The Rules

debateIt would be very difficult to cover politics in this country if we didn’t have any rules to do it. But there is an entire framework of unwritten rules that I, personally, believe ought to be explicit. Weekly, even daily, we the people are subject to these rules because the media, collectively, abides by them.

So I’ve decided to write them down.

The rules are: Continue reading

May Recommended Reading

restroom_viaMikeGiffordAt the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.

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“Allegedly”

Working_in_the_dark_ViaErnstGräfenberg

“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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True Stories

books_viaxlibberPerhaps I am too much a student of Tim O’Brien, but I believe that the purpose of stories, literal or otherwise, is to contain truth. In his magnificent opus, The Things They Carried, O’Brien gave us the truth of being a soldier during the Vietnam War. It did not much matter that many of the things in his book were not literal events, because they contained the rich truth of that experience. Stories shine when they convey a truth of experience too big for simple events.

Which is not to say events do not matter. There is another, related role for stories: to provide context for the world in which we live. They are foils for everything we see and experience, catalogues of sensation and emotion, especially and personally constructed to anchor us on deep, shifting sands. So we would like our stories to feel true, in Tim O’Brien’s sense, and also be true, in a more literal sense. And yet, we also conflate those two.

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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.

In the Public Interest

Carter_and_Ford_in_a_debate,_September_23,_1976As someone who hasn’t yet watched the Republican or Democratic debates and hasn’t attended any campaign events, I rely primarily on reporting to keep abreast of the candidates and their positions. Or perhaps I should say “would rely on,” since the things reported in the media and things I want to know have essentially no overlap.

When we, the public, granted private companies the right to broadcast throughout the United States, we also asked for one thing in return: that they spend some time each day in serving the public interest. Thus was born “the news.” Yet the news, in its current incarnation, seems to have shuffled off the public interest in favor of the popular demand..

The things in the public interest to know, in my opinion, would be what positions candidates have taken, what policies they advocate, and what those policies would actually mean for the public. Are these policies feasible? Are they soundly supported by evidence? What are the upsides and downsides? Yet I am hard-pressed to find any mention of policies, let alone reporting that substantively analyzes those policies and discusses the evidence for and against them.

Hillary Clinton has been the Democratic “front-runner” (and already we fall into the horse race) for more than a year, since long before announcing her candidacy. But what do we hear about her policy choices? The media mostly describe them in broad strokes, and when they pass judgment it is out of partisan bias, not evidentiary analysis.

And what about the “leading” candidate on the Republican side, Donald Trump? Reportedly the media are so interested in interviewing him that he can make the absence of policy questions a condition of his participation. Some of his policies do hold the media’s attention, but only those that are so patently absurd (like the proposal of a giant concrete border wall) as to provide gawker value.

Even within the bounds of the horse race, the media can’t seem to base it’s reporting on evidence; instead they suffer from the worst form of confirmation bias: choosing a narrative early on in their coverage and defaulting to that narrative repeatedly, regardless of actual events.

Consider, for example, the coverage of Bernie Sanders (or lack thereof). If Hillary draws a crowd of 20,000 people, this is proof of her “front-runner” status, yet if Bernie draws a crowd of 25,000, it barely registers. Not that I think either of those should define a candidate’s viability, because position in the race has nothing whatsoever to do with value as a leader. At this stage of things, none of the general public has weighed in; the positioning in the race is mainly determined by punditry and biased polling—by candidates, of their supporters, and by media, of their viewers.

Nor is the bias skewed left or right; Donald Trump is, one would think, the undeniable “front-runner” on the Republican side, and yet the media generally treat him as an enjoyable sideshow. In their minds, he is unelectable, which is just the word used by pundits to make their personal biases sound like unassailable facts.

So what am I, a member of the public, to make of this? The things that are in my interest to know are not reported. The things that are reported are irrelevancies plagued with bias. The question of who would lead and serve this country best, and what their positions would mean for us, goes unanswered.

As a member of the public, the message I receive is that the collective governance of our country, and the democratic ideals on which it was founded, and the choice of who will define our polices—these are nothing more than sport.

That is not in the public interest.

September Recommended Reading

At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.

Racism:

Cops: Texas Man Vandalized His Own Truck, Blamed It On Black Lives Matter – Caitlin Cruz

“A disabled veteran told Whitney, Texas, police on Sept. 8 that his pickup truck was vandalized by Black Lives Matter activists. As a result, he raised almost $6,000 from the public for repairs, according to a report from Dallas-Fort Worth television station KDFW.

But footage from the television station’s initial report told police a different story. On Friday police arrested Scott Lattin on suspicion of making a false police report.”

Sexism:

New Census Data Shows The Gender Wage Gap Hasn’t Improved In 7 Years – Bryce Covert

“The average woman working full time, year round in 2014 made just 79 percent of what a similar man made, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau. That’s not statistically different than last year’s 78 percent figure, and there hasn’t been a significant reduction of the wage gap since 2007.

Men earned $50,400 at the median in 2014, while women earned $39,600. both not stat from 2013. Neither gender has seen a significant increase in their median earnings since 2009, and women’s 2014 median earnings were not statistically different than what they made in 2007.”

Online posts about killing feminists prompt University of Toronto to increase campus security – Tristin Hopper

In the letter, Regehr says the university was the target of ‘anonymous threats made on a public blog,’ but provides no details. However, a later statement by CUPE 3902, the union representing University of Toronto academic staff, said the posts ‘were gendered threats made specifically toward women and feminists.’

‘We can also add that the threats specifically encourage violence and target our members in their workplaces,’ it reads. ‘Specifically mentioned are those working in Sociology and Women’s Studies classrooms.’ ”

Classism:

Wages Have Been Stagnant For 40 Years But It’s Not The Fault Of American Workers – Bryce Covert

“Stagnating wages aren’t workers’ fault. ‘People have been told that the economy isn’t doing well and therefore that’s why people haven’t done well,’ Lawrence Mishel, president of EPI and a co-author of the report, told ThinkProgress. But economic growth has kept increasing at a healthy rate. ‘Everybody’s wages could have grown substantially. But they didn’t.’

This isn’t accidental, either. ‘We haven’t been in an economic tsunami where people aren’t able to move ahead,’ Mishel said. ‘This is a man-made phenomenon.’ ”

Climate Change:

Secretive donors gave US climate denial groups $125m over three years – Suzanne Goldenberg and Helena Bengtsson

“The secretive funders behind America’s conservative movement directed around $125m (£82m) over three years to groups spreading disinformation about climate science and committed to wrecking Barack Obama’s climate change plan, according to an analysis of tax records. The amount is close to half of the anonymous funding disbursed to rightwing groups, underlining the importance of the climate issue to US conservatives. The anonymous cash flow came from two secretive organisations – the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund – that have been called the “Dark Money ATM” of the conservative movement.”

How I Came To Jesus On Global Warming — Dan Vergano

“It took a jolt from someone I trusted before my mind started to change. Jim, another aerospace engineer, had started working with the Energy Department, which funded climate scientists. He had quickly discovered that these researchers were not the addled souls of our imagination, but a crusty and sharp-minded breed (something that I can attest, after two decades of interviewing them, is still true).

So, when I casually voiced something sarcastic about global warming, Jim said: ‘Have you checked the data?’ In engineering speak that translates as, ‘Dude, are you high?’

That stung. Not enough to actually engage seriously with the idea that I might be wrong. But enough to open the door to real thought.”

Environment:

“A Big Deal… A Big Move”: the U.S. Wind Industry’s New Plan for Protecting Bats – John Rogers

“The new voluntary industry guidelines involve wind project operators operating their wind turbines differently when they’re not generating power during peak bat migration time. Wind turbines can pose threats to bats at wind speeds that are too low for generating electricity. Under this agreement, turbines will have their blades turned, such that they spin very slowly, or not at all, when they’re not needed.”

Media:

Book Publishing, Not Fact-Checking – Kate Newman

“Fact-checking dates back to the founding of Time in 1923, and has a strong tradition at places like Mother Jones and The New Yorker. (The Atlantic checks every article in print.) But it’s becoming less and less common even in the magazine world. Silverman suggests this is in part due to the Internet and the drive for quick content production. ‘Fact-checkers don’t increase content production,’ he said. ‘Arguably, they slow it.’

What many readers don’t realize is that fact-checking has never been standard practice in the book-publishing world at all.”

Politics:

Stop Comparing Donald Trump And Bernie Sanders – Nate Silver

“Trump is a much greater threat to his party establishment. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Sanders is as threatening to the Democratic establishment as Trump is to the Republican one. Sanders’s policy positions, as I’ve mentioned, are about 95 percent the same as those of a typical liberal Democrat in Congress. And where they diverge, they push Democrats further to the left in a fairly predictable way,3 acting as a ‘supersized’ or slightly exaggerated version of the Democratic agenda. Indeed, while Sanders lacks support from elected Democratic officials, he has some backing from other influential constituencies within the party, such as some labor unions and liberal media outlets.”

Religion:

Everything That Claims to be Christian – Shaun King

“Without fail, the people who harass me daily (I don’t mean genuine critiques) with the ugliest racist words and threats, all claim to be Christian. The people who openly hate Latino immigrants and even state that they’d like to shoot and kill them almost always claim to be Christians. The people who make life difficult, daily, and mock my LGBT friends, are almost always Christians. Those who are calling the Black Lives Matter movement a ‘terrorist organization’ or a hate group…so-called Christians.

For me, I’m at a point where I just don’t want to be anything that those people claim to be and here’s the greater point that I want to make…

We can’t both be Christians.”

Medicine:

The Human Cost of a Misleading Drug-Safety Study – David Dobbs

“Count this as shocking but unsurprising, for GSK has been admonished and fined many times since 2001, including once for $3 billion, for exaggerating Paxil’s safety and marketing it improperly for use in adolescents. Yet this BMJ study deals an especially sharp blow, for it’s only rarely that researchers are able to crack open the tightly sealed file cabinets of drugmakers and look at raw trial data. This illustrates why they want to do so: It appears to be a direct demonstration of how a company and researchers can misinterpret the data to make a bad drug look good.”

Science:

Perplexing Pluto: New ‘Snakeskin’ Image and More from New Horizons – NASA

“The newest high-resolution images of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons are both dazzling and mystifying, revealing a multitude of previously unseen topographic and compositional details. The image below — showing an area near the line that separates day from night — captures a vast rippling landscape of strange, aligned linear ridges that has astonished New Horizons team members.

‘It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles,’ said William McKinnon, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead from Washington University in St. Louis. ‘It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This’ll really take time to figure out.’ ”