HBO’s Small Town News & That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ (8-3-21)

If you are watching a TV show and it makes you uncomfortable because it reminds you of yourself, I assume that indicates that there’s something there you haven’t worked through yet. For example, I’m watching the Small Town News doco, and I am watching these modestly talented TV personalities who have to work at a small town station in Nevada if they want to be on TV, and it makes me think that maybe I’m never going to be a bright shiny star, maybe my talents are only small town, and if this makes me uncomfortable, maybe I have not come to terms with the reality of me and of my possibilities. 

If we get into wide-ranging discussions, we are not working out syllogisms. We are choosing certain facts and theories and reports of reality and highlighting them rather than those facts, theories, reports that point in a different direction. We are filtering reality through our moods, and likely proclaiming it is objective truth. Understanding ourselves and others and why we may so want to believe in certain facts, theories and reports, understanding the payoffs we may get for signing on with certain theories, may shed light on why we see reality the way we do, and that may be far more important than what we are ostensibly discussing. Why is it that this theory, this fact, this report, is what I want us to focus on? So this type of analysis is more playing the player (ad hominem) rather than playing the ball (strictly facts and logic). And it’s got a bigger place than I thought a few days ago.

Ad hominem and argument from authority first entered the English language in the 17th Century with John Locke and these forms of argument were not then regarded as logical fallacies. Locke also gave us modern notions of facts/news ala “facts are statements of simple ideas expressed in language.” When people discuss the news and events like Covid and public policies, are we primarily working out logical syllogisms or are we more like witnesses to a bewildering array of events and interpretations? If the former, then ad hominem has no place, if the latter, then it might. Given the way life works, it would be weird not to use ad hominen and argument from authority analyses in trying to better understand reality. Finally, almost everything we “know” about the world depends upon referencing authority. I love this Peter Novick passage because it forced me to rethink my assumptions that the only honorable forms of debate are over facts and logic.


In logic, ad hominem is a fallacy to do with how people respond to arguments: rejecting an argument simply because of some irrelevant fact about the arguer. An argument is at least two statements, a conclusion and at least one premise. The reason why this is a fallacy is just that the argument can and should be judged on its merits. (Are the premises true, and do they rationally support the conclusion?) The merits of the argument can be separated from any facts about the arguer. (Although, when it comes to deciding whether the premises are true, facts about the arguer are sometimes relevant. If a premise is just testimony from the arguer, and there’s no way to decide whether it’s true except by deciding whether he’s a reliable source, his character and history are relevant!)

But here the author seems to shift to talking about the acceptance of “propositions”, i.e. isolated statements. When we evaluate statements, facts about the person making the statement are usually relevant. If I know that a certain historian has a bad memory or often makes logical errors, I might not believe his statement just because he said so. I’d want to know his reasoning before deciding whether to believe it. And if I know this person is the world’s greatest expert on the civil war, I’m inclined to believe his statement about the civil was just because he said so (provided I don’t have reasons for doubting or for thinking he’s not being honest, etc).

Is the point that something like “ad hominem” is reasonable when historians just state things and we can’t be too sure about their ability to objectively assess the evidence? That seems true. (But I wouldn’t call this “ad hominem” since, again, that’s really about how people respond to arguments rather than statements.)

I agree that much of what we know (or think we know) is based on trusting authorities. That’s not a fallacy in itself, because we often have good reason for believing that someone is an authority on a given topic (and is being honest). arguments from authority are often good arguments. They’re fallacies only when the person in question isn’t really an authority on the topic.

Similarly, we often have good reason for not trusting someone’s judgments or testimony. I wouldn’t believe a statement about quantum mechanics just because a jazz musician said so. But this isn’t anything like an ad hominem. In order for there to be an ad hominem, there has to be an argument first. If we’re just talking about a statement, there’s no argument for us to ad hom. It’s not a fallacy to consider facts about the person making a claim when the question is whether to treat that person’s testimony as evidence for what he’s claiming.

These aren’t cases where there’s an argument that’s being unjustly ignored or dismissed, and they’re not cases where facts about the person are irrelevant.

When I talk about covid and things like that I’m witnessing a bewildering array of events and interpretations and​ trying to work out logical syllogisms. I can definitely see how something sort of like ad hominem is useful here. (If someone just states a bunch of things about viruses with no supporting argument, I’m more likely to believe him if I can verify that he’s a respected virologist.)

Syllogism is just a type of argument using categorical terms and quantifiers (“all”, “some”, “no”). They come in a few traditional forms. For example, “All Fs are Gs; All Gs are Hs; Therefore, All Gs are Hs” or “Some Fs are Gs; Some Gs are Hs; Therefore, Some Fs are Hs”. Some kinds are valid, meaning that if the premises are all true the conclusion is true, and some are invalid. (In those examples, the first kind is valid and the second isn’t.) More broadly, there are lots of different logical systems of rules. These are just rules for determining what is true given some set of statements.

On its own, syllogistic logic and other kinds of logic don’t tell us anything about the world. In order to get knowledge about the world we need to plug in empirical statements as premises. And logic alone can’t tell us which ones to plug in–e.g. “Biden is a good President” versus “Biden is a bad President”, “Covid is dangerous for kids” vs “Covid isn’t dangerous for kids”.

It seems pretty obvious to me that when reasonable and well-informed people have wide-ranging discussions they are​ very often constructing syllogisms. More generally, they’re using logic and other systematic kinds of reasoning in order to figure things out. They’re not only​ using logic, since logic needs empirical facts to get anywhere.

We do often want to know about people’s personalities and biases and motivations in order to figure things out. It’s often relevant. But we also need logic in order to gain knowledge in that area. A psychologist who thinks “Some men are sexist” implies “All men are sexist” isn’t going to have much to contribute to a wide-ranging discussion about how men think, what their biases may be, etc. Whatever the topic might be, there are no good reasons for believing or disbelieving things that aren’t reducible to a combination of facts and logic.

00:00 HBO’s Small Town News works because it adores, not mocks, its cast and their commitment,
03:00 ‘Small Town News: KPVM Pahrump’ Spotlights One of the Last Independent TV Stations,
08:00 The “Objective Facts” of Journalism,
10:00 That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession,

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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