Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Civil War: The Battle of Propaganda

At first glance Megan McArdle's latest work looks like yet another post on how everything is too hard and nobody can do anything ever. This is especially true if you are a conservative scientist whose work has been shown to be a little less than scientific, although McArdle points out that Both Sides Do It, naturally.

After three paragraphs of this your mind starts to wander and you begin to wonder if you have enough cream for dinner. By the seventh paragraph of this your head is nodding and you are about to drop off to sleep. And then McArdle freaks out.
A few years back, a friend who is a securities lawyer, and therefore very interested in books on the financial crisis, asked me a very good question: How does journalism guard against the possibility of false facts entering the data stream?
They don't make shit up? That would prevent false facts from entering the data stream.
These tomes are extensively reported, and each has its nuggets of new information gleaned from many hundreds of hours of interviews. Often interview subjects are hard to get to sit down, much less to go on the record. What happens if those interviews yield false information?
That is why journalists check information and don't use information that cannot be confirmed. Or they emphasize that the information can't be confirmed and thus is not reliable or the final word.
Journalists do, of course, attempt to guard against that sort of thing, for example by getting multiple sources. But we also get things wrong sometimes. And it would be folly to think that these errors are always exposed. When they are not, these “facts” get repeated until they are heard as facts.
Conservative "journalists" do repeat false information ad nauseam. Usually however it's not a mistake, it's a deliberate lie to fool the public into doing something that will end up harming them.
There is one area, however, where a robust response is guaranteed, and that’s in politics. Publish something that makes one side of the political spectrum look bad, and you can be sure that the next day, there will be hordes of interns, reporters and political staffers devoted to exposing every last weakness in the argument. Had Rogoff and Reinhart published a few years earlier, it seems unlikely that they would have attracted the level of attention that they did from outside the slightly stuffy world of international public finance wonks. As it was, their work became the focus of a heated debate over stimulus, government spending and deficits -- and their coding error quickly became big news.

Interesting thing--Rogoff and Reinhart enthusiastically gave interviews in which they said their work supported certain policies and continue to insist that large deficits will harm growth after their work was shown to be "mistaken," as the link shows.

But let's go back to the main point, political lies are quickly corrected.
When almost everyone in your field leans towards one side of the political spectrum, that reaction -- that teeth-grinding, hair-pulling, eye-rolling “That can’t be right!” -- gets blunted.
Then don't just read information from your side of the political spectrum. Question your assumptions. Fact check everything. Look for holes in your arguments. Take your arguments to their natural conclusions to see if the outcomes are different from your initial suppositions. It's called thinking.
Of course, it's no fun having your work under attack by political partisans. I know: I’ve spent the last 15 years of my career in the fray, knowing that much of what I publish is going to get someone’s blood boiling, and their eyes scanning for mistakes.
Who's the precious little snowflake? You are! Yes, you!

Okay, the eye-rolling does occur. Also, some tittering and a few hahaha!s. Mostly though it's face-palming.
And yet, for the profession as a whole, this is a good thing. It makes us more careful, and more importantly, it means that our inevitable errors are not immortal. Journalism has a lot of ways to protect against errors before publication, and it needs them all. Journalism also benefits from the hordes of folks who check us after we’ve done every check we can think of -- because the cognitive biases to which all humans are prey mean that there are probably some checks we couldn’t think of.
They are not mistakes. They are lies.
Similarly, science is going to need to do something about publication bias, and by extension, about the way that tenure and research funding are handed out. A new study intended to test a past conclusion is not unoriginal; it's essential. We should respect and demand that kind of rigor across the sciences, not only for politicized topics.
Aaaaaand let's end with a swipe at academia because conservatives are not able to take it all over quite yet, despite all the fine work the Koch foundations are doing in that field.


Kathy said...

"But we also get things wrong sometimes". WE? SOMETIMES?" Sheesh.

How you can stand reading that nauseating drivel I can't even imagine. Kudos!

Susan of Texas said...

Sometimes it's too much even for me.

Magatha said...

"False facts". Feh. A fact is a true thing. A false fact is a lie dressed up for Halloween pretending to be a mistake or a quirky interpretation, or a poor choice of words, or something both impressive and invisible. An hypothesis or a theory goes as itself, not as a "false fact". False fact implies some level of innocence: I didn't know the fact was false! It looked like a fact and smelled like a fact and all my friends told me it was a fact, so it must be a fact, so why should I check it, and how could it be my fault?

Susan of Texas said...

Plausible stupidity! I don't think McArdle holds herself to any journalism standards; when she needs to elude them she calls herself a blogger, when she needs to cover up her lies she calls herself a journalist and pretends she follows standards. It doesn't even seem to occur to her that you need to verify information to find out if it's true or not.

cynic said...

There is a saying in an ancient indian language (tamil) - translated: What you see with your eyes is false; what you hear with your ears is false. Only that which is completely investigated is true.

But for mcmegan, everything she wants to see is true, everything she wants to hear is true and anything she does not want to hear or see is false.