[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]‘Hypothesis-confirmation’ newsDoes bad news make people happy? Do the revelations about Professor Song Du-yul make conservatives happy? Do rumors about a White House leak of a Central Intelligence Agency agent’s identity make Democrats happy? And, in the most extreme example, do the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, make opponents of the United States happy? In each case, people have taken news with potentially serious consequences as proof that their opinions, if not emotions and prejudices, are correct.
Finding pleasure in events that suggest one’s opinions are correct can be called taking pleasure in “hypothesis-confirmation news” because it resembles the pleasure that scientists feel when their hypotheses are confirmed in research. The difference, of course, is that scientists conduct many tests and encounter many setbacks in the process of making a discovery. They often find their hypotheses refuted and are forced to modify them to continue the research.
“Hypothesis-confirmation news,” by contrast, rarely involves rigorous testing or alteration of hypotheses. Instead, hypotheses are matters of belief that cannot be altered unless the believer is willing to undergo an intellectual crisis. The media are in a good position to challenge the hypotheses of the believers, but often fall short because they cannot separate themselves emotionally from the hypothesis.
The news about Mr. Song’s relationship with North Korea brought hypothesis-confirmation news to Korea as never before. The right has long believed that pro-North Korean groups have taken shelter in left-wing causes and tried to shape political activities to North Korea’s advantage. The left, meanwhile, has consistently denied such a connection, asserting that its motives come from a desire to help the people. When the news that a well-known left-wing scholar had connections with North Korea surfaced, conservatives jumped on the news as confirmation that their hypothesis about the left had been confirmed.
Forced on the defensive, the left responded by accusing the right of engaging in old-fashioned McCarthyism. The right’s gloating at hypothesis confirmation was taken on the left as hypothesis confirmation of the right’s inherent intolerance of left-wing ideas.
The conservative media joined in the hypothesis confirmation frenzy by showing how the liberal media had been sympathetic to Mr. Song and by highlighting “Netizen” debates critical of him and his liberal supporters. Meanwhile, conspiracy theories about government involvement in Mr. Song’s return to Korea and rumors of others in the media and academia with connections to him received ample coverage.
Pulling away from the hypothesis-confirmation news, two problems become clear: the right is unwilling to admit that the left has legitimate concerns and the left is unwilling to make moral claims about North Korea. The problem largely mirrors the tension between the United States and the rest of the world over Sept. 11.
Most Americans are unwilling to consider any possible reason for the attacks, while many in the rest of the world are unwilling to make moral claims about Islamic totalitarianism even as they blame U.S. policy for inciting the anti-American-ism that led to the attacks.
To return to some sort of dialogue, if that is at all possible, both sides need to recognize the legitimacy of the other. If Newton’s third law of motion holds true, then every action begets an equal and opposite reaction. Though the Korean left has its roots in the political environment of colonial rule and the postwar division, it gained legitimacy from its opposition to the dictatorships of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan.
Dictatorship and the corruption and oppression that come with it caused the left to grow. The turmoil of industrialization and urbanization during these regimes also produced conditions that the left felt compelled to address. The actions of dictatorship and social change thus produced legitimate discontent that the left harnessed in its push for democracy and social justice.
Since the late 1990s, the left has lost its way, largely because it had accomplished its main goal of democratization. The left had long maintained an interest in reunification and rapprochement with North Korea, but found itself on the defensive as economic problems and human rights abuses in North Korea gained greater attention.
North Korea’s failure to act on hopes for change after the inter-Korean summit in 2000 gave conservatives the upper hand in framing the debate about North Korea, which put the left on the defensive even more.
The actions of dictators legitimized the left in the past as the actions of North Korea legitimize the right today. Both have had their hypotheses confirmed, but neither is right because the problems that require investigation still exist.
Democracy anywhere is a fragile system of government that must be protected from zealots and demagogues, and Korea is still divided into two opposing states.
Instead of taking sides in hypothesis testing, the media should challenge the right and the left to conduct more careful research and to articulate how their research will benefit the national interest.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser