Friday, January 20, 2017

Pervasive groupthink among media elites

Nate Silver has an important analysis of media coverage of the 2016 election in The Real Story of 2016.

In its broadest outline, I am in agreement with his points. A few nits here and there but I think he is on the right track. Regarding answers to the question about why the mainstream media got the election so wrong:
They also suggest there are real shortcomings in how American politics are covered, including pervasive groupthink among media elites, an unhealthy obsession with the insider’s view of politics, a lack of analytical rigor, a failure to appreciate uncertainty, a sluggishness to self-correct when new evidence contradicts pre-existing beliefs, and a narrow viewpoint that lacks perspective from the longer arc of American history.
Well, yes. I have been harping on the issue of analytical rigor (both narrative and empirical) and lack of perspective for some time but all the other points are pertinent as well.

We want to know the truth in order to make better, and more useful, forecasts about a whole range of things be it climate change, conservation, the criminal justice system, economic development, productivity growth, etc. We none of us benefit if our mainstream media are not interested in truth but only focus on ideological or partisan winning. The Truth is out there.

Shady research on priming

Poor old psychology has had a rough patch. A week or so ago I posted about the obliteration of the relevance of Implicit Attitude Tests. Now priming is being thrown out.

Then falter not O book, fulfil your destiny

Recently I came across a lightly aged 1937 copy of a Heritage edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, illustrated by Rockwell Kent.

To date, I have not taken to Leaves of Grass as a whole, though over time I more frequently have found snippets here and there that intrigue me. But I do enjoy Rockwell Kent's works. So perhaps this will be the combination to carry me through the rollicking and sometimes seemingly incomprehensibly expansive, almost giddy song to America.

From the third Inscription
In Cabin’d Ships at Sea

In cabin’d ships, at sea,
The boundless blue on every side expanding,
With whistling winds and music of the waves—the large imperious waves—In such,
Or some lone bark, buoy’d on the dense marine,
Where, joyous, full of faith, spreading white sails,
She cleaves the ether, mid the sparkle and the foam of day, or under many a star at night,
By sailors young and old, haply will I, a reminiscence of the land, be read,
In full rapport at last.

Here are our thoughts—voyagers’ thoughts,
Here not the land, firm land, alone appears, may then by them be said;
The sky o’erarches here—we feel the undulating deck beneath our feet,
We feel the long pulsation—ebb and flow of endless motion;
The tones of unseen mystery—the vague and vast suggestions of the briny world—the liquid-flowing syllables,
The perfume, the faint creaking of the cordage, the melancholy rhythm,
The boundless vista, and the horizon far and dim, are all here,
And this is Ocean’s poem.

Then falter not, O book! fulfil your destiny!
You, not a reminiscence of the land alone,
You too, as a lone bark, cleaving the ether—purpos’d I know
not whither—yet ever full of faith,
Consort to every ship that sails—sail you!
Bear forth to them, folded, my love—(Dear mariners! for you I fold it here, in every leaf;)
Speed on, my Book! spread your white sails, my little bark, athwart the imperious waves!
Chant on—sail on—bear o’er the boundless blue, from me, to every shore,
This song for mariners and all their ships.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Stubbing my toe of perception on the rock of measured reality

From Pew Research Center, Trump, Clinton Voters Divided in Their Main Source for Election News: Fox News was the main source for 40% of Trump voters by Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthel and Amy Mitchell.

A pretty good body of research with some interesting insights in terms of how people create their customized epistemic ecosystems. There are two observations not highlighted which seem important.

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The headline leads with Fox News as a dominant source of news for those voting for Trump whereas Clinton voters had more diverse sources. The headline is "Fox News dominated as main campaign news source for Trump voters; no single sources pronounced among Clinton voters." True. But that seems to spin the information a particular direction (diversity good, monoculture bad) and it defines diversity as number of sources rather than orientation of sources.

An alternative way to look at this is that Republicans were more balanced in the ideological orientation of their news sources by balancing 40% from "conservative" news (from Fox) with 32% (omitting local radio) from "liberal" sources. In contrast, Democrats were much more in an echo-chamber with 74% of their news from "liberal" sources and only 3% from "conservative sources. In other words, Republicans favored their ideologically congruent sources by 25% (40/32 = 1.25) whereas Democrats favored their ideologically congruent sources by nearly a factor of 25 (74/3 = 24.7)

The alternative headline could be "Republicans dramatically more diverse in their news sources than Democrats."

Both statements, Pew's headline and the alternative I have suggested, are factually true. The only difference is how you measure diversity. Is it ideological diversity or is it source diversity? Both are interesting perspectives.)

The second thing that leapt out at me was the paucity of three of my sources of information. The Washington Post does not show up at all. The New York Times and NPR only show up as relevant to Democratic voters and even then as relatively minor (5% and 7% respectively.

I knew that all three, WaPo, NYT and NPR, were notably skewed in their political reporting and are consumed primarily by left of center college educated professionals. I knew they weren't directly significant to the public at large. I have shocked friends by pointing out that the audience of Rush Limbaugh (a conservative radio talk host with a two or three hour show) is nearly the same size as that of NPR's flagship news show, Morning Edition.

But knowing all that doesn't reduce the impact of seeing that for all voters, only 4% listed NPR as a main source of news and only 3% read the NYT as a main source of news.

Serves as an example that knowledge alone does not counter an anchoring bias. I consume all three sources (along with many others). I knew that their audiences were a fraction of the nation. And despite that knowledge, I imputed much more relevance to them than the measured reality supports.

I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible, except getting off his back.

This character still abounds. From Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence by Leo Tolstoy.
I sit on a man's back, choking him, and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible, except getting off his back.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Forget fake news, we've got fake realities

What is it in the air or the water? Popular SJW academic themes have been getting knocked hard lately. In the past couple of months I recall noting some new research undermining the idea of Implicit Attitude Tests. What else? There was another major article of faith undermined recently. Triggering? Safe Spaces? Maybe.

Anyway, here comes another research paper, this time revealing that microaggressions as a concept has little or no evidentiary basis in reality. From Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence by Scott O. Lilienfeld. From the abstract:
The microaggression concept has recently galvanized public discussion and spread to numerous college campuses and businesses. I argue that the microaggression research program (MRP) rests on five core premises, namely, that microaggressions (1) are operationalized with sufficient clarity and consensus to afford rigorous scientific investigation; (2) are interpreted negatively by most or all minority group members; (3) reflect implicitly prejudicial and implicitly aggressive motives; (4) can be validly assessed using only respondents’ subjective reports; and (5) exert an adverse impact on recipients’ mental health. A review of the literature reveals negligible support for all five suppositions. More broadly, the MRP has been marked by an absence of connectivity to key domains of psychological science, including psychometrics, social cognition, cognitive-behavioral therapy, behavior genetics, and personality, health, and industrial-organizational psychology. Although the MRP has been fruitful in drawing the field’s attention to subtle forms of prejudice, it is far too underdeveloped on the conceptual and methodological fronts to warrant real-world application. I conclude with 18 suggestions for advancing the scientific status of the MRP, recommend abandonment of the term “microaggression,” and call for a moratorium on microaggression training programs and publicly distributed microaggression lists pending research to address the MRP’s scientific limitations.
Triggering, microaggressions, Implicit Attitude Tests, priming, safe spaces, etc. have all been ideological constructs intended to close the Overton Window and they have been markedly successful at doing so. People don't wish to appear to be unsympathetic and end up getting railroaded into positions they don't actually support.

But the harsh truth is that there is little or no empirical support for the reality of triggering, microaggressions, IAT, safe spaces, or priming. These are fake rhetorical devices.

We will be well rid of them as they pass out of circulation. Not a moment too soon.

Hero takes a journey and stranger comes to town

I did not have the self-control to not click through on When Narrative Matters More Than Fact by Ashley Lamb-Sinclair. This is exactly the soft-minded pablum that galls me. It is of course absolutely true in some cases. But it is a motte and bailey strategy for advancement of the postmodern relativists. Narrative matters (in some cases) more than fact for entertainment purposes but facts matter more than narrative for life in the real world.

Lamb-Sinclair provides background and then her claim.
When I was in high school, one of my history teachers was also the football coach. “Coach Mac,” we called him. For a right-brained creative like me, history was often a toss up. There were certain parts of the curriculum that I loved, but I loathed (and was generally inept at) memorizing dates and obscure facts. But Coach Mac taught us history through football plays and storytelling. Through a series of Xs, Os, and arrows detailing their paths, Coach Mac told stories of Roman invasions, the Crusades, Genghis Khan, and the rise of Stalin. I sat in the front row, took copious notes, and was a star student every day in that class.

Because of Coach Mac, I became a history minor in college. And yet, if you asked me dates and details of these events Coach Mac and my college professors taught me, I could not tell you any of them without the aid of Google. The truth is, history stole my heart not because of the facts, but because of the stories.

Joseph Campbell famously said that there are only two stories in the whole world: Hero takes a journey and stranger comes to town. As an English teacher, I enjoy telling my students this nugget of wisdom and challenging them to defy it. They never can because, although stories are powerful, they are also simple. There are certain constructs, rhythms, and traits to a well-crafted story. Stories, at their heart, are either about heroes on a journey or strangers coming into a new setting.
There are only two stories? I am susceptible to the argument and have investigated various claims of 2, 3, 5, 7, and 10 stories. An interesting argument but really it is not a factual claim but an assertion of opinion.

But Joseph Campbell? I had heard the quote "Hero takes a journey and stranger comes to town" attributed to someone else. Who really said it?

Well, not Joseph Campbell apparently. Quote Investigator has the full story. The quote has variously been attributed to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Mary Morris, John Gardner, David Long, Ernest Hemingway, and Deepak Chopra. The prize, as best as can be documented, goes to John Gardner.
Writer and educator John Gardner died tragically at age 49 in a motorcycle accident in 1982. His influential work of tutelage “The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers” was released posthumously in 1984. Gardner included exercises “for the development of technique”, and the following was listed fifth. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Write the opening of a novel using the authorial-omniscient voice, making the authorial omniscience clear by going into the thoughts of one or more characters after establishing the voice. As subject, use either a trip or the arrival of a stranger (some disruption of order—the usual novel beginning).
The exercise above did not assert that the two possibilities referenced exhausted all plot choices. Also, the statement was only about the beginning of a novel. Nevertheless, these words were the earliest pertinent published evidence known to QI.
The rest of the QI article is interesting in tracing the gradual evolution of a specific, culturally accepted quote from an original more general quote from an identifiable author.

All of which is interesting and sad. Lamb-Sinclair makes this quote the crux of her essay but it is a falsely attributed quote. It is like a building on a foundation of sand.

After this inauspicious start, Lamb-Sinclair then veers into a social justice warrior diatribe about Donald Trump and fake news and the inadequacy of fact checking. Just more of the unsettled noise which is so prevalent at the moment. She is not making an argument, she is venting. Fair enough, but not on my reading time. Her piece is worth nothing except as an example of irony. The saddest part is this:
Like many educators, I am appalled at the wealth of fake news that floats around social media and the power it has over young people who do not necessarily have the skills to interpret it.
It doesn't help your argument that facts don't matter and that fake news is a problem when you get your first asserted fact wrong.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Alack, poor mouse!

Reminds me of something I read a number of years ago. Anne Askew, Protestant martyr during the English Reformation under King Henry VIII. At one point she was arrested and interrogated by the Catholic Church on some of the finer points of religious strictures.
Interrogator: Sayest thou that the priests cannot make the body of Christ

Askew: I say so, my lord; for I have read that God made man, but that man can make God I have never yet read.

Interrogator: What if a mouse eat of the bread after the consecration? What shall become of the mouse, thou foolish woman?

Askew: What shall become of her say you, my lord?

Interrogator: I say that that mouse is damned!

Askew: Alaek, poor mouse !
I don't recall where I read of the incident but that sweet, so human response to a helpless creature suffering such torments for unconscious behavior has stuck with me over the years. "Alack, poor mouse!"

New technologies alter the structure of our interests

From Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman
These are the kinds of questions that technological change brings to mind when one grasps, as Thamus did, that technological competition ignites total war, which means it is not possible to contain the effects of a new technology to a limited sphere of human activity. If this metaphor puts the matter too brutally, we may try a gentler, kinder one: Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological. I mean “ecological” in the same sense as the word is used by environmental scientists. One significant change generates total change. If you remove the caterpillars from a given habitat, you are not left with the same environment minus caterpillars: you have a new environment, and you have reconstituted the conditions of survival; the same is true if you add caterpillars to an environment that has had none. This is how the ecology of media works as well. A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything. In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe. After television, the United States was not America plus television; television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry. And that is why the competition among media is so fierce. Surrounding every technology are institutions whose organization—not to mention their reason for being—reflects the world-view promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis. This is serious business, which is why we learn nothing when educators ask, Will students learn mathematics better by computers than by textbooks? Or when businessmen ask, Through which medium can we sell more products? Or when preachers ask, Can we reach more people through television than through radio? Or when politicians ask, How effective are messages sent through different media? Such questions have an immediate, practical value to those who ask them, but they are diversionary. They direct our attention away from the serious social, intellectual, and institutional crises that new media foster.

Perhaps an analogy here will help to underline the point. In speaking of the meaning of a poem, T. S. Eliot remarked that the chief use of the overt content of poetry is “to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog.” In other words, in asking their practical questions, educators, entrepreneurs, preachers, and politicians are like the house-dog munching peacefully on the meat while the house is looted. Perhaps some of them know this and do not especially care. After all, a nice piece of meat, offered graciously, does take care of the problem of where the next meal will come from. But for the rest of us, it cannot be acceptable to have the house invaded without protest or at least awareness.

What we need to consider about the computer has nothing to do with its efficiency as a teaching tool. We need to know in what ways it is altering our conception of learning, and how, in conjunction with television, it undermines the old idea of school. Who cares how many boxes of cereal can be sold via television? We need to know if television changes our conception of reality, the relationship of the rich to the poor, the idea of happiness itself. A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God? And if the politician cannot think beyond the next election, then we must wonder about what new media do to the idea of political organization and to the conception of citizenship.

There are some neat things we do as a species

It is too easy to get caught up in our earthly squabblings and frailties. A compensation is this wondrous report from Mars, Mars Curiosity Rolls Up To Potential New Meteorite by Bob King. Take a look at all the pictures in the article. Here's a teaser from Curiosity Rover, trundling around, all by itself on our next-door planet, finding meteors, themselves strangers from deep space. Awe inspiring.

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