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January 9th, 2018 (Permalink)

Quote Watch: Don't Be Fooled

I've just started reading a book entitled Don't Be Fooled: A Citizen's Guide to News and Information in the Digital Age, which certainly sounds useful. In its preface the author, John H. McManus, offers a short autobiography, which begins:

In this book I argue that information-providers should be transparent so you'll know when to power up your skepticism shields. Nelson Mandela once said "where you stand depends on where you sit."1

So, let's raise our skepticism shields. Did Nelson Mandela actually once say that? First of all, what does it even mean? I sit in my chair, but I don't stand in it. Clearly, it's supposed to have something to do with bias, since the preface in which it occurs is titled "A Confession of Bias". "Where you stand" can refer to the "positions" you take on issues, but what does "where you sit" mean? Here's how McManus interprets it:

Without being aware of it, we absorb biases from where we are situated in society. Our race, gender, religion, generation, geography, class and nationality each have a great deal to do with how we perceive the world.1

Okay, but why should all of that be called "where you sit", as opposed to "where you're from" or "who you are" or "where you lie down"? Anyway, the fact that the quote doesn't make much sense coming from Mandela should help raise those skepticism shields.

If you search for this quote on the internet, you'll find many sites that attribute it to Mandela, including some quotation sites. However, none of those occurrences that I have found include a citation to a source for the quote. Also, we have seen previously that many quote sites are not to be trusted2, as they often include fake quotes and misattributions. Finally, the earliest attribution of the quote to Mandela that I've found is from 2010, which certainly doesn't rule out that he said it, but it is further reason to doubt it. Moreover, prior to 2010, the quote has been called "Miles' Law" after Rufus Miles.

Who was Rufus Miles3? If you're like me, you've never heard of him before. One common phenomenon of quotesmanship is that things said by little-known people―such as Rufus Miles―are put into the mouths of famous people―such as Nelson Mandela. Ralph Keyes calls this the axiom that "famous quotes need famous mouths"4. Even better, of course, if the famous mouth belongs to a highly-admired person, such as Mandela. In that way, the quote is given an air of authority that it would otherwise lack. Most people would be skeptical of a quote attributed to someone they've never heard of, but not so if the same quote is put in the mouth of a famous wise man.

In an article from 1978, Miles himself claimed authorship of the quote5, and here is how he explains the "law":

…[T]he basic lesson of Miles' Law was that there was no such thing as pure objectivity in the arena of budgeting or public policy making in general. Every person has a function to perform and that assigned responsibility markedly influences one's judgment.6

Miles was a bureaucrat writing for the Public Administration Review, and his law is one of seven "maxims" of management7. It's clear from Miles' discussion and examples that what he meant by "where you stand depends on where you sit" is that the "positions" that a bureaucrat takes on issues depend upon where in the bureaucracy he is positioned. So, where he "stands" depends upon where he "sits", that is, where his office and his chair is, what building he works in, what department or agency he works for.

Of course, the fact that Miles claimed authorship of the "law" doesn't necessarily mean that he did author it. Did Nelson Mandela at some time in his long life say it? Possibly; I certainly can't prove that he didn't8. However, even if he did say it, it's likely that he was repeating something he had heard. It is far more likely that Miles came up with the saying than Mandela did, and the clincher for me is the fact that the quote makes more sense in its bureaucratic setting than as a general maxim about bias.

I've just begun to read McManus' book, and it may well be a highly useful and accurate one despite its inauspicious beginning. McManus either did not raise his "skepticism shields" when confronted with the alleged Mandela quote, or he's not much of a researcher―I hope the former. It's so easy to discover that the attribution of the quote to Mandela is at least doubtful that I suspect that McManus just didn't bother to check it. Instead of the purported Mandela quote, McManus should have kept in mind the old journalistic saying: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."9

Notes:

  1. John H. McManus, Don't Be Fooled: A Citizen's Guide to News and Information in the Digital Age (2012), "A Confession of Bias"
  2. See, for instance: Who is Adolph Hitler and why does he keep saying these terrible things?, 9/11/2017
  3. You can read his short obituary here: "Rufus Miles Jr., 85, Aide to 3 Presidents", The New York Times, 4/15/1996
  4. Ralph Keyes, "Nice Guys Finish Last Seventh": False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (1993), p. 20
  5. Rufus E. Miles, Jr., "The Origin and Meaning of Miles' Law", Public Administration Review, Vol. 38, No. 5 (Sep.-Oct., 1978), pp. 399-403
  6. Miles, p. 400
  7. Miles, p. 403
  8. Moreover, the burden of proof is not on me to disprove it. The burden is on McManus or anyone else who claims that Mandela said it to offer some evidence that he did. So far, there is no evidence he did.
  9. Chip Scanlan, "If Your Mother Says She Loves You: A Reporter's Cautionary Tale", Poynter, 4/17/2003

January 5th, 2018 (Permalink)

Poll Watch: Big Nothin'

A lot of public opinion poll reporting is fake news in the sense that there's no news in it1. More precisely, it might be called "manufactured news" since the "news" is the poll itself. If the numbers have changed since the previous poll, that's news! If they haven't, that's news too! A current example has the following headline:

Trump weekly job approval up to 39 percent, highest in months

The article under this headline2 is quite short, though not as short as it should be. If you're an experienced poll watcher, I suggest reading the whole article, which takes less than a minute. Then, you can compare your observations to my comments, below:

Excerpt Comment
The approval rating for the week was an improvement from Trump's low of 35 percent, seen just weeks before.
Four percentage points? Is that significant? What is the margin of error for this poll? That's not reported!
The last time Trump's weekly approval was at 39 percent was in July, according to Gallup. The president…had an overall approval average of 39 percent for 2017.
So, another headline for this report could have been: Trump Job Approval Rating Holds Steady
The president's latest weekly approval rating in December came after he scored his first legislative victory with congressional Republicans on tax reform.
So that probably caused the increase….
However, the Republican-backed tax plan does not appear to be widely popular with the American people. An NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll last month found that only 24 percent of Americans believed the tax plan was a good idea.
…um, never mind.

According to Gallup3, the margin of error (MoE) for this poll is ±3 percentage points. However, the previous week's approval rating was 37%, which is within the MoE. Furthermore, as recently as the middle of November, the rating was at 38%. So, in about six weeks the rating improved one whole percentage point.4

You can't blame the reporters who write this stuff: they've got a job to do, and they can't let the fact that there's no news stop them.

Notes:

  1. For a "Poll Watch" example from last year, see: No Margin for Error, 5/4/2017
  2. Julia Manchester, "Poll: Trump weekly job approval up to 39 percent, highest in months", The Hill, 1/3/2018
  3. "Trump Job Approval (Weekly)", Gallup, accessed: 1/5/2018.
  4. See: Margin of Error Errors, How to Read a Poll.

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