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Of Publishing and Facts

Of Publishing and Facts

Today a post by one of my authors was removed from Facebook. On reading the post I must conclude that if a reader finds a problem with it that would justify removing it from social media, the problem is with the reader, not the post.

At the moment we are seeing people in a variety of positions on the political spectrum resorting to government action to protect their kind of content. The debate, of course, is whether these things are factual.

I like factual. I dislike fake. I go to fact-checking sites, where I read not only their rating, but their reasoning for it, and the evidence they provide to back up that reasoning. Sometimes I disagree with the fact-checker. I expect that. I appreciate those sites that provide both reasoning and references.

I am a publisher (Energion Publications). From time to time I am asked whether everything I publish is true. My answer is that it is not possible that it is all true because I publish books that are opposed to one another. I have authors with a variety of opinions and viewpoints from progressive to conservative, to a number who object to that spectrum, as I do.

They can’t all be right.

I have had people question whether I should publish certain viewpoints. In fact, I once had complaints about a book I published from both sides. A conservative said it was too liberal. A liberal said it was too conservative. That is a valid discussion.

When I publish a book I disagree with, am I promoting some viewpoint I shouldn’t? That is a question I have to ask and answer with each book. If I disagree strongly with the content of a book, should I publish it?

For me, that question is always much more one of approach then of actual content. Yes, there are viewpoints that I think are not really needed as part of our public conversation. I make a choice not to publish those. But there are other viewpoints that I think are dead wrong, yet I think need to be part of our discussion. I will publish those.

Inevitably, some people will object.

My response is simply that I am a private company and that I make the rules. I’m also a firm believer in free speech. I’m not anxious to shut some other publisher up because he or she follows different rules than I do. I am also not anxious to force some other platform or publisher to advocate for material of mine that he or she considers inappropriate.

All of this is carried out by private individuals working under the umbrella of free speech. Free speech does not mean I have to support or even respect your viewpoint. It doesn’t force private individuals (as practiced in the USA) to support various positions.

As a result, while I think Facebook has an atrocious system for determining what to publish, I do not advocate—in fact, I vigorously oppose—any effort to force them to present or not present something legally. I don’t care how big they are. They got big by doing things that kept people coming back to their platform. There is nothing they are doing that will not be made worse, in my view, by government regulation.

At the same time, I think there is a way to deal with Facebook. For example, I publish my primary material on a separate platform. Facebook can reduce my reach by cutting off access to their platform, but my material is still online. One of the ridiculous aspects of modern discourse is that people trying to get Facebook (or other social media platforms) regulated are at the same time providing the very numbers that make those platforms strong.

And of course, I am still on Facebook. Why? Because most of you are. I can be as annoyed as I want to be, but I’ll still be there using social media to get my own message out.

And to share pictures of cats. Always cats.

The one—and I believe the only—solution to disinformation is an educated and informed public, a public which demands truth. I’m not that optimistic about this in general, but no matter how much disinformation others consume, you can be a fact-checker. And no matter how many regulations you pass, there will still be some people who will believe whatever rumor best suits them.

(Featured Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay)

No! Just No! (to personal DNA test)

No! Just No! (to personal DNA test)

Kristen V. Brown reports on Bloomberg that it’s “brutally difficult” to delete your DNA records online. She also reports that:

The direct-to-consumer genetic-testing industry has grown from some $15 million in sales in 2010 to more than $99 million in 2017, and is projected to reach $310 million by 2022, according to one industry estimate.

(My “check your facts and nag others to do so” impulse requires me to suggest you note that this is an industry estimate, and they may have an urge to make their industry look better.)

I totally fail to understand the interest in personal DNA testing. I wouldn’t discover I’m a different person, even if the DNA suggested I was. I’d still be me. Of course, this won’t occur, as I wouldn’t take one of these tests if it was given to me as a gift. (I yelled at the TV when one of the testing companies advertised it as a good father’s day gift.) Come to think of it, I wouldn’t even take it if you offered me financial incentive.

Being a data driven person, I would also like to note that I found this information via Numlock News, Walt Hickey previously wrote Significant Digits, which is on FiveThirtyEight.com, another of my favorites. I can’t commend Walt Hickey’s newsletter too highly. It’s great. I still enjoy that one, even while I get used to a new writer. These sites/newsletters are about data and they provide sources so you can check the sources and weigh the quality of the information yourself.

How to Lose Credibility

How to Lose Credibility

Here’s the headline: Democrats flip 43rd state legislative seat since Trump took office

Now read carefully down to the 3rd from the last paragraph: “The 43 wins for Democrats have not been a net gain, however.”

What exactly is going on? Have democrats gained or lost legislative seats? How many?

I went to Ballotpedia for a count. I combine numbers from 2017 and 2018 to date.

Under the heading “Flipped Seats,” we find that 17 seats flipped in 2017, 14 from Republican to Democrat and 3 from Democrat to Republican, for a net Democratic gain of 11 seats.

For 2018, under the same heading we find that 10 seats have flipped in special elections, 9 in favor of Democrats and 1 in favor of Republicans, for a net gain of 8 seats.

Between the two sets of numbers we have a net gain of 19 in special elections. In addition, I found a net gain of 3 for the Democrats in New Jersey, and a net gain of 15 in Virginia (all in the House of Delegates). The net total would be 37.

My point is not where the other seats might be, but that the two statements are inconsistent. Is 43 flipped seats to the Democratic party net? Apparently not, and if I didn’t count net seats, I would be close to 43. But 37 net gain is still a net gain, even if not of 43 seats. Perhaps they mean that 43 is not the net number. So why not give us the net number? I’m not paid for this, so I’m not going to try to track down the rest of the numbers. Politifact is paid, and you can read what they found earlier in the year. Their text and then their rating illustrates why I tend to read them to raid their sources, but pay little attention to their final rating.

37 seats is interesting in itself, though the meaning can be debated. But this kind of loose reporting, with a headline that would suggest something different than the text and numbers that might (or might not) reflect something different than the text shows why the media is having a hard time getting accepted as fact checkers.

I think it is unfortunate that many Americans have gone from a biased source to sources without any moorings at all. But having your expectations trampled upon repeatedly does not make for confidence. Getting basic data right would be helpful.

People Don’t Get Probability

People Don’t Get Probability

Whether it’s about elections or hurricane predictions, neither the media nor the public understand probability. I suspect this is because we are evolutionarily programmed to look for certainty. Certainty leads to decisive action. It is sometimes said in military circles that a bad decision is often better than no decision. But it’s easy to be decisively wrong.

For example, if you looked at the actual data about Hurricane Irma, and looked at the predicted range of possibilities (you know, either the cone or those circles around the predicted center), the prediction process went quite well. As reported in the media and as “understood” by many in the public, not so much.

Thus I read with great pleasure Nate Silver’s article today at FiveThirtyEight.com (one of my favorite sites), The Media Has A Probability Problem. There were those who criticized Silver for his data analysis in the 2016 election where he was giving a greater probability of a Trump victory than anyone else. Not predicting a Trump victory, but giving it a higher probability. There were those who were rating Clinton’s chances in the high 90s. Following the election there are those who see Silver as wrong, along with the rest. But that’s a probability. A 30% chance is hardly a prediction that something won’t happen. If you understand probability, that is.

Most don’t. Or they understand it in their heads, but don’t feel it. Here’s a summary from Nate Silver:

Probably the most important problem with 2016 coverage was confirmation bias — coupled with what you might call good old-fashioned liberal media bias. Journalists just didn’t believe that someone like Trump could become president, running a populist and at times also nationalist, racist and misogynistic campaign in a country that had twice elected Obama and whose demographics supposedly favored Democrats. So they cherry-picked their way through the data to support their belief, ignoring evidence — such as Clinton’s poor standing in the Midwest — that didn’t fit the narrative.

Now don’t take this as supporting President Trump’s cherry-picking of polls and numbers. That’s just another, less nuanced form of confirmation bias, or more likely simple carelessness with and disregard for facts.

Further, if we are going to blame the media for problems, we need to watch where we go instead. Many blame the media for very real problems of bias, stupidity, and deception, only to turn to even less reliable sources which they believe implicitly. One advantage I’ve found with reasonably good media reports is this: If you read beyond the headline, and check the references, you can almost always find what you need to double check and correct the news story. For example, most news organizations provide links to the actual poll data and analysis.

So if you want good information, follow the chain back to the source. Don’t just find something more agreeable and believe that. There are perfectly good ways to analyze data and avoid errors. None of us is perfect, but we can and should be better. Much better.

Nurses, The View, and Confused Values

Nurses, The View, and Confused Values

enrolled-scrub-nurse-200px
From OpenClipart.org, artist bedpanner.

I’m married to a nurse, my mother is a retired nurse, my sister is a nurse (NICU, which puts me in awe of her), and my daughter is in nursing school. It was unlikely I’d miss the discussion of Joy Behar’s comments and the resulting, entirely deserved firestorm, not to mention the failure of efforts to apologize.

I’m going to say very little about nursing. It’s a job I would be totally incapable of doing. I wouldn’t want to. The work is too hard, the sacrifice is too great, the pay is too bad, and the treatment they receive often leaves something to be desired. We need them badly, but we don’t generally realize it.

But the way in which one contestant for Miss America was treated is not some kind of accident. It is not just that someone misspoke or had a stupid moment. We can all have stupid moments when something comes out of our mouth that we didn’t really want to say. Many times, however, what comes out of our mouth at such moments reflects who we are and what we value more accurately than our carefully planned and nuanced statements.

Let me get one thing out of the way. I don’t like our media. I don’t like our entertainment industry. There are remarkable few things produced by it that I will watch. So yes, I am very biased. If I didn’t say it now you’d guess from what I’m about to say. I think our media is shallow. I think our entertainment is designed for the raising of non-thinkers who don’t merely have bad values; rather, they have no real system of values at all, unless we count mental (and physical) laziness. Parents who leave your kids to be raised by your TV: That’s what you’re asking for and it’s what you’re likely to get.

It isn’t that I’m extremely prudish. At least I don’t think so. I don’t even mind the portrayal of nudity and of sex in the media—where it is artistically appropriate. What I object to is the feeling that none of this matters. That sex, violence, indolence, irresponsibility, drunkenness, ignorance, and stupidity are so unimportant as to be routine. It’s not that sex before marriage is portrayed or implied in the shows. It is that it is assumed. You go on a date. You have sex. It doesn’t matter.

But I don’t blame this mythical engine called “the media” for this problem. No! I blame us.

One of the things I learned in economics that I’ve observed in real life is that prices are determined by supply and demand. There’s a corollary that supply will increase to meet demand. Even where governments have attempted to suppress the freedom of the economy, there is a limit on how much one can buck this one rule.

Now get this: The media doesn’t want to. Why do we see what we do on television? Because that is what we watch. We may talk about higher values and a desire to see good, wholesome, edifying content (no, I don’t mean just religious), but what we actually watch is not what we claim to want. The folks in Hollywood and in the executive offices of TV and Cable networks know that. They’re going to provide what you actually watch, not what you like to pretend—in church and in blog posts that others will read—that you want to watch. Yes, I know, some of us don’t watch that sort of thing. Some of us do look for better fare. But that is not where our culture is right now, and that is the problem.

I recall my hopes when I first got cable. I made sure the History Channel would be in my package. I planned to get all that interesting documentary material. And there are occasionally, very occasionally, things to watch. But most of it is not that helpful. My wife and I turned off cable some time ago. I admit we miss baseball, which is hard to get live, especially in the post season, but that and “A Capitol Fourth” are the only things I recall us saying we wished we had.

But this isn’t really about TV or the media, though those tend to reflect our values as a society. There’s another reflection of our values, the amount we are willing to pay for things.

I encounter this in working on computers. I’ll get called out to someone’s home or office to help them with their computer and they’ll complain to me about the lack of service provided by the manufacturer or retailer for their PC. But it often turns out that they have purchased the lowest cost discount PC from the largest discount organization possible. I don’t have a problem with that as such. But if you buy discount hardware from a discount retailer and then have trouble, it’s going to cost you. Just as we claim to want one sort of material in media but actually watch something different, we claim to want a certain level of service, but we give our money to businesses that don’t provide it. Guess what? Their prices are set with the intention of not providing that sort of service.

It carries over to churches. It’s very interesting to compare a church’s claims regarding its mission and priorities and then look at the church budget. A mission oriented church will turn out to spend 1% or less of its budget on missions. Churches that claim their priority is to “reach the lost for Christ” spend more on their softball fields, cemeteries, or recreational facilities than on their claimed mission. And yes, I know that the softball field and recreational facilities can be a venue for missions. But are they? Really? Or was that just the excuse given to the church board to justify the money spent. I’ve known churches who were quite willing to spend money on the facilities and who claimed that those facilities were there so the church could better serve Jesus, but who then refused to spend the utility money to keep the building open for young people who weren’t church members.

We may not want to talk about money, but money, in my view, is the surest way to tell what one’s values actually are. That goes for individuals as well as churches.

And if you look at the numbers, we don’t really value nurses all that much. To some extent we value doctors, unless you bother to consider the student loans they’re busy paying off. (Some of those nurses have a stack of those too. Settle that against the amount they earn!)

I don’t begrudge good money to sports figures and entertainers. A great baseball player is a percentage of a percentage of a percentage of an already fairly elite group. He works hard to get there, and he’s fun to watch. But the proportions of what we pay for stars? It’s not explained by all that effort or even by the numbers. Not unless you include our value system as a society. We’ll complain about Joy Behar and The View today, but tomorrow she’ll still be making more money than dozens of nurses combined, even with the way advertising is being pulled form the show.

We’ll complain that the electrician, the construction worker, the checker at the nearest box store, or the receptionist in an office don’t do their jobs well enough, but do we treat them with respect? If they do their jobs well, do we say something? If we’re their employer, do we pay them as valued people? We need all those people along with the doctors, nurses, lab technicians, radiology techs, and so many others, but despite anything we say when we have an incident like this, many of us are going to say “Wow!” when we see the celebrity and “just another nurse” when we see the nurse. In our heads, I mean. Part of it’s the routine. We see more nurses than famous actors or actresses. We like to see people who have a gig that’s better than we expect. Sure. And that right there reflects our real values.

So I think we should complain when someone says something stupid and demeaning about an entire profession. That’s good. Let’s have plenty of letters, stories, essays, and tributes about/to nurses. They deserve every bit of it.

But let’s go a step further. Let’s reorder our values. Our children who are in football are not more important than those in music, or those in science programs, or those who are preparing to be excellent construction workers. We want those jobs done well. How about starting by reflecting in words and actions every day how much we value them?

The Most Annoying Ad on Television

The Most Annoying Ad on Television

There are so many annoying ads on television it’s hard to nominate the most annoying one, but I think the ads for ChristianMingle.com have the inside track on such an award. It’s not that I object to online dating services as such, though I have numerous reservations. (Fortunately I’m married and my children are married. Now to protect the grandchildren!) But the attempt to make using this service sound like the “holy” and “godly” thing to do just grates.

But Peter Enns managed a great quote last night in a digression from his review of The Bible on the History Channel:

Actually, the most troubling part of the evening was the incessant Christianmingle.com commercials. God can’t seem to get around to putting a stop to hunger and war, but he has definitely taken the time of subcontracting out to a website the means by which you can find your perfect mate.

Just so!

 

Media Distrust

Media Distrust

Gallup reports that U. S. Distrust in Media Hits New High. Unfortunately, I suspect this distrust does not reflect a dismay at the amount of inaccurate information and a desire to get accurate information whatever the cost. I suspect that it’s more because of the large number of partisans who think their party, candidate, or favorite issue is not getting favorable treatment.

I too distrust the media, but my problem is that our journalists are trying for balance rather than for accuracy. The way they try to produce balance is by calling on people from both sides of any particular issue and having them argue. Since they have representatives of both sides, the reporting must be fair. No? In my view, most issues have more than two sides, and often having a Republican and a Democrat provide commentary doesn’t even cover two sides.

Evaluations of media fairness frequently involve counting positive and negative stories about a candidate or issue, and if the counts are right, then the coverage is fair.

There are several problems with this. One candidate or the other might be providing more fodder for negative stories than the other. If one candidate has more scandal is it to be expected that the media will manage to somehow keep the reporting equal? The problem here is that people can’t agree on just what is a real scandal.

That’s why I’d rather have the journalists themselves evaluate what they’re presenting and give their reasons and evidence. This is one of the reasons I like organizations like Politifact. I frequently disagree with their rating of a story, but they generally provide enough information such as the source of studies, details, additional context and so forth, for me to make at least a preliminary judgment, and pointers to information if I think I need to find more.

I think that our entire approach to media fairness should be scrapped. Identify biases, go in depth, and provide references. TV and radio programs can provide such references through their web sites. Over time I suspect the internet will adjust for bias by allowing people to select their own range of stories and opinion shows. That’s how I get my news already.

 

Blackout on Wikipedia Tomorrow

Blackout on Wikipedia Tomorrow

I’m not going to be blacked out here, but I thought I’d just mention that I also oppose the bills (PIPA, SOPA) that are going through congress. Our representatives simply have no idea whatever what a reasonable burden is. Their view is that if a multi-billion dollar corporation or a large government agency could handle it, it must be reasonable.

As usual, a good idea (piracy prevention) gets implemented in a way that will place an undue burden on many and will chill the conversation online.

You can find more information from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Fact Checking and Opinions

Fact Checking and Opinions

I’ve previously said a few good things about fact checking operations such as Politifact, but I’ve also noticed a few questionable items where opinion interfered with facts.

But today I read the article Lies, Damned Lies, and ‘Fact Checking’, and having looked into this a bit further, I must say that the few issues I have found personally with the service are not really representative of the facts. There is, in fact, quite a serious problem here.

The errors that Hemingway points out are of the same type as I have noticed, but his stories make it clear that the problem is much more pervasive.

It is, however, a very easy problem to spot and to correct for. The issue here is being able to distinguish between fact, theory, and opinion. As I’m using these terms here, that means between the data on which one’s opinions are based, theories that connect these facts together, and opinions, which are built on the previous two.

Some might question my distinction of theory and opinion, but I would maintain it is a valid one. Theories provide a consistent way in which we tie various facts together. A theory can be checked against another one by how well each theory explains the facts at hand.

Fact checking is important, and I think it is what an organization like Politifact should do. I do believe that in many cases they do check facts. But they also treat their own opinions as better facts than those of the people they “check.” There is a certain amount of journalistic arrogance involved in that. Who checks the journalists?

Read the complete article. I found myself in agreement with this article in general. The one issue I have is one I have not myself done enough research on. The question is just how valid a favorable and unfavorable story count is in determining bias. I think it has to be corrected based on who is providing the most opportunities.

For example, I would expect a greater number of fact checks done on Republicans right now due to the presidential debate. They are simply making more claims. This doesn’t mean that the balance is not biased. I haven’t made a count that would let me say something like that. It just makes me take the claim of bias with a grain of salt.

 

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