What does it mean to be accurate?

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 questioned, 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

Climate change is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed

The title is from a tweet by Kate Mackenzie, although I’m unsure if she was referencing someone else.

It highlights a central problem in tackling climate change.

By now most educated people around the world are at least aware of anthropogenic climate change. Even if they refuse to accept it.

So the problem is not really one of education, but salience. Even if most are aware of, and intellectually accept, the phenomena, it’s just not present in their day to day lives.

Climate change is already devastating farmers with increased variability and hammering certain exposed communities. But for most it only really exists in the periodic news report. It’s like a far away war or natural disaster – easy to miss in an increasingly comfortable and abstracted day to day.

Given both the looming catastrophe and what we know of the health impact of pollution, it’s insufficient to simply “inform people” and sit back – the most comfortable mode for the news media.

Accurate reporting and discussion of climate change is more than highlighting the results. We have to engage with the process. The currently invisible must be made unmissable.

The question is – how do you turn something that takes place subtly and slowly, often only visible in the varied probability and intensity of “normal” events, into something that can’t be missed? That affects their day to day?

How do you increase salience?

Apple news and the curation problem

What is your platonic ideal of the news?

For me a perfect outfit, on a perfect day, would post one sentence: “nothing happened today.”

Go read a book. Grab a beer with friends.

Unfortunately, modern media is not predicated on informing us only about what is important. Or respecting our time. Rather, they seek to monopolise it.

On a day when nothing happened they would still find something to shove in your face. Apple’s subscription news model will only make this worse.

The plan is to charge users a flat rate per month for access to “hundreds” of newspapers and magazines. Publishers will apparently receive a share “according to the amount of time users spend engaged with their articles”.

In other words, publishers will have little incentive but to be as loud as possible. And to cover everything under the sun. They will be paraded and rewarded for catching our eye.

There is no incentive to engage in curation – publishers will have no direct relationship with customers. Apple will be curating further down the stack, but while it may be looking for “quality”, it has used total content consumed as a positive metric.

I won’t be signing up.

We don’t live in a world where nothing will happen. But there is a next best – subscribe directly to people who value their own time enough not to waste yours.

Create a limited stream of content, populated only with those who value similar things.

I do this through RSS feeds and newsletters.

We need more technological ’bilingualism’

Something that bugs me is the widespread, continued segregation of technology. Technology might be something you use, but rarely is it something you make or even understand.

I’m currently thinking of all the people who I WhatsApp whose eyes gloss over at the mention of encryption.

This is often reflected in organisations, with technology teams separate from the rest of us. There are obviously some exceptions. Notably companies where the product is technology. But more often there is little overlap between those that make the product (etc.) and the nerds who make it possible.

The overlap often takes the shape of particular individual(s). But we all have to become the nerds who make it all possible.

Technology is no longer something separate from the rest of our lives. If it ever was.

In newsrooms, the tech nerds are often off somewhere leaving the overlap to take the form of data or multimedia journalists. This isn’t enough. There are too many important stories, too much to miss, misunderstand or underestimate; not to mention too many productivity enhancements, for computers to just be a blunt instrument.

Anyway, all of this came to mind as I was reading an MIT Tech Review article about the launch of a new multi-disciplinary college at the University:

“The world needs bilinguals,” said MIT president Rafael Reif. In other words, the world needs engineers with a better grounding in the liberal arts, who can build more ethical products and platforms, as well as policymakers and civic leaders with a better understanding of technology to help guide responsible innovation…

…Faculty at the new college will work with other MIT departments to cross-pollinate ideas. Classes will also be designed so that technical skills, social sciences, and the humanities are bound up together within each course rather than learned separately.

I agree. But I’m not sure the solution lies in more cross-disciplinary study (although it is definitely necessary) as much as it does in employers etc. valuing people who aren’t cookie-cut candidates, who have more diverse or even tangential experience.

I’m not sure how to do that.

As always my emphasis.