Quotulatiousness

August 21, 2014

QotD: The “Gell-Mann Amnesia” effect

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

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward — reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

Michael Crichton, quoted in “The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect”, Stephen Bodio’s Querencia, 2012-02-21.

August 13, 2014

News reporters as myth makers

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:09

Jack Schafer on the cyclical nature of the news and an explanation for certain story types growing into mythic form:

Has some wise guy flipped a switch and thrown the news into summer reruns?

Everywhere you look in your news feed is a story you’ve seen before. In northern Iraq, conquering jihadists have the Kurds calling on the United States for more help. North Korea is again stating its desire to nuke the White House. A virulent contagion abroad has Americans worrying when it will break out on our shores. And, in a rerun of a rerun, a Gaza war of tunnels, rockets, invasions, ceasefires, withdrawals, broken ceasefires, and shuttle diplomacy is claiming a record harvest of headlines.

[...]

But the periodicity of the news has another cause, as press scholar Jack Lule discovered more than a decade ago in his book Daily News, Eternal Stories. Lule proposed that the news was less a pure journalistic creation than it was the modern expression of ancient myths.

Like many all-encompassing formulas, Lule’s reduction of news into myth suffers by attempting to explain too much. But after reading his book, you can’t help but notice how many front-page stories collapse into the seven master myths he assembles (which will sound familiar to anybody who has brushed up against Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces): the victim, a casualty of randomness or a villain; the scapegoat, who is punished for straying outside the social order; the hero, who smites evil; the good mother, who “offers maternal comfort and protection”; the trickster, the rogue who disturbs the social order; the other world, typically foreign countries; and the flood, or any other disaster.

Few, if any, journalists would confess to consciously calling myths to convey the news, perhaps in part because so few of them are aware of the mythic thrust of their work. Instead, the ancient outlines express themselves spontaneously in copy, as reporters, who are usually voluminous readers, seek to infuse higher meaning to the disparate facts they’ve collected in their notebooks, even if they’re covering something as prosaic as a funeral or a legislative battle.

Few readers would confess to myth-seeking in their media choices, yet Lule makes the undeniable case that audiences prefer news when it is fashioned into something more eternal than pure information. Lule writes:

    Newspaper sales, magazine circulation, television news ratings, and website traffic all surge during dramatic and sensational events: schoolyard killings, royal weddings, hurricanes, assassinations, airline crashes, and inaugurations. What are people seeking? They’re not going to use these stories to vote for a candidate. They want compelling dramas. They want satisfying stories that speak to them of history and fate and the fragility of life. They want myth.

August 1, 2014

The New York Times bravely challenges … a policy they’ve propagandized for a century

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:39

In Forbes, Jacob Sullum admits that the sudden change of heart by the New York Times made him stop and reconsider whether he’d been wrong all this time:

According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of American adults support marijuana legalization. That’s around 130 million people. It turns out that some of them are members of the New York Times editorial board, which on Sunday declared that “the federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana.”

Given its timing, the paper’s endorsement of legalization is more an indicator of public opinion than a brave stand aimed at changing it. Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor at the Times, told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that the new position was not controversial among the paper’s 18 editorial writers and that when he raised the subject with the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, “He said, ‘Fine.’ I think he’d probably been there before I was. I think I was there before we did it.” Better late than never, I guess, although I confess that seeing a New York Times editorial in favor of legalizing marijuana briefly made me wonder if I’ve been wrong about the issue all these years.

In their gratitude for the belated support of a venerable journalistic institution, antiprohibitionists should not overlook the extent to which the Times has aided and abetted the war on marijuana over the years. That shameful history provides a window on the origins of this bizarre crusade and a lesson in the hazards of failing to question authority.

[...]

In short, the Times first publicly toyed with the idea of marijuana legalization in 1972, but it did not get around to endorsing that policy until 42 years later. What happened in between? Jimmy Carter, a president who advocated decriminalization, was replaced in 1981 by Ronald Reagan, a president who ramped up the war on drugs despite his lip service to limited government. That crusade was supported by parents who were alarmed by record rates of adolescent pot smoking in the late 1970s. Gallup’s numbers indicate that support for legalizing marijuana, after rising from 12 percent in 1969 to 28 percent in 1978, dipped during the Reagan administration, hitting a low of 23 percent in 1985 before beginning a gradual ascent.

Legalization did get at least a couple of positive mentions on the New York Times editorial page during the 1980s. A 1982 essay actually advocated “regulation and taxation” as “a more sensible alternative” to decriminalization, arguing that “a prohibition so unenforceable and so widely flouted must give way to reality.” But that piece was attributed only to editorial writer Peter Passell, so it did not represent the paper’s official position. Four years later, an editorial that was mainly about drug testing asked, “Why not sharpen priorities by legalizing or at least decriminalizing marijuana?” Good question. Let’s think about it for a few decades.

July 13, 2014

A handy rule of thumb when Obama speaks

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:03

From this week’s Goldberg File email from Jonah Goldberg:

I think I’ve stumbled onto a handy heuristic — or, if that word makes you want to smash my guitar on the Delta House wall, rule of thumb — for listening to Obama. Whenever he talks about himself, immediately flip it around so he’s saying the opposite. Think about it. “I’m not interested in photo-ops.” Boom. Translation: “I think photo-ops are really, really important. And that’s why I’m not going to have my picture taken with a bunch kids at the border.”

Now, sometimes, a literal reversal of meaning doesn’t work. But the key is to look at any statement he offers about others as an insight into his own mental state.

When Obama denounces cynicism, he’s actually being cynical. What he’s doing is expressing his frustration with people who are justifiably cynical about him. Why can’t you people fall for what I am saying!?

When he says he doesn’t care about “politics,” just problem-solving, what he’s really saying is he wants his political agenda to go unchallenged by other political agendas.

[...] whenever he says ideology and ideologues are a problem, what he’s actually saying is that competing ideologues and ideologies are the problem. That is, unless, you’re the sort of person who actually thinks Obama isn’t an ideologue, which is just adorable.

It’s not so much that he’s lying. Though if he were a Game of Thrones character, “Obama the Deceiver, First of His Name” would be a pretty apt formal title. No, he’s projecting. It’s an ego thing. I am fond of pointing out Obama’s insufficiently famous confession, “I actually believe my own bullsh*t.” What I like about it is that’s it’s like a verbal Escher drawing. He believes his own b.s. but by calling it b.s. he acknowledges it’s not believable. It’s like sarcastically insisting that you’re being serious. It’s earnest irony or ironic earnestness. If you take the statement too seriously, you could end up like android #1 in “I, Mudd.”

[...]

Anyway, I don’t take psychoanalysis, too seriously (“If you did, what would happen to me?” — The Couch). But I think Obama’s penchant for deriding his opponents as cynics and opportunists stems from the fact that he sees the world through precisely those sorts of prisms. But he tells himself he’s different because he does it for good purposes and besides, he’s so awesome his b.s. is true. No one knows if God can make a rock so heavy He can’t lift it, but Obama can sling such exquisite b.s. even he can believe. And because he believes it, he can’t tolerate the idea that others don’t.

Every President’s public image fades as his term of office runs down. It’s like the law of gravity … yet most of the media are still in love with the glamour of early-term Obama and keep hoping that somehow everyone else will believe hard enough with them that it will come back.

July 9, 2014

Britain’s latest moral panic enters the “proposing bad law” stage

Filed under: Britain, Law, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:40

Iain Martin says it’s now gotten to the point “where it is permissible to mention George Orwell and his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four“:

Peter Wanless, the chief executive of the NSPCC, said earlier: “If someone consciously knows that there is a crime committed against a child, and does nothing about it because they put the reputation of the organisation above the safety of that child, that should be a criminal offence.”

“Consciously knows.” There’s an interesting phrase. It seems that the NSPCC sees this sanction applying only to people in positions of responsibility. But how can that be defined fairly in law? Will the new law only apply to the chief executive of a health trust, but not to the finance director or to the head of communications? It would be impossible to define such a law so narrowly. In time it would have to apply to anyone working in any organisation. And, surely it must also apply to anyone who comes into contact with said organisation and who might have heard that a crime has been committed? People often think they “consciously know” something when they have actually only heard it third-hand. If the idea is established that failure to pass on a wild rumour to the police is somehow illegal, it is not difficult to imagine what could go wrong.

[...]

If it is to become a crime to fail to report suspicions that child abuse is taking place, why should the new law not to be extended in time to all other areas of criminal activity? It could become illegal to fail to report to the police if you suspected that a fellow citizen had committed a crime, or might be about to. As someone wise on Twitter put it earlier: the historical precedents of states making it compulsory for citizens to report on their fellow citizens are not encouraging.

Political media and a growing lack of historical awareness

Filed under: History, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:16

Mollie Hemingway says that media ignorance has become a serious problem:

The real problem is the arrogance that goes with the ignorance. Take Kate Zernike’s 2010 attempt at an expose of the ideas that motivate tea party activists that ran in the New York Times. She wrote:

    But when it comes to ideology, it has reached back to dusty bookshelves for long-dormant ideas. It has resurrected once-obscure texts by dead writers — in some cases elevating them to best-seller status — to form a kind of Tea Party canon.

Who are these obscure authors of long-dormant ideas? She points to Friedrich Hayek, for one. Yes, the same Hayek who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1974 and died way, way back in … 1992. Whose Road To Serfdom was so obscure that it has never been out of print and was excerpted in Reader’s Digest, that obscure publication with only 17 million readers. The article doesn’t get around to actually providing any insight into these activists’ philosophy and it’s probably a good thing considering that this is what she has to say about “the rule of law”:

    Ron Johnson, who entered politics through a Tea Party meeting and is now the Republican nominee for Senate in Wisconsin, asserted that the $20 billion escrow fund that the Obama administration forced BP to set up to pay damages from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill circumvented “the rule of law,” Hayek’s term for the unwritten code that prohibits the government from interfering with the pursuit of “personal ends and desires.”

Oh dear. Where to begin? How about with the fact that “rule of law” is not Hayek’s term. The concept goes back to, well, the beginning of Western Civilization and the term was popularized by a 19th century British jurist and constitutional theorist named A.V. Dicey. It’s not an unwritten code, by definition. The idea that this would be an obscure concept to someone says everything about Zernike and the team at the New York Times and precisely nothing about Ron Johnson or Hayek or that sector of citizens of the United States who retain support for the rule of law.

A few weeks ago, David Brat beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a stunning upset. The media didn’t handle it well. You might say they freaked out. Among other things, reporters sounded the alarm about a phrase Brat used in his writings that, they said, suggested he was a dangerous extremist: “The government holds a monopoly on violence. Any law that we vote for is ultimately backed by the full force of our government and military.” As National Review‘s Charles C.W. Cooke noted:

    “Unusual” and “eye-opening” was the New York Daily News’s petty verdict. In the Wall Street Journal, Reid Epstein insinuated darkly that the claim cast Brat as a modern-day fascist. And, for his part, Politico‘s Ben White suggested that the candidate’s remarks “on Neitzsche and the government monopoly on violence don’t make a whole lot of sense.”

Unusual, eye-opening, and non-sensical, perhaps, to people who had never studied what government is. But that group shouldn’t include political reporters, who could reasonably be expected to have passing familiarity with German sociologist Max Weber’s claim that “the modern state is a compulsory association which organizes domination. It has been successful in seeking to monopolize the legitimate use of physical force as a means of domination within a territory.”

Or take the Los Angeles Times‘ David Savage, who argued just last week that the Supreme Court’s decisions under Chief Justice John Roberts “rely on well-established rights, such as freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, but extend those rights for the first time to corporations, wealthy donors and conservatives.” Perhaps it’s just poorly written. Surely a man who has been responsible for informing Californians about the Supreme Court since 1986 doesn’t actually believe that conservatives, corporations or wealthy donors were not covered by the Bill of Rights until John Roberts came along. As James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal notes, “that is as ignorant as it is tendentious.”

July 8, 2014

The trend that isn’t actually trending

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:04

At Coyote Blog, Warren Meyer debunks one of the most frequently reported “trends” of the last few years:

Not a trend -living at home

It turns out that the share of young people 18-24 not in college but living at home has actually fallen. Any surge in young adults living at home is all from college kids, due to this odd definition the Census uses

    It is important to note that the Current Population Survey counts students living in dormitories as living in their parents’ home.

Campus housing, for some reason, counts in the census as living at home with your parents. And since college attendance is growing, thus you get this trend that is not a trend.

July 3, 2014

Skeptical reading should be the rule for health news

Filed under: Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:49

We’ve all seen many examples of health news stories where the headline promised much more than the article delivered: this is why stories have headlines in the first place — to get you to read the rest of the article. This sometimes means the headline writer (except on blogs, the person writing the headline isn’t the person who wrote the story), knowing less of what went into writing the story, grabs a few key statements to come up with an appealing (or appalling) headline.

This is especially true with science and health reporting, where the writer may not be as fully informed on the subject and the headline writer almost certainly doesn’t have a scientific background. The correct way to read any kind of health report in the mainstream media is to read skeptically — and knowing a few things about how scientific research is (or should be) conducted will help you to determine whether a reported finding is worth paying attention to:

Does the article support its claims with scientific research?

Your first concern should be the research behind the news article. If an article touts a treatment or some aspect of your lifestyle that is supposed to prevent or cause a disease, but doesn’t give any information about the scientific research behind it, then treat it with a lot of caution. The same applies to research that has yet to be published.

Is the article based on a conference abstract?

Another area for caution is if the news article is based on a conference abstract. Research presented at conferences is often at a preliminary stage and usually hasn’t been scrutinised by experts in the field. Also, conference abstracts rarely provide full details about methods, making it difficult to judge how well the research was conducted. For these reasons, articles based on conference abstracts should be no cause for alarm. Don’t panic or rush off to your GP.

Was the research in humans?

Quite often, the ‘miracle cure’ in the headline turns out to have only been tested on cells in the laboratory or on animals. These stories are regularly accompanied by pictures of humans, which creates the illusion that the miracle cure came from human studies. Studies in cells and animals are crucial first steps and should not be undervalued. However, many drugs that show promising results in cells in laboratories don’t work in animals, and many drugs that show promising results in animals don’t work in humans. If you read a headline about a drug or food ‘curing’ rats, there is a chance it might cure humans in the future, but unfortunately a larger chance that it won’t. So there is no need to start eating large amounts of the ‘wonder food’ featured in the article.

How many people did the research study include?

In general, the larger a study the more you can trust its results. Small studies may miss important differences because they lack statistical “power”, and are also more susceptible to finding things (including things that are wrong) purely by chance.

[...]

Did the study have a control group?

There are many different types of studies appropriate for answering different types of questions. If the question being asked is about whether a treatment or exposure has an effect or not, then the study needs to have a control group. A control group allows the researchers to compare what happens to people who have the treatment/exposure with what happens to people who don’t. If the study doesn’t have a control group, then it’s difficult to attribute results to the treatment or exposure with any level of certainty.

Also, it’s important that the control group is as similar to the treated/exposed group as possible. The best way to achieve this is to randomly assign some people to be in the treated/exposed group and some people to be in the control group. This is what happens in a randomised controlled trial (RCT) and is why RCTs are considered the ‘gold standard’ for testing the effects of treatments and exposures. So when reading about a drug, food or treatment that is supposed to have an effect, you want to look for evidence of a control group and, ideally, evidence that the study was an RCT. Without either, retain some healthy scepticism.

June 14, 2014

George Will confesses to using dodgy statistics in last week’s column

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:39

In the Washington Post last week, columnist George Will wrote about sexual assault on college campuses. The piece was widely criticized, and even drew a formal complaint from U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and Robert Casey (D-Pa.), which was published yesterday [PDF]. Today, he admits that he used a totally unreliable source for the statistics in the original article: President Barack Obama’s staff at the White House.

I have received your letter of June 12, and I am puzzled. You say my statistics “fly in the face of everything we know about this issue.” You do not mention which statistics, but those I used come from the Obama administration, and from simple arithmetic involving publicly available reports on campus sexual assaults.

The administration asserts that only 12 percent of college sexual assaults are reported. Note well: I did not question this statistic. Rather, I used it.

I cited one of the calculations based on it that Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute has performed {link}. So, I think your complaint is with the conclusion that arithmetic dictates, based on the administration’s statistic. The inescapable conclusion is that another administration statistic that one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college is insupportable and might call for tempering your rhetoric about “the scourge of sexual assault.”

June 4, 2014

It’s clearly time for The Something Must Be Done Act 2014

Filed under: Britain, Humour, Law, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:23

A post by David Allen Green from last year that prefigures the political landscape of today:

… all this statutory output is subject to the tiresome jurisdiction of the courts — the High Court will quash delegated legislation and use “human rights” jurisprudence to interpret the word of parliament out of recognition. Something must be done.

So this Act is a modest proposal for our legislators and public officials. Once it is passed, no other legislation will ever be necessary and the meddlesome courts will be neutered. This would be a Good Thing.

Let’s start with Section 1:

    “The Crown shall have the power to do anything, and nothing a Minister of the Crown does will be ultra vires.”

That should shut up the High Court for a while with their judicial review decisions.

But adding a second section to the Act will make sure that Ministers will act in the interests of all of us. So for the avoidance of doubt, Section 2 provides:

    “The power given by Section 1 of this Act shall include the banning of things by any Minister of the Crown.”

But what things can be banned? Well, here’s Section 3:

    “The things to be banned referred to in Section 2 of this Act shall be the things which a Minister of the Crown says are bad for us.”

Which in turn leads us to Section 4:

    “What is bad for us for the purposes of Section 3 shall be determined by a Minister of the Crown with regard either to (a) headlines in the tabloid press of the day and/or (b) the headlines the Minister of the Crown would like to see in the tabloid press tomorrow.”

Section 5 will then provide:

    “Any person

    (a) voicing opposition to a determination made under Section 4 of this Act; or

    (b) acting in breach of a ban made under Section 1 of this Act, shall be deemed to not care about the children and/or to be soft on terrorism.”

The Act should also include the following power at Section 6 so that any emerging issues can be addressed:

    “In the event something must be done, a Minister may at his or her discretion choose a thing to do, and the thing chosen shall be deemed as the something that must be done.”

This discretionary power, however, is subject to Section 7:

    “The thing chosen under Section 6 shall not have any rational or proportionate relationship to any intended objective.”

The way a lot of ministers carry on, you’d think this act had already been promulgated…

May 22, 2014

How politicians are like soccer goalkeepers

Filed under: Media, Politics, Soccer — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:33

At Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, Stephen Gordon talks about the odd distribution of goalie decisions on penalty kicks and how they’re quite similar to politicians:

Goaltenders jumped in more than 90% penalty kicks in the sample: the frequency of staying put was only 6.3%. Kickers, on the other hand, distributed their targets in roughly equal proportions.

The goaltenders’ strategy was not wholly ineffective: when the kicker aimed left or right (71.4% of the time), goaltenders guessed correctly 6 times out of 11. But the fact remains that the frequency of the goaltender staying put (6.3%) is much smaller that the frequency of kicks aimed down the middle (28.7%).

[...]

This doesn’t mean that goaltenders should never jump. What it does mean is that goaltenders jump far too often. Why?

Bar-Eli et al suggest an explanation: ‘action bias’. This is presented as an example of Kahneman and Miller’s (1986) [PDF] ‘norm bias’. Goaltenders believe is is less bad to follow the ‘norm’ (i.e., to jump) and fail than to not jump and fail. In other words, goaltender think that jumping and missing is less costly than not jumping and missing.

Which brings us to economic policy. Politicians are continually demanded to ‘do something’ about a kaleidoscopic array of grievances, and the norm in these cases is to promise to do something. As far as politicians and most voters are concerned, doing something is better than doing nothing — even when doing nothing is the correct response.

In many cases — possibly the majority of cases — doing nothing is the smart move. A recent example is the concern about the so-called ‘skill shortage’. When firms complain that they can’t get the workers they want at the wages they are willing to pay, the correct response is to do nothing: the market response to a labour shortage is to let wages increase.

But doing nothing is almost always bad politics: it is invariably interpreted as a lack of concern, and this perceived indifference will be pounced upon by other political parties. A politician who promises to act polls better than one who promises to do nothing.

A goalkeeper who fails to jump looks like an idiot if the ball goes left or right. The fans roar their disapproval and the keeper learns that doing the dramatic-but-wrong thing is better for his reputation than the non-dramatic (but more likely to be correct) non-action. Politicians also learn that the media will turn themselves purple denouncing the lack of action (even when that’s the correct decision) and short-term polling numbers move in the wrong direction.

As Calvin Coolidge is reported to have said, “Don’t just do something; stand there.” But even if you’re right not to take action, it will be harder to bear up under the criticism of the “do something” crowd.

May 19, 2014

QotD: Communism and language

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

It is not a new thought that Communism debased language and, with language, thought. There is a Communist jargon recognizable after a single sentence. Few people in Europe have not joked in their time about “concrete steps,” “contradictions,” “the interpenetration of opposites,” and the rest.

The first time I saw that mind-deadening slogans had the power to take wing and fly far from their origins was in the 1950s when I read an article in The Times of London and saw them in use. “The demo last Saturday was irrefutable proof that the concrete situation…” Words confined to the left as corralled animals had passed into general use and, with them, ideas. One might read whole articles in the conservative and liberal press that were Marxist, but the writers did not know it. But there is an aspect of this heritage that is much harder to see.

Even five, six years ago, Izvestia, Pravda and a thousand other Communist papers were written in a language that seemed designed to fill up as much space as possible without actually saying anything. Because, of course, it was dangerous to take up positions that might have to be defended. Now all these newspapers have rediscovered the use of language. But the heritage of dead and empty language these days is to be found in academia, and particularly in some areas of sociology and psychology.

Doris Lessing, “Questions You Should Never Ask a Writer”, New York Times, 1992-06-26 (reprinted 2007-10-13)

May 2, 2014

Australian Financial Review says the “World is Fukt”

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:09

In my mundane jobs, occasionally filler text is accidentally included in an otherwise ready-to-publish piece of work. Much more rarely, someone on staff uses placeholder headings that are never meant to go beyond their small circle of fellow scribes (sometimes funny, often scatological, risky-but-stress-relieving kind of things). When I was working for [defunct international telecom equipment manufacturer], a fellow writer included the instruction “If you find an error in this document, please dial 1-800-EAT-SHIT” on a cover page. The divisional VP was not amused when that hit his desk.

This is bad when it escapes to the internal audience outside the working group, but it’s much worse when it somehow goes out to the general public:

Australian Financial Review - World is Fukt

The financial newspaper which accidentally published a front-page headline reading “World is Fukt” apologised today to its readers for the error-ridden edition.

The respected Australian Financial Review, in a message from editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury, said the mistake was due to a production and printing error.

“The Australian Financial Review apologises to Western Australian readers for the obviously unacceptable state of the newspaper’s front page on Thursday,” he said in an apology in Monday’s newspaper.

The accidental front page quickly found fans on Twitter, who approved of the headline which read in full: “Arms buildup – Buys planes, World is Fukt”.

They also enjoyed the fact that the headline for a story about a major budget speech by Treasurer Joe Hockey was empty of meaning, reading “Three lines to come here”.

H/T to my best source in Oz, Roger Henry.

April 25, 2014

Is it science or “science”? A cheat sheet

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:32

At Lifehacker, Alan Henry links to this useful infographic:

Click to see full-size image at Compound Interest

Click to see full-size image at Compound Interest

Science is amazing, but science reporting can be confusing at times and misleading at worst. The folks at Compound Interest put together this reference graphic that will help you pick out good articles from bad ones, and help you qualify the impact of the study you’re reading

One of the best and worst things about having a scientific background is being able to see when a science story is poorly reported, or a preliminary study published as if it were otherwise. One of the worst things about writing about science worrying you’ll fall into the same trap. It’s a constant struggle, because there are interesting takeaways even from preliminary studies and small sample sizes, but it’s important to qualify them as such so you don’t misrepresent the research. With this guide, you’ll be able to see when a study’s results are interesting food for thought that’s still developing, versus a relatively solid position that has consensus behind it.

April 16, 2014

Thought experiment – in media reports, replace “scientist” with “some guy”

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:38

Frank Fleming makes an interesting point:

Our society holds scientists in high esteem. When scientists say something — whether it’s about the composition of matter, the beginning of the universe, or who would win a fight between a giant gorilla and a T. Rex — we all sit up and listen. And it doesn’t matter if they say something that sounds completely ridiculous; as long as a statement is preceded with “scientists say,” we assume it is truth.

There’s just one problem with that: There are no such things as scientists.

Okay, you’re probably saying, “What? Scientists are real! I’ve seen them before! There’s even a famous, blurry photo of a man in a lab coat walking through the woods.” Well, yes, there are people known as scientists and who call themselves such, but the word is pretty much meaningless.

[...]

Which brings us back to our problem. So much of science these days seems to be built on faith — faith being something that doesn’t have anything to do with science. Yet everyone apparently has faith that all these scientists we hear about follow good methods and are smart and logical and unbiased — when we can’t actually know any of that. So often news articles contain phrases such as, “scientists say,” “scientists have proven,” “scientists agree” — and people treat those phrases like they mean something by themselves, when they don’t mean anything at all. It’s like if you wanted music for your wedding, and someone came up to you and said, “I know a guy. He’s a musician.”

“What instrument does he play?”

“He’s a musician.”

“Is he any good?”

“He’s a musician.”

You see, when other occupations are vaguely described, we know to ask questions, but because we have blind faith in science, such reason is lost when we hear the term “scientist.” Which is why I’m arguing that for the sake of better scientific understanding, we should get rid of the word and simply replace it with “some guy.”

It’s not exactly a new phenomenon: Robert Heinlein put these words in the mouth of Lazarus Long, “Most ‘scientists’ are bottle washers and button sorters.” It was true then, and if anything it’s even more true now as we have so many more people working in scientific fields.

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