One of my major issues with modern, broadcast journalism is its normalisation of a one dimensional view of accuracy. When called out over a questionable story the retreat mostly takes place to the “facts” within the story itself. Solace is found in the precise sourcing of a story, even if that isn’t the way knowledge actually works.
Rarely are other dimensions question, such as whether the story’s very existence is misleading or lends undue credence or salience. Because that, also, is inaccurate. The five stories every day on petty crimes may be exact in recounting the details (as far as we can ever know), but is the presence of five stories an accurate portrayal of the magnitude of the problem?
Is this conflating precision with accuracy?
…precision can mask inaccuracy by giving us a false sense of certainty, either inadvertently or quite deliberately.”
This is from Naked Statistics by Charles Wheelan. I’m about halfway through and haven’t come across much that would be surprising to anyone who has done an intro statistics course. But Wheelan has an interesting way of theorising what are otherwise mundane concepts.
Consider his framing of “precision” and “accuracy” (forgive the long quote):
These words are not interchangeable. Precision reflects the exactitude with which we can express something. In a description of the length of your commute, “41.6 miles” is more precise than “about 40 miles,” which is more precise than “a long f——ing way.” If you ask me how far it is to the nearest gas station, and I tell you that it’s 1.265 miles to the east, that’s a precise answer. Here is the problem: That answer may be entirely inaccurate if the gas station happens to be in the other direction. On the other hand, if I tell you, “Drive ten minutes or so until you see a hot dog stand. The gas station will be a couple hundred yards after that on the right. If you pass the Hooters, you’ve gone too far,” my answer is less precise than “1.265 miles to the east” but significantly better because I am sending you in the direction of the gas station. Accuracy is a measure of whether a figure is broadly consistent with the truth—hence the danger of confusing precision with accuracy. If an answer is accurate, then more precision is usually better. But no amount of precision can make up for inaccuracy
Bringing this back to journalism, it highlights the fallacy in retreating to details rather than the bigger picture. If a portrayal of the world is an accurate one then precision is laudable. But you can’t sacrifice one for the other. By no means conflate one with the other.
If the audience walks away with all the details of the criminals but a misleading impression of the likelihood of their being a victim, that’s a failure. And it’s one we all eventually pay for through public policy.
This is a rabbit hole I’ve wandered down many a time when thinking about journalism and the possibility of representing truth. Whether achievable or not, truth definitely isn’t entirely in the details.
As usual my emphasis
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We’re pretty well in to the internet age. But how much do our perceptions, selection and judgement reflect that?
Is the smartest person you know the one with the deepest personal repository of knowledge? Or the one with the widest knowledge, armed with the tools and skills to find out anything?
Are there many pub trivia nights that arm patrons with the web to hunt down obscure clues or answers?
I’ve been thinking of this as I get stuck into my latest coding textbook, the Python Data Science Handbook. Early on author Jake VanderPlas writes:
When a technologically minded person is asked to help a friend, family member, or colleague with a computer problem, most of the time it’s less a matter of knowing the answer as much as knowing how to quickly find an unknown answer. In data science it’s the same: searchable web resources such as online documentation, mailing-list threads, and Stack Overflow answers contain a wealth of information, even (especially?) if it is a topic you’ve found yourself searching before. Being an effective practitioner of data science is less about memorizing the tool or command you should use for every possible situation, and more about learning to effectively find the information you don’t know, whether through a web search engine or another means.
Surely this goes for most things. Knowledge itself isn’t redundant, obviously. It’s experience, information and skills that inform how and where you search, and what for.
But, at the same time, it feels like we’re still living with an outdated perception of intelligence. Intelligence as a kind of isolated store of information that can’t be updated or augmented mid-problem.
I’m waiting to see a job ad that’s looking for a candidate that isn’t just qualified, but has skills to locate, store and retrieve appropriate information. Better yet, emphasises that.
As usual my emphasis
I’ve not really protested much in my life. I’ve always found them quite pointless.
As a signalling device protests are quite lacking. No matter the size it’s only a subset of the population. This isn’t too meaningful as there’s an equally large, rabid subset of the population that believe anything and everything.
Grouping the most motivated people together isn’t a great signal either of larger animation or changing tides. It’s about as convincing as pointing to the membership of any one political party and using that as justification for a policy position.
Similarly, even the most well attended protest is unlikely to contain the voting population required to swing a seat. Constituencies represented by politicians who already agree are likely over-represented among protesters. The rest are likely spread so thin among constituencies as to not constitute a meaningful margin.
But it’s questionable how much my cynicism could also be the result of manipulation. Again from This Is Not Propaganda:
In a world where even the most authoritarian regimes struggle to impose censorship, one has to surround audiences with so much cynicism about anybody’s motives, persuade them that behind every seemingly benign motivation is a nefarious, if impossible-to-prove, plot, that they lose faith in the possibility of an alternative, a tactic a renowned Russian media analyst called Vasily Gatov calls ‘white jamming’…
…And the end effect of this endless pile-up of conspiracies is that you, the little guy, can never change anything. For if you are living in a world where shadowy forces control everything, then what possible chance do you have of turning it around? In this murk it becomes best to rely on a strong hand to guide you.
This particular passage is obviously talking about the “deep state” end of the spectrum. But the overall notion still holds. Cynicism can be fostered. And the fruitlessness it engenders can be an impediment to political action. Don’t suppress yourself.
Increasingly, staying informed is a struggle to separate the signal from the noise. The declining cost and returns from content have led much traditional media to resort to pumping stuff out. Rather than the good ideas beating the bad ones in a marketplace of ideas, it’s more islands of quality surrounded by oceans of dross.
An interesting observation early on in This Is Not Propaganda is how bad actors have leveraged this same phenomena, deliberately, as a form of censorship. We’re used to thinking of censorship as the removal, absence of blacking-out of information, but drowning it out is just as effective.
“More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful, but it’s also given them new ways to crush and silence dissent. More information was supposed to mean a more informed debate, but we seem less capable of deliberation than ever. More information was supposed to mean mutual understanding across borders, but it has also made possible new and more subtle forms of conflict and subversion. We live in a world of mass persuasion run amok…”
As Donald Trump shows constantly, this is something for which we are wholly unprepared. Our information environment is built on filters and assumptions of good faith that no longer exist or are now undercapitalised.
Shamelessness, trolling and coordinated disinformation campaigns usurp our models.
Just this week the Australian press has launched a campaign against excessive national security legislative by blacking out their front pages. But are we so focused on a loss of access, a lack of information, that we’re missing the inverse?
“When the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was murdered in February 2015, for instance, assassinated with a Makarov pistol on a bridge right underneath the towers and onion domes of Red Square, the farm’s middle management suddenly started running into every office, giving the trolls direct instructions on what to post under which articles printed in mainstream Russian publications. The farm was working in rhythm with the whole government disinformation complex. No one had time to read the articles, but they knew exactly what to post. The trolls were told to spread confusion about who was behind the murder: was it the Ukrainians, the Chechens, the Americans? The IRA, an agency whose connection to the Kremlin was purposefully blurred, was in turn purposefully blurring the Kremlin’s connection to a murder.”
As always my emphasis