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A Note to Headline Readers

A Note to Headline Readers

Don’t!

Before you share anything, read the whole article. Check your facts.

But even before that … before you believe anything, read carefully, check your facts.

Headlines are often misleading. Their purpose is to get you to read, and in social media, they are aimed to get you to share.

In an emergency, misinformation can kill. Be the place where it stops!

Featured image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

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.

We Need to Quit Blaming the Media, Politicians, or the Infernal Them

We Need to Quit Blaming the Media, Politicians, or the Infernal Them

I call this group of (people | entities | circumstances) the infernal “they” or “them.” They are the people who cause all the problems. They have no moral compass. They are disruptive. They lie. They are apostates, perverts, stupid, deplorable, weak, losers, socialists, libertines (sometimes intended to include libertarians!). Disgusting, all of them. They are doing it to us.

This is one of the unfortunate results of individualism. There are many fortunate results as well. I am not one who wishes we’d get back to some sort of day when the individual didn’t really matter, and everything was about the collective. Like most “old days,” the reality of the old days is somewhat less [whatever we wanted it to be] than our imagination makes it. There has always been a balance between a view that values the society above all and one that values the individual. The emphasis varies; the elements are still there.

One problem with western individualism, however, is that we can so easily use it to find ways to blame someone else while separating ourselves. I am not responsible for anything but the things that I, personally, have done. I take no responsibility for what my ancestors did (though I’ll cheerfully benefit from their actions). I take no responsibility for the wrong actions of my church, my party, my social club, or my industry. I, personally, am blameless. In this, I am wrong.

In politics right now it’s popular to blame the media. Despite the fact that media outlets come from many perspectives, and you can find one as liberal or conservative, libertarian or authoritarian as you might desire (ain’t the internet wonderful), somehow, the collective media is responsible for whatever it is that I think is bad. They have lied and propped up one candidate, they have lied and trashed another. Within the same day I can read about how they have both completely destroyed and totally built up the same candidate.

This they, a “they” of which the speaker is not a part and does not carefully define, is the infernal they. It is the “they” that commits all evil acts. Besides being infernal it is also highly mobile. It is very hard to find this “they” and cause them to change or take responsibility for “their” actions.

I’m aware that neither you nor I are responsible for everything. But here’s a suggestion: Drop out of the game of assigning blame for the stuff you didn’t do and take responsibility for what you have done and can do something about. In addition, if you are—and remain—a member of a group, take responsibility for that group. Yes, you can distinguish what you support and don’t, but you are a part of what the group does. This means Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, United Methodists, Baptists (of whatever variety), and so forth.

I would like to demote the word “they” in my vocabulary and promote the word “we.” The media is producing material that people watch and that produces sales for their sponsors. Yes, there are some things that the people in media want themselves. But there is little that motivates so effectively in our culture as money. For the media, readers, viewers, and listeners mean money. That’s the “we” I’m talking about.

We need to be more discerning in our viewing and listening. We need to be active in letting the media know what we do and do not want to see and hear.  But, you say, you can’t really change that whole mass of “them” out there. Don’t worry about it. Change you. Turn your TV off. Visit a different site. Read a good book instead (says the publisher!)

Try to find the “we” before you utter that critical word. What I can say for myself is that I am often much too fascinated by the seamier side of the world. It is too easy to persuade me to give views to a web site that is saying things that I really shouldn’t support. I can make the excuse that I am “checking out the other side” or “keeping informed,” but it really is just the receiving side of gossip, and the one who listens to gossip is just as responsible, I believe, as the one who speaks it. After all, if every time the gossiper said, “Do you know what widow Jones did?” the response was “No, and I don’t want to know,” gossip would die.

Wrong needs to be challenged, but let’s start with the wrongs we can challenge using the word “we.” Let’s take our example from the biblical Daniel. I’m reminded of his prayer in chapter 9. By all biblical accounts Daniel was a righteous man. No act worthy of blame is recorded of him. Yet as he begins praying (Daniel 9:5-6a), there is a powerful litany:

We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly, and we have rebelled, turning aside from your commands and your judgments. We have not obeyed your servants the prophets …

Yet Daniel had done none of those things. It was not a matter of feeling or being guilty; you can drown in the guilt of others. What he did was he spoke for his people as one of them.

I think our prayers would be more powerful and our actions more effective if we learned his approach.

Detecting Plagiarism in a Fantasy Universe

Detecting Plagiarism in a Fantasy Universe

Credit: OpenClipart.com
Credit: OpenClipart.com

In the good old days when I had time to do fantasy role-playing games, stodgy traditionalists would object that it wasn’t real. Why spend your time on something that isn’t real? This was often said by people who would spend hours watching and discussing football games with approximately the same effect on reality. But I see one great advantage to those fantasy games (and to fantasy literature, for that matter). They don’t pretend to be real.

And thus I turn to the fantasy world of modern politics, in which speeches are written by teams of people who test out turns of phrase and issues on samples of target groups, then place the text on teleprompters to be read by otherwise often incoherent people. The issues emphasized in the politicians’ campaigns are not those the politician things are important. Rather, they are what researchers have determined seem important to the public. The solutions proposed are not those that the politician believes will really work. Instead, they are those that will sound good to a particular constituency.

The controversy about Melania Trump’s speech, with its plagiarized section, bundled the problems of our modern political discourse into one small package. A speaker uses plagiarized lines put there (accidentally) by a speechwriter, and never even recognized by the person presenting the speech. I’m not an apologist for Donald Trump or his campaign, but I can easily understand how this happens. The speech writers doubtless studied speeches by first ladies and potential first ladies for material. You get scraps of this stuff all over the computer, and eventually you drop the wrong one into place. Friends forgive you. Enemies won’t, but they wouldn’t in any case, so it doesn’t matter that much. The media spends huge amounts of time discussing it. Then bloggers like me discuss the whole thing all over again.

I don’t have any idea how close this was because I didn’t listen to or read the speech. I’m not an apologist for Donald Trump; in fact, I can think of huge numbers of things that I dislike about him. This doesn’t make the list.

Why? Because it’s part of that fantasy land that political marketing has created for us, the media propagates for us, and we go ahead and consume, no matter how much we may say we don’t believe the media. Yes, it’s our problem. Even those who most claim that the media is biased frequently let themselves be influenced by it. What they really mean when they say they don’t believe the media, is that they don’t believe it when it contradicts their prejudices. When it supports those prejudices it’s just fine. The people who put in the dollars know how it works. There’s a whole industry (at least one) built on hating the mainstream media.

When I speak, I do so either without notes or with the minimum of notes. I have occasionally used a prepared text, but I didn’t follow it, even though I did write it. Sometimes I have notes to tell me what topics to avoid due to limited time. If a politician wants me to listen to a speech, he or she will have to work in just that way. If your text is prepared, let it be your words. In all cases, let it be your ideas expressed your way. Then I’ll listen. I’m sorry, but in my preferred fantasy universe, speech writers would be out of a job.

I know that no politician can know everything necessary to handling the issues that the president must address. Fine! Let the candidate produce the team members who would talk about those issues, and have them talk about them. “Look,” says the candidate, “I’m not an expert on the middle east, but here’s the person whose judgment I trust most.” It could be sort of like the British shadow ministers, except that it lasts just for the campaign.

In the meantime, folks, politics is a great deal like a marketing campaign for widgets, except that there is no FTC to take the politicians to court for false advertising. In that atmosphere, a couple of plagiarized paragraphs might manage to be as important as one H2O molecule in the ocean.

Of Truth and Giant Spiders

Of Truth and Giant Spiders

angolanAnyone who looks at the blog header, or my Henry’s Web icon at the right, will know I like spiders. When I was younger (as in pre-teens and early teens), I read books about them and collected a few. That started while we were living in north Georgia, and continued in Guyana, South America, where I was able to collect a small Tarantula, between 4 & 5 inches across. I used to have a picture of it set on a towel with one inch colored squares, but I’ve lost that.

In any case, because of that interest, the picture to the left caught my attention immediately. Compare this beauty to the picture I have in my post Can You Identify This Spider?, a Golden Orb Weaver that set up shop near my office. Since then a number of them have done so, not to mention other varieties, and I try to leave an area for them that won’t get disturbed.

In any case, it should be immediately obvious that this “Angolan Witch Spider” is a fake. A rather nicely done fake, but still fake. Nobody should believe it for a minute. If you’re in doubt, you can always check Snopes, and in this case they actually have a picture of the spider that was quite artistically placed on the house, provided to them by the original artist.

spider_300x409It’s not that hard to avoid being scammed. In this case, it’s just fun, but there are plenty of scams both on the internet and elsewhere in real life. The first thing is just to stop, think, and apply logic. The internet is great at providing both misinformation and information. It’s simply great at passing “stuff” around. What type of stuff you discover is up to you.

There are those who want to blame the medium for the problems. The handwritten page, the printed page, the telephone, radio, television, and now the internet have each, in their turn, been blamed for spreading falsehood and immorality. But it’s people that do the bad things. The medium is just, well, the medium. And each change of medium also provides opportunities for truth, facts, logic, and dialog as well as all the negative stuff.

You just have to be willing to look for it!

 

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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A Comedian Shall Lead Them?

A Comedian Shall Lead Them?

“Them,” in this case being the media. I’m not about to start recommending Jon Stewart as a balanced news source, but he has definitely put his finger on some things, and often comedy gets closer to the truth than anything else in our political system. And while I disagree with Ron Paul on a number of issues (generally social issues), he’s got some good points that deserve to be heard.

 

Liberal illiberalism: Olbermann on Banks and News Outlets

Liberal illiberalism: Olbermann on Banks and News Outlets

Keith Olbermann, regularly angry about many things, is angry about the bank bonuses. (I blogged some about this here.) His answer?

Break up the banks. Regulate the financial industries, to within an inch of their existences. Roll back corporate legal protections. Make liable the officers of corporations, for their debts, and for their deeds. Resurrect the rallying cry of a hundred years past: bust the trusts! (from MSNBC)

It amazes me how quick people on either side of the political spectrum are to throw law, reason, and caution to the winds when they’re angry about something. If the Bush administration, for example, had gone after businesses in such a manner because of some security issue, doubtless Olbermann would have been shocked at their perfidy–rightly so. There are right and wrong ways to go about these things.

But more importantly, the reason the banks are behaving badly with the money they were given is that:

a) they behaved badly
b) they got in trouble
c) the government bailed them out without asking them to change their behavior

In other words, our government has been rewarding just this behavior. We’re asking when who knew what. But my question is this: What reason did anyone have to expect anything different? The obvious result of a set of actions takes place, and people are shocked.

But Olbermann, who is quite capable of recognizing something unconstitutional or illegal (or sometimes even stupid) when done by his opponents is unable to see it when he himself proposes it. What he suggests in that paragraph involves punishing the guilty with the innocent, destroying the very foundation of corporate law, and would certainly tromp right on across constitutional boundaries.

But Olbermann is not finished. Because the media didn’t get out the information, we need to get the government to make sure that the media is fair and that good information get out. Remember, this is the same government that failed to provide any reason why these people should not behave in this manner. People who can’t even write a decent contract for a loan are then asked to make sure that the American people get accurate information.

Never mind that he is now jumping all over the first amendment. He’s on a roll. If people don’t choose good information sources, make sure that they have to do so.

Like this:

Make sure both sides are heard. Re-regulate the radio and television industries to limit station ownership and demand diversity of management and product. Re-instate the old rules that denied one man all the voices in a public square. End all waivers of multiple ownership of television stations and networks and newspapers in the same market. (from MSNBC)

He continues by calling for similar regulation for the cable industry.

This is rampant stupidity. Olbermann wants to limit ownership to produce diversity. I think that was wrong even when there were limited broadcast outlets, but in the modern world, it is close to insane. People are not that limited as to what they can hear, but even more, there’s no reason to expect that having the government decide what is “in the public interest” and what the people need to hear is going to somehow improve the flow of information.

Besides some folks in the corporate world, who is close to the information here? The government. And who is falling flat and lying to cover it up? Those very government agencies charged with the task of keeping it from happening!

So let’s see. In order to improve the regulation, let’s give the people who failed more power, to “[r]egulate the financial industries, to within an inch of their existences.” Of course we have been told all along that these institutions must somehow be protected. But when the veneer is stripped off, we get down to the real idea–let’s destroy them.

Having admitted that goal, Olbermann proposes similar treatment for media outlets. Can one doubt that destruction of even the value that there remains in our media would be the ultimate result?

I am often called liberal, and I don’t argue. I am certainly libertarian. When it’s time to deal with issues such as the rights of the accused at trial, a willingness to provide every opportunity for exoneration if there is evidence, providing safety nets to the weakest folks in our society, or taming rampant militarism in foreign policy, I am rightfully called liberal. I don’t reject the label, even though I prefer “passionate moderate.”

But there are plenty of liberals running around who don’t deserve the title. When “liberal” spells handing all the power to government, and none to the people, then it isn’t “liberal.” With the same passion that I want to make sure that someone accused of a crime receives due process and eventually receives justice, I also want to make sure that a trader on Wall Street who has broken no law should not be deprived of his lawful earnings. If they are undeserved (and these bonuses are) there are proper ways of dealing with it.

The Republicans have been accused of having contempt for people who are from cities, or are part of the intellectual elites, or various other folks who are’t from the “real America.” The Democrats have been accused of despising small town America, gun owners, church-goers and so forth.

Unfortunately, it appears to me that both accusations are absolutely right. To some on the liberal side of the spectrum the guy who does his ordinary job for an ordinary work week, and spends the weekend in a hunting blind with his rifle or his shotgun, then heads off to church on Sunday moring just isn’t real. To some of the folks on the right–and now on the left as well, if you work in investment instead of digging a ditch or being a university professor, you aren’t quite real and your rights don’t matter.

It may be stupid for a company to give bonuses to those who produced catastrophe, but there is a proper forum for action on such things, and that is the shareholders’ meeting. What about the public money? If we didn’t want it used in that way, we should have specified that in the law, just as a lender might when making a loan.

Now we have representatives and senators who presumably meant it when they swore to uphold the constitution, voting for a special law to tax certain people’s specific earnings. It’s ridiculous. They know better. They’re using the legislative process to make people believe they’re truly outraged, but in doing so they’re expressing contempt for the constitution they chose to uphold. (To those who are going to say “What did you expect of Keith Olbermann?” I will call attention to the actual lawmakers who seem to be singing from the same hymnal.)

After my criticisms of Republicans over the years there have been some who wondered why I will not in turn register as a Democrat. Well, you can see it in action right now. My problem, a problem I intend to keep, is that I care about the rights of rich people and poor, ditch diggers and Wall Street investors, college professors, builders, waitresses–everyone who tries to produce at all.

I believe they should have the opportunity to carry out their business under a rational set of laws. If the law isn’t rational, you need to blame the people who wrote it and pretended it was something different, not the people who did their best to work under it.

But even more importantly, I believe that people must have the opportunity to seek their own sources of information, even if they choose Fox News, or newspapers of which Keith Olbermann doesn’t approve. You do not diversity the flow of information by limiting it.

I try to accept it when I’m called a liberal, because it’s usually the result of beliefs I hold very dear. I think the fear of the label is silly. But when you call for regulating banks “to within an inch of their existences” or when you want the government to make sure the media is “fair” then either you’re not a liberal or I’m not.

I won’t fight over the label. I’ll just call the ideas stupid and destructive.

The Golden Compass – Two Views

The Golden Compass – Two Views

I haven’t read the books or seen the movie, and thus far I really haven’t been attracted to them enough to go out of my way and do so. So why am I commenting on this at all?

Well, I’ve been asked, and I have to say that I can’t really comment on something I haven’t read or seen. But I’ve heard …

I do have one comment, however. I hear too frequently amongst Christians about subtle things in movies, books, and popular culture and how they might influence one. I would suggest that there are certain things I wouldn’t want to spend too much time on, simply because they are not what I want to fill my mind with. But I don’t spend my time worrying about it.

There are two great defenses. First, for you–think about what you read. Literature sometimes requires that you suspend disbelief, but it shouldn’t require that you suspend thinking. Subtle influences are disarmed when you notice them. Try this on ads sometime as well. If you actually think about the claims being made, you’ll find many, many ads are completely free of any content. They’re just filled with subtle hints to make you feel good about a product. Thinking about them defangs them.

Second, for your children–read with them and talk. This is good for you and good for them. Then if there is anything that’s a problem you can discuss it. Come to think of it, you can discuss the good parts as well.

Now, I’ve read many, many posts on this particular movie, and I’m going to just link to two, both from blogs I read regularly.

First, Ben Witherington warns against the movie and these books. I’m concerned with his dependence on the Catholic League, which is not a group whose judgment I trust generally.

Second, in response to that, from someone who has read the books, Metacatholic comments. He has good guidelines for reading as well.

As you can probably tell, I’m much more comfortable with Doug’s logic on Metacatholic, which reflects my prejudices. So for those who have asked, this provides the opportunity to check it out.

Important Senate Business: Condemning Ads

Important Senate Business: Condemning Ads

They took the time to condemn the [tag]MoveOn.org[/tag] Ad on General [tag]Petraeus[/tag] (LA Times story).

Now I don’t like the ad, and I don’t particularly like MoveOn.org, and I think private groups and politicians should go ahead and do all the condemning that the ad deserves. Though I’m an opponent of the war in Iraq, I think the ad deserves a good deal of condemning. But all of that, like the ad itself, is simply part of the free exchange of ideas that we have in this country. MoveOn.org gets to act irresponsibly; that’s their right. I get to loathe them for it; that’s my right. I get to think General Petraeus is wrong even though I loathe the ad attacking him, that’s my right. None of it is a matter for the law.

And of course one can point out to me that the Senate didn’t pass a law. It’s not binding. OK, fine. But if it’s not a law, it’s non-binding, and it just expresses their opinion, why bother doing anything about it in the Senate? This is not the only such resolution, of course, and they have varying relevance to the business of the Senate. But right now, our government lacks a coherent policy on terrorism, the president and congress are wrangling over just how to behave in Iraq, thus preserving the maximally nasty situation in which we hold on, but with no reason to expect success. At the end of the fiscal year, the Senate will be running out of time to accomplish important business like appropriations bills.

And here they are condemning an ad. Let them condemn (or condone) ads on their own time out on the campaign trail. That’s where it belongs.