Friday, September 30, 2016

To Retract or Not to Retract, That is the Question. Whether Tis Nobler...

Sometimes as we strive to understand the world in which we live, we are handed a moment of clarity. We need to accept these gifts and learn all we can. We had two major retractions in wildly different fields recently - the power pose renunciation by study co-author Dana Carney and the birther retraction by candidate Donald Trump. But first, the power pose.

Amy Cuddy is a social scientist who has found semi-renown with a current New York Times best seller Presence. In 2010 she and her colleagues published results of a study on the effectiveness of "power poses" in building confidence, as measured by levels of cortisol and testosterone. She famously advocated "fake it till you make it" and now it appears that is what she may have done, or at least the statistical techniques were applied sloppily.

Cuddy's co-author of the study, Dana Carney, recently renounced the findings of the original study, which researchers have been unable to replicate. That renunciation provides a moment of clarity because the arguments about the validity of the results can stop, we can all agree there was a problem, and we can turn our attention to understanding better what went wrong and how do we fix it.
Cuddy's Ted Talk available on Youtube is entertaining.
Dana Carney, who went from Columbia to Berkeley after the paper was published, has a special comment on the power pose study which is a clear renunciation.
Retraction Watch has a post on the study. Carney says the paper should not be retracted. We will likely see more activity in the weeks ahead.

When I originally watched Cuddy perform, I noticed that her ways of thinking about herself and the world often fundamentally differ from mine. She concludes that doctors who have a warm social interaction with their patients are sued less often, regardless of their competence. (I am not familiar with that study or how competence was measured). I lean toward the belief that doctors (and really other professionals) who are the most competent are the most confident -they have every reason to be - and therefore the least defensive, so they are able to engage their patients more directly.

So she looks for mechanisms that do not offer intuitive appeal to me. For example, she posits ways to build confidence for job interviews and chooses the example of Usain Bolt thrusting his arms in the air after the race as a natural "power pose". But that is backwards! Usain throws his arms up after he wins, after the validation of winning, not before the race. In the past, before a client meeting - or an interview - I would don the suit and tie and stare at myself in the mirror for 5 seconds taking myself in as a stranger would. It was almost a way of saying to myself - see, if I saw that person on the other side of the table, I would assume they are capable and belong there. I thought of my little ritual as getting psyched for game day. Frankly I never saw this kind of self-help as requiring scientific study. Isn't this just the "ruby slippers" effect in the Wizard of Oz? The cowardly lion had reason to feel brave because he had acted bravely. The scarecrow made wise recommendations, so he really did have a brain. And the Wizard really was a wizard because he helped the others understand they had every reason to feel confident. Cuddy leaves open the question of how a person lacking in competence can feel confident in areas beyond their expertise and whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

The power pose results failed the common sense test (for many, but not all of us). The primary goal of at least one of the authors seemed to be to help women feel more confident and to be able to validate the recommendations by pointing to "science proves it". Almost as if to say - "See you can really feel more confident if you use this technique, and you can feel confident in this recommendation because science backs me up on this.

Dana Carney's rejection of the findings is big news. Many statistical studies have failed to replicate in recent years, especially in social psychology. Sometimes a study can not be replicated because the data is kept confidential (not good), but the findings fly in the face of common sense. For example, I thought I understood the most important mechanisms for unruly passengers -- access to overhead storage, access to under-the-seat storage in front of you, seat tilting and other confined quarters conflicts, timely access to a clean restroom, emotions sometimes fueled by alcohol, which happens to be offered free in first class, usually at the start of the flight. But a recent study found that unruly passenger disruptions were more common in flights with economy passengers walking through first class than with economy passengers entering the flight behind first class. Maybe, but it will take more for me to believe it. Passengers in first class are not always a rarefied elite. The same persons fly economy, but are bumped up with rewards points to first or business class. Studies like this are potentially dangerous because the airlines could start building more planes with middle entry instead of addressing the real problems - plenty of overhead space for luggage, timely access to restrooms, adequate seating room - all because legitimate concerns about income inequality morphed in popular culture into concerns about elites being cordoned off from the masses on planes, boats, and trains as well as stadiums.

On power pose, this afternoon Amy Cuddy issued her response to critiques of her research, which is actually a response to the Dana Carney's clearly backing away from the original research findings.
We will wait for the response from the experts on statistical methods. Suffice it to say that Cuddy decries the "chilling effect on science. In the last six months, three labs have contacted me to let me know that they have conducted high-powered studies on expansive postures or “power posing,” but that they are reluctant to submit them because they fear being “targeted” for doing research in this area. Open science must be inclusive." I was not aware that scientists are such cowards.

An upcoming post will compare and contrast this evolving situation with the Trump retraction on birtherism and the press treatment of science and politics. As a start, it is interesting that in Trump's retraction, he blamed Hillary Clinton for birtherism. Cuddy lashed back at her co-author for the failures -" I also cannot contest the first author’s recollections of how the data were collected and analyzed, as she led both. By today’s improved methodological standards, the studies in that paper — which was peer-reviewed — were “underpowered,” meaning that they should have included more participants. I wish we had conducted those studies with the rigor of today’s methodological standards, which I firmly believe are moving our field in the right direction."

In the end, the story is not about individuals, but about applying standards of rigor and fairness to produce accurate results and reporting. More to come.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Asymmetry Challenge

Here at WTBP, we sometimes wonder if a fair shorthand for the current political mess would be - "Liberals inquire, 'What If', But Conservatives Shout 'F**k You!" (WIFY)Now, if that happens to be true, then there is important asymmetry between the parties which leads the following logical consequences, among others.
If asymmetry can be proven, then the he said/she said/ both-sides-do-it balanced model used by the mainstream objective media giants breaks down.
If the model for media balance breaks down, it needs to be replaced.
If the media fairness standard needs to be replaced, with what?
You can almost see Adolph S. Ochs spinning in his grave.
Begin with context and research meaningful patterns of behavior. Pay attention to patterns of speech, too. With Trump and Clinton as candidates this year, the media was handed a generous gift, two opposing candidates with long records of activity in the public sphere. Lots of information at your fingertips. Lots of living people who can talk about their experiences with them. Build a model of that candidate yourself, based on the available evidence. And when an accusation is made about the other candidate, test it against the portrait of the candidate you have built under the new fairness model. Only report the accusation in context, if at all!

Context Alert: Donald Trump is someone who has spent a lifetime taking advantage of weaknesses in the systems in which he operates. Those weaknesses often derive from the principle that most people act in good faith in their dealings with others throughout their lives. In business, a man with four bankruptcies has used and abused the system. So has a man with a history of using his charities to pay off his debts, even when those charities collected funds only from others. He certainly seems to be a man who refuses to pay his bills mostly because he hates to part with his money so much. The list goes on. If many people who knew Ted Cruz throughout college and law school could not stand his personality, Donald Trump has stood out in business as someone who achieved success through intimidation and shaking down bill collectors to accept less. And now, at least since 2011, he first took advantage of the weak "fair and balanced" reporting standard of our objective press in pursuing the "birther" accusations, and then, in 2015 and 2016, he took advantage of weaknesses in the Republican primary system that reward candidates for outrageous statements and promises and avoiding clear expressions of policy.

What can be done? We point to two groups. The press who refuse to examine context first. And the moderates who happen to still be Republicans who succumb to tactics as policy.

Extreme example of context: So telling that at almost precisely the moment the WaPo posted their article on Trump's week of lies, NYT posted their article on Trump's week of lies. Imagine. These two outlets needed Trump's extreme three-pronged insult to feel that they had permission to call him out. But this was not the first week like this. Nor will it be the last. But such was his power over the press. Imagine what coverage would have been like if the press had been using that prism all along.
More to come on WIFY in an upcoming post.

Monday, September 26, 2016

What's Wrong With Calling Trump a Liar

What's wrong with calling Trump a liar? It misses the point. His statements - accusations, denials, insults, labels, claims of omnipotence - are all made for effect,to express feeling,  not meant to actually express statements of fact. His followers know this and embrace it. They know he does not know anything, and they don't care. No political correctness there. Our traditional journalists struggle with this. Their knee jerk "fact checking" is a weak response. The NYT backpatted themselves over calling Trump a liar on the birther issue. Really? When the false accusation had served its purpose for years and no longer had a purpose, he reverses himself, and you congratulate yourselves? Are you kidding?  If Trump is to be interpreted and understood, he must be treated like a Mafia Don. Do you fact check a Mafia Don? When the Don says - How are your children Claude and Emily enjoying your seaside cottage with their lovely mother, Clara, do you say - so nice of you to ask? No, you know what he means. But you can't prove it in court, can you. When Trump is intimidating, the Donald is like the Don. His threats are veiled, but he gets away with it because our news media, even when critical, treats the existence of the threats as an opinion. When he gets called on these outrages, the reaction is still mild, considering the extremity of his statements. Suppose the candidate of a major party should be arrested and charged with threatening a Presidential candidate? Could that indictment ever happen in a system that assumes a certain amount of good faith of the actors within it? No, not now
When he roughly talks policy because he is backed into a corner, he springs from the place of "truthiness", like George W. Bush. In a situation like this, it doesn't matter if statements are factual,  - that is not the issue - journalists could turn the focus to experience, expertise, and other qualities that a president needs - whoops, that is an opinion. Nope, can't go there, can we. Sigh.

What's All This About Asymmetry?

Scholars and the blogosphere are getting excited about asymmetry - and you should too -- because this is the key to reforming standards of political journalism in the U.S., the UK, and any country with a free press that bends over backwards to appear unbiased by tracking down every negative story at the expense of context and true fairness - to readers, fairness to the subjects.
Asymmetric Politics is a new book from Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins on this topic. More to come on that.
Washington Monthly has a shout out to Jay Rosen's blog piece on the subject.
See Why Asymmetry Matters.
As you read, keep in mind the seminal theory of the Six Points and related pages Beyond the Pale, Key Takeaways and Both Sides Do It
As noted in the Six Points the two groups in society who hold the power to change the dangerous direction of American politics are the journalists, who need to modify (really replace) the current standards, and moderate Republicans, who need to take the chance to threaten to form a rump group to leave their caucus in order to weaken the Tea Party scorched earth tactics.
If you read all of these posts and the arguments make sense to you,  Congratulations! You have just been thoroughly brainwashed. Kidding! But really, that's was the Times editors seem to be saying in their recent News Analysis of the Clinton twitterstorm. All liberals apparently, who did not vote for Bernie think alike and wait for commands from their leader, Hillary. That would mean the Bernie Bros believe whatever their leader tells them. If these people do not think for themselves, how did they decide between Bernie and Hillary in the first place.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Birtherism as a Service (BaaS)

No one should be surprised that Donald Trump claimed his promotion of birtherism was a service to America or that it was all Hillary's idea (deny, distract, accuse). Any fair analysis of his "admission" it is untrue would need to be severely critical. For the MM, balance requires finding a parallel action by the Clinton campaign. Why make the MM do the research? Better for the Donald to hand them the balance outright - Hillary made me do it, it was all her idea. The NYT statement "No, it was not." misses the point. Of course it was not. But the point is that birtherism is a tactic. So criticism of birtherism requires discussion of the tactic - the deep and sometimes hiding in plain sight reality of that tactic and how truly sinister it is. So sinister, we did not have proper words in our language to describe it and came up with "birther" and "birtherism". Is it treason? Almost.  The point is the essential truth that some feel that Obama could not be a legitimate president, even if elected by a majority. The natural human response for many Republican voters and independents who do not inhabit the fringe is to view the birther debate from a distance and decide, well, it's turned into a debate so it may be true...then the debate continues, so it is probably true.

The Times headline "Donald Trump Clung to 'Birther' Lie for Years, and Still Isn't Apologetic" screams the cluelessness of the MM. Are you kidding. Apologize? The tactic had worn out its usefulness and needed to be dropped. He never actually believed it was true, but mostly never cared. That was not the point. The "claim" existed only to drum up support in a run for president, at least in testing the waters, and to send the MM into fact-checking mode, putting the President and Democrats on the defensive. In a world where the base of the Republican party is mostly intuitive and dwells in a land of concrete ideas dominated by ideology and the base of the Democratic party is more analytical, creating the so-called "birtherism" debate is a splendid tactic. This sent the President and Democrats into defense mode, just when the new President and Democrats had the opportunity to advance legislation like the ACA. As a strategy, better to have the Dems busy with their analytic expertise focused on explaining why Obama really was born in the U.S. than explaining proposed legislation to the American people who might actually focus on real issues if not distracted by these tactics.

The "reversal" on birtherism was a gift that the MM did not know how to receive. The birtherism tactic, like similar tactics that succeed primarily when employed by the right, relies on obfuscation and the resulting confusion created among the MM and analysts  Part of the problem is their confusion caused by seeing the world as an array of facts to be studied in the absence of context. Context, when understood, provides meaning to facts. Without context, facts are just a matter of debate and we are left with debates about whether or not statements or lies, which lead to whether or not the person who utters the statement is a liar, but we are left without meaning.

How sinister is birtherism? MM can not face the question squarely due to the limitations of the required balancing act. The meaning of birtherism changes with the passage of time. Before Obama was elected President with majorities in the Electoral College and the popular national vote, the debate was about his legitiimacy as a candidate, but after the election, it became about the legitimacy of our democracy. Birtherism is inextricably linked to the "voter fraud" meme as attacks on the legitimacy of every law passed in 2009 to date, including "Obamacare" - the name itself chosen by the right, now used by "both sides" because the left gave up fighting it. Birtherism lends legitimacy to the possibility of armed insurrection and grants credibility to fringe militias. The calls to the fringe right, in code and obfuscation to the "Second Amendment folks", to "take matters into their own hands" is the next logical step - really completing the recipe for reaction to the illegitimacy of democratically elected presidents when they are Democrats.

More to come on this and what to expect in the not-so-Presidential Presidential debates.

Friday, September 23, 2016

They Call Him Flip Flopper Flip Flopper

Sometimes, to understand what is happening, it helps to observe what is not happening. One hallmark of Trump's success is the limited use of the media's customary favorite election-year pejorative label - the "flip-flopper". Sure, there have been plenty of accusations, but not the drumbeat we have seen in the past. Like the word "lie", the accusation has a broad enough application to avoid intelligent scrutiny and be made to stick. Absolute proof of meaningful flip-flopping is elusive, leaving listeners to apply their own worldview. For John Kerry, who as a Senator used votes for and against bills with similar or identical provisions as a parliamentary tactic, the accusation was a made in a one-two punch using the doctored visual of his windsurfing. Turning a strength - his physical fitness-into a weakness - "flip-flopper" is standard playbook - making for double duty. If the "flip-flopper" is a long time favorite of Republican strategists and a media darling, why fewer flip-flopper accusation this year?

When the accusation is lying and the pejorative label of choice is "liar",  you don't need "flip-flopping". "Liar" as a label means that you are always lying. "Flip-flopper" means you say one thing and then turn around and say the opposite. If a "flip-flopper" is lying, then turns around and says the opposite, that would be the truth, but if he or she is a "liar", that is impossible. If the candidate is being accused of lying and being accused of flip-flopping, both of which imply a permanent state, a contradiction on a particular issue could arise, calling the accuracy of both labels into question. The accuser does not want this.

The clearest instance of outright "flip-flopping" is Trump's reversal on the legitimacy of the Obama presidency based on his birthplace. Neither Democrats nor the media accuse him of "flip-flopping", the one-time favorite label to discredit a candidate, favored by Republicans, but used by both parties, because the substance of the Trump actions shows them to be so repugnant on their face, that there is no added value to the flip-flop label which thus becomes a distraction. That label is generally more about gamesmanship than substance - and so is the "liar" label by the way - that we do not see it used much this year.

Sam Stein at HuffPo has his own take Why the Clinton Campaign Isn't Attacking Trump As A Flip-Flopper

That Which Does not Kill You

Taking a break from meta-politics. Let's talk about football. Well, football strategy.
In my pool of mostly Pats fans, I can count on the others to pick the Pats week after week out of loyalty. Last night I outsmarted myself with game theory tactics to try to take advantage of that perceived weakness of the opposition. They would pick the Pats whether or not the Pats were more likely to win, so if I picked against my own interests, I might improve my chances in the pool. Unfortunately, my focus on the vulnerabilities of the pool participants made me forgot about the strength of the Pats - they find a way to win games, especially with home field advantage, and find new ways to win. This is the dynamic of Belichick, Billy Bean and all the rest. You employ new game strategy and by the time opponents catch on and employ it themselves, you are on to the next strategy. Success comes only with the willingness to take chances  and to recognize its a matter of luck + skill. When a tactic fails, you look foolish to the uninitiated. So what, who cares?

Warriors discusses tactical examples - punching out the ball on defense, use of massive tight ends and the short low pass to agile receivers. Belichick era punters are left-footed, producing an unsettling reverse spin on the ball for the punt receiver. One of the most effective adaptations is that Pats players take on multiple roles more than other teams. So they can fill gaps in this game with frequent injuries and confuse other teams with different looks on offense and defense. But throughout this era, the offense has been built around Tom Brady's arm and other skills which come with the inability to turn a broken pass play into much of a run. Using a different quarterback or different role for Brady was limited to trick plays -- Brady calls the signals but the ball is snapped to a different player, Amendola pass to Brady, or even the Flutie drop kick. Even with Belichick's willingness to take big risks, mixing up the quarterbacks during a game to confuse the opposition was just too risky.

Until now. Imagine the new offense when Brady returns if Garoppolo recovers from his injury. Three battle tested quarterbacks to choose from. How does an opposing team prepare for the possibility that Garoppolo or Brissett may be inserted at any time? If Brissett suddenly goes in, does that mean it may be a pass, but not a long bomb? Is it a quarterback draw? Or has Brissett been practicing the long bomb all week and we need to anticipate that? If Garoppolo goes in for Brady, what in the world does that mean now? Will he run? Short pass? The mind boggles.

What does this say about some other teams willing to sign extravagant multi-year contracts, but still struggle to find one good enough quarterback. Like the Texans.

The extreme penalty of the 4-game Brady suspension together with the bad luck of the Garoppolo injury, forced playing time for both Brissett and Garoppolo. The Gift from Goodell, forced Belichick to build and have the team execute around an offense with both backup QBs that will be a threat for the remainder of the season. Thank you Roger. All is forgiven.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Waiter, There's False Balance In My Soup!

If you go to a restaurant and complain about a fly in your soup, the waiter quickly apologizes and corrects the situation with a fresh pour of soup in a new bowl. The waiter does not say, well, you are a customer and we find that customer's often complain without justification  -  "You see, customers have a bias they can not control."

But if you complain to the New York Times about their false balance news reporting model and false equivalence problems, the response is that you are biased and the political editor and public editor can choose to ignore the substance of your arguments.

Laboring under the false balance model, the press has a tough time depicting reality --  (The Devil Made Me Do It). Sam Wang, the neuroscientist who researches and writes about politics, asks if the "both sides do it" news template, especially if applied uncritically, is to increase ratings. Professor Wang points to the template for objective reporting developed by Barry Ritholtz.

Item 1 of the Ritzholm template is the key element – contextualize the lie, but the problem is much bigger than that. Not the lie, but the pattern of lying, really the pattern of a repeated series of separate and distinct accusations must be contextualized. Focus on process and practice is more abstract and difficult than the concrete accusations that appeal to true believers, but is the only way to reach fundamental truthfulness. Reporting with integrity means being willing to call it as you see it. “Fair and balanced” reporting for the NYT has meant not daring to report what is happening if that objective reporting could have the appearance of bias.

Context means seeing and reporting differences such as – all of the negative reporting by the media on Trump is based on a fair evaluation of his own statements or straightforward history. The negative reporting on Clinton is based on accusations made by partisans against her that are made outright or as the product of a string of otherwise unrelated investigations into the possibility of wrongdoing. As an example from another field, researchers using statistical tools to investigate whether a drug is effective against disease or an effect is statistically significant for purposes of drawing a causal inference need to preregister the study details in order for results to be credible. Otherwise the study data can be sifted for the purpose of finding results in a way that discredits the research. For example, the purpose of the study may be find out if Drug A is an effective treatment for psoriasis, but Drug A is tested for that and 20 other diseases. Drug A may be found effective against Disease 19 of 20, but that result may just be noise in the numbers. If a committee dedicated to collecting data on Benghazi is used to scrutinize a previously unknown email server, the same principles should apply.

Context also includes what is not happening. If Biden were running instead of Clinton, would we be talking about the Clinton emails? No, we would be chasing down a series of accusations about him. Of course, a nonevent is not something to report, but just try to imagine what the first 1/3rd of Matt Lauer’s “Town Meeting” would have been like. “Vice President Biden, how are we supposed to trust a man who, by all accounts, is a serial plagiarist?” After all, a good journalist must be “hard-hitting”, right? Because that demonstrates balance.  Why must the same accusation(s) be repeated over and over again at the expense of discussion of issues. Well, issues are complicated. Actually running a country is complicated.

The New York Times has difficulty adjusting to the new reality, but this phenomenon is not new with Trump. This has been going on for decades, and has been accentuated as Foxnews has emerged as a powerful driver of the political narrative, even with a mostly older and diminishing viewing audience.

In politics, when we focus on whether a politician is lying and whether an accusation is true with fact-checking, the battle has already been lost because that means we are letting the narrative be determined by the accuser instead of the objective observers. The problem with the objective mainstream media is that the traditional journalistic model only works in a good faith reporting environment. The existence of the Murdoch/Ailes propaganda machine changes the dynamic in a way that requires rethinking how that model is failing and needs to change.

Instead of journalists pretending not to have any beliefs and changing what they do and do not cover and what questions they ask, a cognitive somersault, why not just try to be as objective as possible about trying to report what you see is going on. If any such reporting yields errors, then correct that with new information, like we do in science all the time. What if scientists tried to be balanced all the time instead of intellectually curious?  What would happen if instead of trying to understand what is going on in the world and collecting the most relevant evidence to test their models, they went back and forth between competing interests, evaluating the biased views of those interests? That would be a disaster.

So the NYT agrees to tweak their model (sort of a"You Lie, Mr. Trump!" moment). But the Times does not even consider that maybe, just maybe, their balanced model needs to be replaced.  The NYT is unwilling to admit that “fair and balanced” reporting is failing because there are participants in the process with significant influence who are willing to act in bad faith to subvert honest reporting. The word “lie” is an incendiary term and can function most effectively as an accusation, especially if a listener is predisposed to bear ill will toward the target. But to an objective observer, the word “lie” has limited usefulness. If it sends a reporter in hot pursuit fact-checking mode, it may be a diversion from collecting and evaluating the best information to understand context. The word "lie" is used in politics, not to help people understand what is happening, but to brand a political opponent a “liar”. Under that model, if someone is a “liar”, they are unfit for the presidency and should be eliminated from possible election.

One problem with discussing the birther retraction from Trump –suppose the original accusation was simply a cynical ploy to burnish his brand to run for President with a certain segment of the electorate. As soon as journalists discuss that ploy as a possibility that needs to be investigated in detail – “try not to think of an elephant (Lakoff) – try not to think that the president, maybe the president you voted for, was illegitimate, the battle is already lost.  If journalists had always treated it as a ploy, an insult, and a devious tactic to take advantage of weaknesses in our campaign reporting model, then Trump would have faced a different challenge with his recent retraction. The retraction would have been tantamount to an admission that it was a cynical ploy all along – deeply insulting to Americans and to the president. But I am still waiting for the reporters to recognize that Trump thought all along that they were too dumb to catch on to what he was doing and, with the playbook retraction –shifting all the negative attention of the fact-checkers to Hillary Clinton with a “lie” that it was all her idea, still thought he could manipulate the reporters.

Meanwhile, the president was reduced to presenting not one, but two birth certificates, and further made subject to never ending disbelief among a large segment of conservatives.  If they are never going to believe you anyway, why should you be reduced to presenting your birth certificate? This is how these accusations always work.

The NYT keeps trying to remain above the fray, but they have become a part of the problem despite their best intentions.

Warning: The above post contains factual information presented in context. The NYT has not reviewed this material to remove the context, nor to add balance to foster the appearance of objectivity over the accurate depiction of reality.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Devil Made Me Do It

In a different world, the birther lie could have become a trap for Trump where the tactic he used to win the nomination backfires in the general election.  The Trump pivot with his reversal on the birthplace of the President of the U.S. breaks into three parts.
1.   I, Trump decide when and how we discuss the legitimacy of the occupant of the White House. That puts me above Barack Obama and makes me” presidential” in your mind. I do not need the birther issue anymore. By admitting this now to appeal to voters on the fence, I need to fill in a couple of cognitive gaps for my supporters, so
2.   If anyone thinks my actions could be an affront, please be aware this was a huge service I gladly provided, and
3.   My claim about Obama was an accusation. By retracting it, I need to replace it in  your mind with a new accusation that it was all Hillary’s idea. That shifts my finger pointing from my earlier target to my current target. Clinton’s attacks on my birther behavior which would have been given new life by my retraction of the lie (never called a retraction because I am never wrong and never apologize) are thus watered down and require her and her supporters to mount yet another defense. 
If Trump had said, “I did nothing wrong”, that statement puts a bright light on the possibility there was wrongdoing on his part. Doubling down makes him look strong.
This faintly echoes the GW Bush defense of the Iraq invasion during the 2004 campaign - Senator Kerry voted for the resolution, so that offsets the Bush decision to invade. If you agree with the decision to invade, then vote for the president who ordered it, but if you disagree with the decision, then surely you should not vote for the Senator who supported the authorization resolution. The inherent contradiction of this position is not a concern, because ending the possibility of any rational discussion of the issue is an important objective.

Laboring under the false balance model, the press has a really tough time depicting reality ---and should admit it! No, it’s not a bias toward making money, not directly, but there is a bias toward new news. The press model requires all of the above statements to be labeled opinion that is not allowed to seep into “news” coverage, thus letting the Trump/Conway/Ailes propaganda machine get away with it and roll on.

The Whale and the Squid

When we are frustrated with a press that has difficulty understanding the importance of context and proportion in political reporting, we can ask ourselves "What if?". What would happen to reporting if one candidate had all of the hallmarks of a fascistic dictator and the other candidate appeared to be uniquely qualified by intellect and experience? An objective researcher would study each person separately and report on the person's experience and background, personal qualities,and the validity of their claims regarding policy in detail.

Now, I am not saying that Trump is fascistic and Clinton is uniquely qualified. I am saying that if that were the case, the press would never reach that conclusion.

When you and I look at the two photos, we see obvious similarities and differences immediately. When we study the detail, we see more of each. The press presumes similarities. That is what fair and balanced is all about. The result is slanted reporting, whether or not that is the original intention.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Plumber and the Pipefitter

or What I Learned In College

People often ask what you studied in college, but no one asks what you learned. I tell people I studied economics, but this is what I learned.
The senior year housing situation was great. My five roommates and I took two adjoining three-room suites in a neo-gothic style dorm in a great location. Turning one of the living rooms into a bedroom meant that we had created a shared 6-room suite where each of us had a single bedroom for 5/6ths of the year and only had to share a large bedroom with a roommate 1/6th of the year. All was right with the world.
But things soured within the first few days of September - scalding hot water started to drip from the ceiling in the living room and hallway. We called dormitory services to complain and a plumber arrived that day. The plumber took one look at the problem and said, "You don't need a plumber. You need a pipe fitter."
"Huh? What's a pipe fitter?"
"A pipe fitter fixes steam pipes. This isn't hot water. It's steam that is condensing to water and dripping from the ceiling. He needs to repair the steam pipe."
So we called back dormitory services and, with scalding hot water still dripping from the ceiling the next day, a pipe fitter arrived. The pipe fitter took one look at the problem and said, "You don't need a pipe fitter. You need a plumber. This isn't steam. This is hot water."
Suddenly the thoughts of a luxurious living in a six-room suite seemed like a far off dream.
Fortunately, the plumber returned and investigated with greater diligence, discovering that a nail was used to hold down a carpet on the floor above us many years ago and punctured a water pipe. The nail had sealed in the pipe, but was finally leaking. We had little disruption to our lives after that while the floor above was ripped apart to reach the pipe, make the repair, and put down the new flooring.

What did I learn?

When evidence first presents itself, it can be misleading. Making causal inferences is tricky business.

1. Dealing with an urgent matter puts pressure on finding the root cause - leaving no place for wishful thinking.
2. An expert may be wrong.
3. An expert may benefit in his own field of expertise from an expert in a completely different field due to the different perspectives and ways of thinking in that field.
4. If experts from different fields talk to each other, and listen, there is a greater likelihood for success.

It turns out that collaboration of experts from different fields has become all the rage. I attended my 40th college reunion a couple of years ago and attended a seminar on developments in neuroscience. This time I learned that neuroscientists had recently begun to make major unexpected strides in their field derived from collaboration with computer scientists and engineers.
So happy to report the plumber and the pipe fitter aren't the only ones talking to each other these days.

Not So Random Campaign Tactics

The campaign tactics that follow are also tools of the permanent campaign for support of one's own policies while in office or trashing of the opposition. The common thread in these tactics is a cynical view that politics is all about winning and losing individual battles with no long term perspective that a good government is a functioning government.

Tactic #11 -  accuse your opponent, deceptively or outright falsely, of doing what you do -- of using your tactics. This shifts the focus away from you and allegations of your wrongdoing on to your opponent. Your opponent is placed in a defensive posture, which makes you appear strong because you put him/her there and also weakens the argument when your opponent tries to accuse you of what you are actually doing because that looks like a weak counterattack - what, you could not come up with your own argument? This also extends beyond tactics. Examples: Trump accusation that Hillary Clinton started birtherism. McConnell claim of "the Biden rule" that Dems would have refused to consider a Supreme Court nominee after the death of a sitting justice when the President has 11 months remaining in office. Bush claim that Kerry supported his Iraq War policy with authorization vote and therefore could not criticize his policy.

Tactic #10 - Never back down. Backing down is a sign of weakness. Apologizing is the most salient sign of weakness because an apology is an admission of wrongdoing that functions as proof wrong doing. OK, you admit that you did wrong. We do not believe anything else you say because you are biased, but we believe you did wrong. That is proof. So you are bad - you did wrong. And worse than that, you are weak because you apologized. You should never be president. That would be a disaster.

Tactic #9 - trash the person, not the policy. Discussing policy permits consideration of advantages and disadvantages of policy particulars that could result in intelligent treatment of issues and compromise to resolve philosophical differences. Example: Trump campaign. Too many to list.

Tactic #8 - as a member of Congress, avoid compromise on legislation that you favor even if you believe it is important and makes America great because political opponents within your party could use it to make you look weak by mischaracterizing the legislation impact or, worse yet, your compromise could boost the legacy of the President of the opposing party. Example: Why The Senate Couldn't Pass a Crime Bill Both Parties Backed.   Other landmark legislation that nearly passed includes comprehensive and bipartisan immigration reform during Bush administration.

Tactic #7 - use derogatory labels for your opponent and make them stick with repeated reference. This serves double duty by diverting attention from real policy issues.  Examples: Crooked Hillary. Democrat Party. Obamacare. The Obamacare label was particularly cynical as an attempt to pin the policy solely on the President who had been made the target of a smear campaign to question his legitimacy. You see, when the ACA is eventually repealed or declared unconstitutional at the Supreme Court, that is fine, because it was really a one-man law that was never legitimate, like him.

Tactic #6 - declare that a majority vote in an election gives you a mandate. Example: Bush won 2004 re-election with slight margin over Kerry and declared that a mandate for his policies.

Tactic #5 - look back in anger. The tactical response to accusations that have merit, is to lash back with angry denials. The content of the denial is not as important as responding in anger. This approach resonates with those who harbor resentment and cultivate a sense of victimhood. Florida AG Pam Biondi responded angrily to pay-to-play charges based on the Trump campaign misreporting of a $25,000 campaign contribution that coincided with a possible investigation of him by her office. During the 2004 presidential campaign, on the issue of gay rights, John Kerry brought up the example of the Cheney's acceptance of their gay daughter, which prompted a strong angry reaction from both parents. Though Kerry's remarks were clearly intended as supportive of the Cheneys as loving parents, one side effect was to highlight the hypocrisy of Republicans who would accept homosexuality in their personal lives, but use it as a wedge issue in campaigns. The anger of the Cheneys was surely genuine, but was just as likely a reaction of "how dare you say something nice about us that showcases our hypocrisy!" Kerry went on to apologize to the Cheneys that he intended no harm because that sort of apologizing is something liberals do.

Tactic #4 - keep it simple and appeal to basic emotions like fear. Sounds simple enough, but conservatives are much better at this than liberals. George Lakoff points out this advantage of conservatives in Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Lakoff has since pointed out that conservatives attacked the Affordable Care Act with two simple phrases, "government takeover of healthcare" and "death panels". The Democrats who sponsored the legislation had eight talking points designed to explain this complex law. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman also comes to mind. Conservatives in political battles work within the thinking fast mode, being more intutitive.  Liberals try to convince voters with complex arguments on complex issues, being more analytical.

 tactics #3, #2, and  #1 to follow. [Added 02/05/2017].
See False Equivalence in His Hands.

These tactics suggest corresponding questions that reporters could ask, candidates or themselves, depending on the context.
For journalists - are we feeding a propaganda campaign with our questions of the candidate? Are we asking questions that only exist due to an investigation(s) orchestrated by political opponents? Are the questions irrelevant to policy interests, focused instead on so-called questions of character?If it feels like a response to propaganda, it probably is.
Are we avoiding questions that might highlight policy proposals of the candidate or are we asking questions by that are prompted exclusively by partisan attacks?
If a candidate is provoking hate and fear, are we calling them out on it and reporting that as fact instead of opinion?
Is a candidate using non-answers to end discussion of important policy proposals or a lack of meaningful proposals?
Is the level of anger in response to a reporter's question unusually high or are a candidates supporters unusually hateful?
If so, does the candidate seem to be calling for the elimination of their opponent?
Does a candidate control discussions with brutal tactics that brings the level of discourse down to a very low level?
Is there a constant drumbeat on an issue that has been thoroughly covered time and time again?
When there is disagreement on policy ideas, which is a legitimate area of discussion, are appeals to emotion being used as a weapon to foment anger, hate, or fear, as a way to avoid offering lucid arguments.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

When Comedy is King

Great post at Washington Monthly (Title) by Nancy LeTourneau with a shout out to Samantha Bee and quotes from notables Jonathan Chait and Josh Marshall.

When political comedy works so well. The greatest insights come from looking at the world through a slightly different lens or from a different angle to reveal a truth that was hiding in plain sight. There is an economy of language in comedy that makes us laugh when the truth suddenly hits us - Colbert's reference to "the White House stenographers" at the 2006 correspondents dinner, for example, a simple truth made funnier because he said it to their faces.

When political comedy does not work. Foxnews attempts at comedy shows like The 1/2 Hour News Hour have consistently failed to make people laugh.  As a propaganda machine, Fox starts the narrative with the conclusions that they wish to be true and seek the facts to support those conclusions, while ignoring other facts. Propaganda statements are not always false, but the framework of propaganda is essentially a lie because the goal is to affirm belief rather than seek the truth in context, that is, the truth in the sense of underlying meaning - reality. Successful comedy, on the other hand,  hits you with the truth in context in a way that makes you laugh. When Fox tries to be funny, they come perilously close to giving away the ruse, what they are really all about. Why can't they be funny? You have to be committed to the truth to be funny. When you are constantly looking for facts or lies or distortions to support your conclusions, and not really caring which, that means you are also avoiding unpleasant truths that go against your beliefs.

Comedy Central is the real anti-Fox in this world, not MSNBC, not the NYT. Fox hits viewers with with conclusions, immediately stoking anger and resentment or hate and fear. Comedy Central hits you with the context right away, which makes you laugh when you recognize it. In each case the quick hits are effective and keep the audience engaged. MSNBC slowly dissects the narrative and eventually explains the context. MSNBC maintains a contrived balance of guests, which is fine for those who stay with it, a lot of chaff comes with the wheat. The NYT employs the weakest model for political news reporting - when you rely on fact-checking for fair reporting, you have already missed the point - letting the context be defined by someone else who may be a propagandist.

Comedy succeeds by observations of real life with interpretations of just what is going on. The NYT fair and balanced he said/she said reporting standard lacks any frame of reference other than of two sides fighting each other, presumed to be equal in all ways as a starting point. The fact that young people have regarded Comedy Central as a primary source of news has often been reported as a disappointment, but this is good news because it means that young people seek the proper context for news that NYT fails to provide and understand where to find it.  Just watch comedian Jim Jefferies on Gun Control. for an example of context in comedy. His sketch is much more effective as an argument for gun control than an essay could be.

It's not just a coincidence that the Foxnews narrative leads to so many angry people. Propaganda is most successful when it taps into hate, fear, and prejudice. Strong negative emotions help push rational thinking aside. As for comedy, you can't be an angry citizen who sees yourself as a victim at the same moment you are a detached observer who can laugh at the confounding state of the universe.

In a real sense, Foxnews masquerades as news and, if the effects on society were not so dire because people take them seriously, would succeed as a parody of themselves. The most telling example of this type of self-parody was the Saturday Night Live sketch of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin with a lengthy (nearly) direct quote from the candidate. There is nothing comparable on the "other side." Comedy Central is the anti-Fox because they do the opposite by providing immediate context for the news.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

False Equivalence Yet Again

Lest we only criticize the NYT and WaPo, in "Kentucky governor: Electing Hillary Clinton may lead to violence" the Chicago Tribune finds the shortest route to false equivalence. So "The roots of the tree of liberty are watered by what? The blood. Of who? The tyrants, to be sure. But who else? The patriots. Whose blood will be shed? It may be that of those in this room. It might be that of our children and grandchildren." Governor Bevin supposedly clarified his remarks in a later interview as a reference to military sacrifice, which is preposterous, because any fair listen of his statement clearly concludes that this is his call to arms of patriots if Clinton is elected. In fairness to CT, they go on to talk about Michelle Bachman's warnings about this election and broader tea party themes. But in the necessary search for balance, the CT describes Bevin's comments as "the latest example of elected officials promising very bad things if the wrong candidate is elected" with mention of"Democrats warning about Donald Trump having his finger on the nuclear button-a prospect that has been the subject of a Hillary Clinton campaign ad." See what they did there - CT tries to find an umbrella under which both the call to arms by Bevin and some statement by the Clinton campaign can be made to fit together - tortured logic be damned.

Now, Democrats have not been warning directly or obliquely about their plans for armed insurrection should Donald Trump win the election. There is no equivalence between a warning about the bad things Donald Trump would do if Donald Trump is elected and warning about the bad things "patriots" will do if Hillary Clinton is elected. That is a distinction with a difference, not a similarity. Objective reporting requires making clear the contrast between the Republicans' continuing theme of revolt and "rigged elections" and the Democrats' not threatening revolt and armed insurrection.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Truth About the Truth About False Balance

The Truth About False Balance by the Public Editor of the NYT today is a great disappointment. Many of us have been waiting for a NYT response to the many reasoned criticisms by Krugman and others of the Times' confusion between (1) reporting in proper context and (2) following the facts and accusations wherever they lead (which means wherever they, the NYT, are led - big difference). The posts that follow offer exhaustive criticism of their approach. They do not see that the false balance approach that leads toward investigations diverts attention away from policy.  When we are talking about Clinton Foundation or emails, we need to recognize that the context was set by partisans, not by a search for "the truth". The inevitable result is a Matt Lauer forum with Hillary Clinton focused exhaustively on the emails. Mr. Lauer set forth the rule to talk about yourself and not the other candidate. A better rule would be to focus on policy - what are your policies and the same questions about policy could have been asked of each candidate. But that would have meant no email questions.

To be fair or maybe overly understanding, abandoning their traditional model of objectivity is a big deal for the NYT, but they should at least understand the arguments about false balance before dismissing them out of hand. There are many good comments that follow the NYT piece, but those observations repeat comments that have been made on NYT opinion pieces in the past - arguments that were obviously ignored by the Public Editor.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Objective Journalistic Standards

The Kind of Journalism We Should Expect in Washington Monthly makes many of the same arguments that have appeared on this blog. Journalists need to better understand how to properly and effectively apply a standard of objectivity without a false or contrived balance. A good objective journalist will instead try to find and report on the heart of the matter on any particular issue. A bias so strong that it can not be overcome by a search for the truth requires a switch to an advocacy role rather than a reporting role. A good journalist is not just like a judge who decides which side to believe.  The role is best thought of as a research scientist searching for the truth with a focus on what is important, placed in the proper context for understanding. Starting with a premise of equal treatment of two sides on every issue creates an opening for propagandists. Assigning Pinocchios to falsehoods by one side or the other after the narrative has been set by one side or the other misses the point because the narrative is already lost.

The NYT's professional standards claim to focus on facts and fairness, without "fear or favor" and the "complete unvarnished truth. This standard needs to be updated to define completeness to include "in the proper context".