like Snopes and FactCheck, as well as the adoption of in-house fact-checkers at major publications, has virtually eliminated false stories.
Yet the question remains: If something objectively happens, how can two different publications have such obvious differences in reporting? Many publications claim to be closer to the truth than others are but fail to sound remotely alike.
Weinstein further elaborated by pointing out, “I like the fact that someone is firm and steadfast, and I dislike the fact that someone is pig-headed. And then I realized this could be weaponized. Maybe the newspapers were, in fact, conjugating president, strongman and dictator.”
The answer lies within the tool itself. The conjugation and many other linguistic weapons are used to persuade readers, leaving them unable to comprehend how their neighbors could possibly disagree on the “facts” they see so clearly.
Weinstein added, “What I came to understand is that the big boys don’t play around with faking the facts. What they realized is that we have multiple opinions on everything, but our emotional state selects which opinion.”
Most of us are completely unaware of the manipulation and linguistic sleights of hand being pulled.
Publications have had the ability to alter perception of an objective event through, at minimum, ethically questionable grounds. That is changing thanks to the work of people like Frank Luntz, an American political commentator and public opinion guru. Luntz recognized, through his use of focus groups and other psychological studies, that the Russell Conjugation sets the dominant tone for political debates, and the acceptance or rejection of political positions is almost entirely dependent on emotion rather than facts.
Like many faltering institutions, print media appears to become more and more violent in its dying throes, leaning on tricks and an assumption of the stupidity of its readership. Much of the political polarization of today can easily be attributed to the aggressive rise in reporting on a far smaller number of noteworthy events. How many different stories do you really hear on a weekly basis? Crime rates have steadily fallen. The global poverty rate has more than halved. More women than men are now enrolled in college. Yet few realize how far the world has come.
It’s time modern journalism surrenders its abusive, malevolent monopoly on being the sense-making instrument of people. A far more objective and non-manipulative return to form must occur for society to correct the course it only recently embarked on if we ever hope to address the serious issues of today.
Josh Baker is a junior economics and mathematics major from Houston, Texas.