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.

 

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…..