Investigative reporting and progressive research took a detour during the probe of the Iran-Contra affair. Because the executive branch was engaged in a coverup, and Congress refused to demand a full accounting, speculation about conspiracies blossomed. There certainly are conspiracies afoot in the halls of government and private industry. Documenting illegal conspiracies is routinely accomplished by prosecutors who present their evidence to a judge or jury. The burden of proof can be high, as it should be in a democracy. Journalists frequently document conspiracies, and their published or broadcast charges can be tested against standards of journalistic ethics and sometimes in court in cases of alleged libel and slander.
Coverage of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories in recent years, however, routinely violated common journalistic practices regarding second sourcing. A theory that cannot be documented, or for which there is only one source of questionable credibility, is a rumor…not investigative journalism.
With so much political and journalistic confusion it is useful to remember that academia has produced a long list of useful tools and techniques to evaluate the logical and conceptual validity of any argument regardless of political content or viewpoint.
Useful rational standards by which to judge the merits of any statement or theory are easily found in textbooks on debate, rhetoric, argument, and logic.
These books discuss which techniques of argumentation are not valid because they fail to follow the rules of logic. There are many common fallacious techniques or inadequate proofs:
- Raising the volume, increasing the stridency, or stressing the emotionalism of an argument does not improve its validity. This is called argument by exhortation. It is often a form of demagoguery, bullying or emotional manipulation.
- Sequence does not imply causation. If Joan is elected to the board of directors of a bank on May 1, and Raul gets a loan on July 26, further evidence is needed to prove a direct or causal connection. Sequence can be a piece of a puzzle, but other causal links need to be further investigated.
- Congruence in one or more elements does not establish congruence in all elements. Gloria Steinem and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick are both intelligent, assertive women accomplished in political activism and persuasive rhetoric. To assume they therefore also agree politically would be ludicrous. If milk is white and powdered chalk is white, would you drink a glass of powdered chalk?
- Association does not imply agreement, hence the phrase “guilt by association”has a pejorative meaning. Association proves association; it suggests further questions are appropriate, and demonstrates the parameters of networks, coalitions, and personal moral distinctions, nothing more. Tracking association can lead to further investigation that produces useful evidence, but a database is not an analysis and a spiderweb chart is not an argument. The connections may be meaningful, random, or related to an activity unrelated to the one being probed.
- Participation in an activity, or presence at an event, does not imply control.
- Similarity in activity does not imply joint activity and joint activity does not imply congruent motivation. When a person serves in an official advisory role or acts in a position of responsibility within a group, however, the burden of proof shifts to favor a presumption that such a person is not a mere member or associate, but probably embraces a considerable portion of the sentiments expressed by the group. Still, even members of boards of directors will distance themselves from a particular stance adopted by a group they oversee, and therefore it is not legitimate to assume automatically that they personally hold a view expressed by the group or other board members. It is legitimate to assert that they need to distance themselves publicly from a particular organizational position if they wish to disassociate themselves from it.
- Anecdotes alone are not conclusive evidence. Anecdotes are used to illustrate a thesis, not to prove it. A good story-teller can certainly be mesmerizing-consider Ronald Reagan–but if skill in story-telling and acting is the criteria for political leadership, Ossie Davis would have been president, not Ronald Reagan. This anecdote illustrates that anecdotes alone are not conclusive evidence, even though most progressives would think that Davis would have been a kindler, gentler president than Reagan or Bush.