Doublespeak

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May 29th, 2020 (Updated: 6/3/2020) (Permalink)

A New Four-Letter Word

What do you call a "protest" that "turned violent" with "demonstrators" "clashing" with police and "trashing" a building that the group of "unruly protesters" threw rocks at? Consider the following headline from the recent The New York Post story from which those words and phrases were taken:

Minneapolis protesters trash police precinct during clash over George Floyd's death

The story tells us:

A protest in Minneapolis over the death of a black man in police custody turned violent Tuesday night, with demonstrators clashing with police and trashing a precinct building…. Several hundred demonstrators at about 6 p.m. splintered off from a mainly peaceful afternoon rally and marched to the Minneapolis police department's 3rd Precinct to protest the death of George Floyd…. The group targeted the precinct because it's believed the four Minneapolis cops involved in Floyd's arrest―who have all since been fired―worked there…. Unruly protesters…tossed rocks at the building's windows and vandalized at least one patrol car…. Police in riot gear arrived and fired tear gas at the protesters, who took aim at the officers with rocks, water bottles and other objects…1.

The only occurrence of the word "riot" in this short article is in the penultimate sentence where we learn that the police donned "riot gear", but why did they do that? Where was the riot in all this "clashing" and "trashing"?

Another strange thing about this report is that it contains an actual four-letter barnyard epithet that a few decades ago would not have been included in a newspaper story. Apparently, "riot" is the new four-letter word.

I don't mean to pick on The Post: this was literally the first article that popped up in my search engine. It's an egregious example, but apparently the word "riot" is now officially oldspeak, and the news media are not supposed to refer to what's happening as "riots" or those looting and burning down buildings as "rioters". Rather, the events are "protests" or "demonstrations", and the looters and arsonists are "protesters" or "demonstrators". For example, a much longer article from ABC News refers to what's happening as "chaos", but never once uses the four-letter word2.

It's amazing how fast and far such newspeak spreads in the news media. There are still a few small news outlets that are willing to call a "civil disorder" a "riot"3, but they seem to be mostly local television stations4. This is a rare case when we know when and from where the memo went out:

NBC News came under scrutiny Thursday for allegedly telling its reporters to refer to the events in Minneapolis this week as "protests" and not "riots," according to one of its anchors. Craig Melvin, an MSNBC host and co-anchor of "Today," shed some light as to how his network is framing its reporting. "This will guide our reporting in MN. 'While the situation on the ground in Minneapolis is fluid, and there has been violence, it is most accurate at this time to describe what is happening there as 'protests'―not riots,'" Melvin tweeted Thursday morning.5

Presumably, it's not Melvin himself who issued this directive, but someone higher up at the network―Melvin just spilled the beans. Another MSNBC reporter, who obviously got the memo too, stood in front of a burning building while saying the following:

I want to be clear on how I characterize this. This is mostly a protest. It is not generally speaking unruly. But fires have been started.6

Who are you going to believe: MSNBC or your lying eyes? Notice the careful language: he tells us that he wants to be clear on how he characterizes it. Why does he need to be so careful about what he says? Because he's been told not to call it a "riot", so it's "mostly" a protest. What's the rest of it? It's "not generally speaking unruly"? Only the arson and looting are unruly. Also, notice the use of the passive voice: "fires have been started". Who started them?

You could say most of the above things about the Charlottesville riots of a few years ago: They were mostly a protest. They were not generally speaking unruly: only the fistfights and the guy plowing his car into a crowd and killing a woman were unruly. However, no fires were started. If the Minneapolis protests are not riots then neither was Charlottesville.

Given that the order came down from on high, it's no wonder that MSNBC reporters would make fools of themselves following it, but why have so many other reporters from other news outlets been so quick to adopt the latest doublespeak? This is not a rhetorical question: I really wonder.


Notes:

  1. Kenneth Garger, "Minneapolis protesters trash police precinct during clash over George Floyd's death", The New York Post, 5/29/2020.
  2. Ella Torres & William Mansell, "Minnesota protest live updates: Trump warns military could 'assume control' of protest response", ABC News, 5/29/2020.
  3. According to William Lutz, the previous doublespeak phrase for "riot" was "civil disorder", see: Doublespeak Defined: Cut Through the Bull**** and Get the Point (1999), p. 62. Notice the four-letter word that is censored in the subtitle, which is the same word that is uncensored in the Post story. This is progress of a sort, I guess: we can't call a "civil disorder" a "riot", but we can call this what it is.
  4. For instance:
  5. Joseph A. Wulfsohn, "NBC allegedly tells reporters not to use word 'riots' in George Floyd coverage", Fox News, 5/29/2020.
  6. Tim Hains, "MSNBC's Ali Velshi Downplays Riot In Front Of Burning Building: 'Mostly A Protest,' 'Not Generally Speaking Unruly'", Real Clear Politics, 5/28/2020. Note that the reporter is being interviewed by Brian Williams, and this interview is apparently from Williams' show The 11th Hour, which was the source of the claim that the Bloomberg campaign could have given every American a million dollars; see: Beyond Innumeracy, 3/7/2020.

New Book: Expert Failure
May 22nd, 2020 (Permalink)

When Experts Fail

Title: Expert Failure

Author: Roger Koppl

Date: 2018

Quote: "Experts have knowledge not possessed by others. Those others, the laity, must decide when to trust experts and how much power to give them. We hope for a 'healer' but fear the 'quack,' and it is hard to know which is which. Experts may play a strictly advisory role or they may choose for others. … There is, then, a 'problem with experts,'…. When do we trust them? How much power do we give them? What can be done to ensure good outcomes from experts? What invites bad outcomes? And so on. … We rely…on the opinions of experts. We rely on experts even though we are conscious of the risk that experts may give bad advice, whether from 'honest error,' inattention, conflict of interest, or other reasons. The 'problem of experts' is the problem that we must rely on experts even though experts may not be completely reliable and trustworthy sources of the advice we require from them."1

Comment: This book couldn't be more timely even though it was published two years ago. This is not the first book on expertise and its discontents that we've seen here, and it almost certainly won't be the last. While it's too soon to do a post-mortem on the failures of experts in the current epidemic, it's not too soon to realize that there have been failures―major ones. No doubt there should and will be books in the years to come examining the role of experts in dealing with the epidemic, and I look forward to reading them. However, it may be instructive to read one that was written just prior to the epidemic and, therefore, not influenced by the illusions of hindsight.

As I discussed a decade ago2, the "problem of experts" goes back at least to Socrates. It's not really a single problem, though, but a group of related ones including:

Hopefully, this book is not like the former "book club" entry Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us―And How to Know When Not to Trust Them3. A limitation of that book is that the "experts" that were "wrong" were largely pseudo-experts, especially those that appear on television or in other major media―for example, the quacks promoted by Oprah Winfrey. There is certainly a place for debunking such charlatans, but they're only a small aspect of the problem.

A more recent book that discussed another related problem was The Death of Expertise4, though it turned out that it wasn't expertise that had supposedly died, but people's trust in it. This is similar to the claim that we live in a "post-truth" era, in that the complaint is not that somehow there's no longer any truth, but that people allegedly don't respect it anymore. One thing that the current situation has shown is that, if anything, people trust experts too much, or perhaps they put their trust in the wrong experts.

Putting aside the snake oil salesmen, experts are human beings and, therefore, fallible. We can't reasonably expect them to always get it right, and when they are wrong bad things happen, such as bridges falling down5. For example, one of the expert failures of the current epidemic was the excessive concern that there would not be enough ventilators in the nation to handle the number of patients who would need them6. As it turned out, we were never even close to a nationwide ventilator shortage7, though there may have been some localized ones.

The failure in this case seems to have come from a single, early estimate made largely in ignorance by one expert, together with a failure to refine the estimate as more information became available. This particular failure had serious consequences in that it was used by politicians to justify "flattening the curve", which was itself used to justify shutting down the country's economy, and we won't know for months if not years the full extent of damage done by it.

Roger Koppl is a professor of finance, which isn't the most obvious basis for writing about the failures of experts, but there is no field of "expertology"―or whatever it would be called―that studies the problems of expertise. Even if there were such a field, we would still be faced with the same problem: How do we tell who is a real expert about expertise? At some point, we are all forced to rely on our own inexpert judgments.


Notes:

  1. "Introduction".
  2. New Book, Too, 5/12/2010.
  3. See:
  4. See:
  5. That's a picture of the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse on the front cover of the New Book, see: The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Tacoma Narrows Bridge", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 5/12/2020.
  6. For details, see: How many ventilators do we need?, 4/17/2020.
  7. Bill McCarthy, "Can anyone who needs a ventilator get one? So far, it looks like it", Politifact, 4/24/2020. This report was written about the time the epidemic and the demand for ventilators peaked in the United States.

Weird Science Fantasy
May 10th, 2020 (Updated: 5/15/2020) (Permalink)

Invasion of the Murder Hornets

Some recent real-life headlines:

'Murder Hornets,' With Sting That Can Kill, Land In US1

Monstrous 'murder hornets' have reached the US2

Like something out of a 1950s monster movie, the giant hornets are coming to get you. You can tell that the hysteria surrounding the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes is dying down because the news media are jumping on a new scare. The latest coming attraction is the invasion of the United States by Asian giant hornets, alias "murder hornets" or "hornets from Hell"3.

In fact, these hornets primarily murder honeybees, not human beings. Hopefully, these invasive pests can be prevented from establishing a permanent presence in North America but, even if they do, their main threat is to bees rather than humans. Nonetheless, the giant hornets could be a problem to people since honeybees are important agricultural pollinators, and they already have enough problems without marauding hornets attacking their hives.

If, like me, you're experiencing deja vu right now, it's probably because you're old enough to remember the killer bees. These bees were a hybrid of regular honeybees and African bees that was developed in a lab in Brazil, apparently by a mad scientist. Some of the bees escaped from the lab, rather as the coronavirus may have done, and then began to spread northward. Eventually, they did indeed make it across the Rio Grande into the U.S., but that was about it. It seems that they didn't like the colder weather up north so stayed mainly in the far south4.

As a result of all the media hype about the slow spread of the "killer" bees northward, there was a swarm of B monster movies about them that came out in the '70s, including "The Bees", "Killer Bees", "The Savage Bees", and―my favorite―"The Invasion of the Bee Girls". There was even a big budget one, "The Swarm", from "master of disaster" Irwin Allen, which was a disaster movie in more than one way: it flopped. Obviously, these horror movies capitalized on the morbid interest generated by the news media coverage, but they probably also contributed to it.

"Killer" bees didn't live up to their reputation, though people have occasionally been killed by them5. Africanized bees tend to be more aggressive than regular honeybees, and people may die if stung a large number of times. Also, some people are allergic to bee venom, and even a small number of stings might be deadly to them.

The hype about the "killer" bees and "murder" hornets comes not so much from misinformation, but from the way the news is spun. Take as an example the following article:

Potentially fatal 'murder hornet' spreads across the globe

Scientists in the US are preparing to try to eradicate a new, potentially fatal, invader from the east: a huge insect with a lethal sting. The Asian giant, or 'murder' hornet can grow up to two inches long with a sting that delivers a potent neurotoxin. … The hornet can sting through most standard beekeeper suits and delivers nearly seven times the amount of venom as a honey bee. Swarms have been known to kill people in Japan, even those with no allergic reaction, and it is there that the insect earned the grim sobriquet, the 'murder hornet'.6

Notice that the hornet is called in both the headline and the first sentence "potentially fatal", and the first sentence says that it has a "lethal sting". This suggests, if not outright claims, that you could die from a single sting from a single hornet, which may be true if you are allergic to its venom, but most people stung by these hornets do not die.

What's missing from this account is a sense of perspective: some people who are allergic can die from honeybee stings, though it might take more than one sting to be fatal. So, are honeybees "potentially fatal"? Do they have "lethal stings"? Yes, they are and they have, but can you imagine a news headline referring to "potentially fatal" honeybees with "lethal stings"?

The article itself indicates that it is hornet swarms that have killed people in Japan, including those who are not allergic. Similarly, it's multiple stings from swarms of native bees and hornets that are usually fatal to people here.

Despite its lurid headline, as the article goes on to point out, the main threat from the hornets is to honeybee populations and not to human beings, but you have to read past the scary headline and first paragraph to get to the good news. This is typical tabloid newspaper writing that now appears to be invading the mainstream news media just as the hornets are trying to invade North America.

One thing I'll say in favor of the news media is that there was an almost immediate debunking of the hornet hype by one mainstream outfit. Remarkably, it was the Associated Press, which five days ago published the first of the headlines shown above, then a few days later debunked its own hype:

Insect experts say people should calm down about the big bug with the nickname "murder hornet"―unless you are a beekeeper or a honeybee. The Asian giant hornets found in Washington state that grabbed headlines this week aren't big killers of humans, although it does happen on rare occasions. … Numerous bug experts told The Associated Press that what they call hornet "hype" reminds them of the 1970s public scare when Africanized honeybees, nicknamed "killer bees," started moving north from South America. While these more aggressive bees did make it up to Texas and the Southwest, they didn't live up to the horror-movie moniker. However, they also do kill people in rare situations. This time it's hornets with the homicidal nickname, which bug experts want to ditch. "They are not 'murder hornets.' They are just hornets," said Washington Agriculture Department entomologist Chris Looney, who is working on the state's search for these large hornets. … Looney has a message for Americans: These hornets are not coming to get you. "The number of people who are stung and have to seek medical attention is incredibly small," he said in an interview. … Asian giant hornets at most kill a few dozen people a year and some experts said it's probably far less. Hornet, wasp and bee stings kill on average 62 people a year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. … "This is 99% media hype and frankly Iím getting tired of it," said University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy. "Murder hornet? Please." Retired University of Montana bee expert Jerry Bromenshenk said in an email, … "Do we want this hornet―surely not. But the media hype is turbo charged." … For people, the hornets are scary because the world is already frightened by coronavirus and our innate fight-or-flight mechanisms are activated, putting people on edge, said risk expert David Ropeik….7

Many of these news media scare stories follow the same template, whether they're about hornets, bees, or the coronavirus: an animal or disease that can be deadly to a small fraction of people is invading the country. The news media play up the scariness of the animal or disease as much as possible, then track its spread through the country and report every case. A running count of cases is frequently updated and seldom put in perspective by being compared to similar cases from more familiar animals or diseases, or cases from previous years. Occasional skeptical stories will be published, but for every such story several ones that follow the template will appear. Finally, a year or two later, the post-mortems will appear: scholarly symposia will be held, and issues of academic journals will discuss what went wrong with the reporting. Recommendations will be issued for how similar journalistic failures can be avoided in the future, but nothing will change and the next scare will be reported following the same template. Rinse and repeat.

Whether this new scare gets any traction in the coming months will depend both upon how quickly the current COVID-19 frenzy fades away, leaving a fear vacuum, and whether efforts to eradicate those hornets that have made it to North America succeed. If the hornets gain a foothold on the continent and begin to spread, you can bet your last buck there will be a slow but steady series of news stories tracking it. The first American to die from hornet stings will make the front pages of every newspaper in the country. There will be runs on hornet-killing bug sprays, and store shelves will be emptied8. This could turn out to be the "Summer of the Hornet" instead of the "Summer of the Shark"9.

Notes:

  1. Nicholas K. Geranios, "'Murder Hornets,' With Sting That Can Kill, Land In US", Associated Press, 5/4/2020.
  2. Mindy Weisberger, "Monstrous 'murder hornets' have reached the US", Live Science, 5/5/2020.
  3. Brian Handwerk, "'Hornets From Hell' Offer Real-Life Fright", National Geographic News, 10/25/2002.
  4. "Africanized Bees", Smithsonian Institution, accessed: 5/10/2020.
  5. For a comparatively recent example, see: Danielle Elliot, "What makes 'killer' bees so deadly?", CBS News, 7/29/2013.
  6. "Potentially fatal 'murder hornet' spreads across the globe", Sky News, 5/5/2020.
  7. Seth Borenstein, "Bug experts dismiss worry about US 'murder hornets' as hype", Associated Press, 5/7/2020.
  8. So stock up now!
  9. If you're too young to remember the "Summer of the Shark", see: Jeordan Legon, "Survey: 'Shark summer' bred fear, not facts", CNN, 3/14/2003. The "Summer of the Shark" reporting did not follow the above template exactly, but exemplified most of it.

Update (5/15/2020): Here's more headline evidence that the news media are searching for a new monster to frighten us with:

Georgia warns of 4-foot-long lizards that 'eat just about anything they want'1

Giant, 4-foot-long lizards posing a major threat to Georgia wildlife2

Large invasive lizard that can grow up to 4 feet long gaining foothold in Georgia, officials warn3

Let's check it against the template: Invasive? Check; just like the monster hornets, this lizard is a non-native species that originally came from South America4. Scary? Check; they're "giant", "large", and eat whatever they want. Spreading? Check; they're getting a foothold in Georgia, though two out of the three news stories don't mention that they're coming up from Florida, where they've been for nearly two decades.

That's just the start of the template, though. Like the hornets, the lizards are not primarily a threat to people but to native non-human animals. As far as I've been able to ascertain, unlike the hornets, they don't kill people, so it's likely that this scare won't be sustainable.

Just wait'll the news media find out that there are already up to a quarter of a million lizard-like reptiles in Georgia that can grow up to sixteen-feet long and weigh over 800 pounds. They also "will eat almost anything they can catch5", including pets and small children6. They're called "alligators".


Notes:

  1. Leanda Gore, "Georgia warns of 4-foot-long lizards that 'eat just about anything they want'", AL, 5/15/2020.
  2. Christina Maxouris, "Giant, 4-foot-long lizards posing a major threat to Georgia wildlife", CNN, 5/14/2020.
  3. Caitlin O'Kane, "Large invasive lizard that can grow up to 4 feet long gaining foothold in Georgia, officials warn", CBS News, 5/143/2020.
  4. Laurie Vitt, "Tegu", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 5/15/2020.
  5. "Alligator Fact Sheet", The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, revised: 9/16.
  6. Eliott C. McLaughlin, Joshua Berlinger, Ashley Fantz & Steve Almasy, "Disney gator attack: 2-year-old boy found dead", CNN, 6/16/2016.

Puzzle
May 2nd, 2020 (Permalink)

Hard Pills to Swallow

Paul Patient has a severe case of puzzler's syndrome. He has been prescribed two pills to treat it, and is to take one of each type of pill once a day at the same time. Both pills are tablets, but one type is red and the other green. Unfortunately, Paul is color-blind and not able to tell the pills apart by sight. However, the two types of pill come in two different bottles.

Paul habitually takes his medications before going to bed at night. One night, he opened the bottle of red pills, tipping one pill out onto the palm of his hand, and then opened the bottle of green pills. Momentarily distracted, he accidentally let two green pills fall from the bottle into his palm.

Now, Paul was faced with a puzzle. There were three pills in his hand: one red and two green. However, he could not tell one pill from another; all three pills looked the same to him. He was only supposed to take one pill of each color, and it might harm him to take two green ones.

Paul looked at the bottles and saw that the bottle of green pills was now empty, and there was only one remaining red pill. However, this would not solve the puzzle. He could show the three pills to some person without color-blindness who could tell him which pill was red and which ones green, but it was late at night. Paul didn't want to have to bother someone so late.

Being a patient with puzzler's syndrome, and now being past the time he usually took his medication, Paul was obsessed with the puzzle of the three pills. Is there some way I can take the proper dosage now without needing to ask for anyone's help later in identifying pills, he wondered.

Thankfully, Paul was able to solve the puzzle and take his medication without needing any help. How did he do it?


Recommended Reading
May 1st, 2020 (Permalink)

Mayday! Mayday!

As is usual with these recommendations, I don't necessarily endorse everything expressed in them, but I do think they are all worthwhile. Also, as is usual with these sources on the coronavirus epidemic, I am not including any exercises in fear-mongering. If you're a fan of horror stories and love to have the stuffing scared out of you, just access any mainstream media source. This round-up is intended as a counterweight to the on-going news media hysteria.

*Specifically, nine children below the age of fifteen have died in the United States; see: "Provisional Death Counts for Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19)", Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed: 4/30/2020.

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