September 30, 2015

Let’s all just leave the Governor General out of everyone’s election scenario-making exercises

Filed under: Cancon, History, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Colby Cosh on the sudden interest among the chattering classes about the role of the Governor General during election campaigns:

What’s with malcontent nitwit constitutional experts popping up in the newspaper to warn of “political instability” because we’re having a three-sided election? You know, this isn’t really that hard. The United Kingdom, a nuclear-armed power across the Atlantic that may be vaguely familiar, had an election in 2010 that failed to produce a majority. Its 650-seat House of Commons ended up with 306 Conservatives, 258 Labour MPs, 62 Liberal Democrats and a ragbag of deputies from nationalist and leftist parties.


If there is no majority party, that will involve tough decisions, most likely falling upon whomever finds himself in third place. But it should not end up with the governor general making some kind of awkward choice in a vacuum. The party leaders should feel enormous pressure to arrive at a decision between them, as if there were a taboo protecting the governor general’s door. The Privy Council Office is probably already creating that pressure. A governor general should never be presented with anything but a fait accompli. He plays the role of the Queen locally, and should be thought of like the Queen, as being above political decision-making.

The proper thing for constitutional pundits to be doing right now is to strengthen that taboo. Musings about imaginary scenarios in which the viceroy might have to involve himself in the selection of a government are fun — exactly the kind of thing I myself enjoy. But if you are cooking up such an op-ed, or giving quotes of that nature to a journalist, you are signing a license for party leaders to prolong the negotiation period that might follow our election, and encouraging them to make illicit use of sly appeals to the public about what the governor general ought to be doing.

In a minority situation, the temptation will be there: some leader will want to suggest that an arrangement for government that leaves him out has been arrived at unfairly. Or a third-place finisher who should be deciding the identity of a prime minister other than himself, and who has the real power to decide, might lose his nerve and start thinking he can evade the choice.

September 23, 2015

QotD: The Platonic Ideal of a Guardian column

Filed under: Humour, Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The Guardian’s Aisha Mirza bemoans the “psychic burden” of living among white people, which is worse than being mugged.

The more I think about it, the more this may exemplify a near-perfect Guardian article, the ideal to which all other Guardian columnists should aspire. It’s haughty and obnoxious, is ignorant of relevant subject matter, is frequently question-begging, and its imagined piety is premised on a rather obvious double standard. Specifically, Ms Mirza’s belief that people who leave London do so, secretly, because they don’t feel comfortable living among people with skin of a darker hue, which is racist and therefore bad, and her own simultaneous preference not to live among people whose skin is paler than hers, which is somehow not racist at all, and is in fact aired as the last word in righteousness.

David Thompson, “Reheated (45)”, davidthompson, 2015-09-08.

September 18, 2015

The State Of World War 1 – As Reported by A Newspaper 100 Years Ago I THE GREAT WAR – Week 60

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 17 Sep 2015

This week Indy dissects a contemporary source from autumn 1915 – the Hobart Mercury newspaper from Australia. You can find the whole newspaper right here: http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/10429329

While the French and British prepare a new offensive on the Western Front, their Entente ally Russia is still suffering in the East when Germany is moving on the last big Russian city of Vilnius. Even though the propaganda says otherwise, the situation for the ANZACs in Gallipoli still looks grim.

August 31, 2015

Newspapers in the 21st century – what are they for?

Filed under: Business, Media, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Colby Cosh on the confusion even among newspaper folks themselves on their real role in today’s society:

But the newspaper is part of a different ecosystem now. A front page is a late contribution to an ongoing conversation in a way it was not in 1963, or even 2003. Editors making decisions about what images to use had heard Alison Parker’s screams; they knew many readers had heard them. That non-graphic touch made the photo of Parker with the killer’s weapon in the foreground “graphic” — too graphic for the proverbial breakfast table. (Although I would remind sensitive editors and media critics that the “breakfast table” is an incredibly outmoded way of thinking about our jobs, much like the idea that we are presenting news in a utilitarian, isolated way to readers who haven’t heard it.)

The truth is that the minds of most newspaper creators and editors are not completely clear about what these strange flat objects are good for in the year 2015. The New York Daily News, which does know what it is for, was unflinching in its front-page treatment of the WDBJ shooting. It caught immediate hell, but its confidence in its mission is a virtue. The paper knows that it exists partly because when something happens, New Yorkers can’t wait to see what those crazy-ass bastards in the tabloids will do with it.

Does the newspaper do harm with its relative sensationalism? It seems impossible to know. But it is certainly not the infliction of harm that critics and second-guessers fear most: it is the giving of offence.

August 29, 2015

The bad news about good news

Filed under: Economics, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Strategy Page, an explanation for why most people think the world is going to hell, despite the facts pointing in all kinds of positive and hopeful directions:

One of the ironies of the post-Cold War world is that most people get the impression that things are getting worse and worse while for the majority of people on the planet life is getting better. Worldwide poverty and death rates are plummeting while income and reported (via opinion surveys) satisfaction are way up. Many major diseases (like tetanus and polio) have nearly been eliminated and malaria, the disease that has killed more people than any other throughout history, is in decline because of medical advances. War related deaths have been declining since World War II ended in 1945 and that decline continued after the Cold War eliminated most communist governments in 1991. Why do most people think otherwise? You can blame the mass media and their most effective marketing tool; FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).

Mass media first appeared in the mid-19th century with the development of the steam press, which made cheap-enough-to-reach-a-mass-audience newspapers possible. Editors quickly learned that FUD sells best. Politicians, rebels, and even advertisers found that FUD was a very effective tool to grab attention and change attitudes. Put another way, excitement sells, and the best way to excite readers is to scare them.

Modern terrorism, based on using murderous mass attacks on the public to trigger a flurry of media coverage, came out of this. The 19th century anarchists, followed by the Bolsheviks (communists), several fascist movements (like the Nazis), and many others, all used this media proclivity to jump on terrorist acts in order to scare readers into buying more newspapers, or supporting some extremist cause or another. The terrorists got the publicity and attention they wanted, which sometimes led to acquiring political power as well.

Radio appeared in the 1930s and this made it even easier to reach literate as well as illiterate populations. Combining radio and FUD allowed communism and fascism to spread far and fast in the 1930s. The sad fact is that this situation is not unknown among journalists. Many of them have been complaining about it for over a century. No one has been able to come up with a solution. Good news doesn’t sell. And the pursuit of scary headlines that do has created a race to the bottom.

It’s probably rational for mass media outlets to concentrate on the vivid, shocking bad news … because it grabs the attention and sells more newspapers and encourages more people to watch video reports. Good news? Well, it’s nice to hear, but it’s neither urgent nor compelling (except cat videos on YouTube, of course). You might like to hear it, but it’s not urgent and compelling … you can catch up on that anytime. A flood? An earthquake? A breaking story about a hostage situation? You’ll pay attention whether you want to or not. And that sells newspapers and gets ad revenue for networks.

August 15, 2015

Impersonal forces acting on passive innocents

Filed under: Britain, Media, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

We’ve seen plenty of examples of this kind of “reporting”, where the presentation of the case absolves the actors in advance of any motive or action … they’re always implicit victims of circumstances beyond their control. Theodore Dalrymple points to a recent example:

Sometimes the employment of a single word in common use gives away an entire worldview. There was just such a usage in the headline of a story in the Guardian newspaper late last month: “How the ‘Pompey Lads’ fell into the hands of Isis.”

Pompey is the colloquial name for Portsmouth, the naval town on the south coast of England, and the “lads” of the headline were five young men of Bangladeshi origin who grew up there and later joined Isis in Syria. The article describes how the last of the five has now been killed, three others having been killed before him and one, who returned to Britain, having been sentenced to a four-year prison sentence (in effect two years, with remission for good behavior). The use of the word “lads” is intended to imply to the newspaper’s readers that there was nothing special or different about these five young men, nothing that distinguished them from the other young men of Portsmouth. Its use was a manifestation of wishful or even magical thinking, as if reality itself could be altered in a desired way by the mere employment of language.

But the word that implied a whole worldview was “fell.” According to the headline, the young men “fell” into the hands of Isis as an apple falls passively to the ground by gravitational force. The word suggests that it could have happened to anybody, this going to Syria via Turkey to join a movement that delights in decapitation and other such activities in the name of a religion — their religion. Joining Isis is like multiple sclerosis; it’s something that just happens to people.

The word “fell” denies agency to the young men, as if they had no choice in the matter. They were victims of circumstance by virtue of their membership of a minority, for minorities are by definition victims without agency.

August 14, 2015

QotD: When “the science” shows what you want it to show

Filed under: Media, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

To see what I mean, consider the recent tradition of psychology articles showing that conservatives are authoritarian while liberals are not. Jeremy Frimer, who runs the Moral Psychology Lab at the University of Winnipeg, realized that who you asked those questions about might matter — did conservatives defer to the military because they were authoritarians or because the military is considered a “conservative” institution? And, lo and behold, when he asked similar questions about, say, environmentalists, the liberals were the authoritarians.

It also matters because social psychology, and social science more generally, has a replication problem, which was recently covered in a very good article at Slate. Take the infamous “paradox of choice” study that found that offering a few kinds of jam samples at a supermarket was more likely to result in a purchase than offering dozens of samples. A team of researchers that tried to replicate this — and other famous experiments — completely failed. When they did a survey of the literature, they found that the array of choices generally had no important effect either way. The replication problem is bad enough in one subfield of social psychology that Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote an open letter to its practitioners, urging them to institute tougher replication protocols before their field implodes. A recent issue of Social Psychology was devoted to trying to replicate famous studies in the discipline; more than a third failed replication.

Let me pause here to say something important: Though I mentioned bias above, I’m not suggesting in any way that the replication problems mostly happen because social scientists are in on a conspiracy against conservatives to do bad research or to make stuff up. The replication problems mostly happen because, as the Slate article notes, journals are biased toward publishing positive and novel results, not “there was no relationship, which is exactly what you’d expect.” So readers see the one paper showing that something interesting happened, not the (possibly many more) teams that got muddy data showing no particular effect. If you do enough studies on enough small groups, you will occasionally get an effect just by random chance. But because those are the only studies that get published, it seems like “science has proved …” whatever those papers are about.

Megan McArdle, “The Truth About Truthiness”, Bloomberg View, 2014-09-08.

August 1, 2015

QotD: How to write a headline about a “scientific” result

Filed under: Humour, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… let’s not forget the Heads We Win Tails You Lose rule of the in-group affirmations which we loosely call “social sciences.”

Suppose you run a test to distinguish whether women, or men, are more willing to hire family — that is, engage in nepotism — when filling a job.

If it turns out that men are more likely to engage in nepotistic practices, the study will be titled:

Women More Ethical in Business Dealings Than Men

On the other hand, if it turns out that women are more likely to approve of nepotism, whereas men are less likely, the study will have the title:

Women More Caring Towards Family Members; Men Care Only About Filthy Careerism & the Welfare of Total Strangers Who Might Be Rapists

Ace, “Shock: Social Scientists Determine Conservatives Are Stupid”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-09-09.

July 24, 2015

The long-term damage to scientific credibility

Filed under: Health, Media, Politics, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Matt Ridley on the danger to all scientific fields when one field is willing to subordinate fact to political expediency:

For much of my life I have been a science writer. That means I eavesdrop on what’s going on in laboratories so I can tell interesting stories. It’s analogous to the way art critics write about art, but with a difference: we “science critics” rarely criticise. If we think a scientific paper is dumb, we just ignore it. There’s too much good stuff coming out of science to waste time knocking the bad stuff.

Sure, we occasionally take a swipe at pseudoscience — homeopathy, astrology, claims that genetically modified food causes cancer, and so on. But the great thing about science is that it’s self-correcting. The good drives out the bad, because experiments get replicated and hypotheses put to the test. So a really bad idea cannot survive long in science.

Or so I used to think. Now, thanks largely to climate science, I have changed my mind. It turns out bad ideas can persist in science for decades, and surrounded by myrmidons of furious defenders they can turn into intolerant dogmas.

This should have been obvious to me. Lysenkoism, a pseudo-biological theory that plants (and people) could be trained to change their heritable natures, helped starve millions and yet persisted for decades in the Soviet Union, reaching its zenith under Nikita Khrushchev. The theory that dietary fat causes obesity and heart disease, based on a couple of terrible studies in the 1950s, became unchallenged orthodoxy and is only now fading slowly.

What these two ideas have in common is that they had political support, which enabled them to monopolise debate. Scientists are just as prone as anybody else to “confirmation bias”, the tendency we all have to seek evidence that supports our favoured hypothesis and dismiss evidence that contradicts it—as if we were counsel for the defence. It’s tosh that scientists always try to disprove their own theories, as they sometimes claim, and nor should they. But they do try to disprove each other’s. Science has always been decentralised, so Professor Smith challenges Professor Jones’s claims, and that’s what keeps science honest.

What went wrong with Lysenko and dietary fat was that in each case a monopoly was established. Lysenko’s opponents were imprisoned or killed. Nina Teicholz’s book The Big Fat Surprise shows in devastating detail how opponents of Ancel Keys’s dietary fat hypothesis were starved of grants and frozen out of the debate by an intolerant consensus backed by vested interests, echoed and amplified by a docile press.

July 20, 2015

QotD: Good rioting weather

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I slept through the only riot I was ever sent to cover as a reporter. Having traveled a long way I was very tired, and by the time I woke the riot was almost over. Still, I was able to describe with some vividness the acrid smell of burning rubber in the streets and the smashed glass and emptied shelves of the storefronts, and I did see a few people adding fuel to the flames of a barricade not far from my hotel (I later saw one of the perpetrators in an expensive restaurant). Such was my description that no reader would have guessed that I had slept peacefully through the violent proceedings. Strangely enough, my experience of being a foreign correspondent, if that is what it was, has never caused me to doubt the veracity of what I read in the newspapers, which I swallow as a boa constrictor swallows a goat.

However, I have followed riots around the world vicariously ever since, and it seems to me that the principal precondition of such events in the modern world is clement weather. The association is much stronger than with, say, injustice, partly because there is complete agreement as to what constitutes clement weather, whereas what constitutes justice has been in dispute since at least the time of Plato. We all recognize good rioting weather when we see it, but injustice — well, we could go on arguing about it for days. Everyone can contain his anger in the rain.

Theodore Dalrymple, “Indulging in Destruction”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-08-24.

July 15, 2015

The media and free speech coverage

Filed under: Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Popehat, Ken White explains what to look for in how the media subtly (or not-so-subtly) introduce pro-censorship memes when it covers free speech issues:

American journalists and pundits rely upon vigorous free speech, but are not reliable supporters of it. They both instruct and reflect their fickle audience.

It’s easy to spot overt calls for censorship from the commentariat. Those have become more common in the wake of both tumultuous events (like the violence questionably attributed to the “Innocence of Muslims” video, or Pamela Geller’s “Draw Muhammad” contest) and mundane ones (like fraternity brothers recorded indulging in racist chants).

But it’s harder to detect the subtle pro-censorship assumptions and rhetorical devices that permeate media coverage of free speech controversies. In discussing our First Amendment rights, the media routinely begs the question — it adopts stock phrases and concepts that presume that censorship is desirable or constitutional, and then tries to pass the result off as neutral analysis. This promotes civic ignorance and empowers deliberate censors.

Fortunately, this ain’t rocket science. Americans can train themselves to detect and question the media’s pro-censorship tropes. I’ve collected some of the most pervasive and familiar ones. This post is designed as a resource, and I’ll add to it as people point out more examples and more tropes.

July 14, 2015

Restaurant reviews … with real teeth

Filed under: Britain, Business, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

In The Guardian, Jay Rayner provides the kind of review that you rarely see in your local newspaper (because it guarantees that the restaurant will never buy advertising from you again):

Cooking a steak well is tricky, because you cannot see inside the meat. It takes experience and knowledge. Cooking chips is easy: use the right potatoes, give them a couple of runs through the hot oil, make sure they’re the right colour, perhaps even taste a couple. The job is done. At Smith & Wollensky, the new London outpost of a well-known small American steakhouse chain, we sent back the chips because they were tepid and under-cooked. They returned to us hot and undercooked. And in that one example of carelessness and lack of attention to detail, you know all you need to.

But I had to sit through the whole damn meal so I don’t see why you shouldn’t, too. This US business has swaggered into London like it thinks it’s the bollocks. The description is almost right, if you remove the definite article before the reference to testicles. It is about as shoddy an operation in separating people from inexcusable amounts of their cash as I have seen in a very long time.


The menu also mentions a list of blackboard specials – T-bones and so on – all of which have run out by 8.20pm. We order the bone-in ribeye. The char is feeble and the overwhelming taste is of salt. Worse is the texture. It’s floppy. Part of this, I think, is a cultural difference; Americans like to celebrate steaks based on tenderness, as if being able to cut a piece of dead animal with a butter knife is an aspiration. I think that if you’re going to eat beef, you want to know it has come from an animal that has moved. This steak slips down like something that has spent its life chained to a radiator in the basement.

The sauces are dire. A béarnaise is an insult to the name, lacking any acidity or the anise burst of tarragon. An au poivre sauce is just a shot of hot demi-glace. A side salad is crisp and well dressed. We take comfort in it. Many other sides are priced for two which is a quick route to higher profit margins and greater food waste. The £9 battered onion rings are good; the £10 truffled mac and cheese is dry and tastes not at all of truffle. Those terrible chips come in the kind of mini-chip-fat-fryer-basket used at chain pubs.

Service is omnipresent. Twice we ask to keep our bread and side plates when they attempt to remove them. When a third waiter lunges in I finally admit defeat. Take them if you’re so bloody desperate. How hard is it to communicate a table’s wishes to the half dozen people working a corner of the floor, especially when a meal is going to cost more than £100 a head?

H/T to John McCluskey for the link.

Update: An earlier review from the same series is extra-flavourful…

You could easily respond to this week’s restaurant with furious, spittle- flecked rage. You could rant about the posing-pouch stupidity of the meat – hanging cabinet that greets you as the lift doors open, and the frothing tanks of monstrous live Norwegian king crabs next to it, each 4ft across. You could bang on about the bizarre pricing structure, and the vertiginous nature of those prices; about the rough-hewn communal tables that are so wide you can’t sit opposite your dining companion because you wouldn’t be able to hear each other, and the long benches which make wearing a skirt a dodgy idea unless you’re desperate to flash the rest of the heavily male clientele. You could shake your fists and roll your eyes and still not be done.

I think this would be a mistake. Instead you should accept Beast as the most unintentionally funny restaurant to open in London in a very long time. It’s hilariously silly. The most appropriate response is to point and laugh. I don’t even think I’d advise you not to go. As long as you go with someone else’s money, because God knows you’ll need a lot of it. Got any friends who are, say, international drug barons? Excellent. They may be able to afford dinner. It’s worth going to see what the unmitigated male ego looks like, when expressed as a restaurant.


The corn-fed, dry-aged Nebraskan rib-eye, with a carbon footprint big enough to make a climate-change denier horny, is bloody marvellous: rich, deep, earthy, with that dense tang that comes with proper hanging. And at £100 a kilo it bloody well should be. At that price they should lead the damn animal into the restaurant and install it under the table so it can pleasure me while I eat.

July 9, 2015

QotD: People trust Wikipedia “Because An Argument Is Better Than A Lecture”

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

That’s because, as I’ve been trying to scream at you people for the past three years, the corporate mass-media news industry sucks. More specifically, the once proud fourth branch of our government has been reduced to screaming-head opinionators formulating commentary on the basis of politicized ratings. In other words, Wikipedia and the news are in two different businesses: one is about facts and the other is about shock and spin. Argue with me all you like, you know it’s true.

But perhaps even more importantly, the general public trusts crowd-sourced Wikipedia articles more than the news because an argument is always more trust-worthy than a lecture. That’s the real difference. If you want to know how good a teacher in a school is, you gather up the best student, the worst student, the principal and the teacher and then analyze what they all say together. You don’t ask the school’s PR director. Wikipedia, even when it comes to contested or hotly-debated articles, does this extremely well, even concerning itself. The linked article above discussed a number of articles about how reliable Wikipedia is, some of which disagreed with others, and all were found on the Wikipedia page for itself.

    Regardless the disputes over individual studies and their methodologies, how I found them is almost as telling as their results. I came across them because Wikipedia provided external references, allowing me to corroborate the information. This is one of the site’s great merits: the aggregation of multiple sources, correctly linked, to build a more complete picture. As the results of the Yougov poll perhaps suggest, this surely seems more reliable than getting the coverage of an event from one newspaper.

The truest answer to a question can rarely be told by a single source, which is what makes the sources section of a Wikipedia page so valuable. What is the corollary in a news broadcast? Perhaps a single expert? Maybe once in a while they’ll have two sides of a debate spend five minutes with one another? They’re not even close. The argument itself can be instructive, but that argument never happens on most news shows.

This doesn’t mean you blindly read Wiki articles without questioning them. But a properly sourced article is simply more trustworthy than a talking head telling you how to think.

Timothy Geigner, “Why Do People Trust Wikipedia? Because An Argument Is Better Than A Lecture”, Techdirt, 2014-08-18.

April 3, 2015

Perhaps the New York Times needs to back away from science coverage

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Alex B. Berezow makes a case for the venerable New York Times to not cover science stories:

What has gone so wrong for the NYT? Many things are to blame. The paper’s leftish editorial page is out of step with a large portion of the American public. A high-profile scandal, in which journalist Jayson Blair was caught fabricating articles, damaged its credibility. The biggest factor, however, is the rise of credible challengers — both print and digital — that simply do better journalism. There is little incentive to spend money to read the NYT when superior news coverage (and more sensible editorializing) can be found elsewhere.

The NYT‘s science coverage is particularly galling. While the paper does employ a staff of decent journalists (including several excellent writers, such as Carl Zimmer and John Tierney), its overall science coverage is trite. Other outlets cover the same stories (and many more), in ways that are both more in-depth and more interesting. (They are also usually free to read.) Worst of all, too much of NYT‘s science journalism is egregiously wrong.


Reliance on fringe, pseudoscientific sources has become something of a trend at the NYT. Its most deplorable reportage involves the science of food, particularly GMOs. Henry Miller, the former founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, reprimands anti-GMO foodie Mark Bittman for “journalistic sloppiness” and “negligence” in his “[inability] to find reliable sources.”

Furthermore, in a damning exposé, Jon Entine reveals that Michael Pollan, a food activist and frequent NYT contributor, “has a history of promoting discredited studies and alarmist claims about GMOs.” Even worse, Mr. Entine writes that Mr. Pollan “candidly says he manipulated the credulous editors at the New York Times… by presenting only one side of food and agriculture stories.” Mr. Pollan was also chided by plant scientist Steve Savage for disseminating inaccurate information on potato agriculture and fearmongering about McDonald’s French fries.

On many matters concerning nutrition or health, the NYT endorses the unscientific side of the debate. For instance, The Atlantic criticized a New York Times Magazine essay on the supposed toxicity of sugar. At Science 2.0, Hank Campbell mocked an NYT writer’s endorsement of gluten-free diets, and chemist Josh Bloom dismantled a painfully inaccurate editorial on painkillers.

March 27, 2015

Adrian Peterson’s public image

Filed under: Football, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:00

The fans still hold Adrian Peterson in high regard … but not as high as they did before September, 2014. His agent’s antics along with a steady drip of news through a few key media folks and rumours possibly originating with his family and friends are slowly corroding that public support. I think he’s probably still got more supporters than detractors among the Vikings fanbase, but it looks like he’s losing (or has already lost) the benefit of the doubt from the local Minneapolis-St. Paul media. For example, here’s Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan’s latest:


Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress