Saturday, February 24, 2018

Saturday Cats

Putting cat pics up on blogs on either Friday or Saturday is a hallowed Internet tradition.  As old as blogs are, and don't we all know that they are ancient.

In any case, here are two cats.  In one picture.  Together.  Happy looking.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Fake News Can Kill

One mother of young children sent me a Facebook-disseminated story about vaccines from a site called Neon Nettle.  Neon Nettle is a mostly fake news site about health research and health issues.

This particular story (not linking to it but to the corrections) argued that the process of creating the flu vaccine was what caused the mutation of the flu virus, supposedly into a more deadly form.  The site posts a lot of anti-vaccination fake news, and this particular mother had used the site's misinformation as the basis for her decision not to get anyone in her family vaccinated.

Fake news are not only a problem in political propaganda, but much more widely, and the online era has expanded the reach of such news to a far larger audience.  In the past health news, for instance, were reported by the established press, and the largest newspapers (often the intermediate sources for smaller newspapers) employed properly trained health care reporters.

This is no longer the case.  Anyone with net access can make up news or interpret them.  The evaluation of the truth value of such news is left to the audience.  Clearly, many cannot evaluate information in those terms, and in some cases shouldn't even be asked to do so.*

Add to this the clickbait value of certain types of research findings, and we get an environment where sloppy reporting and fake news are rewarded**.  It's that reward structure we need to change. 


* Because sometimes the problem is in the studies themselves, in bad methodology, poorly interpreted results and so on.  Reporters covering health research on a full-time basis often know enough basic statistics and have learned which journals are not real peer-reviewed ones.  This allows them to avoid publicizing most bad research.

But one study looks like another study in truth value to a lay reader, and the cleverer fake news sites use that and a pseudo-scientific writing style to make their lies look credible.

In other words, education can help in making the audience more informed about fake news, but it cannot be a complete substitute for higher quality reporting.

** For an example which is not about fake reporting but about the lack of incentives for publishing any corrections to that initial reporting, see this post.

Note, also, that the way some social media sites try to respond to our past reading and browsing behavior can make this problem more severe, if they first give you suggestions which are similar to your past choices.   That "tailoring to individual preferences" reinforces the walls of already existing separate information bubbles.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Annie Scrap Your Gun

The recent school killing in Florida resulted in the deaths of seventeen individuals*.  It also produced the usual pro-gun chatter which follows every school killing in this country:

Prayers and thoughts, let's not politicize a tragedy, let's not penalize law-abiding (always that word!) citizens with guns for something they did not do.  Guns don't kill people, people kill people.  And so on.  And on.  And on.

But this time something is different in the air.  The teens (the major targets in school killings) are not accepting all that usual crap.  They are fighting back and they are organizing:

And the owner of the gun shop where the butcher bought his AR-15 assault weapon has closed its doors "indefinitely."

I hope that something truly changes, but I'm not holding my breath.

The reason for my skepticism comes from the Pew survey from last June, about Americans' views on gun control and gun rights:

A majority of gun owners (66%) own multiple firearms, and about three-quarters (73%) say they could never see themselves not owning a gun.
Many American gun owners exist in a social context where gun ownership is the norm. Roughly half of all gun owners (49%) say that all or most of their friends own guns. In stark contrast, among those who don’t own a gun, only one-in-ten say that all or most of their friends own guns.

In short, the love of guns is cultural.  It's very difficult to change cultural norms, and attempts to change them are viewed by those inside the culture as contempt, outsider meddling and as infringement of their basic freedoms.

More importantly, I've come to see that the ultimate justification for gun ownership for many is emotional, not fact-based.  One example of how gun manufacturers have used this can be seen in the following (older) advertisement:

The emotional basis of some gun ownership can be also seen from the Pew survey:

While the right to own guns is highly valued by most gun owners, not all gun owners see gun ownership the same way. Half of all gun owners say owning a gun is important to their overall identity – with 25% saying this is very important and another 25% calling it somewhat important. Three-in-ten gun owners say owning a gun is not too important to their identity and 20% say it’s not at all important.

Gun owners in that survey tell that the most important reason for owning a gun is personal protection (for the owners and their families).

But some other answers suggest that the gun is viewed almost as a talisman,  something that will act on its own against all the imagined threats, even if the owner cannot shoot very well, even if the owner hasn't practiced much and even if the owner has never thought through what might happen when several people take out their guns in, say, a school killing.  How can the police know who the killer is then?

Among the Pew survey answers which cast doubt on the personal protection argument is this one:

When asked about their own habits, roughly half of gun owners with children under 18 living at home say all of the guns in their home are kept in a locked place (54%) and all are unloaded (53%).
Still, many gun owners with children say at least some of their guns are kept unlocked and loaded. In fact, 30% of these gun owners say there is a gun that is both loaded and easily accessible to them all of the time when they’re at home.
Is it easily accessible to the children of those gun owners, too?  Because if it is, the personal protection argument rings hollow.

If emotions, fear and identity concerns indeed are what truly lies behind the desire to own guns, gun control arguments based on evidence and facts will not make anyone change their minds.

This is because the very idea of relinquishing one's guns can immediately bring up images of the gun owner as a weak and hapless victim, someone bound to end up dead at the hands of some other person with a gun.  And those other people can always get guns illegally.

Against that onslaught of fear even the butchering of countless young children begins to look acceptable.

Or it has looked acceptable in the past.  Things just might be different now.


For those of you who prefer facts, the New York Times has published a good statistical summary which compares the United States with other countries.


*  Only days after the massacre, Florida state House voted down a motion to ban many types of assault weapons and large capacity magazines.  Sigh.