Educational Projects: "Fake News"

An Emergent Cosmopolis

There is much discussion of the haves and the have-nots, but very little discussion of the doers and the do-nots, those who contribute and those who merely take.

— Thomas Sowell

Original Introduction to “Fake News” Course (May 2017)

Accusations of “fake news” dominate the media as various parties argue that their news is the only real news. Such vehement proclamations hint at a major ongoing conflict, possibility a fight to the death over how public meaning is to be controlled. When what needs to be known far exceeds the capacity of any one person, when the empirical sciences plus an historical consciousness dominate modern discourse, only a collective method for approaching reality will suffice. To this we appeal to Lonergan’s Method in Theology (1971).

Participants in this course do not require any prior knowledge of Lonergan’s work. Instead we start with the statement: “Let’s suppose Lonergan’s “transcendental method” and “functional specialization” are true. What then can we learn about the current conflict over fake news? The chapters on method and functional specialties are the only required readings; the rest of Method is resource material. YouTube videos, current blogs, breaking news stories, and selected chapters from various authors serve to keep us in the fray.

This introductory course to cosmopolis combines a formal way of conveying technical material while taking advantage of an open discussion format. This non-standard unfolding of the course requires a far more active participation from those who attend than what is typical for a university, for what there is to be learned concerning fake news depends on those who are taken up with the need to know and use the tools provided to structure their own inquiry as an intentional­ group. The course introduces the student not only to the knowledge he or she will be required to master as part of an emergent cosmopolis group, but also the actual practices of such a group organized in such a way as to take advantage of Lonergan's functional specialties.

The Unfolding of the Course
This course is an extended group thought experiment to find out what there is to be learned about fake news if we start with Lonergan’s twin methods of controlling meaning:  at the individual level, that of a transcendental method, and at the group level, functional specialties. No prior knowledge of Lonergan’s work is required; we will provide the basic material you will need to participant in the course.

There are two core principles:

  1. An open explorative attitude that lets us find out what we can learn about the conflict over fake news if we start with Lonergan’s two essential methods of controlling meaning.
  2. Participants are more than passive recipients of a structured course; by the beginning of the winter session, they are expected to take over the direction in which the inquiry is to unfold.

And two points to keep in mind:

  1. The world views based on normative cultures cannot meet the demands of a Western civilization whose members are deeply aware of the successes of the empirical sciences and quite conscious of the changes history makes in the development of ideas. Perhaps like work in the empirical sciences the best solution is to accept that theories change while the scientific method remains the same. Lonergan’s transcendental method and functional specialties provides a possible solution to controlling meaning.
  2. Furthermore, the complexity of today’s world is such that it is no longer possible for one individual to hold all the knowledge that is required to make a sound decision. This problem with control over meaning is currently expressed in the phenomena of fake news; even the definition of “fake news” is up for grabs. Yet it does make the contemporary problem of controlling meaning relevant as an active element in people’s lives.

There are three experienced realities at the cognitive level of experience that participants will need to face, experiences that not only create an entry point into Lonergan’s work but carry on throughout the course as critical themes guiding the inquiry.

  1. We don’t live purely in a sensate world; we live in a world mediated by meaning—a world that we construct around our essential biological, aesthetic, dramatic, and intellectual needs that relates the world around us to our own needs, wants, and desires—intentionality analysis.
  2. The symbolic world is the creation of our conscious minds, where the cognitive operations of experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding—along with their associated injunctions—work as a whole to create, maintain, and enhance or orientation, our centering of ourselves in the socio-economic world around us. Common sense cultural norms no longer serve as guides to truth in a world dominated by the empirical sciences as well as an historical consciousness.
  3. The contemporary world is too complex for any one mind to encompass it all. Since cultural norms can no longer contain the intricacies and dynamic processes within itself, a way must be found to organize a collective enterprise for determining what is true and what is fake. This Lonergan provides in his arrangement of eight functional specialties modeled upon the four core cognitive operations: four recapturing the past and four laying the grounds for moving into the future.

 Phase 1: Laying in the Foundations
The opening sessions introduce participants to the idea of the course as more than a simple discussion group or seminar. This includes a brief introduction to the general approach, the key elements of Lonergan’s work that need to be understood, and the need to keep an open and exploratory mind. Instead of a common cultural hermeneutics of suspicion that would have us seek out flaws before anything else, we seek to establish a hermeneutics of sympathy or compassion. Mistakes are inevitable, so enjoy making them for out of error great things have sprung.

These initial sessions are run like a seminar, with the leader introducing the material and keeping the discussion on track. The objective is to bring participants to the point where they may not agree with Lonergan’s approach but they will at least have a reasonable understanding of it. That is all that is required.

First Session: What to Expect?
This opens up the question of the experimental nature of this course, with an emphasis on intent and expectations as described in the four primary phases of the study. It highlights the way in which the course is a thought experiment not at the level of the individual but as a group activity, where what is important is not the content as such but the reliability of the group method in controlling meaning. This is where the three foundational positions are expressed and discussed around specific illustrations of the point they make. Various videos on visual illusions and the “gorilla” experiment may be used to stimulate discussion.

Second Session: How do Individuals Control Meaning?
How do individuals control meaning? The vast range of what we know is not verified through personal experience but in the decision over whom to trust. Yet although knowledge is intended to be external to the individual, i.e., the truth is ‘out there’ to be discovered, the reality is that meaning is ontological. This session introduces Lonergan’s transcendental method as a set of procedures whereby individuals establish their own world mediated by meaning.

Third Session: How do Societies Control Meaning? Part 1: Recovering the Past
Lonergan takes his cognitive operations and their associated injunctions that individuals use to control meaning, and extend these procedures in a cyclic series of recurring schemes of operation known as functional specialties. The task here is to understand the basic questions that make recovering the past a reasonable enterprise. In any instance of fake news, these questions expose the vulnerability of any conclusion or judgment that does not take them into account. The brief summary of these functional specialties are laid out in chapter 5 of Method. An instance of ‘fake news’ may be used to illustrate the basic points.

Fourth Session: How do Societies Control Meaning? Part 2: Layng the Foundations for Moving into the Future
Lonergan repeats the isomorphic relationship with the cognitive operations but in reverse: instead of starting with experiences and moving up through understanding, judging, and deciding, he starts with deciding, moves down to doctrines, gives meaning to doctrines through systematics, and finally puts it all into practice in time-and-space-specific situations. The same instance of ‘fake news” is used.

Phase 2: Seeding the Ground
Once the introductory phase is complete, the group moves on to the initial seed material. By this time we should know who is or is not interested in taking a more active role in the way the course will continue. The general idea is to go through the functional specialties one by one, noting both the work being carried out at each level and the way prior specialties provide data for subsequent ones. At first these could be carried out by the course leader plus one of the participants as a standard discussion on one or more instances of fake news. Sessions could start with a YouTube video, augmented by one or more related blogs. By this stage, Lonergan’s Method is used only as reference book on the functional specialties.

It is during the second phase that two additional tasks may be added. The first of these is for the leader to act as coach. This person would make time at the beginning of the week to meet and work with those interested in taking a more active role in the way the course is to unfold. The second feature is a formal feedback period of about ten minutes at the end of each session, during which time an assigned critic would evaluate the session: three things he or she really liked, and one thing on which to work. Both roles provide feedback on the application of Lonergan’s transcendental method and functional specialties. Outside of the initial seed videos, blogs, and articles, he would not be involved in the way in which the research would go (process, not content).

It is important that general notes be kept both on the direction in which the course is taking but also how this experimental design is working out in practice. This becomes essential data for the fourth phase.

Phase 3: Group Flowering—the Unfolding of the Inquiry
Once the general procedure is established and people learn to control their own contributions within the limitations of Lonergan’s approach, these sessions would be carried out by interested participants. The leader would help in making videos etc. accessible and introducing each session. Then he would become a critic, taking no part in the discussions but only providing feedback as to how the group is performing. As coach, the leader would also meet with interested participants in several days in advance of the presentation, meeting not over content but in understanding Lonergan’s work in the context of their investigations.

It is at this point that Lonergan’s Method becomes a reference text for details on each of the functional specialties as well as the way in which each draws upon the former and passes data on to the subsequent specialty. Such participants may be expected to develop a certain expertise in one or more of these functional specialties, especially combining the two inquiries that exist at the same cognitive level. For example, interpretation in recovering the past could be paired with systematics that provides meaning to fundamental beliefs.

Phase 4: Harvest Time—Drawing Conclusions
This is the wrap-up phase, for the essential process underlying the course creates a dynamic leading toward resolution and without such a wrap-up the course would have little or no meaning. Using previously connected weekly notes and reflections, the leader drafts a position paper. This document becomes the bases for a set of final sessions on what has been learned and the general usefulness and appeal of this approach to adult education. After modifications, this document could become a part of the Cosmopolis Institute's records that could be used in further exploratory works.

Support Material
Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971)

Uwe Poerksen, Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language (University Park, Pennsylvania: Translated by Jutta Mason and David Cayley, originally published in German, 1988, The Pennsylvanis State University Press, 1995)

Paul Watzlawick, How Real is Real? Confusion, Disinformation, Communication (New York: Vintage Books, 1976)

Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York: Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner, Introduction by Konrad Kellen, Vintage Books, 1973)

Colin Flaherty, Don’t Make the Black Kids Angry: The Hoax of Black Victimization and Those Who Enable It (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015)

Raymond Ibrahim, Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2013)

Seed Blogs
Victor Davis Hanson, “Apocalyptic Progressivism” (Townhall, April 20, 2017),

Theodore Dalrymple, “Unleashing Arrogance, Complacency, and Mediocrity” (Online Library of Law & Liberty, April 13, 2017),

Scott Adam, “U.S. and Russian Relationship at a Low?” (Scott Adams’ Blog, April 13, 2017),

Paul Austin Murphy, “The Deep State and Gramscian/Alinskyite Institutions” (American Thinker, April 13, 2017),

Bryce Buchanan, “Why Republicans Can’t Fix the Big Problems” (American Thinker, April 13, 2017),

Thomas Sowell, “The Real Lessons of Middlebury College” (Townhall, March 14, 2017),

Deborah Weiss, “The Ten Worst Cases of ‘Very Fake News’” (Frontpage Magazine, February 24, 2017),

Fred Palmer, “A Fool’s Errand: Al Gore’s $15 Trillion Carbon Tax” (Watts Up With That? May 9, 2017),

Seed Videos
TJ Kirk, “Huffington Post Publishes SHOCKINGLY EVIL Blog Post” (YouTube, April 13, 2017),

Mark Dice, “Top 110 Fake News Stories of 2016” (YouTube, December 21, 2016),

Tim Pool, “Understanding Fake News” (YouTube Sargon of Akkad channel, April 19, 2017),

Paul Joseph Watson, “What They’re NOT Telling You About Fake News” (YouTube, December 13, 2016),

“60 Minutes Exposes ‘Fake News’” (YouTube “Can we STOP the Insanity of the World” channel, April 2, 2017),

© Russell C. Baker, 2017