Jens 'n' Frens
Idle thoughts of a relatively libertarian Republican in Cambridge, MA, and whomever he invites. Mostly political.

"A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures."
  -- Daniel Webster

Sunday, April 18, 2010 :::

Many times, at parties and in other conversations over the years, I have vociferously defended fellow journalists against charges of bias in their work. Particularly journalists working in the lowly field of print journalism, as opposed to TV.
Long-time readers know that I believe media bias is significant, but that it isn't a result of a deliberate attempt to spin the news as often as it is a function of ordinary human short-cut taking.

Which is more or less what Lane Wallace reports from a press conference she recently attended:
A lot of major news outlets and publications were represented at the press conference following the announcement. A few very general facts about the product had been released, but the reporters had only been introduced to details about it a half hour earlier. There was still a lot about how it worked, how it differed from other emerging products, and why the company felt so confident about its evolution and economic viability, that remained to be clarified.

But the reporters' questions weren't geared toward getting a better understanding of those points. They were narrowly focused on one or two aspects of the story. And from the questions that were being asked, I realized--because I had so much more information on the subject--that the reporters were missing a couple of really important pieces of understanding about the product and its use. And as the event progressed, I also realized that the questions that might have uncovered those pieces weren't being asked because the reporters already had a story angle in their heads...

The journalists at the press conference didn't have a bias as the term is normally used; that is, I didn't get the sense that they were inherently for or against the company or its product. They just appeared to think they knew the subject well enough, or had a set enough idea in their heads as to what this kind of story was about, that they pursued only the lines of questioning necessary to fill in the blanks of that presumed story line.
She goes on to discuss a more general study of experts offering expert opinions and doing so poorly (with the most famous "experts" performing the least well):
The central error diagnosed by Tetlock was the sin of certainty, which led the 'experts' to impose a top-down solution on their decision-making processes ... When pundits were convinced that they were right, they ignored any brain areas that implied they might be wrong.
Friedrich Hayek is nodding in his grave.

In related veins are this article about information shortcuts (herding, in this case) being useful and this article about information shortcuts throwing people off (and, more generally, about people not being very good at thinking about small probabilities).

Finally, there's this (I won't edit the grammar; you should be able to read through it):
From all that I have read, it appears statistically, the planet is on track to have a near average year with the number of large quakes that occur annually.

UPDATE: Speaking of misperceptions, I also meant to blog about this story, subheadlined, "The priesthood is being cast as the refuge of pederasts. In fact, priests seem to abuse children at the same rate as everyone else." I have heard, from a source I wouldn't necessarily vouch for, that public schoolteachers in the US are more likely to sexually abuse children than Catholic priests are; news stories about teachers aren't rare, but somehow those incidents don't get drawn together into a narrative covering the whole class of people.

UPDATE: I've since seen elsewhere that the number of significant earthquakes actually has been unusually high recently. I'd investigate who's right, but it turns out that I don't care.


::: posted by Steven at 7:48 PM

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Idle thoughts of a relatively libertarian Republican in Cambridge, MA, and whomever he invites. Mostly political.

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