Adventures in Bad Journalism #1

In my opening post I referred to my general disdain for journalists. Not because journalism isn’t important, and not that some journalists don’t do good work, but that most either don’t or maybe can’t. Unfortunately, one cannot simply avoid this by subscription to prestigious outlets. The NYT, FP, Economist, etc. are not immune to this problem. There are at least two serious problems for the reader with bad journalism:

  1. It wastes your time
  2.  It gives you wrong impressions while often providing some actual truth, primarily by burying it.

Years and years of practicing reading has allowed me to avoid as much of problem #1 as possible. But it cannot be entirely ignored or avoided. #2 simply cannot be avoided or ignored. I recently read an egregious and simple example in Foreign Policy. More than 3,000 words on a dead-horse subject (Russian/foreign influence on elections through social media), which could be been limited to the following admission buried in the middle of the article:

FP: American Democracy is an easy target

It is unsurprising that there is little evidence that Russian activities have, for example, led to significant changes in what people think. While social media surely influences what people do, think, and say, it is hard to use it effectively on the cheap. Russian media accounts were only one relatively small grouping among a vast crowd of would-be influencers, each trying to shout down the others. Most of Russia’s efforts likely simply disappeared in the noise.

But a couple of paragraphs earlier:

In some countries, these attacks have had minimal success — creating a political nuisance, but nothing more. In others, such as the United States, they have had greater consequences. This is not because Russian efforts in the U.S. election were crafted with precision, but because American democracy is in such trouble that even relatively inept efforts can succeed.

Out of both sides of their mouth they speak. No wonder people don’t know what is real or fake anymore (as opined by the article), and sifting through all that rehashed garbage for useful information requires far too much energy for it to be worth it for most people. Verdict – bad journalism.


Adventures in Gender #2

Many of this series of posts, like the first post in the series, will likely be addressing explanations of the Wage Gap, as this difference between the genders has received the most attention in the news.  Most recently on this front, Quartz’s Oliver Staley reports:

Why male Uber drivers earn more than women

The study showed that women learn at the same rate as men, but because men are less likely to have childrearing responsibilities, they’re more likely to have the time to accumulate the experience required to earn more. There are far more men with two years of Uber experience than there are women.

That experience also means men tend to drive in a better locations. Looking specifically at data from two months in Chicago, women drove slightly longer distances (0.5 miles, vs. 0.49 miles for men) between accepting a fare and picking up passengers—time which they’re not paid for—and had shorter trips with passengers (4.88 miles, vs. 5.04 miles for men), time for which they are paid. Men also see more benefit from driving during surges, and earned $10.14 per trip, compared to $9.84 for women.

So here we have a clear difference in life choices affecting income levels, which is often dismissed out of hand by those touting practically useless numbers like “average earnings”. However, one might respond that these life choices are due to systemic inequities, and this is a much more nuanced argument that requires much more space than a blog post and in some respects gets out of the realm of data. However, all of that aside, these several differences did not account for the greatest amount of the variance in pay:

But the biggest contributor to the Uber gender gap, accounting for almost half the difference, is the higher average speed for male drivers. Uber’s formula for paying drivers rewards fast driving, up to a point (accidents and speeding tickets weight against driving too fast). Men in Chicago, the study found, drove 19.5 mph, compared to 18.8 mph for women.

As the authors understand it, men aren’t driving faster to be more productive Uber drivers, but because men are less risk averse when driving; their preference for going fast happens to pay off when they drive for Uber. As they gain experience, both men and women actually slow down, probably because they learn to frequent busier, and more congested, parts of the city to get fares.

The same reason men are supposedly less safe drivers than women also explains increased pay as on-demand drivers, after accounting for the potential unsafe performance and increases in experience. Is this too due to systemic inequity? I’m sure someone, somewhere, would argue yes, and the buggy whip makers would agree with them.

All roads do not lead to facts, Part 1

There has been much ado in the last couple of years about the the public crisis in the fallen reputation of “experts”. A number of reasons were proffered: Short term analysis of prediction outcomes are unfavorable to experts; experts are out of touch with the common man’s experiencepeople are angry and won’t listen to those who disagreethe digital world is shifting systems from a vertical to a horizontal axis, and then many variations of people are stupid and overly prone to bias. One the most common refrains, particularly across social media, was that people who agreed with the experts and voted in desired ways in democratic events were doing so because of a love of facts, and those that did not listen to experts completely disregard facts. Is any of this true?

Plenty of research has shown that US liberals and conservatives equally engage in motivated political reasoning and will readily believe false political rumors when it is in-line with their politics. So then it is not that the Brexit crowd or Trump voters are uniquely susceptible. So what or where is the problem, and how do we solve it?

Scott Alexander is a proponent of what could be labeled something like “The Baysian model of being Less Wrong”, where people can chip away at their preconceptions and wrong opinions over many years of diligent study and reflection, and also collaborate with others to do the same:

If you genuinely believe that facts and logic don’t work on at least 50% of the population, again, you shouldn’t be writing articles with potential solutions. You should be worrying whether you’re in that 50%. After all, how did you figure out you aren’t? By using facts and logic? What did we just say?

Nobody is doing either of these things, so I conclude that they accept that facts can sometimes work. Asymmetric weapons are not a pipe dream. As Gandhi used to say, “If you think the world is all bad, remember that it contains people like you.”

You are not completely immune to facts and logic. But you have been wrong about things before. You may be a bit smarter than the people on the other side. You may even be a lot smarter. But fundamentally their problems are your problems, and the same kind of logic that convinced you can convince them. It’s just going to be a long slog. You didn’t develop your opinions after a five-minute shouting match. You developed them after years of education and acculturation and engaging with hundreds of books and hundreds of people. Why should they be any different?

Scott’s approach here is understandable. It’s how both he and his readership, including myself, have understood ourselves to have changed our thought processes and beliefs over time. He and I are also trained (to different degrees) in cognitive psychology, and this is a somewhat grossly over-generalized Beckian approach. There’s a problem though, hiding in plain sight. Let us put aside the issue of “non-facts”, “Fake News”, etc. Let us imagine a pool of all ostensibly true facts in the world, available for human consumption (by ostensibly I mean that they have not yet been disproven – I don’t want to get into an epistemological argument). But what precedes these facts, and their consumption? Put another way: where do facts come from, and where do they go?

To be continued…..

The lamp is lit

I’ve dabbled with blogs and websites quite a few times over the years, but the scope was either too narrow or the vision not tuned properly. More personal growth was required; recalibration of the self was needed. The 24 hour news cycle, the easy pull of presentism, and the social-media driven hype and outrage train make it easy to be swept along in what is a surface storm of content lacking depth. I intend this site to function as an outgrowth of my musings based on curated news, piercing through the fog and spray of modern journalistic turgidity.

“American journalism (like the journalism of any other country) is predominantly paltry and worthless. Its pretensions are enormous, but its achievements are insignificant.” – H.L. Mencken


Adventures in Automation #1

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal paints a rosier picture for the fate of trucking in the US than has been fashionable as of late. The ‘umble author of this site tried over-the-road (OTR) trucking very briefly as a bridge job at one point, and the lifestyle tradeoffs were simply not worth the promise of an eventually decent paycheck which I had no intentions of hanging around for. However, because of the experience, I have a soft spot in my heart for those who make this career choice. Not only for what they endure, but because of the necessity of their trade. Without trucking our entire economy would grind to a halt. With the billions of miles logged by the industry, it makes sense that self-driving technology prophets would aim their sights hither with the aim of eliminating the human component. However, the problem is that truckers do more than simply drive:

From the Atlantic: Could Self-Driving Trucks Be Good for Truckers?

“The drivers are getting in and out of the truck. They are moving axles. They are checking brakes, checking air hoses. They are talking to people. Building a self-driving truck is not just about finding a way to have the truck drive in a straight line on a highway,” he says. “There is so much to be done there before you get anywhere near being able to do the things that truck drivers are doing in an industrial facility or even on surface streets.”

Commenter Dan Hanson at Marginal Revolution agrees:

One of the big failings of high-level analyses of future trends is that in general they either ignore or seriously underestimate the complexity of the job at a detailed level. Lots of jobs look simple or rote from a think tank or government office, but turn out to be quite complex when you dive into the details.

For example, truck drivers don’t just drive trucks. They also secure loads, including determining what to load first and last and how to tie it all down securely. They act as agents for the trunking company. They verify that what they are picking up is what is on the manifest. They are the early warning system for vehicle maintenance. They deal with the government and others at weighing stations. When sleeping in the cab, they act as security for the load. If the vehicle breaks down, they set up road flares and contact authorities. If the vehicle doesn’t handle correctly, the driver has to stop and analyze what’s wrong – blown tire, shifting load, whatever.

In addition, many truckers are sole proprietors who own their own trucks. This means they also do all the bookwork, preventative maintenance, taxes, etc. These people have local knowledge that is not easily transferable. They know the quirks of the routes, they have relationships with customers, they learn how best to navigate through certain areas, they understand how to optimize by splitting loads or arranging for return loads at their destination, etc. They also learn which customers pay promptly, which ones provide their loads in a way that’s easy to get on the truck, which ones generally have their paperwork in order, etc. Loading docks are not all equal. Some are very ad-hoc and require serious judgement to be able to manoever large trucks around them. Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge.

In short, truckers are unlikely to become the latest buggy whip makers.

Adventures in Gender #1

Like the centuries-old arguments over nature vs. nurture, arguments about the differences between the sexes have waxed and waned, with sides and arguments formed more by wishful ideals than anything approaching science. The state of available methodology to investigate this issue is not used to find the truth, but to buttress old claims, and the insidious influence of “gender studies” only exasperates this problem.

As a separate issue, journalists often place ironic counterpoints to main theses within articles, with apparent ignorance of how to factually and logically support the point they inevitably fail to make.

From the NYT: Why Women’s Voices Are Scarce in Economics:

Perhaps most telling was the question on pay: Only 14 percent of female economists said the gender wage gap is largely explained by differences in education and voluntary occupational choices while 54 percent of male economists agreed with that notion.

But one paragraph later:

Women economists tend to focus on different topics than men. While men dominate macroeconomics, women are more visible among those studying labor markets, health and education. The only majority-female economics conference I’ve ever attended was on the economics of children, a field focused on schooling, family structure and child well-being. If there were more female economists, more attention would surely be paid to these issues.

So women tend to focus on different topics than men within economics, but couldn’t possibly tend to focus on different topics (jobs, degrees) outside of economics, with subsequent resulting differences in pay. The author of the piece is obviously sympathetic to purported plight of female economists, yet winds up providing evidence against her position – presented as evidence for. Of course, the author is a woman. Maybe she should have been an economist.