Without Evidence

newspapers_viabinoriranasingheIt is conventional to give people the benefit of the doubt—to err, when possible, on the side of uncertainty and not to presume the unlikely is untrue. But it is one thing to give the benefit of the doubt in uncertain circumstances, and it is quite another to give an outsized benefit with very little doubt indeed. That, in essence, is origin of false balance.

Worse, of late the media has taken to determining what subjects are in doubt not by what evidence is available, but instead by how forcefully people argue for one side or another. A forceful but untrue statement often triggers a confused and muddled response from journalists, who, by dint of their profession, know both that the statement is painfully untrue and that to contradict it outright is painfully taboo.

Journalistic conventions, intended to ensure fair treatment regardless of personal inclination, fail abysmally when public figures refuse to play by the rules.

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No Reason to Lie

Pinocchio_ViaJean-EtienneSometimes, in the course of a debate or discussion, a secondhand statement comes under consideration. The actors in the debate must then evaluate how relevant that statement is to the their discussion. This happens in media during interviews, in class discussions, on the internet, with friends and family, and beyond. Wherever it happens, you are as likely as not to hear a particular phrase—“no reason to lie.”

“Look, he has no reason to lie.”

“Why would he lie?”

“She doesn’t get anything out of lying about this—she has no reason to.”

However it arises, the implication of the argument that someone “has no reason to lie” is that having no reason to lie is, itself, evidence for truth.

And our understanding of logic and evidence is so bad that we often accept that.

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“Allegedly” is one of those words that people stick in front of disputed things, and it serves the useful purpose of signaling that the dispute exists. But there is another way people use it as well, and that is less about signaling dispute and more about introducing it. And it works! For me, as a reader, when I see the word “alleged” tied to something, it makes me more critical, more doubtful, and more aware that some other people don’t think the thing in question is true.

So, I find it rather disturbing when people use the word “alleged” for things like sexual assault, abuse, and online harassment. In this context, the word is used as a rhetorical trick, even (especially?) when the event itself is not really in doubt, to create that doubt. People use this word, in short, to minimize the experiences of women.

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“No, Where Are You Really From?”

chairs_viaWildInWoodsThat was the question he asked, to a man near the front, when the first answer wasn’t good enough.

It was a workshop I attended recently with people I did not know. Some of them had traveled a ways to attend, but so had the presenter. And, when he called on the man, the presented asked what is an entirely reasonable question: “where are you from?” It was relevant to the work at hand, and something entirely acceptable to ask in a group.

“Boston,” the man replied.

With nary a missed beat, the (older, white, male) presenter replied, “no, where are you really from?”

I couldn’t miss the unspoken “…because of course you aren’t one of us.”

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Establishment_viaFabioVenniI’ve been having a problem lately with the word “establishment.” It’s a two-part problem, and one part of that problem is that I cannot seem to read anything about our current election cycle without getting run over by “the establishment.” The other part of the problem is the difference between what it means and how we actually use it.

To take the first part of the problem, I keep hearing about how Trump supporters are against the establishment, and how Bernie supporters are against the establishment, and about how no, actually Hillary is also against the establishment, and Cruz is most definitely against the establishment, and to be safe, lets just say all political candidates are anti-establishment.

We’ll gloss right over the problem of who the establishment actually is for now and accept that it’s fashionable to be against it.

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A Few Bad Apples

Reliably, whenever issues of sexism, racism, and prejudice appear, so too does the phrase “a few bad apples.” University professors are harassing their students, but universities and media hasten to remind us that they are just a few bad apples. Police officers are abusing the people they are supposed to protect and serve, but mostly when those people are black—still, it’s a few bad apples.

“A few bad apples” is in-group language. It’s what you say when you identify with the group in question, and you just can’t believe anything bad about that group because it would also mean something bad about yourself. It is, in essence, group-level denial: that person did something I can’t be associated with, so that must mean they don’t really represent my group.

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“Causes Cancer”

One can and should simplify scientific research to make it intelligible, but there is a level of imprecision beyond which simplification becomes mere fiction. I think at this point, in most cases, saying something “causes cancer” is effectively fiction. It wasn’t always, but that phrase has been so abused that it now creates a one-to-one link in the popular imagination between the item of the week and our most potent medical boogeyman.

The recent announcement by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) and the associated statements by the WHO (World Health Organization) have created a current hullabaloo over red meat, and processed red meat in particular. If you want a good summary of that issue, please read this one, and not any of the more sensationalized pieces exploding into your news feeds.

Because those sensationalized pieces dominate. Most of the media are busily reporting, nuance-free, how red meat and processed meat “causes cancer.” Most are using the most inflated statistic—an increase in risk of 17%. Most are not mentioning baseline risk. Most are not discussing potency. Most are not mentioning that this information is not new, but instead a result of slowly progressing scientific research.

In my view, reporting that something “causes cancer” gives you all the panic with none of the information. What is the baseline risk? In this case, it is 6%, or 6 people out of 100 will get bowel cancer in their lifetimes. What is the increased rate if you eat a lot of processed meat daily? 7%, or 7 people out of 100. So, if everyone ate processed meats only in moderation (about 50 grams is suggested, or two slices of bacon per day, or one bacon cheeseburger per week), we could avoid one additional case of bowel cancer for every 100 people who decreased their consumption.

That matters. That’s significant. But it also isn’t a one-to-one relationship. Processed meat does not “cause cancer” so much as it contributes to a slight increase in your risk of one type of cancer over your lifetime. And that isn’t even that much harder to say. Headline writers, please take note: your hyperbole is helping no one.