Tag Archives: Journalism

Jon Stewart on Misinformation

I just finished watching Jon Stewart’s final episode of The Daily Show and I was glad see that his parting speech addressed the topic of misinformation (aka: bullshit) and how to recognize it. The following is a rough transcript:

TRANSCRIPT: Jon Stewart delivers speech on “Bulls–t” during his final episode hosting “The Daily Show” Wednesday night on Comedy Central

Welcome back! Anyway, about the debate. I don’t have anything for you.

We’ve seen the correspondents. We’ve met everyone who works here. And now I feel like I should probably say something. So maybe one last time, maybe a little — if you want to — maybe a little camera three.

Bullshit is everywhere.

Are the kids still here? We’ll deal with that later.

Bullshit is everywhere. There is very little you will encounter in life that has not been, in some ways, infused with bullshit — not all of it bad. General day-to-day free range is often necessary, or at least innocuous: “Oh, what a beautiful baby. I’m sure he’ll grow into that head.” That kind of bullshit in many ways provides important social-contract fertilizer and keeps people from make each other cry all day. But then there’s the more pernicious bullshit, your premeditated institutional bullshit designed to obscure and distract. Designed by whom? The bullshitacracy.

It comes in three basic flavors.

One, making bad things sound like good things. “Organic, all-natural cupcakes” … because factory made sugar oatmeal balls doesn’t sell. “Patriot Act” … because “Are You Scared Enough to Let Me Look at All Your Phone Records Act” doesn’t sell. Whenever something is titled freedom, fairness, family, health, and America, take a good long sniff. Chances are it’s been manufactured in a facilitate that may contain traces of bullshit.

Number two, the second way, hiding the bad things under mountains of bullshit. Complexity — you know, I would love to download Drizzy’s latest Meek Mill diss. (Everyone promised me that that made sense.) But I’m not really interested right now in reading Tolstoy’s iTunes agreement, so I’ll just click “agree” even if it grants Apple prima noctae with my spouse. Here’s another one — simply put, banks shouldn’t be able to bet your pension money on red. Bullshitly put, it’s — hey, this. Dodd-Frank. Hey, a handful of billionaires can’t buy our elections, right? Of course not. They can only pour unlimited anonymous cash into a 501(c)4 other wise they’d have to 501(c)6 it, or funnel it openly through a non-campaign coordinated Super PAC … “I think they’re asleep now. We can sneak out.”

And finally — finally, it’s the Bullshit of infinite possibility. These bullshitters cover their unwillingness to act under the guise of unending inquiry. We can’t do anything because we don’t yet know everything. We cannot take action on climate change until everyone in the world agrees gay marriage vaccines won’t cause our children to marry goats who are going to come for our guns. Until then, I say teach the controversy.

Now, the good news is this– bullshitters have gotten pretty lazy, and their work is easily detected. And looking for it is a pleasant way to pass the time like an “I Spy” of bullshit. I say to you tonight friends the best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.

Thanks for everything, Mr. Stewart. We couldn’t have made it through these last 16 years without you.

Who’s Your Filter? (Nate Silver Edition)

“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard

Back in 2010, I wrote a short post about some of the problems associated with getting all of your news and information from biased sources. It was essentially a call for people to hone their critical thinking skills and take steps toward establishing a more reality-based approach to decision-making.

Unfortunately, people don’t like challenging their existing beliefs very much because it can be pretty uncomfortable. They prefer sources of information that support their established worldviews and generally ignore or filter out those that don’t. In our modern society, this confirmation bias supports an entire ecosystem of publishers, news outlets, TV shows, bloggers, and radio announcers designed to serve up pre-filtered opinion disguised as fact.

For many people, the glossy veneer of the news entertainment complex is all they want or need. As David McRaney so succinctly states in his blog:

Whether or not pundits are telling the truth, or vetting their opinions, or thoroughly researching their topics is all beside the point. You watch them not for information, but for confirmation.

The problem with this approach is that — every now and then — fantasy runs into cold, hard reality and gets the sh*t kicked out of it.

This was what happened during the 2012 Presidential election cycle. Talking heads on both ends of the political spectrum had spent months trying to sway their audiences with confident declarations of victory and vicious denials of opposing statements. By the week of the election, the conservative media in particular had created such a self-reinforcing bubble of polls and opinions that any hints of trouble were shouted down and ignored. Pundits reserved particularly strong venom for statistician Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight blog in the New York Times had upped the chances of an Obama win to a seemingly outrageous 91.4% the Monday before the election.

The furor reached its peak with Karl Rove’s famous on-air exchange with FOX news anchor, Megyn Kelly, and rippled through the conservative echo chamber after the polls closed. There was a lot of soul searching over the next few days, with many people taking direct aim at the conservative media for its failure to present accurate information to its audience. This frustration was summed up clearly by one commenter on RedState, a right-leaning blog:

“I can accept that my news is not really ‘news’ like news in Cronkite’s day, but a conservative take on the news. But it’s unacceptable that Rasmussen appears to have distinguished themselves from everyone else in their quest to shade the numbers to appease us, the base. I didn’t even look at other polls, to tell the truth, trusting that their methodology was more sound because it jived with what I was hearing on Fox and with people I talked to. It pains me to say this, but next time I want a dose of hard truth, I’m looking to Nate Silver, even if I don’t like the results.”

It was a teachable moment and Nate Silver — no fan of pundits — suggested that the fatal flaw in the approach taken by most of these political “experts” was that they based their forecasts less on evidence and more on a strong underlying ideology. Their core beliefs — “ideological priors” as Silver calls them — colored their views on everything and made it difficult to read such an uncertain situation correctly. It was time for something new.

In his book, The Signal and the Noise, Silver elaborates on the work of Philip Tetlock, who found that people with certain character traits typically made more accurate predictions than those without these traits. Tetlock identified these two different cognitive styles as either “fox” (someone who considers many approaches to a problem) or “hedgehog” (someone who believes in one Big Idea). There has been much debate about which one represents the best approach to forecasting but Tetlock’s research clearly favors the fox.

Tetlock’s ideas as summarized by Silver:

Fox-Like Characteristics Hedgehog-Like Characteristics
Multidisciplinary – Incorporates ideas from a range of disciplines Specialised – Often dedicated themselves to one or two big problems & are sceptical of outsiders
Adaptable – Try several approaches in parallel, or find a new one if things aren’t working Unshakable – New data is used to refine an original model
Self-critical – Willing to accept mistakes and adapt or even replace a model based on new data Stubborn – Mistakes are blamed on poor luck
Tolerant of complexity – Accept the world is complex, and that certain things cannot be reduced to a null hypothesis Order seeking – Once patterns are detected, assume relationships are relatively uniform
Cautious – Predictions are probabilistic, and qualified Confident – Rarely change or hedge their position
Empirical – Observable data is always preferred over theory or anecdote Ideological – Approach to predictive problems fits within a similar view of the wider world
Better Forecasters Weaker Forecasters

Nate Silver also prefers the fox-like approach to analysis and even chose a fox logo for the relaunch of his FiveThirtyEight blog. As befitting a fox’s multidisciplinary approach to problems, his manifesto for the site involves blending good old-fashioned journalism skills with statistical analysis, computer programming, and data visualization. (It is essentially a combination of everything we’ve been saying about data science + data-literate reporting.)

Nate Silver’s Four-Step Methodology for Data Journalism
This approach is very similar to the standard data science process.

  1. Data Collection – Performing interviews, research, first-person observation, polls, experiments, or data scraping
  2. Organization – Developing a storyline, running descriptive statistics, placing data in a relational database, or building a data visualization.
  3. Explanation – Performing traditional analysis or running statistical tests to look for relationships in the data.
  4. Generalization – Verifying hypotheses through predictions or repeated experiments.

Like data science, data journalism involves finding meaningful insights from a vast sea of information. And like data science, one of the biggest challenges to data-driven journalism is convincing people to actually listen to what the data is telling them. After FiveThirtyEight posted its prediction of a possible change in control of the Senate in 2014, Democrats have reacted with the same bluster as Republicans did back in 2012. At about the same time, economist Paul Krugman started a feud with Silver over — in my view — relatively minor journalistic differences. Meanwhile, conservatives gleeful at this apparent Leftie infighting continue to predict Silver’s ultimate failure because they still believe that politics is more art than science.

This seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what Silver and others like him are trying to do. Rather than look at how successful Silver’s forecasting methodology has been at predicting political results, most people seem to be treating him as just another pundit who has joined the political game. Lost in all of the fuss is his attempt to bring a little more scientific rigor to an arena that is dominated by people who generally operate on intuition and gut instinct. I’m certainly not trying to elevate statisticians and data journalists to god-like status here but it is my hope that people will start to recognize the value of unbiased evaluation and include it as one of their tools for gathering information. When it’s fantasy vs. reality, it is always better to be armed with the facts.


Who’s Your Filter?

One of the ways in which people deal with information overload is to use a filter to screen out unwanted information and eliminate the amount of time spent on non-essential topics. Filters can take many forms but one of the most common is simply the “trusted source” — a person or an organization that has passed some internal test for trustworthiness. Everyone takes advantage of these personal filters because they provide shortcuts for many of our day-to-day activities.

Sore throat? Ask your sister the nurse. Problem with your PC?  Call up your buddy the software engineer. Car on the fritz? Invite your gearhead uncle over for a beer and friendly consultation.

People simply do not have the time to become an expert on every single subject and they also don’t have the time to vet every single source. They need a way to cut through all the BS and get information that allows them to take action. They find someone they trust who seems to know what they’re talking about and — boom — they’ve got their filter.

The problem with any filter is that there is always an element of bias involved. Your uncle may be great with cars but maybe he’s also a Ford guy who can’t stand GM and thinks BMWs are over-priced toys. No matter how well-meaning he may be, his opinions will color his advice — which could lead you to a different decision than if you were an expert auto mechanic and doing the research yourself.

This is the main complaint that people on the right side of the political spectrum have with mainstream media. They feel that the types of events that are presented and the way these events are covered reflect the liberal bias of the reporters and commentators telling the stories. The standards of journalism are supposed to prevent this kind of bias by requiring journalists to double-check claims, verify the reliability of sources and issue corrections if necessary. By casting doubt on the ability of the mainstream media to follow its own code of ethics, the right has reduced the number of people who feel comfortable using these news outlets as trusted sources of information. This has opened up the doors for a whole new slate of  alternative news filters. Of course, these organizations and their sources have their own biases and — in the case of bloggers — are not even required to follow standard journalistic practices of impartiality.

A prime example of the issue of source bias was on display during the controversy surrounding Shirley Sherrod and the speech she made to the NAACP that led to her firing from the USDA. Blogger Andrew Breitbart released an edited video clip of the speech that appeared to implicate Ms. Sherrod as a racist. After a firestorm of criticism, she lost her job … and then some bright bulb actually watched the whole video. Sherrod was exonerated and the White House, FOX news, Bill O’Reilly and others who had relied on Mr. Breitbart as their filter were forced to apologize.

Mr. Breitbart himself has not issued an apology and, as a political activist, is probably not required to do so. In an interesting turn, right-wing commentator Ann Coulter places the blame squarely on Mr. Breitbart’s own trusted filter:

“I think Breitbart ought to reveal his source, because he was set up. This was a fraud. The person who sent the edited tape has to know what the full speech said, and whomever sent only that segment to Andrew Breitbart is the one who should apologize to Shirley Sherrod.”

Certainly someone along the chain of information exchanges made the crucial edit that altered the tenor of her speech. Who is ultimately responsible, then, for errors that creep into these kinds of stories? Unfortunately, with the erosion of trust in the journalistic profession and the explosion of non-traditional news sources, the consumers of the information are themselves responsible. In a sense, we are all journalists now.