Just the Facts

It’s that time of year again, when the local National Public Radio station does its semi-annual on-air fundraising. Interspersed with the sometimes witty pre-taped snippets from national correspondents and hosts of its various syndicated shows, the ten minute fundraising segments mostly consist of people associated with the local station, or local listeners, talking about the benefits of receiving your news from a non-profit sources like NPR.

I noticed this morning that the arguments they routinely use to elicit donations are basically those that also animate the Humanities vs. the Natural Sciences debate–e.g., unlike NPR’s attention to the whole listener, for-profit news sources are portrayed as having a sharper edge to them that fails to nourish listeners in the proper manner. But just when you thought that the analogy was

NPR : the Humanities :: for-profit media : the Natural Sciences

the speakers slyly reverse the analogy, with no warning, by telling listeners that, while for-profit news sources give you mere opinions, non-profit NPR deals just in the objective facts (they even make reference to Sgt. Joe Friday‘s famous line about wanting “Just the facts”), resulting in the following relationship:

NPR : the Natural Sciences :: for-profit media : the Humanities

My point? We miss the point of these analogies if we think that they are about identifying something substantive in the things being related to, or distinguished from, one another. (I have Jonathan Z. Smith to thank for driving home this point.) For if so, we’ll want consistency in how they’re used–we’ll tell NPR that it can’t have it both ways and needs to choose. Instead, we ought to see them as slippery rhetorical techniques, useful in any number of ways, to relate or distinguish any number of items to or from each other to suit the purposes of the speaker. Which suggests that the taken-for-granted difference between the Humanities and the Natural Sciences, at least as it is portrayed in much of this debate, is a creation of rhetoric more than a description of fact.