Monday, July 27, 2015

Quote, interrupted

As I tell my classes, Eduction is when one takes a quote out of its original context to change the meaning. This occurs in many different contexts, but one of the most well-known and obvious is when quotations are pulled from a review and then used in marketing. This happens in all domains, but is most obvious in the case of films and DVD's. I came across an excellent example of this while perusing one of my favorite pop culture websites (got to keep up with the kids and stay relevant!) the AV Club. One of their writers, A.A. Dowd, recently penned an open letter to media company Mongrel Media, calling them out for misquoting one of his reviews for a blurb on the back of the DVD release of the film Nailed (Accidental Love in the US).  First, here is the blurb on the back of the DVD:

A comedic masterstroke.

This is fairly high praise, and if one is familiar with this reviewer, this recommendation would be a good reason to pick up the film. However, if we look back at Dowd's original C- review, we find that this "praise" is not as high as it might initially appear:
To be fair to whoever refashioned Accidental Love from the abandoned scraps of Nailed, there’s little reason to believe that the ideal, untroubled version of the material would have been a comedic masterstroke. [Emphasis added]
As we can see,  Mongrel Media just lopped off the beginning of the sentence to completely change the original meaning of the quotation. This is a textbook example of eduction, and it occurs much more frequently than you might think.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Don't Believe Anonymous Governmental Sources

In discussing the media with my classes I find it very helpful to use Chomsky and Hermann's Propaganda Model of the Media. This framework, first articulated in 1988 in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, consists of five filters that Chomsky and Hermann argue shape the way the media functions on the West. The third of these filters is Sourcing which involves the media relying on a limited range of sources for their reporting. Furthermore, these sources tend to be governmental officials or PR reps for large corporations meaning that most stories in the Mainstream Media are spun in favor of these governmental and corporate interests.

The reasons for the existence of this filter are complex, and beyond the scope of this blog post, but I did want to focus on a recent example of this filter in action. This comes from The Sunday Times (a Rupert Murdoch owned paper, see the first filter) published on June 14, 2015. The article in question "British Spies Betrayed to Russians and Chinese" (paywalled here, full text here) claims that Russian and Chinese have obtained the documents stolen by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, cracked the encryption, with the resulting information threatening British spies, and thereby damaging national security. The key problem with this article, and the reason I am writing about it is that the entire report appears to be based solely on claims made by senior government official who remain anonymous.

As Glenn Greenwald notes, most of the claims made by these anonymous officials are demonstrably false, and the fact that the Sunday Times printed them without bothering to engage in any fact-checking shows how debased and corrupt the mainstream media is. As Greenwald puts it:
The whole article does literally nothing other than quote anonymous British officials. It gives voice to banal but inflammatory accusations that are made about every whistleblower from Daniel Ellsberg to Chelsea Manning. It offers zero evidence or confirmation for any of its claims. The “journalists” who wrote it neither questioned any of the official assertions nor even quoted anyone who denies them. It’s pure stenography of the worst kind: some government officials whispered these inflammatory claims in our ears and told us to print them, but not reveal who they are, and we’re obeying. Breaking!
 As Greenwald goes on to note, the real issue here is that in granting these individuals anonymity, there is no way for anyone to analyze or verify these claims. For all we know (and as seems likely) these individuals were just making stuff up in order to smear Edward Snowden. Because they are hiding behind anonymity, there is no way to evaluate their claims, or hold them accountable if they are in fact lying. Greenwald again:
The official accusers are being hidden by the journalists so nobody can confront them or hold them accountable when it turns out to be false. The evidence can’t be analyzed or dissected because there literally is none: they just make the accusation and, because they’re state officials, their media servants will publish it with no evidence needed. And as is always true, there is no way to prove the negative. It’s like being smeared by a ghost with a substance that you can’t touch.
As Greenwald goes on to note, the problem is compounded when other media outlets pick up and repeat the story, amplifying the lies and misinformation promulgated by the Sunday Times and these anonymous governmental officials. The take away from all of this is provided once again by Greenwald:
Ponder how dumb someone has to be at this point to read an anonymous government accusation, made with zero evidence, and accept it as true.
In closing, I leave you with Stephen Colbert's analysis of this phenomena from his masterful performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner (jump to 10:45):

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Is that image real?

Here is a nice discussion from the Daily Dot talking about some of the quick things one can do to see if an image is fake. This is by no means a perfect discussion of this issue, but it does include some good advice for figuring out whether or not an image is fake. You can read the details at the link, but the advice basically boils down to three tips:

  1. Do a Google image search. This is particularly useful because it allows you to see how far back a particular image goes. If someone claims that an image is from the Nepal earthquake a few weeks back, but the image appeared in the internet before that, you are probably dealing with a hoax. 
  2. Use Topsy, which is a search tool for Twitter. It apparently does a better job of searching Twitter than Twitter's native search function. This is also useful for tracking down the origin of an image.
  3. This is the ultimate resource for checking on the veracity of just about anything. If Snopes tells you it is fake, you can be quite confident that it is. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Yes, I am blogging about it too.

By now I am sure everyone has seen the image of this dress, and has assuredly engaged in a contentious debate with someone about its true color. Is the dress black and blue or white and gold? As I perceive it, the dress is white and gold, but this must surely be an optical illusion as the original version of the dress can be found on Amazon, and it is clearly blue and black.

So, what is the deal here? The exact explanation isn't entirely clear, but it is definitely a result of the way our brains process visual stimuli. The most important thing to recognize about human perception is that we don't passively receive stimuli from the external world. Our eyes aren't camera lenses, and our brain is not a photographic plate (or an SD card to bring our metaphors into the 21st Century). Instead, our brains play an active role in constructing the world that we experience. For a detailed description of what is going on here, I recommend this post from the Yale neuroscientist Dr. Steven Novella.

The basic explanation is that this image is overexposed. This creates an ambiguous color stimuli that our brains seek to resolve in such a way that it can perceive a cohesive, recognizable image. For many of us, this means that our brain resolves the image not as an ambiguous color splotch but as either a white and gold or a blue and black striped dress. According to Dr. Novella, about 70% of people see this as white and gold which is interesting because it means that many of us autocorrect this image 'incorrectly.' The important thing to stress is that even though most of us perceive this image incorrectly, this error is merely an artifact of how our brains process information. That is, our brains are working exactly as they should, but they are still given inaccurate information about the world. This is because our brains did not evolve to represent the world perfectly accurately, but instead evolved to help us survive. This means that we often overcorrect or misperceive what is actually happening. Again, this is not because our brains are defective, but because this is how our brains function normally.

Here is an article from Wired that discusses this illusion as well.

Finally, see this video from Captain Disillusion:

Monday, February 16, 2015

Lies or False Memories?

If you have been paying attention to the news lately, you can't help hearing about disgraced former (for now, depending on the ratings of his replacement he might return) NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams.  Williams got into trouble for claims he made about an incident that occurred in 2003 during the US invasion of Iraq. In particular, Williams claimed that he was in a helicopter that was hit by an RPG and forced into an emergency landing. Williams then claimed that he and the crew had to defend themselves against enemy fire untill the calvary in the form of the US military came and rescued them. Here is what Williams told David Letterman on The Late Show in 2013:
We were in some helicopters. What we didn’t know was, we were north of the invasion. We were the northernmost Americans in Iraq. We were going to drop some bridge portions across the Euphrates so the Third Infantry could cross on them. Two of the four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47. [Emphasis Added]
Interestingly enough, this was not the version that Williams first told back in 2003. According to transcripts from NBC, in 2003 Williams characterized his experience as follows:
We quickly make our drop and then turn southwest. Suddenly, without knowing why, we learned we’ve been ordered to land in the desert. On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky. That hole was made by a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, fired from the ground. It punched cleanly through the skin of the ship, but amazingly it didn’t detonate. Though the chopper pilots are too shaken to let us interview them, we learned they were shot at by some of those waving civilians, one of whom emerged from under a tarp on a pick-up truck like this one and shot the grenade. We meet a unit from the 3rd Infantry called in, as it turns out, to protect us from the enemy which they say doesn’t look like the enemy. [Emphasis Added]
So, in 2003 it was one of the lead choppers ahead of Williams that was shot down, but a decade letter Williams was claiming that he was on the copter that was shot down. What's the deal? According to many in the media, the answer is obvious, Williams is a liar.

While this might seem like a reasonable conclusion, a little critical thinking reveals some serious problems with this interpretation. The most obvious being, why would someone lie about something that could so easily be corroborated? This is not some random nobody claiming war experience that he didn't have, this is a major public figure who has regularly appeared on national television for over two decades. Furthermore, why would he have told the story on national television one way in 2003 and then in a completely different way ten years later? If it really was a lie it appears to have been a pretty dumb one.

In my opinion, I don't think Williams lied. Instead, I think he misremembered. This may sound like an excuse, but if we look at the science of memory, we quickly realize that the misremembering hypothesis is far more reasonable than the lying hypothesis. The Yale neuroscientist Dr. Steven Novella reaches this same conclusion in a recent blog post. He argues that given what we know about how fallible human memory is, the far more likely conclusion is that Williams was misremembering. As Dr. Novella puts it:
While I do not know what Williams remembered, it is wrong and naive to assume he is lying. Williams was likely betrayed by his memory. It is reasonable to argue that, as a journalist, he should have rechecked earlier documentation of the event rather than relying upon his memory. That is a lesson hard won.
Williams probably assumed that his memory was accurate. He may have been falsely reassured by the clarity of his memory, which is not a good predictor of veracity. He thought he was “going crazy,” but he is just suffering from a typical fallible human memory.
Similarly, on a recent episode of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, Dr. Novella went into the subject in a bit more detail.
We tend to fuse memories; we confuse details; we also tend to personalize memories, meaning we’ll take a memory of something that happened to someone else and over time we will remember it as happening to us.
Given all of this, it seems much more reasonable to conclude that Williams misremembered rather than lied.