Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

Sowing Pseudo-Scientific Seeds of Racism

Thursday, 2 August 2018

I have previously expressed great concern about journalists confusing the categorization of a people as H. sapiens with their being human. Bodies Keep Shrinking on this Island, and Scientists Aren't Sure Why, a story in the New York Times, offers yet another illustration of this confusion. Within it, Carl Zimmer writes:

The researchers found that a very small percentage of the villagers' DNA came from Neanderthals or Denisovans. A tiny portion could not be matched to humans, Neanderthals or Denisovans.

But these enigmatic pieces weren’t dramatically different from human DNA, as you’d expect if they had come from Homo floresiensis. Dr. Tucci concluded that the Rampasasa villagers have no Homo floresiensis ancestry.

Note that, once again, Neanderthals and Denisovans are distinguished by a journalist from humans, as are now those of H. floresiensis. No reason is given for classifying any of these people as not human; the journalist has simply inferred that they are not because they have been classified as of a different species; what that classification actually means is utterly unconsidered.

Further, in the article, modern populations are noted to have differing occurrences of presence of DNA from the supposedly inhuman populations — not dramatically inhuman, but supposedly inhuman none-the-less.

Let me make it very plain: Mr Zimmer and the New York Times are offering pseudo-science with racist implications. He probably doesn't intend those implications, but is simply thoughtless. However, his thoughtlessness and that of his editors are inexcusable. And, if he had any conversations with the scientists who conducted these studies, then I'd like to know why the Hell they failed to impress upon him that the taxonomy did not separate people into humans and non-humans. These scientists did not have the prerogative of unscientifically presuming that Mr Zimmer had more intelligence than has been actually demonstrated by the typical journalist.

Social Consequences of Speciation

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Sometimes, I don't know how to write about important matters. Please bear with me, because this subject is far more important than it might initially seem.

When most people encounter the word species, it is either in the context of a biological discussion, or the word is used as a metaphorical borrowing from discussion of that sort. It actually has more general meanings, the broadest simply being class of things of shared characteristics. But what concerns me here is indeed its biological sense.

Most people who have any notion at all of the word derive their understanding of the biological signification from a combination of observed use and whatever was told to them by middle- and high-school texts of alleged science. Many of them know that organisms are categorized hierarchically, and that species is a finer category than genus. But, if asked to describe the classification of animals as different, say, as are cats and dogs, far more people would descibe them as of different species than as of different family or as of different genus. There is an inferred sense that difference in species is rather fundamental.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives the biological sense thus:

A taxonomic grouping ranking next below genus and subgenus, which contains organisms that are uniquely distinguished from others by certain shared characteristics and usu. by an inability to interbreed with members of other such groupings; such a grouping as denoted by a Latin binomial, and freq. subdivided into subspecies, races, varieties, etc.; the organisms of such a grouping.

That bit about inability to interbreed is a bit loose; for example, most biologists would classify horses and donkeys as of different species, though they can produce offspring. However, a striking characteristic of those offspring is that they cannot themselves produce further offspring. The infertility of those offspring is usually cited towards explaining the speciation.

In any case, The SOED hedged with that usu. because some biologists categorize animals as of different species though they can interbreed down through indefinitely many generations, as in the case of coyotes (C. latrans) with wolves (C. lupus).

Over some decades, anthropologists disagreed over whether to classify Neanderthalers as a distinct species, H. neanderthalensis, or as a sub-species of H. sapiens. As there was no way to observe potential interbreeding, early disagreement turned on issues of overt morphology — the shapes of skulls, dentition, &c. But then interbreeding became, in a sense, potentially observable as it became possible to extract and analyze DNA from remains of Neanderthalers. Initial results (quite surprising to me) suggested no interbreeding, and it became more commonly accepted that they should be considered a distinct species. However, when later genetic evidence began to show the presence of Neanderthaler genes in some modern populations of H. sapiens, the practice of treating them as a distinct species was not universally abandoned. It is still common to classify Neanderthalers as a distinct species, though this implicitly means that species is not being used with the usu. signification. And when, far more recently, a similar archaïc population, the Denisovans, were distinguished, it became fairly common also to categorize them as a distinct species, though their genes are likewise found in some modern populations of H. sapiens.

But, again, when most lay-people hear or read the word species, they are imagining a quite significant distinction. And when they hear and read of Neanderthalers or of Denisovans as distinct species, they infer that these people were not human. Here are three example articles that I quickly found of journalists doing just that in the case of Neanderthalers or in that of Denisovans:

As these archaïc populations are extinct, there may not seem to be any more of a social issue here than there typically is with misunderstood science. But a problem is coming right at us. And it's associated with the point that the genes of archaïc populations are found in modern populations — in different distributions. Take, for example, this article:

The author or authors blithely refer to the Neanderthalers, to the Denisovans, and to an additional, hypothesized archaïc population as distinct species without explaining whatever is there meant by the term. A large share of readers will regard the archaïc populations as not fully human, and infer that different ethnic groups have more or less genetic material that is not fully human. It will be inappropriately inferred that some ethnic groups are thus less human or more human than are others.

Anthropologists and biologists who talk with lay-persons, and especially with journalists and with other informal educators, need to emphasize the arbitrariness in use of the word species, and these scientists need to impress upon their audiences that the word should be avoided or explained in all popular-science journalism that touches upon our relationships with archaïc populations.

Tearing off the Masks

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

I've read that Anonymous has found the names of about a thousand members of the Ku Klux Klan, and is preparing to release them.

I'm hoping that none of the 10 other people in this nation with the same first and last name as I are members, because it could be Hell for the rest of us. I'm also hoping that Anonymous doesn't add names of people whom it dislikes, especially as I might be amongst them.

A few years ago, I challenged their attack on Stratfor. Stratfor was a journalistic enterprise, focussing on issues of global politics (including military action) and security, and publishing both free content and content that required a paid subscription. Some at Anonymous were sure that Stratfor were, effectively, a criminal undertaking because

  • Stratfor communicated off-the-record with policy wonks and with state officials (as did and do almost every other major journalistic enterprise and many of the minor journalistic enterprises); and
  • Stratfor expressed opinions with which Anonymous vehemently disagreed.

So Anonymous stole e.mail, e.mail addresses, and credit-card information from the Stratfor servers. If one had so much as subscribed to a free newsletter from Stratfor, then one's e.mail address was made public, and one was subjected to hoax e.mail from Anonymous. Many who had simply paid for something from Stratfor had their credit card information used to make contributions to charitable organizations (each of which then had to spend resources on returning the stolen money, at a net loss).

The e.mail itself was given to WikiLeaks, which processed it with the help of other journalistic institutions. Some of these institutions shamelessly used the stolen information to their own advantage, though it didn't provide evidence of wrong-doing by Stratfor. Indeed, after almost four years, no evidence of criminal wrong-doing has ever been presented. Stratfor's greatest sin was gross incompetence in the field of security.

None of the major media outlets has drawn attention to the point that the supposed end that was to justify Anonymous's means was not met. They have been virtually silent about this attack on journalistic freedom. That's because, as I suggested in my entry of some years ago, these outlets are themselves afraid of being attacked by Anonymous.

Journalists are fond of seeing their profession as brave. Well, there truly are some brave journalists in this world, but they're in a minority, and the rest don't deserve to see themselves as heroes for keeping company with that minority.

No News Is Bad News

Thursday, 16 February 2012

On 24 December, the Stratfor computer site was learned to be hacked; e.mail, e.mail addresses, and credit-card information were stolen. Initially, Anonymous couldn't agree within itself whether its members were responsible, but the deniers fell silent.

The credit-card information was used to make charitable donations, which subsequently had to be returned (at a net loss) by the charities. Those whose e.mail addresses were stolen had them publicly dumped (and thus made available to spammers), and were subjected to hoax mailings by Anonymous.

And we were told that the e.mail itself would be released, so that the world could see that Stratfor were really a malevolent force, which revelation would ostensibly justify the hacking.

After seven weeks, the e.mail that was supposed to expose the wickedness of Stratfor has not been released. There's more than one possible explanation. Perhaps the responsible members of Anonymous have obscure but compelling reasons to release the information all-at-once, and to organize it before doing so. Perhaps these members have been found and whisked-off to secret internment camps, along with anyone who might have reported their disappearances. Or perhaps the e.mail would reveal no more than that Stratfor communicates off-the-record with sources, some of whom could (reasonably or otherwise) be regarded as villains, and perhaps other members of Anonymous noted that almost any reporting and news-analysis service does the same thing, so that Anonymous would appear to subvert freedom of the press.

(I kinda favor that third explanation. Like many members of the Occupation Movement — who also like to claim the prerogatives but duck the responsibilities of association, and to wear Guy Fawkes masks and fantasize about being Vs — many members of Anonymous seem inclined to try to silence those whose views they find greatly disagreeable, but only so long as these members aren't made to recognize that they're engaged in censorship. [Up-Date (2012:02/27): It has now been announced that the e.mail is being released in coöperation with WikiLeaks.])

But, whatever may be the reason, the e.mail has not been released, and that failure or delay is itself a news story — which story you've not read in the Times (of London, of New York, or of Los Angeles) nor heard from the major broadcasters. Possibly that's because they're such lack-wits that it hasn't occurred to any of them that there's a story here. I rather suspect, however, that it's because they're scared. A group such as Anonymous could take-down pretty much any of these news services just as they did Stratfor.

Monkey Dancers

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

[This post was delayed from yester-day, as my hosting service had a technical failure, and it took me rather a long time to persuade them of such.]

I read

This past week it was reported that the hacktivist collective known as Anonymous claimed credit for taking offline over 40 websites used for sharing pedophilia — and for exposing the names and identifying information of more than 1500 alleged pedophiles that had been using the sites.
But the actual list is of user aliases, not of personal names.

Not only are pædophiles not being exposed here, but non-pædophiles who've had the misfortune of pædophiles' using the same aliases (by chance or from malice) are going to come under suspicion by those who think that they recognize them on this list.

Further, if agents of law enforcement were themselves working to track-down the actual legal identities of the pædophiles, their investigation has now been severely compromised, possibly fatally so.

Once again, Anonymous has done less good than they have led the gullible to believe, and have caused more damage than they have acknowledged.

Smoke Gets in My Eyes

Friday, 2 September 2011

If one wanted to know the solution to particular mathematical problem, and found that different groups gave different answers, then it might be interesting to hear or to read what each group said about the motives of rival groups, but one really ought to chose which answer or answers were correct based upon principles of mathematics, rather than based upon which groups seemed most noble. If one lacked the competence to decide the issue based upon principles of mathematics, then it would probably be best to resist coming to any decision if at all possible.

Likewise, if one wanted to know the solution to a particular problem of the natural sciences, but found that different groups gave different answers, then it might be interesting to hear or to read what each group said about the motives of rival groups, but one really ought to chose which answer or answers were correct based upon principles of science, rather than based upon which group seemed most noble. If one lacked the competence to decide the issue based upon principles of science, then it would probably be best to resist coming to any decision if at all possible.

And if one wanted to know what sort of social policy ought to be applied to some case, but found that different groups gave one different answers, then it might be interesting to hear or to read what each group said about the motives of rival groups, but one really ought to chose which answer or answers were correct based upon principles of science in combination with rational criteria for evaluating ethical philosophies (if, indeed, those criteria are not themselves scientific). And if one lacked the competence to decide the issue based upon such principles, then it would probably be best to resist coming to any decision if at all possible.

Now, all of that ought to be obvious; but consider how much pundits and the major media focus on personalities and theories of motive when it comes both to policy and to science applicable to policy, and how little real science and how little careful dissection of philosophical case is presented. If one party wants one thing, and another wants something different, then we are given some tale of the nobility or at least the level-headedness of one group, and of the knavery or foolishness of the other; accompanying this narrative will be cartoon physics, cartoon biology, or cartoon economics. If ethics are relevant, then one might get cartoon philosophy of ethics, or some ethical philosophy might be implicitly imposed, as if no rival philosophy were conceivable. (If something is treated as good, there generally ought to be an explanation somewhere of what makes it good. If something is treated as bad, there likewise ought to be an explanation of what makes it bad.)

This practice is so prevalent because so many listeners and readers unthinkingly accept it. And I'm not just talking about low-brow or middle-brow people. The self-supposed high-brow folk, more educated and ostensibly more thoughtful, accept this practice. Most of the people who would, if they read them, say that the previous four paragraphs were trivially obvious accept this practice. I don't simply mean that they don't cancel subscriptions or write angry letters to the editor; I mean that they allow their own beliefs to be shaped by some group engaging in the practice. They fall into attending to one narration of this sort, and let it guide them until and unless some crisis causes them to turn their backs on it, at which point they almost always begin to be guided by a narration using the same basic practice to advance some different set of policies.

Sometimes, one must make a decision, with nothing upon which to go except the discernible motives of conflicting parties. In those cases, one should bear in mind that, except to the extent that they are reporting brute fact (rather than interpretation), one typically learns more about the narrators themselves from what they say (and avoid saying) of their opponents, than one learns about their opponents. (And one should not allow the emotional appeal of a narrative to lead one to pretend that one must make a decision that one can in fact defer.)

Weighty Matters

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The metric system has some points of genuine superiority to those of the English (aka American) system, but that superiority tends to be exaggerated. For example, the every-day English measures for volume tend to be implicitly binary, allowing easy halving or doubling. (If base 10 were everywhere superior to base 2, then our computers would be designed differently.)

One of the things that I was told as a child was that the metric system were superior because it measured in terms of mass, rather than weight, with the former being invariant while the latter would change in the face of a gravitational field. Well, actually, the English system has a unit of mass; it's the slug, 1 lb·sec2/ft, which is about 14.6 kg.

Meanwhile, I observe that, in countries where the metric system ostensibly prevails, people typically use its names of units of mass (gram and kilogram) for units of weight; they even refer to what is measured as a weight. Now, the real metric system does have a unit for weight, because weight is a force; weight can be measured by the newton (or by the dyne, which is a hundred-thousandth of a newton). But people aren't doing that; they're using kilogram as if it means about 9.807 N.

Much as it may be claimed that America is the only industrialized nation not on the metric system, really nobody's on it.

I notice that the Beeb most often wants to speak and write of weight, rather than of mass, but in the most ghastly unit of all, the stone (pronounced /stɛun/, with at least one pinkie extended). The stone is 14 pounds (divisible by 2 and, uh, 7). When weights don't divide into integer multiples of 14 pounds, tradition is to represent weight in terms of a combination of stone and pounds, as in Me mum weighs 19 stone and 12. Of course, if the Beeb were using pounds at all, there'd be the two obvious questions of

Why aren't you just using pounds for the whole lot?
Wait, now that I think of it, what happened to that metric stuff?
So the Beeb feels compelled to just round everything up or down to an integral number of stone, and somebody's mum either gains two pounds or loses twelve.

I suspect everyone, and no one!

Saturday, 18 September 2010

I loathe the way that police officials and journalists will use the word suspect as if it means perpetrator, as in

When the register was opened, the suspect partially jumped over the counter and thrust both hands into the cash drawer, police spokesman Joel DeSpain said.

A suspect is one suspected — that is to say surmised — to have done something. To baldly declare that a person did something is to speak with far more than suspicion.

One can have multiple suspects even knowing that an act was committed by just one perpetrator. And one can have no suspects despite knowing that some person or persons must have acted; the use of suspect for perpetrator becomes utterly absurd when virtually nothing is known about the perpetrator. Here

An unknown suspect (or suspects) allegedly entered the garage during the previous night and removed a Cannondale bicycle valued at $500.
the police don't even know how many perpetrators there were. On whom does suspicion fall? Here
officers have no description of the suspect, except that he was wearing a black, red and white bunnyhug
they have a gender and a hooded, tri-color sweatshirt. On whom does suspicion fall?

And He'd Know Better if He Needed One

Sunday, 23 May 2010
D.C. to begin using more-expensive Trojan condoms in HIV prevention program by Tim Craig of the Washington Post, 21 May 2010
[…] D.C. officials have decided to stock up on Trojan condoms, including the company's super-size Magnum variety […]

(Underscore mine.) Actually, the Magnum® variety is not super-sized. It is not much different in size from various other condoms. It is simply marketed in a manner that yields an impression of being super-sized to those who don't actually check the facts — such as journalists. An ordinary-sized Trojan condom is 52mm wide and 200mm long; the Magnum® is 54mm wide at the base, widening to 60mm at the head, and 205mm long. (The Magnum® XL differs in that it widens to 65mm at the head.)

(The Durex® Avanti™, on the other hand, has a width of 64mm along its length. It is, however, only 180mm long, which might be of concern if the condom is being used to prevent the transmission of disease and the anatomies of the sexual partners allow penetration to a greater depth.)

When the subject of condom size is raised, many women and various men with small penes make the point that condoms stretch, so that a regular-size condom can be put on a larger penis. Indeed, but elastic substances produce greater counter-force when stretched farther. The fact that someone might be able to fit a spring around his-or-her cranium (as occasionally condoms are stretched around heads for one reason or another) doesn't mean that one can comfortably wear that spring around one's penis. So larger condoms are quite appropriate for some men.

But, with the Magnum®, Trojan is selling a mere 0.08in in additional width, just 0.2in in extra length, and fantasy.

I Don't Much Bother with Television News

Thursday, 18 March 2010

There is a hugely important difference between consent within a system and consent to that system.

Some examples:

  • Many people object to some matters being decided by bullet; they think that such violence is a Bad Thing. But that doesn't make them hypocrites if they respond to shooting or to the threat of shooting with bullets of their own.
  • Some of us object to some things being decided by ballot; we feel that some things (such as the ability of consenting adults to marry) are rights that cannot be taken (though power may be taken) no matter how many people object. But that doesn't make us hypocrites when we respond to voting or to the threat of voting with ballots of our own.
  • Quite a few people think that Social Security is a Bad Idea. But that doesn't make them hypocrites if they accept it when offered; they were forced to pay into the system, and they may conclude that refusing to take the money may have no marginal effect on whether it continues.
It is a separate issue whether returning fire, voting in elections that one feels should not be held, or consuming entitlements that one believes should not exist would be wise practical responses; the point is that none of these actions is hypocritical.

Okay, I'm going to presume that all my readers recognize the class of distinction upon which I'm focussing.

So, to-night, I saw NBC News present a report on United States Senators and Representatives who have voted against stimulus bills, yet had subsequently sought to get some of the monies therefrom for their respective districts. The report treated these people as hypocrites. The reporter repeatedly claimed that they'd somehow reversed themselves, and quoted others representing them as hypocrites; and no one was quoted offering any sort of explanation of why this would not be hypocrisy. The only defense quoted was merely that of one congressman, allowed to explain that he thought that seeking monies for which his constituents had paid was in their interests.