Archive for the ‘Science’ Category
Beyond fact-checking: After the catastrophic media failure of 2016, the press must master “crucial evidence”
Paul Rosenberg writes in Salon:
The media failed disastrously during the 2016 presidential election. The only questions, really, are how and why — and what can be done about it. This is especially urgent as President Donald Trump, with his repeated attacks against the press, only threatens to make matters worse.
The problem can be thought of in a threefold way: First, issues virtually disappeared from the campaign. Second, the resulting overemphasis on personality and politics was badly skewed toward controversy and sensationalism, which strongly disfavored Hillary Clinton as her emails got far more sustained and prominent attention than Trump’s much more varied range of serious problems. Third, although fact-checking flourished as a media subgenre, it utterly failed to protect American democracy against a pathological liar with authoritarian ambitions who was able to deflect attention repeatedly without ever answering fundamental questions.
The failure of fact-checking is particularly frustrating to the “reality-based community,” but the problem may well be that they’re not actually being reality-based enough. That’s the suggestion that philosopher William Berkson advanced recently in the Columbia Journalism Review. Fact-checking may not be enough, he argues. We need something much bolder: policy-checking. Conceptually, it’s reminiscent of the Office of Technology Assessment, an office established in 1972 to provide Congress with objective and authoritative analysis of complex scientific and technical issues. (It was abolished by Newt Gingrich when he became speaker in 1995. Archive website here.)
But Berkson’s concept is broader both in scope — encompassing all policy issues — and in terms of its primary audience, the press and the public. The media’s failures weren’t due to “lack of ability or courage,” he argues, but to “the lack of a clear and strong model for drawing fair and objective conclusions about the candidates’ policies.”
Without such a model, the media relied instead on a confused notion of “balance,” which “misled them time after time,” Berkson said. If Trump was visibly terrible, “balance” required that Clinton be terrible too, regardless of whether they were actually comparable.
Berkson’s background is in the philosophy of science. He was a student of the legendary Karl Popper — famous for articulating the crucial role of falsifiability in science — and has written about how social science can be made as rigorous as the physical sciences. His notion of policy-checking builds on that foundation: If social science can be made that rigorous, then policies based on it can be as well, and journalists can benefit from a policy-check resource, just as they now benefit from fact-checkers. Beyond that, if policy-based reporting can be made, it becomes more likely that it will be done widely and well. The more that happens, the more reality-based attitudes and values will tend to rub off on everyone involved — journalists, audiences and politicians.
It’s not a magic cure. There can be no single silver-bullet remedy for a sweeping systemic failure. But this idea could play a crucial role in helping to tip the balance moving forward, and altering the whole system of how journalism is done — moving it in a positive, empirically grounded direction, directly opposed to the disintegration epitomized by the rise of fake news. If that is to happen, the idea needs to be more widely known, understood, critiqued and refined. That’s why Salon reached out to Berkson to elaborate on his concept: its foundations, possibilities and requirements. This interview was conducted by email, and been lightly edited.
Given that the media failings in the 2016 campaign are painfully well-known, I’d like to begin by asking you to explain your model and what makes it uniquely powerful. You’ve said that it “involves the identification of crucial evidence.” What is “crucial evidence,” and what sets it apart from other kinds of evidence?
Evidence is “crucial” when you have two different theories which predict different events in the same situation. In such a situation, evidence of what actually happened will tell you that one theory is definitely false — the one contradicted by the observable facts — while the other theory is confirmed. That’s crucial evidence. To use a simplified, standard example, seeing a black swan refutes the theory that “all swans are white.” At the same time, it confirms the conflicting theory that “all swans are white or black.”
It’s important that while crucial evidence refutes the contradicted theory, it doesn’t prove that the confirmed theory is right. The next swan might be green, contradicting the theory that all swans are black or white. This asymmetry — that refutation is logically stronger than confirmation, and that confirmation is not proof — turns out to be critically important in social science and for evaluating social policies.
Can you give us an example from the history of science?
In my first book, I wrote about the discovery of radio waves by Heinrich Hertz. At the time, there were two rival viewpoints. One thought that the influence of electricity and magnetism on distant objects was instantaneous — action at a distance. The other theory said the forces take time to travel through space. When Hertz demonstrated the electromagnetic waves, radio waves, with a finite velocity, it ended the debate. Hertz’s effort was a “crucial experiment,” but there are crucial observations of what is happening naturally, without any experiment.
This is important, as reporting what you observe is at the heart of journalism. And crucial observations follow the same logic. The most famous one, a hundred years ago, refuted Newton’s theory of gravity, and confirmed Einstein’s. Einstein’s theory predicted that the sun’s gravity would bend light rays passing near it. Eddington figured out that during a solar eclipse he could see the stars close to the sun, and they would appear shifted from their positions in a way he could calculate from Einstein’s theory. The stars did appear to shift as Einstein’s theory predicted, and in contradiction to the predictions of Newton’s theory.
You’ve written elsewhere about the widespread failings of the social sciences to employ this model, and develop testable theories. Could you say a few words about that problem, and why it need not persist?
Many have argued that because of the complexity of society, it is impossible to identify plausible testable theories in social science. However, they assume that social theories have to fully predict the evolution of a social system to be testable. For testability, as I wrote some years ago, it is enough to identify patterns that excludesome possibilities. My wife, Isabelle Tsakok, a development economist and also a former Popper student, took up the challenge of identifying such patterns in economic development.
In her book, she showed that five conditions are necessary for poor countries with traditional agricultures to transform into modern wealthy economies. She was able to document that all now-wealthy countries, including the U.S., met the conditions during their transformations. The conditions are not sufficient, as some countries have fulfilled them and still not succeeded. So the pattern doesn’t fully predict what will happen if a country does fulfill all the conditions. But because the conditions are necessary, vital to broad-based economic growth, the theory still has huge policy implications.
You say that the analysis needed to identify crucial evidence is sometimes accessible to journalists, and you cite as an example the fact that tax cuts have never paid for themselves in U.S. history. Yet, we continue to hear claims to the contrary. What is that evidence?
The data are unequivocal on tax cuts not paying for themselves fully, and you can see it in many analyses such as this one from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Tax cuts can increase growth somewhat in the short term, but in the U.S. they have never created enough growth to make up for the lost revenue by increased tax receipts. In fact, in the past, investment of tax funds has regularly grown the economy more than cutting taxes and leaving the money in the hands of the rich. For example, the economy grew more under tax-increaser Bill Clinton than tax-cutter Ronald Reagan, and more under tax-increaser Obama than tax-cutter George W. Bush. This claim of tax cuts paying for themselves has never been respectable amongst professional economists; even George W. Bush’s economic advisor Greg Mankiw once labeled those who advanced this claim as “charlatans and cranks.”
Why does this qualify as “crucial evidence”? . . .
We must use the knowledge we have accumulated, else what good is it?
Kevin Drum has a very interesting post at Mother Jones:
I missed this when it was first written—probably because it was only a week after Donald Trump won the election—but Robert Waldmann decided to check out a few of his predictions:
In April 2008, I predicted that the UK violent crime rate would peak some time around 2008. I just googled and found that it peaked in around 2006 or 2007.
Here’s the chart, courtesy of the Institute for Economics and Peace:
Note two things here. First, Britain’s violent crime rate peaked about 15 years after it did in the US. Second, it dropped a lot faster than it did in the US. Why?
Because, first, Britain adopted unleaded gasoline about 13 years after the US (1988 vs. 1975). And second, because it phased out leaded gasoline a lot faster than the US. Within four years Britain had cut lead emissions by two-thirds, which means there was a very sharp break between infants born in high-lead and low-lead environments. Likewise, this means there was a sharp break between 18-year-olds with and without brain damage. In 2006, nearly all 18-year-olds had grown up with lead poisoned brains. By 2010, that had dropped substantially, which accounts for the stunning 40 percent drop in violent crime in such a short time.1
This is one of the reasons the lead-crime hypothesis is so persuasive. Not only does recorded crime fit the predictions of the theory—both in timing and slope—but it does so in . . .
Note this, later in his post:
Anyway, I might as well take this opportunity to repeat my prediction that terrorism in the Middle East will begin to decline between 2020-30. You heard it here first.
Quora provides a way for people to post questions and get answers, but recently when I tried to submit my answer it didn’t work. Since I had spent some time and thought on it, it occurred to me that one approach would be to post it here and then provide a link to this post. Here’s the answer I wrote:
It depends on your situation and the particular barriers to happiness you encounter. Internal barriers may involve combatting addictions (addictions can easily undermine happiness) or clinical depression (cognitive behavioral therapy has been proven to be helpful). External barriers may involve many things.
You might find A Life of One’s Own, by Joanna Field to be of interest. It’s a nonfiction account of her decision to keep a diary and note how happy she was each day. She was about 20 years old, and she thought that, over time, in reading the diary she could discover those things that tended to make her happy, and then do more of those and less of the other sorts of things.
It turned out that it was not quite so simple as she expected, and the book is a fascinating exploration of her explorations and discoveries, including some useful tactical ideas—e.g., when she was walking along a country lane on a beautiful day, she was somehow removed from the scene, observing it as though from afar, and unaffected by what she saw. So she started saying aloud what she was observing and feeling, and that reconnected her to the experience.
In any event, it’s an intriguing book and you might well get some good ideas from it. Even if not, you’re likely to enjoy it. I certainly did. The link above is to inexpensive secondhand copies.
A more directly relevant book is Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (again the link is to inexpensive secondhand copies). Csíkszentmihályi investigated a particular state of mind that he called “flow,” which seems to correspond to being happy. It involves focused attention, immediate feedback, a level of difficulty great enough to avoid boredom but not so great as to induce anxiety or hopelessness (he estimates it at about 85% of one’s capabilities in whatever area), a loss of the sense of passage and time, and so on. It’s quite an interesting book, and he discusses some people who quite deliberately and systematically arrange their lives to increase the opportunities for flow to occur. His later book, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, is also worth reading. (Again, link is to inexpensive secondhand copies.)
You might also enjoy and find useful Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, by Martin Seligman, yet another book by an experimental psychologist, this one the man who discovered that learned helplessness and depression are closely related and perhaps the same. He describes some interesting experiments and offers useful thoughts based on what he discovered. (The experiments are quite interesting, BTW.)
Finally, I recommend Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck, who is a Stanford psychologist. The book describes her research and experiments in seeking to understand why some kids enjoy challenges and others shirk from them. It has useful insights and, among other things, suggest that when you are learning something new—a language or a practical skill or whatever—you focus on your progress rather than the results you get. At the beginning of learning anything—playing the piano, for example—the results are not going to be all that great for most, but progress is quite good: rapid improvement from session to session. The rate of progress naturally will slow, but by then the results are usually good enough to motivate one.
All the books listed are quite enjoyable to read, at least for me. But people differ, which takes us back to my first answer: it depends. 🙂
BTW, for those who want to combat addiction, Changing for Good: a Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward, by Prochaska et al., is both interesting and useful. He got his entry into this by trying to find ways to help people break their addiction to cigarettes (which turn out to be highly addictive as well as deadly). It was in looking at his research that he discovered the six stages, which turn out have to be done sequentially with certain tasks that must be completed at each stage before the next stage can be successfully addressed.
In the NY Times Michael Kimmelman has a grim report on the present and future of Mexico City as the climate continues changing:
On bad days, you can smell the stench from a mile away, drifting over a nowhere sprawl of highways and office parks.
When the Grand Canal was completed, at the end of the 1800s, it was Mexico City’s Brooklyn Bridge, a major feat of engineering and a symbol of civic pride: 29 miles long, with the ability to move tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater per second. It promised to solve the flooding and sewage problems that had plagued the city for centuries.
Only it didn’t, pretty much from the start. The canal was based on gravity. And Mexico City, a mile and a half above sea level, was sinking, collapsing in on itself.
It still is, faster and faster, and the canal is just one victim of what has become a vicious cycle. Always short of water, Mexico City keeps drilling deeper for more, weakening the ancient clay lake beds on which the Aztecs first built much of the city, causing it to crumble even further.
It is a cycle made worse by climate change. More heat and drought mean more evaporation and yet more demand for water, adding pressure to tap distant reservoirs at staggering costs or further drain underground aquifers and hasten the city’s collapse.
In the immense neighborhood of Iztapalapa — where nearly two million people live, many of them unable to count on water from their taps — a teenager was swallowed up where a crack in the brittle ground split open a street. Sidewalks resemble broken china, and 15 elementary schools have crumbled or caved in.
Much is being written about climate change and the impact of rising seas on waterfront populations. But coasts are not the only places affected. Mexico City — high in the mountains, in the center of the country — is a glaring example. The world has a lot invested in crowded capitals like this one, with vast numbers of people, huge economies and the stability of a hemisphere at risk.
One study predicts that 10 percent of Mexicans ages 15 to 65 could eventually try to emigrate north as a result of rising temperatures, drought and floods, potentially scattering millions of people and heightening already extreme political tensions over immigration.
The effects of climate change are varied and opportunistic, but one thing is consistent: They are like sparks in the tinder. They expose cities’ biggest vulnerabilities, inflaming troubles that politicians and city planners often ignore or try to paper over. And they spread outward, defying borders.
That’s what this series is about — how global cities tackle climate threats, or fail to. Around the world, extreme weather and water scarcity are accelerating repression, regional conflicts and violence. A Columbia University report found that where rainfall declines, “the risk of a low-level conflict escalating to a full-scale civil war approximately doubles the following year.” The Pentagon’s term for climate change is “threat multiplier.”
And nowhere does this apply more obviously than in cities. This is the first urban century in human history, the first time more people live in cities than don’t, with predictions that three-quarters of the global population will be urban by 2050. By that time, according to another study, there may be more than 700 million climate refugees on the move. . .
Read the whole thing: enlightening and frightening. As cities fail, where will their residents go?
More and more we are finding how life can arise from natural processes (I’ve blogged several articles from Quanta on discoveries along these lines), and now we find that life’s building blocks may be common. Amina Khan reports in the LA Times:
It sure doesn’t pay to underestimate Ceres: NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has spotted signs of organic molecules on the frigid dwarf planet.
The findings, published this week in the journal Science, may shed light on the prevalence of pre-life chemistry in the solar system while marking Ceres as one of the worlds that could potentially host microbial life.
“Because Ceres is a dwarf planet that may still preserve internal heat from its formation period and may even contain a subsurface ocean, this opens the possibility that primitive life could have developed on Ceres itself,” Michael Küppers of the European Space Agency, who was not involved in the study, wrote in a commentary. “It joins Mars and several satellites of the giant planets in the list of locations in the solar system that may harbor life.”
Ceres, one of five dwarf planets in the solar system, is also an asteroid — the largest of them, in fact. Formed around 4.5 billion years ago, it sits in the belt of rocky debris that lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
Asteroids are the leftover building blocks of planetary formation, largely unchanged by the geologic processes that occur on Earth and other planets. By studying these space fossils, scientists hope to piece together what the early solar system looked like . . .
It can get depressing. I do not see that polluting waterways improves the general welfare, though it surely improves the bottom line for coal companies.
Caitlin Dewey reports in the Washington Post:
In late 2015, Daniel Lubetzky learned of a federal rule that puzzled him: Salmon, avocados, olives, eggs and tree nuts aren’t “healthy,” according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Lubetzky, the chief executive of snack brand KIND, had just received a letter from the FDA warning him to stop putting the term on the packaging of his snack bars. The agency’s labeling regulations — dating back to the height of the anti-fat craze — prevented even “good” fats from calling themselves healthy, while allowing the label on some high-sugar products.
Learning about the origins of the rule — and, later, trying to change it — Lubetzky concluded that his industry had too much power in how food policy is decided. On Wednesday, he launched a new public advocacy organization, called Feed the Truth, designed to explore, expose and “counteract” that sort of influence. He is now giving $25 million to fund the organization–$5 million now and $20 million more over the next decade — though he says he won’t have any role in deciding the organization’s approach beyond choosing three nutrition experts to choose the group’s board.
“I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to know who they are. I’m not going to forward them articles,” Lubetzky said. “The announcement will be done by us. After that, we’re cutting the cord — the decisions will be made by board members I’ve never met.”
Experts generally agree that the food industry’s influence over public health has gone too far. Political contributions from food and beverage companies have more than doubled in the past 18 years, and the industry spends billions to fund complementary research, finance “shadow” groups to advance its local agendas, and lobby regulators.
Michael Jacobson, the president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and one of three prominent nutrition experts who will choose Feed the Truth’s board, said the industry’s political activities are vast. (The other early advisers are Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, and Deborah Eschmeyer, the former executive director of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative.)
“Compared to that, [Feed the Truth] is a small organization,” Jacobson said. “$25 million is a nice chunk of dough. But no, it’s not $100 million.”
There are several major battlegrounds in this larger fight against food industry influence. One is labeling, Jacobson said, but not just of the sort encountered by KIND. Several powerful trade associations have also marshaled their lobbyists to fight front-of-package food labeling, which would more clearly identify less healthful foods, and the updated Nutrition Facts panel, which will explicitly call out added sugars.
The processed food lobby has also fought voluntary sodium reduction targets, which Jacobson says could save “tens of thousands of lives.” During a recent FDA comment period, dozens of public health departments and organizations urged the FDA to adopt the targets — while a number of well-funded trade groups, including the North American Meat Institute and the National Milk Producers Federation, opposed it.
“The industries with the most political clout and the deepest pockets tend to sway the way things go,” said Andy Bellatti, the strategic director of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a professional group. . .
I highly recommend reading the entire article, though it’s depressing: the drive to maximize profits has been extraordinarily corrupting, as the article shows.