Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘journalism

Suggestions for a new press ethics / the indirect effects of fake news

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It is no secret that I am deeply troubled by the incompetence, irrationality, and partiality of journalists*. For some years, the short-comings of journalism have seen a partial cure through independent, Internet-based, sources of news and opinions. True, the average blogger is worse than the average journalist, but there are very many bloggers who make journalists look clueless.** True, many of the independent news sites are even more partial than traditional news papers, but they are partial in different directions and help to give readers a different perspective and to overcome the censorship*** and partisan angling that is common in journalism.

*For the sake of simplicity, I will mostly speak of “journalist”, “news paper”, and similar. This should not be taken to exclude e.g. TV news, TV reporters, and the like. The problem is a general one with traditional news media.

**And, frankly, when I hear journalists speak derisively about bloggers, or complain about bloggers not treating “real journalists” with sufficient respect, I marvel at their conceit and lack of self-insight.

***Usually driven by a fear that the readers will come to the “wrong” conclusion (i.e. another conclusion than journalist has) if exposed to the uninterpreted and unfiltered facts.

The new phenomenon of “fake news” threatens to end this cure: Firstly, the presence of “fake news” makes alternative sources of news less likely to be trusted to begin with. Secondly, traditional media and their allies are campaigning massively for more censorship against “fake news”. If that happens, even those alternative sources that engage in honest reporting could end up suffering severely, (E.g. because platforms like Facebook could choose to censor on the mere suspicion or because of uninformed or malicious complaints directed at actual news. This problem is worsened by the simultaneous increase in complaints against “hate-speech”—which, sadly and real occurrences of hate-speech notwithstanding, quite often amounts to nothing more than disagreeing with the politically correct “truth”) Considering how these things tend to run, it would also not be unsurprising if the bars were pushed higher and higher over time, giving traditional news sources their monopoly back. The meaning of “fake news” could very soon turn from actual fakes (“Trump is an alien”) to that which violates the world-view of the journalists or the politically correct (in Sweden, possibly, a study indicating differences between men and women that are in-born and not caused by societal brain-washing).

Depending on developments, “fake news” per se could prove to be a smaller problem than these side-effects…

Given this situation I have to call for another cure through a new type of press ethics based on strict adherence to principles like:

  1. To always report the facts in a manner that allows the readers to form their own opinions—even if they happen to deviate from the journalist’s. This includes not selectively filtering facts that that are unpleasant or incongruent with the journalist’s world view, and not presuming to be an arbiter of what is relevant and what not. (Except to the degree that space constraints prevent a listing of all details that e.g. Sherlock Holmes might have liked to hear.)
  2. Never to assume that journalists are more clever, better informed, better at critical thinking, …, than their readers. Quite often, the assumption is faulty even for the average reader—and it will virtually never be true for a significant part of the readership.
  3. Never to mix news and opinion. Opinion belongs in opinion pieces. If a journalist wants to express a certain opinion, he should keep the news clean and write a separate opinion piece, clearly marked as such. More often than not opinion pieces will be irrelevant; when they are relevant contrasting opinions should be allowed a say.

    As a notable special case, issues of ethics, “right and wrong”, …, are always (?) a matter of opinion, and, if ever, such opinions should only be applied when they are supported by a virtual consensus of the population. In many cases, a better solution is to contrast something against a specific set of rules. (E.g. by preferring “X’s article violates several rules of press ethics suggested by Michael Eriksson” rather than “X’s article is unethical”.)

  4. Ditto news and analysis, with the addendum that analysis is usually better left to an independent expert on the matter at hand than to a journalist (and that analysis might be relevant far more often than opinion). A good analysis, of course, will give all sides of the issue a fair hearing and will not be limited to using one particular approach. (Unless using the approach is uncontroversial: Solving a mathematical equation usually leads to the same result irrespective of which (sound) approach is used; however, a fiscal measure can lead to very different expected results when analyzed with different models.)

    I point especially to the many, many instances of journalists encountering a scientific study and jumping to a conclusion that is premature, only one of several possible, or simply nonsensical. Even something so trivial is often not understood as that “the study failed to show X” does not automatically imply “the study showed not-X”.

  5. To understand that the “common wisdom” among journalists, politicians, and the average citizen is often very far from what science actually says and to give preference to scientific opinion over personal opinion when reporting.
  6. To, as a counter-point, understand that not everyone who claims to be an expert actually is, that scientists often differ in opinion, and that the softer sciences are often fraught with ideological concerns.

    Experts tied to political or ideological movements are particularly likely (deliberately or through a biased world-view) to make flawed claims. To boot, the risk of encountering “experts” who simple lack the intelligence, tools, and/or depth and breadth of knowledge is considerably higher when talking with a member of a movement than with, say, a university professor.

  7. To always respect and convey any uncertainty present, especially in a legal context. For instance, someone suspected or accused of murder should always be referred to as “murder suspect” (and so on). In fact, considering how many miscarriages of justice take place, it is better to speak in terms of “convict”, “convicted”, and similar, even after a suspect has been found guilty—and to speak in terms “found guilty” rather than “guilty”. (In the U.S. system of bartering confessions for less punishment, not even a confession can be seen as conclusive proof of guilt.)
  8. To always give both parties in a controversy an equal say (or at least the opportunity for it) and to never side with either one in a news item. (That a journalist will side with one or the other in private is often unavoidable.) Siding within an opinion piece or analysis might or might not be justifiable depending on the circumstances, but it is clear that the siding should be based in reason and not emotions or prejudices about the parties involved.
  9. To never distort or exaggerate someones opinions or statements, including making assumptions about intent, motivation, inner state, unstated opinions, etc. A particular problematic case (that I have often complained about) is distortions like someone protesting against (militant) Islamism but being categorized as anti-Islam or even anti-Muslim. Another is the common assumption or claim that someone is racist or sexist based even on a factual, scientifically uncontroversial claim that does not fit the own world-view.

I stress that this list is by no means complete. There are likely many items of a similar type that can be added, with an even greater number coming from other areas, at least some of which are present in many current attempts at similar lists*. I could probably write several blog entries alone on journalists’ use of language… Admittedly, these several blog entries would be on the wrong abstraction level for a discussion of press ethics, but the point is that there other problem areas.

*While much of the above goes contrary to what many journalists appear to consider their role and would imply a major change of course.

I further stress that this list is intended for journalists and their like. Some of it can be taken to apply to e.g. bloggers or commenters too, especially where issues like representation of others’ opinions and other matters of “intellectual honesty” are concerned; however, much of it is simply irrelevant, redundant, or impractical when we move away from traditional journalism. (Starting with something as simple readers’ expectations: Blog–personal opinion. News paper–facts.)

As an aside: It is almost funny that the “fake news” debate has started in the wake of increased criticism of the press (at least in Germany). Even the phrase it self is close to the “Lügenpresse” (“lie press”, “liar press”) used by some German groups to belittle the press. While “Lügenpresse” has caused an outrage among journalists, I can only see it as unfair on two counts: Being too much of a blanket claim, seeing that some areas are worse than others, and ascribing a deliberate intent to the reality distortion that is often going on. More often than not, I suspect, it is just incompetence, in particular lack of critical thinking, that causes the distortion.

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Written by michaeleriksson

February 25, 2017 at 12:07 am

Follow-up: Reading GQ

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In the mean time, I have “read” through the rest of GQ, finding there to be so little content that I spent about the same time turning unread pages as I did reading. The already discussed problems, with extreme amounts of advertising, an embarrassing picture-to-text ratio, poor writing, …, consisted through-out. I also got through roughly half of Wired, before giving up: Shallow, uninsightful, and very obviously written for those with only a fleeting knowledge of IT and related areas—very, very different from its image*. Better than the GQ, no doubt, but nothing that an IT professional, a hacker, a computer enthusiast, or similar should waste his time on. (Especially in Germany, where C’t, the likely best general computer magazine in the world, is available at every news stand.)

*It is possible, however, that this give-away was not representative for the normal edition, conceivably having been tailored towards GQ readers. (I am uncertain whether I have ever read Wired on another occasion.)

Not only do I see my opinion that GQ* is useless cemented, but I am forced to conclude that its main purpose is to sell products for third parties—even when we look at the officially non-advertising parts of the magazine. Now, that a magazine has some degree of “crypto-advertising” or is too kind to products for fear of losing official advertising is quite common. Here, however, the scope is so extensive as to erase the line between content and advertising.

*With some reservations for international variation. This was the German edition and an at least theoretical probability remains that other editions are better.

An interesting twist is that this alleged men’s magazine has a readership consisting of roughly 21 % women. Had this been a magazine with no ostensible targeting of a male audience, say one dealing with fashion or “lifestyle” in general, this would be unremarkable—if anything the female proportion would have been smaller than expected. For a men’s magazine? Not a good sign…

Knowing what I now know, I would be less embarrassed going up to the same cashier with a porn magazine* than with another GQ. She might or might not disapprove, but at least she will not think me an easily manipulated semi-illiterate with no grasp of good writing.

*Not that I would when the Internet is loaded with free-of-charge porn.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 23, 2016 at 6:17 pm

Reading GQ

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A few days ago, I picked up my first (and very likely last) copy of GQ in the German edition. I was motivated mostly by the combination of a GQ (of which I have long been mildly curious), a watch special (watches being a sometime interest of mine) and a “Wired” special, for the joint price of EUR 6.50.

Frankly, this is the most ridiculous piece of crap I have ever encountered. It is actually considerably worse than what I have always imagined* “Cosmo” to be. Even the infamous German “Bild-Zeitung” has more to offer. “Gentlemen’s Quarterly”? A more apt name would be “Valley Boys’ Quarterly”.

*Never read it, but it has very poor reputation outside of the bimbo community and somehow it has come to symbolize superficiality and lack of intellectual aspirations to me—the type of thing Carrie Bradshaw reads. Still, I honestly doubt that it can be as bad as GQ.

For starters, the amount of advertising is beyond what I had ever imagined. There is actually considerably more advertising than actual content (based on the 130 first pages out of 250). The first non-advertising item is found on page 21 (yes, twenty-one!). However, even this is just the table of contents. Moving on, the first real content is found on page 29…

As for the content it self, it is mostly superficial, poorly thought-through crap, littered with grammatical errors and stylistic disasters. Notably, it appears that the authors are unable to use conjunctions (“and”/“und”, “but”/“aber”, and the like) without terminating the preceding sentence—even when this leads to fragmentation, lack of coherence, and other problems that reduce readability far more than do long sentences. The proportions of images to text are certainly not on an adult level—and most images bring little or no value to the respective article. Many twelve year old children would be intellectually understimulated…

The specific articles featured are possibly not representative of GQ, seeing that this particular issue has the theme of “women”. However, the lack of quality is unlikely to be an exception and there are a number of truly awful examples of lack of knowledge and/or ability to think critically, even by the already low standards of journalists. For instance, four pages are spent on repeating the long-debunked feminist lie of women not receiving equal pay for equal work (see several other posts of mine)—those who think critically and look at the actual facts at hand know that any difference in pay arises from UNequal work, including differences in full-time and part-time work, years of experience, education level, relative prioritization of work and family, etc.

Another good example is a brief piece on vasectomies vs. tubal litigations: For some reason, the authors consider it “sexist” that more* tubal litigations are made than vasectomies. Looking at the cited factors like costs, the proportions could conceivably be irrational, but to call them “sexist” is to apply the type of mindless assumption of evil that drive the modern feminist movement. Too boot, the discussion consists of cherry-picking and overlooks two extremely strong arguments for why it is more rational to go with a tubal litigation: Firstly, a vasectomy performed at a typical age affects a far greater part of a man’s fertile period than does a tubal litigation of a woman’s. Secondly, about half of all marriages end in a divorce. If a man with a vasectomy remarries, going by typical preferences, he will be the one having to explain to the new wife that children are off the table, while a woman with a tubal litigation will have it far easier with her husband. The effects of the choice will be more with the chooser and less with an “innocent” third-party when a tubal litigation is chosen.

*Allegedly: I have not checked the numbers in independent sources, but would be entirely unsurprised if they were incorrect.

The woman-centric part stretches to roughly page 92*. The following 38 pages consists mostly of advertising (duh), including a 10-page block dealing exclusively with “Olymp” shirts. The rest includes a piece on Helgoland that is poor enough to have featured in an airplane magazine, and weird arrangements of images with minimal alibi texts.

*Within the parts that I have read/skimmed-in-despair. There is more to come, according to the table of contents.

For those who wonder: The watch special was OK, but not on par with the specialist magazines. I have not yet started on “Wired”.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 18, 2016 at 1:16 am

Swedish teletext and incompetence

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In this era of Internet news, one of my main news sources is svt-text—the teletext (!) pages of the Swedish national television, which I visit about once a day (albeit in the Internet version). The brevity of each individual page (being limited by what fits within teletext) makes the “articles” highly compact and it is easy to get a quick overview. If something seems interesting, there is always the possibility to find more detailed information elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the people behind this service are not intellectual giants, and I often find myself sighing over the unnecessary quality loss and inconveniences.

To take a few examples (some Internet-specific; some problematic for TV users to):

  1. The article titles are often so lacking in information that is hard to judge which articles are worth reading without actually reading them. In at least some cases, in particular with sports, even the rough topic cannot be predicted from the title…

    For instance, I just called up the sports page and found the title “Rekordstort intresse för mästarna” (roughly “Interest for champions on record high”). What champions? What sport? What level (national? world? …?) What type of interest? Who is interested? Men’s team or women’s? “Ordinary” sports or “para-sports”?

    Looking at the detail page, the actual story is so uninteresting that few would have bothered to open it with a better title and it can seriously be questioned whether it should have even been published in the first place: The Swedish national champions in floorball (!) have managed to sell 100 (!!!) season’s tickets. The page did not say whether this was the men’s or women’s champions. Honestly, this is something that barely qualifies for the local news paper of wherever these champions were based.

    Sigh…

  2. During the conversion to HTML, links are added in such an unintelligent manner that any number occurring in the page stands the risk of being interpreted as referring to another page and being turned into a link. (Remember that teletext pages are identified by three-digit numbers.)

    This has, admittedly, grown considerably better over the years, but it still happens, possibly as much as 15 years after my first visit…

    This is the weirder as implies that the whole setup is amateurish, most likely in the form that a plain-text page is composed to be published “on the TV” without any alterations, while the Internet version is just generated from this plain-text without any semantic information. A professional would, as a matter of course, have kept the “master version” separate form the “TV version” and used a markup language (even be it a rudimentary one) to keep semantic information. The TV and Internet version would then both be generated from this master. This would include marking page references so that they cannot be confused with numbers during generation.

    Sigh…

  3. While the language level is poor overall, there are two specific ever recurring and highly annoying problems:

    Firstly, differences between A and B are almost invariably formulated as “A is better than B at [something or other]”, even when the “better” is highly subjective and even when it is not really supported by the text (e.g. because absolute numbers are compared when relative numbers would be appropriate). This in particular where differences between men and women are concerned*. I would only be marginally surprised if the headline “women are better than men at using drugs” would be used for an article reporting that women use more cocaine than men…

    *Generally, they have a problem with a feminist or PC world-view, but with a Swedish news source that almost goes without saying…

    Secondly, there is a virtual obsession with “hylla” (hard to translate, but “praise” when used as in the phrase “praise the Lord” is a decent match; “eulogize” can come close to, in some uses). If someone makes any form of positive statement about someone else, he allegedly “hyllade” him. If someone wins an international gold medal, one or two pages are dedicated to “tittarnas hyllningar” (or similar; roughly, “the viewers praise”)*. Etc.

    *Why they waste space by including the praise of the viewers in the first place is beyond me. It has no news value and the page could have been saved for something more valuable.

    The word, normally reserved for special occasions, is thrown around in a blanket manner and with very little value attached to it. Often it amounts to confusing “Would you have dinner with me?” and “Would you marry me?”…

    Sigh…

  4. Naturally, as news items arrive or are removed, page numbers will change. To handle this should not be that hard: Alter the page numbers and references of all involved pages and then publish them together. But no: Individual pages are altered separately and published immediately, leading to such effects as someone opening a page on X and finding an article dealing with Y or both page 110 and 111 having the exact same contents.*

    *Both can happen even when publishing all changes together, be it through unfortunate timing or because someone has opened an index page and then waited a minute or two before opening article pages. However, it will be a rare occurrence. The frequency at svt-text is far, far too high to be explained by such instances.

    Sigh…

  5. Generally, there are many problems around page numbers and page handling. For instance, it is quite common that the contents that once were on page X stays on page X for days—even after the page contents have officially changed. (Following the new contents as a virtual page within the page.) Or take the leader-board for the recent British Open/The Open golf-tournament: With a fellow Swede winning, I tried to follow the results through svt-text, but found that every single time that I refreshed the page, the leader-board had moved to another page. After some five or six times I gave up (ESPN had something that worked much better). Is it not obvious that such contents should be treated differently and fixed on the same page? This especially since they do have a dedicated number interval for “live” sports results that is used for that exact purpose, e.g. to track the score of soccer games.

    Sigh…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 2, 2016 at 10:34 pm

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Examples of simplistic reasoning (and Sjöström rocks)

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Over the last week, a complete fiasco for my fellow Swedes at the ice-hockey world-championships was ameliorated by the continued swimming success of Sarah Sjöström—arguably, the greatest swimmer Sweden has ever produced.

One article even speculates that she could be the first woman to break 55 seconds in the 100m butterfly, first accomplished among the men by Mark Spitz in 1972. “If that summer back in 1972 you’d have suggested a woman could match him, Spitz might have been forgiven for laughing. After all, the ladies had just celebrated their first moment inside 1min 04.”

So far, so good. However, this reminded me of two border-line ridiculous lines of reasoning that I have encountered in the past, and that provide good illustrations of why simplistic reasoning and lack of critical thinking is a danger. See e.g. a previous post on science and reason, my website category on thinking, or any number of my posts on feminism or the politically correct. The world would look rather different from what it does, were the ability and willingness to actually think common.

Firstly, extrapolation that women are/were over-taking men in long-distance running*: In, I believe, the early 1990s**, I read a news-paper article that noted how the world records of women were improving much faster than those of men and how women were bound to move ahead within some years or decades. I looked at the accompanying graphic—and saw, immediately, from the graphic it self, with no additional thinking or background information needed, that women allegedly were over-taking men at an earlier time, sometimes noticeably so, the later they had taken up a particular distance. A journalist or scientist*** comes to and publishes a conclusion that is so obviously flawed that a teenager immediately saw that it was flawed!

*Note very carefully: The notion that women could over-take men is not the problem. There can even be a few good arguments raised, e.g. regarding fat reserves or average weight, which would make this plausible a priori. The problem is the simplistic (not to say “simpleton-istic”…) reasoning used. Being right for the wrong reason is often as bad as being wrong.

**At any rate, with several repetitions over the years, until it became obvious that the idea did not pan out.

***It is always hard to tell whether a case of “bad science” reported in popular journalism is bad because of the scientists or because the journalist distorted the claims. Considering the extreme incompetence of the average journalist, I would tend to give the scientists the benefit of the doubt—but there are also plenty of bad scientists out there, especially in the softer sciences.

The problem here is obvious: The newer a discipline is, the lower the standard tends to be, and the record development correspondingly faster. Consider e.g. “the female Bubka”: I heard this epithet applied to at least three different women (Emma George, Stacy Dragila, Yelena Isinbayeva) in the space of likely less than ten years. George (as the first) is by now a nobody on the all-time lists; Dragila is still very good, but not really remarkable, with several women a year jumping on a comparable level; and Isinbayeva lost her indoor world-record earlier than Bubka lost his—but with him setting his far earlier. To make matters worse, George was by no means the first woman to break the world record at a Bubka-esque frequency—just the first to make headlines in Sweden.

In addition, new events often have a certain “hipness” or can be attractive through being new, the greater ease that athletes have at reaching the top, etc., which can also contribute to the faster record development.

Only after an event has reached a certain degree of maturity are extrapolations like in that idiotic article sensible—or the extrapolation has to be done in a far more sophisticated (and still error prone) manner to compensate for the relative youth of an event

In effect, this was a comparison of apples and oranges. History has proved the prediction utterly wrong—but even if the prediction had turned out to be true, the reasoning behind it would have remained so flawed that the scientists (or journalist) might just as well have been tossing coins.

Secondly, an almost derisive article by Douglas Hofstadter*, who claimed (likely correctly) that the female swimmers of some college or high-school matched the times of their male counter-parts just a few decades earlier.** He now concluded that if women could match men physically after so short a time span—how ridiculous would it then be to even contemplate that there was a mental difference worthy of mention***.

*His book “Gödel, Escher, Bach” impressed me immensely as a teenager and I would long have considered such nonsensically reasoning unlikely from him. However, what I have read by him since has impressed me less—as has “Gödel, Escher, Bach” in each subsequent reading (possibly five by now). Remove the funny stories, the dumbing-down, and the “pedagogical scaffolding”, then what remains could be abbreviated into a fraction of the book’s actual length and remains solidly in the undergraduate, usually freshman, curriculum. While it remains a strong accomplishment, those of Gödel (and, in their own ways, Escher and Bach) utterly dwarf Hofstadter’s, and I have come to see him more and more as a self-promoter, possibly even a pseudo-intellectual, than a true thinker.

**I do not recall the exact years and circumstance, but it might have been the early 1980s vs. the early 1960s. Beware that my analysis below can conceivably be off in detail too, seeing that I read this article more than ten years ago.

***As above, the problem is not the claim it self but the reasoning behind the claim. (However, it is no secret that I argue both for the existence of differences in mentality and distribution of abilities, as well as a clear tendency for men to do better in almost any area when we look at “the best of the best” and, likely, the average individual or the group aggregate due to biological factors. Not, however, automatically any individual man compared to any individual woman, due to large individual variations—a point that the politically correct appear to be utterly unable to comprehend.)

There are a number of problems with this line of reasoning, including:

  1. Comparing results from two groups so limited in size is misleading. In order to make a reasonable comparison, the groups have to be so large that the effect of individual variation does not hide the group characteristics. If in doubt, the best women in virtually any sport will be better than a very clear majority of all men in the general population and than most hobby and amateur players; for some sports they might even be better than most professional men.
  2. Comparing using such a limited measure is misleading. It could simply have been that women were naturally better* at swimming (e.g. through having a better buoyancy), but that this fact was hidden in the past due to lower participation numbers—and that they would still have lost out in other physical areas, e.g. power lifting.

    *While men have many physical advantages and are naturally better at the vast majority, possibly all, common sports of today, it would be naive to assume that they are naturally better at any and all conceivable sports: A prime Michael Jordan would have beaten most grown men in most sports—but would have had his ass handed to him by many children in a limbo contest.

  3. Even if we accept the premise that women were equally good swimmers as men (or better power lifters, for all I care ) once equal opportunity was given (or some other change of a similar character), it does not follow that they would be equal in other regards that have little or no connection to the ability to swim. In contrast, if women were as good chess players* as men, the case would have been far, far less weak (but by no means conclusive: Chess is more relevant, but still only covers a small area of all what would need to be covered).

    *From what I have seen so far, they are not even close: The famed Judith Polgar topped out at number 8 on the world ranking and the current female number one ranks as number 73 (at the time of writing, according to the given link). I have heard the claim that female success would be proportionate to their participation and, therefore, the difference is not biological. This too is an example of flawed and simplistic reasoning, although more subtly so than the above examples, because it assumes that the difference in participation is not based in biology; however, both different preferences (e.g. a greater interest in games that require thinking or a greater competitiveness) and different abilities (we tend to enjoy doing things that we are good at; too poor players might not had the opportunity to play in the long-term) contribute to the degree of participation and both are likely to have a strong biological aspect. By analogy, if we find that the success of NBA players of various heights match the expectation based on their proportion of the overall number of players, we cannot conclude that height is irrelevant to success in basket ball.

  4. The circumstances of athletes and within sports change over time and these changes must be considered before comparing different times. Swimming, in particular, appears to be very strongly influenced by issues like bathing suits and pool construction. Other factors include understanding of training methods and diet, level of competition (if someone wins in weak competition (s)he will lack the incentive to train harder of someone who narrowly looses), state of technique*, and, sadly, what drugs are available.

    *With the four established swimming techniques and their separation into different events, there is less revolutionary change and more improvement in detail, but even such detail can make a tremendous difference in the end. Sjöström, e.g., is known for her exquisite technique. In other sports, however, game altering changes have taken place, including in the high jump, shot put, cross-country skiing, and ski jump.

  5. If the women had caught up not only with the men of “yore”, but also with their contemporaries, this would have been far more impressive and had supported the claim less weakly. They had not… Correspondingly, it is unlikely that the times posted by these women were a sign of a removed difference in opportunity—but rather a result of factors like the above.

    For a further comparison with Sjöström, let us look at the world-record progression according to Wikipedia:

    Sjöström’s current 55.64 is roughly equal to Spitz’ 55.7* from 1967. The women’s world record in 1967 was 1:04.5 or 15.8** % slower. The current men’s world record is at 49.82, making Sjöström 11.7 % slower. Not only is the gap still very large, but it has not diminished by very much, when considering the aforementioned arguments about the age of an event. The 1980 world records actually differed by noticeably less with 9.4 %.***

    *Presumably, timing was in tenths of a second back then. Additional differences might exist, notably with regard to hand timing vs. automatic timing.

    **With the potential flaws in the measurements, 15–16 % might be a better statement, but let us keep it simple for now.

    ***1980 was picked as a round number when women’s swimming might have had a reasonable time to mature, in order to have an additional comparison. Going to 1981, the difference is far smaller yet, due to an extreme outlier. The presence of such outliers make a comparison with e.g. the tenth best time of the year more sensible—but I simply do not have the time to do the leg work. Even 1980 might be somewhat misleading due to PED issues, which tend to affect women more strongly, or the systematic selection programs of the GDR, which had dominated the 1970s. (However, the 1980 world-record holder, Mary T. Meagher, was from the U.S.) On the other hand, the current men’s recording might be misleading too, due to now banned swimming suits. The point remains: Differences might be smaller or larger than in the past, but they are still far too large to claim that women would have caught up with men in swimming; which kills Hofstadter’s premise.

And, no, as much as I enjoy her success, the claim that Sjöström’s times “match” those of Spitz is, at best, misleading: For the reasons discussed above, comparing their times is another case of comparing apples and oranges. (Not to mention that she still is far from Spitz’ career best.) The same is not unlikely to apply to the students of Hofstadter’s example.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 22, 2016 at 5:58 pm

Ridiculous news stories

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Today, I encountered two stories on Spiegel Onlinew that really made me cringe (and, regrettably, are good stand-ins for greater problems).

The first discusses how Miss Piggy (of Muppet fame) has been awarded a feminist prizee. (An English piece reporting on the same topic with differences in detaile.)

Let us see here: Miss Piggy is shallow, conceited, belligerent and over-aggressive, (extremely) prone to violence, lacking in self-perspective and self-understanding, and so on and so forth. When Kermit lamented that “it’s not easy being green”, I have long suspected that she was one of the main reasons… Miss Piggy is in many ways a caricature of a (particular type of) woman.

The motivation for her receiving the award appears to be (lacking a formal statement, I read between the lines) that she was a strong woman who made it in a man’s world. To this I will re-iterate a point that I have often made in the past: The common complaint that strong women are often seen as bitches by men, that men are afraid of strong women, whatnot, is an utter misunderstanding or misrepresentation of what happens. The simple fact is that many of the women who are considered strong by feminists are in fact just bitches, often displaying a behaviour which would not be tolerated in a man, or bullies just as bad as the worst of men. They rarely share the characteristics of a strong man. Indeed, I strongly suspect that this behaviour is actually usually driven by fear and weakness rather than strength in the first place. In contrast, truly strong women are rarely called by the name—those who stand up to and conquer adversity instead of bullying weaker people into submission, stubbornly insisting that they are right even in the face of proof of the opposite, or over-aggressively attacking anyone who dares to criticize them. Miss Piggy is a bitch and a bully. No matter how funny she is when viewed from afar, if I ended up with her in real life, I would pick up my legs and run.

In addition, picking a fictional character is somewhat dubious per se. Picking one where the character’s creator is dead and unable to confirm or reject the chosen portrayal—well, that raises some serious ethical issues.

The second relays a suggestion by Ellen Pao to ban salary negotiationse—in order to reduce differences in outcome between men and women. (An English piece reporting on the same topic with differences in detail.e)

The premise (with which I concur) is that men tend to negotiate tougher than women and thus earn higher salaries; the conclusion (with which I strongly disagree) is that everyone should be payed the same based on position.

First off, I must admit that I have toyed with ideas of removing negotiations from the picture myself, being a man who has historically had a more female negotiation style and likely have less accumulated earnings than I should have because of it. The underlying problem is real: Some people get more than they deserve measured by accomplishment because they negotiate well; others get less than they deserve because they negotiate poorly. However, setting salary by position alone is not viable.

To state some obvious, but probably incomplete, counters to the proposition and the reasoning behind it:

  1. Other and better solutions to such problems exist, including better performance reviews, better tracking of accomplishment, and interviewers and negotiators who are better at judging ability (as opposed to superficial impressions).

  2. This is not a matter of men and women but of good and poor negotiators. If women are less willing to negotiate or less good at it (on average), then this is irrelevant. Any individual has the same choices to make and the same options open—man or woman. This is not a matter of sexual discrimination, it is a matter of discrimination by behaviour. If anything, this type of reasoning should be used to counter e.g. claims that women earn less merely through being women—the reality is that they earn less through behaving differently, making different choices, etc. (In as far as they do earn less at all: With the common positive discrimination of women and alterations in the demographics of education, this is not universally true anymore.)

    In many ways, this is as stupid as the nutcases who want to lower physical criteria for firemen so that more women are eligible—without considering the consequences on performance.

  3. The conclusion ignores the down-side of taking an aggressive negotiating position: The risk of getting nothing… Indeed, male unemployment is typically higher than for women and some portion of that is almost certainly explained by an unwillingness to take a position that is not attractive enough. Furthermore, in a twist, if negotiations were banned, some of these people would be back in contention for lower paying positions—and thereby forcing some others out of a job.

  4. Finally, and likely most significantly: A premise of this type of idea is that people working in the same position bring the same amount of value to their employers.

    This is utterly, utterly wrong.

    In reality, even low-level employees at McDonald’s (who have a very different amount of leeway for negotiations to begin with) differ significantly in terms of performance, value-added, whatnot. When we look at e.g. my own area of work (software development), the differences are gigantic. In fact, they are so enormous that I do not hesitate in saying that typical intra-company salary differences are far too small to fairly reflect the situation.

    That the best and worst in a given team differ by less than the two-fold in terms of performance is the exception; that it reaches the ten-fold is not unheard off. Indeed, I have had a few colleagues, who through their lack of understanding of what makes good and poor code, their laziness, their destructiveness, …, actually hurt the team/the project/their employer by their presence.


    Side-note:

    A discussion of what makes good code/a good software developer goes far beyond the scope of this post. However, I stress that it is not just a matter of having a certain number of lines of code, or just whether a certain feature works. (Such misconceptions being one of the reasons why there are many poor software developers out there.) Other highly important factors include whether the code is understandable, maintainable, extendable, …; whether it is well tested, preferably with automatic tests; how many bugs there are; whether the documentation is adequate; …

    Much of the issue can indeed be summarized simply by asking: What will this piece of code cost me/us/my employer/… not just today when it is written—but tomorrow, next week, next month, next year?


In addition, where there is a well-intended rule that does not match the will of the ruled, circumventions tend to be found. Here an obvious such circumvention would be to simply create more positions with different salaries and then to hand out positions based on old criteria.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 6, 2015 at 12:30 am

Journalists and incompetence

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The last few days, I have read a number of news articles dealing with the Klitschko–Jennings fight. These have provided ample evidence of my long-standing complaint that journalists tend not to know what they are talking about and fail to do appropriate background research and quality checks.

Their blunders include:

  1. Referring to Jennings as “Brandon” (actually “Bryant”).

  2. Calling the small-by-heavyweight standards Ruslan Chagaev a giant when listing prior opponents of Klitschko. (Possibly confusing him with 7-footer Nikolai Valuev, but Valuev never fought Klitschko in the first place.)

  3. Claiming that Klitschko won his title from Samuel Peter, instead of Chris Byrd. (Vitali Klitschko, his now retired older brother, did take his title from Peter, which might be the source of the error.)

  4. Confusing the time Klitschko has been undefeated with the length of his title reign.

  5. Short-changing Joe Louis severely in terms of title defenses, turning his record setting 25 into (possibly) 18.

To err is human, but is it too much to ask that someone spends two minutes on Wikipedia, when being payed to write and being published to thousands readers? Is it too much to ask that the papers have an independent fact-checker (not to mention spell-checker…) go over a work before allowing it to be published in their name?

(I too make mistakes, but despite writing for free, during my spare time, and for a far smaller readership, I am more conscientious than a very large proportion of the alleged professionals—let alone more intelligent and better educated.)

OK, so journalists get a few details wrong. Surely, this is not the end of the world?

No; not in and by it self. The problem is this:

If they get such easily checked details wrong, what can we expect about their fact checking in other articles? If the writers are so lacking in knowledge of this one field they are writing about, what can we expect when other fields are concerned?

What is the result in terms of informing the public? Educating voters? Giving the man on the street a reasonable chance to form a valid opinion?

Poor journalists strongly increase the risk that society suffers under poor politicians, that prejudice and ignorance grows more common, that destructive agendas can gain a following, …

(And, yes, my experience from other fields, including politics, economics, science, …, is that journalists are extremely lacking and that the problems is by no means limited to sports. This in particular when considering other factors that are less relevant when it comes to sports, e.g. the ability to think critically or to understand causes and consequences.)

A notable example is Spiegel Onlinew, a German online news source that I often visit due to its width of coverage: There are so many instances of problematic articles, including poor writing, ignorance of politics and economics, blatant agenda pushing, prejudice, and a sheer inability to think, that the German saying “geschenkt ist noch zu teuer” often crosses my mind. (Literally, “[even when] gifted [it] is still too costly”. In effect, something has so little or even negative value that not even the opportunity cost in terms of e.g. time taken to read, storage space needed, whatnot, is outweighed.)

Indeed, the “Brandon Jennings” error is from this source, specifically http://www.spiegel.de/sport/sonst/wladimir-klitschko-siegt-mit-muehe-gegen-brandon-jennings-a-1030697.htmle. By now, the article text has been changed, but the URL still contains the original error. Interestingly, I just now see another error that I missed when skimming through the text: It claims that Klitschko with this his 27th title fight sets a new record, pulling ahead of Ali and Holmes with 26 each. In reality, so English sources, he pulls even with Louis, making this the second time Louis is short-changed. (The numbers for Ali and Holmes are not unreasonably large, but I would not trust them without an explicit count. 27 should be correct for Louis, however, with one original victory, the aforementioned 25 defenses, and the ultimate loss.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 26, 2015 at 10:27 am