Tag Archives: confirmation bias

Incompetent Polling + Confirmation Bias + Lazy Analysis= Fake News

Seven percent of all American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, according to a nationally representative online survey commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy, reports the Washington Post. The writer then goes on to explain why this “surprising result” occurred. The main thesis: Americans are now so far removed from farm and food production that ignorance is epidemic.

I have no doubt that too many kids aren’t properly informed by the adults in their lives about basic facts of food and agriculture., just as I know that the average American has trouble placing the Civil War and World War I on a timeline, can’t name more than ten Presidents, and thinks JFK was “great.” I also have no doubt that 7% of the American public is dumber than a box of whoopie cushions.  Taking a poll result like this one at face values, however, shows why the news media was so sure Hillary Clinton would win.

Ann Althouse nailed it in a brief post she calls : “There’s nothing dumber than forgetting that other people might have a sense of humor and are screwing with you.”:

“When you’re studying something among people you look upon as commoners, you’d better stop and wonder: Am I the Margaret Mead?”

(If you are unfamiliar with the Mead reference, this will help.) Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up: 6/14/17

1.  I am wrestling myself to the ground to avoid making any assumptions about the shooting this morning (about three miles from my home in Alexandria, Virginia) of two Republican Congressmen and an aide while the GOP baseball team was practicing for tomorrow’s annual Congressional baseball game for charity. When Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot (and a judge killed, among others) in Tucson, Arizona, the news media, pundits and Democrats leaped to blame Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh for so-called “eliminationist rhetoric,” defined in Palin’s case as using cross-hairs on an electoral map to indicate which Democrats could be defeated in 2012—you know, as in “he’s in my cross-hairs.” This was a transparent effort to stifle political speech. In 1995, when a Federal building in Oklahoma City was blown up in a domestic terrorist attack, “violent anti-government” rhetoric from the Right was also blamed, though there was no evidence that Timothy McVeigh would not have done exactly the same thing if political discourse had been all John Lennon and rainbows.

The Giffords explanation was cynical and contrived; the Oklahoma City response a bit less so, but in neither of those cases were violent imagery and hateful language (no party officials and member of Congress used “fuck” back then, late night TV hosts were largely apolitical and couldn’t call Presidents “cockholsters” without being fired, the “resistance” in 1995 consisted of fringe militia groups, not recent unsuccessful Presidential candidates with a large following, and nobody was giving standing ovations to Central Park theatrical productions showing a doppleganger of the President of the United States being assassinated. In other words, if Rush Limbaugh had held up a prop bloody head of Barack Obama prior to Giffords’ shooting, I would not have derided the critics who argued that irresponsible partisan rhetoric was at least part of the cause. But he didn’t. Nobody did. Nobody would have thought of doing so. Then.

So when my wife told me, the second I woke up, about the shooting this morning, my immediate thought was, “I wonder who the shooter is, an illegal immigrant, a Muslim, or a member of “the resistance?”  This was unfair, and I knew it. The shooter might have been, as it was in Tucson, a wacko. It might have been moral luck that it was the Republican baseball team that was attacked and not the Democrats, just as it was moral luck that nobody was killed. Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up: 6/9/17

1. News Item: “More than 130 imams and Muslim religious leaders in the United Kingdom have said they will refuse to perform funeral prayers for the Manchester and London terrorists as a rebuke to the “dastardly cowardice” of the “vile murderers.” Notes Ethics Alarms issue scout Fred, “This time it’s religious institutions refusing [to provide a service based on religious/political beliefs and conduct], and it’s based on the actions of the people they’re refusing to pray for or bury. On the other hand, anyone born in Scotland is entitled to the government’s services even if he’s No True Scotsman. By analogy, is it right for them to deny funerals to Muslims, even the most egregiously sinful?

I’d have to do more research on Islam than I have time for right now to address that question, but it’s an interesting one.

2.  As a follow-up to New Orleans’ lamentable decision to remove statues honoring Confederate figures (discussed on Ethics Alarms here), The Atlantic published an exhaustive brief against the “myth” that Robert E. Lee was worthy of his reputation as a noble human being who fought for Virginia out of loyalty to his “country,” but who deplored slavery. I have criticized the hero-worship of Lee as well, but much of what is in Adam Serwer’s article was completely unknown to me. If accurate, it is horrifying. Just one example:

“Lee’s cruelty as a slavemaster was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”

3. I’ll discuss the Comey testimony in detail later, but I came close to writing about the unseemly and self-indicting display of gleeful anticipation by much of the news media (and “the resistance,” of course) over what they were just certain would be the smoking gun to get President Trump impeached. CNN had a countdown, second by second, on-screen the whole previous day, like Christmas was coming. Ann Althouse nicely summed up how foolish and ugly this was: Continue reading

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Conundrum: Is CNN’s Dylan Byers An Ethics Dunce, Or An Ethics Hero?

Midnight  Friday morning,  CNN was analyzing the GOP’s perplexing win in Montana’s special election for the House of Representatives—perplexing to Ethics Alarms because the winner, Gianforte, is a dishonest thug, but perplexing to CNN because their reporters were desperately hoping for a sign that voters were turning on President Trump, something their network has been working on for many months.  CNN’s Media reporter Dylan Byers then blurted out this remarkable statement:

“There’s this conversation that’s happening among people following the news industry, which is how can we bridge the sort of gap between all of those conservatives who don’t trust the media, and get them to start knowing that, you know, we’re acting in good faith, with good intentions? Maybe you can’t, because they’re not even listening. From the second, it’s not as though they’re reading the article and considering it, or listening the audio and considering it. They’re just not paying attention to it, because  they don’t trust us.

And this, by the way, you look at the tapes of Trump there. Two things have happened. One, over the course of several decades, the conservatives have done a masterful job at capitalizing the waning trust in media and using it to their advantage. But a second thing has happened, too, which is, on occasion, more than the media would like to admit, we have not told the story of conservative Americans, disenfranchised Americans, who believe that they are losing their country. The story we have largely been telling is a story that is more or less in step with the arc of history as defined by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It does not mean we favor them to win. It just means that sort of vision of a progressive future, a global future, and that is not one that resonates with so many conservative American voters.”

“The story we have largely been telling is a story that is more or less in step with the arc of history as defined by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.”

It is notable that none of the three journalists on the panel with Byers challenged this damning characterization. Continue reading

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The Attorney General’s “Island In The Pacific” Gaffe

I guess we’re going to have to get used to this sequence over the next 4-8 years (yes, 8: at the rate the Democrats are disgracing themselves, President Trump may stick around):

1) President Trump and/or one of his surrogates, spokespersons or appointees make a carelessly worded statement

2) Democrats, activists and the news media intentionally, wilfully and maliciously interpret it in the worst way possible under the convetions of the English language

3) They widely represent the statement to the public as expressing malign thoughts intent and principles

4) The Trump-related speaker, being rhetorically-challenged to begin with, fails to clarify the confusion and makes himself or herself look worse the more he tries.

5) Nobody, almost literally nobody, bothers to examine the statement from an objective point of view.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last week, referring to the Hawaii -chambered federal judge Derrick K. Watson, who last month blocked Trump’s revised temporary halt on travel from sslected terrorist-rich Muslim countries just before it was to go into effect,

“I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.”

It was an off-hand remark on conservative talk show host Mark Levin’s radio program, but it immediately provoked ridicule and attack. Sessions didn’t know Hawaii was a state. Sessions doesn’t respect Hawaii.  President Trump doesn’t like Hawaii. Just a few minutes ago, I watched ABC’s George Stephanopoulos confront Sessions about the remark. Sessions’ humina humina reply: “Nobody has a sense of humor any more.”

I understood the meaning of Sessions’ statement to Levin the minute I heard it, because I thought the same thing at the time of the judge’s ruling: Hawaii is the weirdest place for Trump’s order to be litigated, since the state  is uniquely insulated from the illegal immigration problems facing the other 49 states, has never had anything close to a terrorism attack, and has a negligible Muslim population. The particular problems that the President’s order purports to address is an abstract one for Hawaiians, more than any other state. Sessions’ comment was rueful, intended as irony (to a friendly interviewer), and none of the vile things it was subsequently accused of being. Continue reading

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Case Study Of A Story News That Media And Web Bias Makes Impossible To Check: Susan Rice’s “Unmasking”

I am not going to write about the ethics issues in the latest Susan Rice controversy, but I am going to write about why I can’t get an objective enough assessment of what the story is to write about it competently.

Susan Rice, President Obama’s National Security Advisor,  sought to “unmask” the identities of members of President Trump’s campaign and transition team who were incidentally mentioned in foreign surveillance intelligence reports. This was first reported over the weekend by conservative conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, which meant that no commentators on the Left believed it, but then it was confirmed yesterday by Bloomberg’s Eli Lake.

Many conservatives treated this as confirmation of President Trump’s much-derided claim that the Obama administration “wiretapped” him. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board issued an op-ed this morning, saying,

All this is highly unusual — and troubling. Unmasking does occur, but it is typically done by intelligence or law-enforcement officials engaged in anti-terror or espionage investigations. Ms. Rice would have had no obvious need to unmask Trump campaign officials other than political curiosity.

On Medium, Mike Doran wrote,

“In late December, the administration launched an information campaign designed to depict President-elect Trump as Moscow’s Manchurian candidate. Vladimir Putin had installed Trump in office by “hacking the election,” so the argument went; Hillary Clinton, therefore, was the rightful president.

The claim that Susan Rice was unmasking merely to arrive at the ground truth of Russian behavior would be easier to swallow if the information she gleaned from unmasking had not been used to perpetrate a fraud on the American public. The leak to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius about General Michael Flynn’s conversations with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak (which I discuss in this article) is the most egregious example of a senior administration official using material gathered from illicit unmasking in order to tell a very big and very pernicious lie.”

The New York Times, sadly predictable in its knee-jerk defense of Democrats rather than resolving to get at the truth,  immediately argued that there was nothing to the story at all: 

Former national security officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the requests as normal and said they were justified by the need for the president’s top security adviser to understand the context of reports sent to her by the nation’s intelligence agencies.

Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum mocked the story as pure conservative fantasy regarding a favorite villain:

But! Susan Rice is also a Republican bête noir, the villainess of Benghazi who LIED ON TV repeatedly and tried to get everyone to believe that the attacks were due to an INTERNET VIDEO when we knew all along they were really the work of RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISTS, a phrase that OBAMA WAS UNWILLING TO UTTER.Here’s what we can say about the Rice situation at this point.

Sarcasm is used by Drum here to hide the fact that Rice did lie about Benghazi, and was part of an Obama administration effort (that included Hillary Clinton) to blur the fact that it was a planned terrorist attack, not a spontaneous reaction to a video, which would have undermined Obama’s campaign assertions that he had “decimated” Al Qaeda. ( Mother Jones readers will not believe anything negative about Obama, Democrats, or progressives.)

The Federalist, meanwhile, called foul on CNN, which immediately moved to discredite the latest Rice story: Continue reading

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The Washington Post’s Very Bad, Very Revealing Day: How Often Does This Have To Happen Before Journalists Decide Their Bias Is Making Them Stupid…And Untrustworthy?

Yesterday, the Washington Post, one of the three alleged standard-bearers of U.S. print journalism, published gossip and lies as news, got caught and humiliated..twice!.., and again illustrated vividly why the distinction between hoax stories, what the mainstream media condemns as “fake news,'” and their own false reporting due to incompetence and bias, is illusory.

First, the Post published a weird and alarming story about how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was behaving like a sultan and ordering subordinates to lower their gaze in his presence:

“Many career diplomats say they still have not met him, and some have been instructed not to speak to him directly — or even make eye contact”

This, of course, sparked widespread ridicule by the Left’s bloggers, commentators, journalists and other tweeters, despite the fact that no sources were named to back up the claim. We have here an example of confirmation bias at its most foolish,  on the part of the reporter, the editor, the paper, and the eager partisan bigots who think businessmen are monsters and the Trump administration is made up of freaks and creeps.  The Huffington Post happily published a collection of celebrities, politicians and random social media users reacting to the  story, including Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu , who said he found the article “disturbing.”

So do I. I find it disturbing that the Post, like the New York Times, cannot be trusted to check out inflammatory slurs against public official before declaring them facts. Note that the quote says the diplomats SAY they have not met him, but that some HAVE been instructed not to make eye contact. The Post stated what sounds like obvious holdover-staff rumor-mongering and sabotage as truth, opening the door for widespread contempt and disrespect of the Secretary of State without justification. Yes, that’s disturbing.

It was fake news. I didn’t believe it. I assumed this was the Post’s anti-Trump bias once again seeping into its deteriorating organizational brain. To his credit, Associated Press reporter Mike Lee immediately called foul, B.S., and fake news. Lee said that he had heard the allegation about employees being forced to avert their gaze in the presence of the Secretary of State two weeks before the Post’s story was published, and after checking into the claim,  determined that it was a rumor without basis.

“It’s compelling gossip. I have looked him  in the eyes and not turned to stone. At least not yet…This is not true and people repeating it are making it more difficult to address very real issues.”

When challenged to back up his statement that the story was false, Lee replied,

“Because I have covered State since 1999. Because I know people who didn’t start in 2009 [that is, Obama era partisans].”

Can anyone defend this Post sliming as anything but biased hackery?

But wait, there’s more! Continue reading

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