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March 23rd, 2018 (Permalink)

Plague of the Zombie Facts

According to former journalist and current media lawyer Charles Glasser, online media have inherited many of the bad habits of the print and broadcast media, which include: "…unwillingness to recognize that errors are numerous; hesitancy in offering corrections; and…reader complaints are often ignored or denied1." One result of these bad habits is the spread of "zombie facts": those "facts" that survive repeated attempts to kill them and want to eat your brain.

I can testify from personal knowledge to each of these problems: I've noted previously2 that many media outlets are reluctant to issue corrections. Oddly enough, the type of error most likely to be corrected appears to be the trivial one, such as a misspelled proper name3. Even the most prestigious news outlets may have to be badgered into correcting more substantive errors4, and less prestigious ones may not correct them even when notified5. Worse, even when a correction is issued, the error will often have spread to many people who will never be exposed to its correction6.

In this era of "fake news", or at least of real concern about it, a big worry is the way in which online errors may spread widely and rapidly, and especially wider and faster than corrections. Glasser cites some research evidence to this effect, but what's missing is research on the spread of errors from print or broadcast publications for comparison. I think it's likely that online errors spread more rapidly than old-fashioned media errors did, since everything online is faster, but I'm not so sure they spread more widely.

One advantage of online media is that it's easy to measure how many times a fake news story is forwarded as compared to how many times a debunking of it is. There is some evidence that false news stories are "tweeted" at a greater rate than true ones7. This may be because false news stories play to people's prejudices, sometimes intentionally, in a way that the truth does not.

In contrast, the number of times an article in a paper periodical is read is harder to measure. Without the latter measurement we lack one part of the comparison, so we can't really know that things are worse now than in the recent past. However, I think it's safe to say that the situation today is bad enough.

Coincidentally, I just added two corrections to a weblog entry from over ten years ago8. Unfortunately, no one brought the mistakes to my attention in over a decade; rather, I just happened to notice them myself while looking for something else entirely. I did not include a "trashline", but the entry itself is short and I linked both errors directly to the corrections via footnotes, so they should be unmissable.

Notes:

  1. Charles J. Glasser, Jr., Esq., "Collusion, Corrections and Zombie Facts that Refuse to Die", The Daily Caller, 3/22/2018. Doesn't the DC edit its stories?
  2. The Zimmerman Contextomy, 4/25/2012.
  3. See the corrections column in any periodical that publishes one.
  4. For an example, see: Getting it Right, 9/10/2012.
  5. For instance: Low Confidence Interval, 10/21/2013. The error is still uncorrected, almost five years later.
  6. For one example, see: Here We Go Again, 5/15/2004.
  7. Philip Ball, "The science of fake news", Prospect Magazine, 3/13/2018.
  8. The Media and the Median, 8/13/2007.

March 17th, 2018 (Permalink)

Quote Watch: Einstein Didn't Say That

It is an irony of fate that I myself have been the recipient of excessive admiration and reverence from my fellow-beings, through no fault or merit of my own.―Albert Einstein1

Since this is an entry about quoting, allow me to quote myself:

I've noted previously that Albert Einstein is a quote magnet, that is, any quote about science will eventually be attributed to him. Moreover, Einstein is the paradigm example of a "genius", so many quotes having nothing to do with science are attributed to him as a sort of all-purpose authority on everything.2

If you don't believe me, perhaps you'll believe a recent article from Aeon magazine:

Unsurprisingly, Einstein is quoted as an authority on science. … But he is more frequently quoted on a wide variety of non-scientific subjects, including education, intelligence, politics…, religion, marriage, money and music-making. …[Q]uotations from Einstein vary vastly in authenticity. Many can be traced to his writings; some are based on the recollections of those who knew him well; some have mutated over time; some resemble his thinking, or seem consistent with his personal behaviour but are not really his. And a number are simply bogus, invented to take advantage of his reputation as a genius and iconoclast…. As Calaprice3 observes: ĎSome sound genuine, some are apocryphal, and others are no doubt fakes, created by those who wanted to use Einsteinís name to lend credibility to a cause or an idea.í4

In addition to the fact that many of these alleged Einstein quotes are fraudulent, there is little reason to care what Einstein's opinions were about "politics…, religion, marriage, money and music-making". For instance, this article claims he had "two unsuccessful marriages5": would that make him an expert on marriage?

I'm beginning to think that there are so many fraudulent Einstein quotes out there that merely alleged ones should be presumed fake until proven genuine.

Notes:

  1. Alice Calaprice, editor, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein (2010), p. 14.
  2. Counterfeit Goods, 10/6/2017.
  3. Alice Calaprice, the editor of The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, see the first note, above.
  4. Andrew Robinson, "Thus spake Albert", Aeon, 3/12/2018.
  5. See the previous note. Einstein's first marriage ended in divorce, but I'm not sure why Robinson writes that his second was "unsuccessful". However, I don't know much about Einstein's personal life. See, also, Calaprice, p. xxvi.

March 9th, 2018 (Permalink)

New Book: The Truth Matters

The truth certainly does matter, but the subtitle of this new book by Bruce Bartlett is more revealing than its title about what it's supposed to be: "A Citizen's Guide to Separating Facts from Lies and Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks". In the Introduction, Bartlett compares it to Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, meaning that it's a short guidebook to its subject for the general reader. Also, in the Introduction, he writes:

Once upon a time, Americans could read their local newspaper, subscribe to a weekly newsmagazine, and watch thirty minutes of national news on television each night, and be reasonably sure they knew everything important and newsworthy that they needed to know to live their lives. Those days are long gone. Newspapers have shrunk their news coverage drastically, the newsweeklies are shadows of their former selves, and the network evening broadcasts are viewed by only a fraction of their previous viewership. …Many people crave a simpler time before cable and the Internet….1

I'm doubtful about this notion of a golden age of American journalism prior to the internet and cable news channels: perhaps it was not so much a golden age as a fool's paradise. Is the media environment really worse today or are we just now learning how bad it's been all along? The environment may well have been simpler in the past, but simpler is not always better.

Of course, in this introduction, Bartlett is attempting to identify a need for his book, but I think that most people would agree that there is a need. Whether this is the book to satisfy that felt need, I don't know yet. I do agree with this part of Bartlett's prescription: "Ultimately, news consumers―average people―must take it upon themselves to learn how to identify fake news, irresponsible news sources and those peddling a political agenda from those that strive to tell the objective truth, exercise quality control and editorial oversight, correct errors, and maintain a reasonable separation between reportage and opinion."2

Who is Bruce Bartlett and what are his credentials for writing this book? He was a policy analyst in the Reagan administration and worked on economic policy for the Treasury Department under the first President Bush3, which would seem to make him a conservative Republican policy expert, but he seems to have taken a left turn and is now an independent4. These may not be the sort of credentials you'd expect for an author of a book on fake news: perhaps a former journalist or journalism professor would be more like it. However, Bartlett's knowledge as an experienced researcher may give him valuable insights, especially on economic matters.

The following is excellent advice:

…[J]ust think about Wikipedia. Many people abuse Wikipedia, and I talk a little bit about that [in the book]. One of the things that I always tell people is that itís a great place to start your research but you never, ever want to end your research there. Although Iíve never, that I know of, been misled by information I got on Wikipedia, nevertheless, I would still double check everything. But if youíre starting to research a subject that you know absolutely nothing about, itís a great place to start, because sometimes all you need is the name of one person or one book or one article that is a good summary of the subject youíre interested in and then you have search terms that you can plug into [search engines]….4

I've written much the same thing, myself 5, so you know it's got to be true!

Notes:

  1. Bruce Bartlett, The Truth Matters: A Citizen's Guide to Separating Facts from Lies and Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks (2017).
  2. Bruce Bartlett, "Fake news is a test for citizens. Here's how to pass it.", USA Today, 10/24/2017.
  3. Michael Winship, "GOP Tax Cuts Wonít Pass This Year―Or Maybe Even Next", Bill Moyers, 10/31/2017. So much for Bartlett's abilities as a prophet.
  4. Michael Winship, "Bruce Bartlett on Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks", Bill Moyers, 11/1/2017.
  5. Wikipedia Watch, 5/2/2014.

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