Wednesday, October 15, 2008

your information

I went to a spectacular book event last night--it was a talk in a tiny indie bookstore about this book, a guide to understanding modern American domestic politics by an aggressively non-partisan from North Dakota. Conrad is from a half-Republican half-Democrat family--although she explained at the event last night that in many parts of the country "liberal" and "conservative" are unhelpful labels, since many voters are populist, libertarian, or other political denominations that don't fit comfortably under either of our stupid major umbrellas--and the book does its best to explore every facet of issues and distill the spin both parties are guilty of inflicting on us.

This is not a political or partisan blog, and let's please strive to keep it so--I'm only mentioning this book because I believe it doesn't take a partisan angle. I haven't finished reading it yet, but the book is fascinating, especially for people who want to understand why they should vote (the first chapter is a breakdown of the voting process--which is definitely worth reading about to understand how and why and where your vote counts).

But anyway, that's a long enough plug for a book. But the discussion that came out of the event was interesting for many reasons.

Jessamyn Conrad, the author, brought up the difficulty of modern spin and the fact that a lot of times people just don't have empirical data to come up with answers that would inform a wise leadership decision. The fact is, she said, any forecasts for the future (particularly economically) are made operating under the assumption that people, by and large, behave rationally. Which, as I am living walking proof of, is not necessarily true.

Her example: a poll was recently taken of expert economists* who were asked whether a raised minimum wage would increase or decrease unemployment. It wasn't that they weren't sure, or that there was some discrepancy of opinion--fully 50% of the polled economists said raised minimum wage would increase unemployment, and 50% said it wouldn't.

Great.

But the story doesn't end there.

Among the attendees was a sociologist, whose name I didn't catch (sorry :( I wish I had) but who told a story about how he had been invited to audition for THE O'REILLY FACTOR as an expert. In the end, they dismissed him as a possible guest because he was, quote, too "data driven."

Being a king of data, he offered a study that has been obscured by media buzz and other strategies that may have distracted or confused the polled economists. There IS data available, he insisted. He cited a study of two neighboring states, one of which raised minimum wage while the other didn't, and talked about the concrete effect it had on employment (unemployment went down in the state that raised the minimum wage, how about that).**

The problems with modern politics, the sociologist guest said, is not the lack of concrete information available--the data exists. Rather, the problem is the availability of false or discrepant data.

Aside from network allegiances, corporate sponsorship, and media monopolies, there are two reasons you can't ever get any straight answers about a lot of things (things that should be straight available data):

1) Spin-meisters (on both sides) offer contradictory data so that two very different numbers or results are available to answer the same question, causing both of the numbers, the true and the false, to get thrown out as suspect.

This is accomplishable even through honest ways--Jessamyn mentioned the example of national debt. The national debt varies immensely depending on whether or not you include social security. How do you believe either number, when they vary by hundreds of millions of dollars?

2) Modern American journalists attempt professional balance--which is bad for the rest of us. In order to seem like they are emphatically not taking sides, journalists frequently feel the need to support a point with an opposing viewpoint immediately following. And while balance and neutrality are a good thing, with the (above discussed) availability of discrepant data, that means most of the news you read is basically non-information.

The whole media playing field is vastly different from the way it was even thirty years ago.

So how do we get cold, hard facts? Most of us don't have enough time in our daily lives to work our jobs, take care of our households, and distill real media from crap and non-information.

But I think we have to try.

The hosts asked at one point if there were bloggers in the audience. I didn't raise my hand (you know. What with the anonymity.) but this woman did. She described a similar phenomenon on her blog--about allergies--that I've experienced here over the last two years: people (mostly people I don't know) showing up and forming a friendly community simply because they want real information. Clearly, we're all thirsty for real answers, and most of us are frustrated about the fact that they're so hard to tack down. (Eg my 7000 post--who knew answering a simple question would be so revolutionary? But apparently no one else had answered it before, and it got linked to and commented on all over the internet.)

Of course, I write about boring things like publishing, not about politics. But (sorry to keep bringing this up, it just doesn't stop being true) you have to remember that working in publishing is a media arbiter--no matter what your role, so I'd say this includes just about anyone who has ever been or who wants to be involved in writing or bookmaking at any level, and certainly involves all bloggers. You're in a position of great power to offer information--responsible information--in an era of spin and misinformation.

Any thoughts?

*I'm sorry I'm not putting better citations here, but the poll data is available in the book if people are interested in more.

**Again, I hate citing this without knowing more details. If anyone who reads this knows/remembers more, please drop me a line and I'll repair the post.

17 comments:

Kristi said...

For myself, I distrust most statistics and "data" as reported in the media (any media, about any subject). There are always too many mitigating circumstances, too many outside influences, too many ways to interpret the numbers. Anyone can put a spin on any number and use it to support their point.

Say, today's stock market sales prices haven't changed dramatically. Let's compare the percentage changed of select stocks to the sales volume during one specific hour and run a few calcs over the history and all of a sudden its a Record Day on Walstreet.

Now, I'm all for using empirical data in making decisions. But take it with a grain of salt (or in context, or whatever other qualifier you need). A good leader must do that, as well as apply good judgement, and a lot of understanding and compassion and forethought for the consequences of the decision. And get lucky. And that's a set of skills that are impossible to quantify.

Beth said...

Data are very useful, but I find that a lot of reporting these days lacks context.

For example, the 1,000 or so scientists who strongly believed humans were causing climate change. I always wondered, how many climate scientists are there? It wasn't that I doubted global warming--I just wanted to know what percentage of climate scientists believed in it, and which did not.

The Christian Science Monitor is a great source for context.

Merry Monteleone said...

Great post, Moonie, I have to look into that book.

I tend to be an odd duck politically, my mother is Republican, my father thought they were all full of shit, and I tend to see good and bad points in all candidates. I think the partisan ship is killing us, as evidenced by some of the 'mistakes' McCain is making - I've heard people snipe on him endlessly over the way this race is going, but I don't think a few months of listening to campaign people that should be fired really erases all of the years he's put in honorably... plus I think some or a lot of the nastiness on both ends are caused by supporters more than the candidates and often blown up by the media to create a story rather than cover one.

In the political landscape, data is manipulated... it exists, but they tack on and skew numbers to suit their purposes. Both sides are guilty. I see good points in both candidates, but one thing scares the hell out of me:

"the redistribution of wealth"

And not so much that the candidate said it, and said it was a good thing, but that so many Americans are nodding sagely.

Another thing no one wants to say, because it will cost them votes, but you touched on here: The Economy!!! Democrats blame Republicans. Republicans blame Wall Street. What's the truth? THere are many factors - deregulation didn't help, but it was a contributing factor not the cause (and before anyone thinks I'm sticking up for the Republicans, it was Clinton who was behind that and many democrats who wouldn't allow Fannie May to be regulated when it was brought before them multiple times over the last six or seven years)

There were most certainly shady practices going on in banks and on Wall Street, but when you get down to brass tax, they couldn't have done any of it without irresponsible consumers. We did this. It was a combined effort by two generations of Americans who have largely forgotten what it means to live within your income and no longer look badly on using credit that you can't pay back immediately.

Whatever the government does at this point is a bandaide, if we rely on them to fix it without fixing our own issues, we'll be here again.

I'll definitely check out the book, thanks for pointing it out moonie.

Charles Gramlich said...

As usual, the problem is greed and the lying it engenders.

150 said...

You should go to Fark.com and read the first chapter of Drew's book. The book itself is kind of dull if you visit the site itself, but the first chapter is a brilliant analysis of the current media climate. (And free!)

http://www.fark.com/2007/book/chapter1.shtml

wkelly said...

There's an inherent problem in the unemployment/minimum wage study -- it assumes that the two populations are equal, and that anything else that may impact unemployment in the two samples is also equal. There are way too many variables -- availability of jobs, for one, an increase in industry, retail sales growth/expansion in the two areas, etc. To say that a change in unemployment rate (either way)is directly caused by an increase in minimum wage is assuming a lot of things that aren't in evidence.

Christy Raedeke said...

In my freelance life I write for a non-partisan think tank focused on public policy. As I sift through information, I am astonished on a daily basis by two things: the amount of laws enacted that end up changing each of our lives in profound ways but do not get covered by the media because they’re not juicy enough, and the "repositioning" of facts/data that happens by both parties (but one far more than the other; I’ll let you guess).

A lot of people I know are content to believe what they hear from the mainstream media because the alternative is too frightening to think about. It’s a frustrating problem with no easy fix--short of making every American listen to the BBC World News each day.

JohnO said...

Good post!!

Part of my day gig is covering environmental issues, and it's astonishing how much information is out there, and how aggressively people work to spin it.

For a good (if depressing) example, take a look at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who catalog political interference in science. They have an A to Z guide on their website that lists nearly 80 categories.

The Bush administration is famous for doing things like distorting and suppressing findings that contradict administration policies, stacking panels with like-minded and underqualified scientists with ties to industry, and eliminating some advisory committees altogether.

(As an aside, who the hell can support an administration that ignores lead poisoning in children?)

The example I see most often are people who use the "no one can know for sure how it happens" argument about climate change as justification for doing nothing.

But more important than the "it's too complicated" claim is the attempt to deny EVERYTHING on the basis of that.

In other words, making that claim centers the debate around something complex, effectively ignoring all the irrefutable problems like overfishing, deforestation, species loss, toxics in food, etc. -- in other words, garden-variety (pardon the pun) human behavior.

You're right that the he said/she said model of media reporting leads to an infuriating stasis about many issues.

As a former journalist, I'll add my two cents that TV is the worst for this, newspapers are a little better but not much (when I was a business journalist I was amazed at how much they got wrong), and magazines a little better but not as timely.

But the hard part is getting past that, to the subtlety. And that takes time, persistence, and multiple sources.

Anonymous said...

The data on the Social Security shortfall is believable.

I do believe that money is being taken against my will each and every payday and given away, and when it's my turn to get some, it's not going to be there.

So, to vote for the party that promises more of this and with less and less input from me, the American taxpayer, would be, IMO, just plain stupid.

JES said...

You're in a position of great power to offer information -- responsible information -- in an era of spin and misinformation.

Any thoughts?


If I'm not mistaken, what your post is about isn't "So who do you trust, and why?" (Which is what the comments so far seem to be dealing with.) What you're asking is something like, "Those of us who have blogs -- are we doing anything to plug the information gap? If not, shouldn't we be? And if we shouldn't, what else could we do instead?"

Sort of a call to action.

Which could be kind of cool. But before I comment further on it, can you confirm, MR, that this is indeed what you're asking? I don't want to threadjack.

moonrat said...

it was, JES. i'm always happy to see which way the discussion naturally goes, but i'd love to see you open up that thread again, too.

frankly, i'd like to be a source of information in an age of white noise.

Merry Monteleone said...

Moonie,

I don't normally discuss politics on my blog because 1) I don't like flamewars 2)I like to keep it pretty centralized to writing topics, though it veers sometimes and 3) I loooove most of the writers I've met online, but on politics at least, I often strongly disagree with them... and I don't want to tweak a lot of noses on difference of political ideology...

That all being said, I would looooove to participate in a forum that is open to discussing what media won't cover or won't cover without bias.

And I have to say, newspapers are just as bad. I don't think they're teaching journalism the same way they used to. I was doing some rudimentary research on a novel I'd like to tackle set in 1915, and I started pulling up old news articles and the like... You want an eye opener, go read news articles from the turn of the century and then flip open any respected newspaper today.

Once upon a time they really were just the facts.

JES said...

Okay, so I think I understand what you're asking then...

Let's set aside email for now. (So much "information" about politics and democracy which shows up in our Inboxes is actually crud: unexamined, forwarded without thought or cross-checking, and so on. And so much of what's left is newsletters from one camp or another; what they present may be examined and it may be considered, but it's also generally selective, goal-directed: "here's why we believe what we believe.") If you look around what remains of the Internet, that pretty much leaves the Web as an information source.

So what's on the Web already?

1. The official sites for parties, candidates, and issues.
2. UNofficial information sites for the above.
3. Nominal news sites -- NY Times, FOX News, CNN.com, and so on.
4. Blogs and fora which adopt a point of view and pretty much stick to it. (We've all got favorites, probably, but I hope we could all agree that they tend to BE favorites exactly because they match the POV of their readerships.)

I don't know what sort of territory remains uncovered... EXCEPT maybe a directory of the above.

You familiar with alltop.com? (Here's the "About Alltop" page if not.) The idea I'm nibbling at right now is a site (or network of sites) which AGGREGATES, selectively, information and opinion from categories 1 through 4 above. Call it The Clothesline, maybe: headlines and ledes from sources culled by a network of bloggers, an editorial team if you will. Opinion leaders -- not in the sense of columnists or commentators, but bloggers whose audiences TRUST them. (Maybe their "authority" could be scored over time, from votes cast by all visitors...)

If the network was large enough, minimal work would have to be done by any given participant. And because the index/directory is maintained separately from all the participants' own sites, they don't have to worry about getting dragged into political back-and-forth bushwah. (In fact, I'd ban comments altogether. Just "Here are the best stories in the last 24 hours, according to our panel." Like that.)

I don't know. Just sort of vamping along on the harp here.

Anybody? Bueller?

Shell I said...

Interesting post Moonrat. I am usually just a lurker hear, reading all your insights and learning but usually not saying much.

I am in Australia so absolutely not going to weigh in on the "who do you trust debate" but wanted to offer a short story I learnt while doing my business degree, it is somewhat relevant to what you were saying about statistics and much along the lines of Kriti's comments above.

In one city in Australia there was a real estate agency that had a bar graph to promote themselves. The bar on the graph representing them was twice as high as their nearest competitor. At first glance it makes them look really good & it is no wonder they use it for advertising. What did the graph represent you ask? Number of signs in front of houses - which tells us nothing of their sales ability.

It was shown to my business statistics class demonstating the fact that just because something is a statistic doesn't mean it is useful. All the useless statistics skew peoples perception and make useful information meaningless.

70% of all statistics are made-up anyway :)

Sheryl Tuttle said...

I enjoyed this post very much. I agree wholeheartedly that there is biased reporting, lack of information, and contradictory facts all over the media. This remains true especially for politics. I truly enjoy reading blog posts that contain truthful information along with the writer's opinion. Those are the blogs I most frequent and are most likely to offer comment. Thanks for a great, thought-provoking post!

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JES said...

This thread has probably now officially moved into Internet Archives territory, but I wanted to follow up on my last comment: Tina Brown's new venture The Daily Beast seems to be something like I was thinking of.

Oh.

We don't get to the newsstand much out here in the hinterlands. Or the media pipeline, obviously.