Catching my own errors

I tweet links to news stories. Sometimes these stories turn out to be wrong. A while ago, I read this account of a Muslim woman’s report that she had been assaulted and called a “terrorist” in a New York subway station because she was wearing a hijab.

More recent reports say that she made up the story and has been arrested for making a false report.

Which account is true? I don’t actually know. The woman has reportedly “supplied verbal and written confessions to the police,” but police have been known to bully confessions out of people. Certainly the recent news casts serious doubt on her story, and anyone evaluating it ought to know about the recent events.

So I may have reported an event that didn’t happen. This isn’t what I’d call “fake news”; I reported a legitimate news story and checked more than one source to confirm it. Any of us can discover we’ve conveyed inaccurate information; the important thing is to follow up with a correction.

It’s a bit like computer security. You can’t always stop every piece of malware from getting through, so you have to check what may have gotten past your defenses and take corrective action.

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The illusion of regress

An article in USA Today, which seems reasonably objective, says that while the lead levels in Flint, Michigan are bad and reflect serious indifference and ineptitude, they would have been normal not long ago. This isn’t the only case where reports of disaster hide long-term trends of improvement. Crime rates have gone down over the years, though people think they’re getting worse. The number of people living in poverty has gone down as the world population has gone up.
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How to read the news

Here are some tips, as much to remind myself as anything else, on reading the news.

1. Major news outlets don’t pursue truth as their overriding goal. They’re selling a product.
2. Sources that promote a cause may be painstakingly honest yet still be blinded by their own aims.
3. The desire to please an influential source dampens critical thinking.
4. Be wary of stories that confirm your preconceptions.
5. Always check for two or more independent sources, and check if they really are independent.
6. Headlines are, as often as not, deceptive clickbait.
7. Paraphrases can be gross distortions. Look for actual quotations. But quotations can be gross distortions too.
8. Most reporters and editors know hardly anything about science.
9. Anonymous sources can be found to support anything.
10. On the Internet, stories can be rewritten in place without warning.

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Why do Democrats support DMV voter registration?

Under a new California law, people who get a driver’s license or state identification card will be automatically registered to vote. From what I’m seeing, Democrats are generally applauding it while Republicans are suspicious of it. The practical effects are bound to be similar to voter ID requirements. People who are eligible for IDs will be waved past a hurdle toward voting. People who don’t get an ID will have to register the old way, and this may become more difficult since it won’t be as routine in the future. The burden will fall most heavily on people who can’t afford cars or otherwise can’t get a driver’s license. They can still get the alternate ID, but those at the economic bottom may not bother. The same people might not be able to vote under an ID requirement, for similar reasons.

Oddly, the people who support DMV registration generally oppose strong ID requirements, and vice versa. Shouldn’t the people who oppose making it harder for the poorest to vote also oppose making it disproportionately easy for the non-poor to vote? My best guess is that looking at the issues from the perspective of entitlement is what makes them appear opposite. Both DMV registration and absence of ID requirements make it possible for people to vote with the least amount of effort. I think the real concern in both cases is that people might have to expend some effort in order to vote and choose not to, not that ID requirements will skew elections.
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Two flavors of zero tolerance

My posts on Ahmed Mohamed and on filk con harassment policies are about two aspects of the same issue. I’m sure, though, that most people who favor zero tolerance for electronics projects wouldn’t support Con2bil8’s policy if they knew about it, and most people who want zero tolerance for making anyone uncomfortable are unhappy with how MacArthur High School and the Irving Police Department treated the student.Stop sign with 'zero tolerance'

There’s a big difference in degree between the two, certainly. Much as I’d hate being kicked out of a filk con because somebody didn’t like what I said, it wouldn’t be as bad as being arrested, handcuffed, and questioned while being denied my legal rights. But I’m talking about the idea of designing policies so anything that deviates from the norm can be punished.
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Urban legends are contagious

A couple of days ago I saw a tweet claiming that people in California are throwing “measles parties” to deliberately expose their children to measles. It linked to a story on the LA Times website. All the responses that I saw to the tweet were about how dumb those people are.

There’s only one problem: The article actually says there have been no reports of measles parties. The article presents a warning by state epidemiologist Dr. Gil Chavez, but states:

Chavez issued the statement after KQED reported that a Marin County mother had been invited to expose her two young children to a child who had contracted measles. The mother, [redacted], whose 6- and 8-year-olds are not vaccinated, told KQED that she declined the offer.

The Times was not able to reach [redacted] on Monday and has not been able to confirm that any measles parties have taken place.

The added emphasis is mine, and I’ve redacted the mother’s name since I don’t want to add to the wave of harassment she’s undoubtedly going to get from morons.

How can anyone read that article and think that people are actually holding measles parties? Credulous people read not the words in the article, but what they want to believe. A lot of people want to think (not entirely without reason) that the anti-vaccination crowd is stupid, so they’ll look at an article and see only the warning against “measles parties,” possibly not even reading past that sentence, and invent the rest in their heads.

(People did once deliberately expose their children to measles, chicken pox, and the like, figuring they’d get those diseases anyway, and it might as well be at a planned time. That was a different time, though, when vaccines weren’t widely available or didn’t exist at all. It also doesn’t help that in some cases, the site throws a pop-up in front of the story saying it doesn’t like your browser.)

People can even be credulous about unsupported claims of the existence of unsupported claims. Recently on Google+ I saw a post whose headline said that somebody was asserting that there are 300 million 5-year-old prostitutes in the US. It linked to an article that didn’t cite anything close to that claim being made by anyone. The author might have intended the headline as obvious hyperbole, but commenters accepted that someone was making that claim, and the Google+ poster didn’t bother to correct them.

When a story is in line with people’s prior assumptions, they’ll very often swallow it without any critical thought. It fits their narrative, so it must be true. I have to watch out that I’m not doing the same thing. At first I though that Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson was a typical case of unjustified police violence, but the evidence I’ve read about since then clearly discredits the story of an unresisting Brown saying “Don’t shoot!” The story was plausible, because of irregularities in the police investigation and the Ferguson police’s horrible record, but it wasn’t true. It took me a while to realize that, and many people are still convinced it’s true in spite of the forensic evidence.

Perhaps we need to be especially careful when our first reaction to a report is “Just as I expected!” What we expect isn’t always true.

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My mind is not a junkyard

Once I ran across a song called “My Mind Is Not a Junkyard.” I had high hopes for the title, but it turned out to be just a complaint about Internet porn. What I hoped for was something about treating one’s own mind with respect. Maybe I’ll write that song myself.

What reminded me of that this week was a comment in an article by Andy Ihnatko. It’s nominally about whether religious people can believe in evolution (of course they can), but the part I want to focus on here is:

The folks who subscribe to that kind of idea readily concede that it’s a matter of personal faith, not a matter of provable science, and they know that the correct answer to the demand “Prove it!” is “Why?” You only need to prove something when you’re trying to convince the rest of the world they’re wrong, or impose your personal beliefs on them. And I think most religious people are secure enough in themselves and their faith to see the vulgarity of such motives.

He’s saying proof is only for persuading others, and even then it’s vulgar. Most people don’t say so outright, but it’s common for people to think of proof as something for public discourse, not for themselves. This amounts to making second-class citizens of their own minds. They’re granting a higher level of respect to other people’s minds than to their own.

It takes courage and practice to follow one’s own judgment. For most people, it’s easier to take something they’ve heard from someone else and toss it onto the debris pile of their minds. They don’t think about how well-supported it is till someone challenges it, and even then they’re more likely to care about winning an argument than checking their own premises. Or they may not even care that much about proof, taking the bumper-sticker attitude of “God [or some other authority] said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” They’re the mental equivalent of hoarders, hanging on desperately to whatever is inside their heads.

Jesus on the death penalty

A couple of weeks ago I followed a link to an article that claimed to show that Jesus was anti-gay by citing Matthew, chapter 15. The reasoning on that was a bit strained, but in re-reading that chapter, I noticed that Jesus did advocate the death penalty for speech crimes. I’m surprised I hadn’t noticed this before.

Then Pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem to Jesus and said, “Why do your disciples break away from the tradition of the elders? They eat without washing their hands.” He answered, “And why do you break away from the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother will be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If anyone says to his father or mother, Anything I might have used to help you is dedicated to God,’ he is rid of his duty to father or mother.’ In this way, you have made God’s word ineffective by means of your tradition. Hypocrites!”

There we have it: Jesus ranted at the Pharisees for not upholding the killing of people for what they say. (Just to be clear: The death penalty for “cursing” refers to pronouncing an actual malediction. “I wish you’d die” would probably count, but not an emotional “Damn it” that isn’t literally intended.) More precisely, the Gospel of Matthew claims Jesus said this. We don’t know what the person who inspired the Jesus stories really said or did; the Gospels often don’t agree with each other.

People love to grab on to words that the Bible attributes to Jesus to support anything from anti-gay legislation to the welfare state. (“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” supports the latter, I suppose.) They ignore anything that doesn’t fit the picture they’re trying to paint. Jesus was supposed to be an advocate of kindness and mercy, yet he was outraged by the Pharisees’ failure to support the death penalty for speech. And he called them hypocrites?

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Discussing ideas

During OVFF I spent most of my time doing musical things and catching up with friends, but there were a few conversations about broader ideas. I’ve never been tremendously good at these, but at least I’m able to see where some of the tough spots are.

One problem is that people often use words in sloppy ways. “Rationed,” for example, doesn’t mean “available only in limited quantity and at a cost,” but dishonest people have used it to mean that in order to equate rationing with the market, and more honest but not carefully thinking people have accepted the misuse. It’s tedious to try to correct terminology every time.

Sometimes people make arguments which just aren’t relevant. One person argued for Obamacare by saying that some people can’t even afford co-payments. This is true, but Obamacare doesn’t even pretend to address the issue. If anything, it makes it harder for poor people by imposing a tax on being uninsured and outlawing affordable insurance.

I pointed out in a discussion that progressives often hold the contradiction of despising the government that has been elected while having high confidence in government as the solver of all problems. He said that wasn’t necessarily a contradiction, since the problem could be just with the existing government, not with the ideal one they envisioned. I replied that if everyone currently in Congress were removed and people elected all new people, they’d choose people just as bad, because voters want to elect people who will give them stuff at the expense of the rest of the country.

His response to this was a long digression about how disastrous it would be to have a completely inexperienced Congress. If anything, this argument supports what I said, since if it’s true, it means that electing a better government is that much less practical. Basically, though, it’s irrelevant to my point that the quality of our government is the result of how people have voted. He went on so long that by the time he was finished, it was hard to get back to the original thread.

In the discussions I mentioned, there were no angry exchanges, so these are the better kinds of discussions, if anything. It’s just very difficult to keep even a good debate focused. There’s no limit to the variety of error. People can come up with invalid arguments you never dreamed of, and I find it hard to answer them on the spot just because they’re so bizarre.

I did learn some things from these discussions. A doctor told me that specialists tend to oppose Obamacare and primary care physicians tend to support it. I can understand this to some degree. The existing system, in which insurance covers even routine items like examinations, works as insurance should for the expensive procedures that specialists handle, but drives a wedge in the doctor-patient relationship when the insurance company is the intermediary for everything. (I compared it to insuring oil changes.) Primary care physicians get squeezed under this system with stressful work and comparatively low pay, and it’s hard to blame them for thinking any change has to be an improvement, even if it really isn’t.

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Twit mobs

Twitter is a very useful site. My professional account has helped me to keep contact with computer people who share my interests and even to get paying work. It has a few distinctive problems of its own, though. It’s very easy to retweet something without giving it any thought. This can snowball into large numbers at times. When the absence of thought is particularly obvious, “twit mob” is a good term for what happens.

There was a protest by veterans at the World War II monument in Washington, which was senselessly closed off to the public even though it isn’t normally staffed. Some veterans protested this bit of nonsense and walked past the barricades. One person was carrying a Confederate flag; it’s no surprise that this jerk got an undue proportion of attention from the media, as people doing outrageous things always do. I don’t know what his aim was; he could have been a pro-Confederate jerk, or he might have been trying to discredit the rally. Either way, he was one person in the crowd.

Today I saw a tweet claiming that this flag was there at the direction of the Republican Party, and another implying that there were 2000 people carrying “separatist flags.” It shouldn’t take more than a moment’s thought to realize both were nonsense. Nonetheless, lots of people retweeted them. A moment’s thought was more than they gave, and they built a twit mob around absurd claims.

On a few occasions I’ve been hasty myself in retweeting. Fortunately, it can be undone, though perhaps not before some people have seen it. It’s also true that a retweet isn’t necessarily an endorsement, but if there’s no context it’s going to be taken as one.

It’s always worth taking an extra moment to think about retweeting. Does the tweet really make sense? How will reasonable people interpret my retweeting it? Am I competent to evaluate what it’s saying? It’s most important to do this when the emotional impulse to retweet is strongest.

Update: Some followups I’ve seen show that some are engaging in deliberate mudslinging at everyone who was in the protest. An article makes an especially transparent attempt at this with the headline “D.C. protestors wave Confederate flag, tell Obama to ‘put the Quran down.'” Later on in the article, possibly realizing the image of multiple protestors waving one flag together sounded silly, the writer said there was “at least one large Confederate flag.” I haven’t seen a second one reported in any account, but yes, one is “at least one.” Most people can count to two, though. Likewise, one person claimed Obama is a Muslim. Another article I encountered yesterday actually used “protestors” as a singular noun in its headline to pluralize the one scumbag who carried a pro-slavery flag.

In September I attended an anti-war protest in which one of the protestors was a 9/11 truther. I’m probably lucky that no sleaze media ran the headline “9/11 truthers protests against war” and tried to tie me into his views. They still could. At an earlier protest there was a singer (sorry, “a singers” or “at least one singer”) advocating class warfare. People who had started to sing along dropped out as they realized what the song was saying, but the same smear could have been used there.

I’m still trying to understand just who (outside of Washington politicians) has an ideological stake in ridiculing opposition to shutdown theater, so I’ll leave that for another time.

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