Why do People believe wrong things, pt 2

Today’s post is a compare and contrast between articles. From Erin O’Donnell’s interview with Elizabeth Bartholet we have “The Risks of Homeschooling,” and from Michelle Malkin we have “What will it take to stop Google’s Kiddie Predators?

I picked these articles because they hail from opposite ends of the political spectrum (so we needn’t get caught up in blaming one particular side,) but both deal with potential harms to children. Children, of course, are very precious and people are naturally inclined to protect them, so the thought that someone out there is harming them is deeply motivating.

Alas, both of these articles are, if you know anything about the subject in question, absolutely terrible.

On Homeschooling:

Yet Elizabeth Bartholet, Wasserstein public interest professor of law and faculty director of the Law School’s Child Advocacy Program, sees risks for children—and society—in homeschooling, and recommends a presumptive ban on the practice. Homeschooling, she says, not only violates children’s right to a “meaningful education” and their right to be protected from potential child abuse, but may keep them from contributing positively to a democratic society. …

… Only about a dozen states have rules about the level of education needed by parents who homeschool, she adds. “That means, effectively, that people can homeschool who’ve never gone to school themselves, who don’t read or write themselves.”

And from Malkin:

Last spring, Google reported at an education conference that it had started making its cloud platform program accessible to K-12 school districts. Evergreen, Washington, public schools chief Derrick Brown (right) bragged about his district’s data-mining pilot program with Google. “We have tons of data in our school districts,” he is quoted outlining in Education Week,citing information gathered through “student information systems, instructional software programs, online surveys of children’s social-emotional well-being, and special-needs students’ individualized education plans.”

“All that data needs to go in a container,” Brown explained. And that container will be Google Cloud Platform. Now, imagine questionnaires and tests stored in the G-container measuring “social-emotional well-being” of children and their families according to politically correct ideology. Imagine being a parent who objects to mandatory vaccine laws or who holds “America first” views deemed “extremist” and “hateful” or who stores guns responsibly in your home—information that is not the business of a school district or Silicon Valley giant. Where’s the protection for such families? What’s the academic justification for gathering it?

Before we go on, I should probably go into a little depth on what, exactly, makes both of these articles terrible.

Batholet wants to ban homeschooling entirely. This is absurd on its face–no matter how many problems you think there are with homeschooling (like anything, there are of course some), there are also clearly times and places when homeschooling is the best possible option, like literally right now, because I’m writing this in the middle of the Covid pandemic. There are kids who homeschool because they were bullied in regular schools, or because they have chronic illnesses that make regular school days difficult, or because they just plain learn better at home, and all of these kids have an obvious right to carry on doing things that are good for them.

It is quite easy to propose legislation that allows children to homeschool while also protecting them against the kinds of abuses Batholet cites–there is no reason to hurt all of the other kids in the process.

Furthermore, since schools are controlled primarily at the state level, banning homeschooling across the nation would require a massive amount of legal coordination. The Federal government could threaten to withhold funds to states that allow homeschooling, but this would be a practical disaster with states like Texas and Montana. It’s a bit ridiculous for anyone with any knowledge of US law (let alone a law professor) to propose something this far from legal reality.

Batholet is concerned about the quality of education homeschooled kids receive, which is rather precious given that homeschoolers consistently out-perform public schooled kids on standardized tests, eg, Academic Achievements and Demographic Traits of Homeschoolers:

Is it possible for adults without specialized, university-level training in teaching to help their children learn what they need to learn? Numerous studies by dozens of researchers have been completed during the past 25 years that examine the academic achievement of the home-educated (see reviews, e.g., Ray, 2000, 2005; 2009b). Examples of these studies range from a multi-year study in Washington State (Wartes, 1991), to other state-specific studies, to three nationwide studies across the United States (Ray, 1990, 1997, 2000; Rudner 1999), to two nationwide studies in Canada (Ray, 1994; Van Pelt, 2003).

In most studies, the homeschooled have scored, on average, at the 65th to 80th percentile on standardized academic achievement tests, compared to the national school average of the 50th percentile (which is largely based on public schools). A few studies have found the home educated to be scoring about the same or a little better than public school students. …

Research shows that the large majority of home-educated students
consistently interact with children of various ages and parents outside their immediate family (see, e.g., Medlin, 2000; Ray, 1997, 2009b).

The second part of the socialization question asks whether home-educated children will experience healthy social, emotional, and psychological development. Numerous studies, employing various psychological constructs and measures, show the home-educated are developing at least as well, and often better than, those who attend institutional schools (Medlin, 2000; Ray, 2009b). No research to date contravenes this general conclusion. In a few studies, on some of the sub-measures within a study, the home educated have scored slightly lower (i.e., “worse” according to the conceptual paradigm the researcher was using) than those in institutional schools. …

A corollary of the socialization question deals with whether the home-educated child will eventually function well in the world of adulthood… Various studies have addressed this issue in multiple ways. It appears that the home educated are engaged, at least as much as are others, in activities that predict leadership in adulthood (Montgomery, 1989), doing well on their college/university SAT tests (Barber, 2001, personal communication) and ACT tests (ACT, 2005), matriculating in college at a rate that is comparable or a bit higher than for the general public (Ray, 2004; Van Pelt 2003), performing well in college (Gray, 1998; Galloway & Sutton, 1995; Jenkins, 1998; Jones & Gloeckner, 2004; Mexcur, 1993; Oliveira, Watson, & Sutton, 1994), satisfied that they were home educated (Knowles & Muchmore, 1995; Ray, 2004; Van Pelt, Neven, & Allison, 2009), involved in community service at least
as much as others (Ray, 2004; Van Pelt, Neven, & Allison, 2009), and more civically engaged than the general public (Ray, 2004; Van Pelt, Neven, & Allison, 2009). There is no research evidence that having been home educated is associated with negative behaviors or ineptitudes in adulthood.

This particular study found even higher academic success rates for homeschoolers, who consistently scored above the 80th percentile in all tested areas, even science and math. The authors also looked at parental education, which Batholet is so concerned about, and found that a whopping 0.5% of mothers who homeschool their children did not graduate from highschool.

The idea of banning the 99.5% of homeschooling families whose mothers were literate enough to graduate from highschool because of the 0.5% who didn’t is straight up absurd, which is why batholet used imaginary illiterate people instead of real statistics.

What about child abuse? I’d think that would be captured in the overall data on social/emotional well-being and eventual adulthood competency, but maybe people who abuse their kids make efforts not to let them take surveys about how happy they feel. Regardless, homeschooled kids hail from the demographics with extremely low overall abuse rates–the vast majority come from white, middle class households with two married parents, while the kids most likely to be abused come from Native American, Black, poor, single-parent or no-parent households (eg grandparents, foster parents). If you don’t already know this, you have no business talking about child abuse.

Again, if your goal is to help abused children, it is easy to think of much more effective legislation than just blanket targeting all homeschoolers.

Batholet’s final, and frankly most bizarre objection, is that homeschooled children will be unable to contribute to a democratic society. She seems to think there is a cabal of underground monarchists hidden deep in the American heartland, raising their children to heil King George III as the rightful monarch of our land and to agitate for unification with Canada.

Back to O’Donnell’s article about Batholet:

She views the absence of regulations ensuring that homeschooled children receive a meaningful education equivalent to that required in public schools as a threat to U.S. democracy. “From the beginning of compulsory education in this country, we have thought of the government as having some right to educate children so that they become active, productive participants in the larger society,” she says. This involves in part giving children the knowledge to eventually get jobs and support themselves. “But it’s also important that children grow up exposed to community values, social values, democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints,” she says, noting that European countries such as Germany ban homeschooling entirely and that countries such as France require home visits and annual tests.

Hoooo boy. There’s a lot here to unpack.

First, let’s go back to the beginning of compulsory education in the US, circa 1830. (The Founding Fathers thought compulsory education of so little importance to “democracy” that it took half a century to get going.) I have here in my child-rearing library Bernard Wishy’s The Child and The Republic: The Dawn of Modern American Child Nurture, published in 1968 but still a very good overview of precisely this era in American history.

Spend about half an hour with this book and you will discover first that the subject is quite dull, and second, that you do not care a whit what people in the early 1800s thought about education because their general ideas about child-rearing are so entirely alien to yours.

Many Americans in this era were Puritans who literally believed that babies were inherently evil and would not be good people until they realized the importance of Christianity and were “born again” in Christ. These folks took babies soiling their nappies as evidence of their satanic natures and believed you had to beat the devil out of them.

Although expressed differently by proliferating Protestant sects… by 1800 Calvinist views of the child and of a human destiny under God’s stern judgement had demonstrated remarkable staying power.

This heritage included Jonathan Edwards’ famous words that unrepentant children were “young vipers and infinitely more hateful than vipers.” Another view was that they were “not too little to die…not too little to go to hell.” …

Despite the prestige and weight we now give the more congenital “modern” ideas o the American Enlightenment, in the very hour of the triumph of American independence in the 1780’s there had begun a remarkable resurgence of Calvinist iews and religious conservatism… For the next half-ctury, orthodox ministers would also invoke the convenient spectre of Jacobinism to strenghten their demands for strict disciplien and early religious traiinign of the child. The future of the nation as well as the child’s soul were said to be in danger.

Remarkable parallel.

Continuing with Wishy:

It is perhaps risky to speculate about the hostility to children that the belief in infant damnation and strict training seems to express. … it is likely that the responsibilities and expense of many unwanted children created or intensified hostile feelings towards offspring. Whatever inspired them, the orthodox were reluctant to dampen the fires o Hell awaiting the child who had not started the arduous training needed for saving the soul…

Infants were “by nature sinners, and show us that… the wicked are estranged from the womb, they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.” [Reverend Allan Hyde, Essay on the State of Infants, NY, 1830.] …

Among the more conservative writers on the child was the President of Amherst College, Dr. Herman Humphrey. His book Domestic Education (1840) was a cataloge of errors for the day and a guide for perplexed mothers and fathers. … he called for absolute rule by the father, accountable to “no earthly power.” Fathers should try to control the child diligently by the age of four months. …

Complete rejection of the belief in depravity or innate tendencies to wickedness did not appear generally in popular literature until just before the Civil War.

But what about the schools themselves?

… the degree of the workday teachers’ and ministers’ hostility to encouraging intellectual and critical independence in students should also not be underestimated. … Precociousness was unnatural, and “forced feeding” of ideas even worse for the child. …

Some of the most revealing of the “impressions” that might come from the schoolroom have been examined by Ruth Miller Elson in a study of American textbooks before 1865. [Footnote: … This study confirms the evidence presented here of the essential conservatism of the goals sought through new methods of nurture. The textbooks studied stressed: the rejection of Europe, the exaltation of the Anglo-Saxon and scorning of the immigrant, the moral failure implicit in poverty, the acceptance of one’s own station and duties as God’s will, the ignoring or attacking of reform movements, the rightness of class distinctions…]

I have quoted this at length just to emphasize the utter absurdity of Batholet’s claims. Anyone who knows anything at all about the subject knows this is all the exact opposite of what Batholet wants; she is only invoking it because she assumes you don’t know anything about the subject. 

Rather, Batholet is attempting a bait-and-switch, invoking sacred ideas like “democracy” when she actually means “modern progressive liberal values.” And it is totally true that the majority of homeschooling families don’t put much stock in modern progressive liberal values (though a reasonable minority of homeschoolers are liberal hippie types).  The bait and switch and faux-concern for abused children (who could be much more effectively protected via other measures) is necessary because Batholet knows that insisting on educating children about pro-LGBT matters against their parents’ will would never pass First Amendment religious scrutiny.

Now on to Malkin.

Malkin’s piece is a little more over-the-top in tone, but just as disconnected from reality. She starts off by calling Google “kiddie predators,” as though the execs at Google’s offices liked to go raping six year olds in their spare time.

The Silicon Valley behemoth has already admitted it illegally collected children’s personal information on YouTube without parental consent, mines students’ browsing habits and emails, and tracks kids’ locations, audio and search history through Google educational apps and logons that are required for millions of students to participate in public schools.

Is Malkin actually ignorant about the facts of this case, or is she misrepresenting it on purpose?

The recent Youtube decision did not involve YT/Google doing something that it knew was illegal. It involved the government deciding to enforce a particular law in a new way that it hadn’t been used before, which made something YT was doing retroactively illegal.

The law in question prevents websites from gathering data/information from children, but it used to apply only to websites like Facebook where you make accounts that require personal information like your name or age. These laws are why Facebook, Youtube, and similar websites do not allow people under the age of 13 to have accounts: it’s illegal.

What Youtube was doing, which was not illegal, was tracking the viewing patterns of all users. If you watch five videos about car repair, and then you search for a video about truck repair, Youtube notices and in the future is likely to recommend videos about truck repair to people who’ve watched videos about car repair. This is how Youtube playlists and recommendations are generated, not to mention recommended products on Amazon, people you might want to follow on Twitter, not to mention all of the ads. Mom and Pop stores, major corporations, and TV stations also collect similar data about their customers/users.

These algorithms are fundamentally useful. They let Amazon recommend the product you’re looking for, they let Google figure out what you’re trying to type when you misspell something, and they let Youtube figure out that ads for vibrators don’t belong on videos featuring muppets.

The court case which expanded the scope of the original law found that when Youtube collected data like “Users who watched Baby Shark videos tend also to watch Pikachu videos,” even though that data was not attached to a particular name, account, or user, since it was a child on the other end of the screen, the data came from a child and thus was illegal to collect. I would like to emphasize that TV stations do the exact same thing when they look at their ratings and determine that people who watch Dora the Explorer tend to also watch Go Diego Go, but this has not been declared illegal simply because it involves a TV screen instead of a computer screen.

This is a moronic decision, since Youtube has no way of telling who exactly is on the other side of the screen (maybe it’s me, because I think the Baby Shark and Pikachu songs are funny), and cannot effectively figure out who is watching the videos in order to specifically not collect their data. The result has been the mass-demonetization of videos aimed at children, as determined by a combination of YT’s algorithms and creators’ own admission. A variety of other restrictions also now affect these videos, preventing them from showing up in recommendations and disabling comments.

This is a disaster for anyone making content aimed at children, from toy reviewers to teachers, because not only are their videos harder to find, but they also can’t get paid for them. Like everyone else, content creators need to eat.

Worse, there is no clear definition of what is “intended for children,” because the law was not originally written to cover such cases, and the legal threat/burden for determining this is put on the creators, not YT. So if you are making Minecraft videos that you intended for other adults like yourself, but it turns out that 10 year old boys also like watching them, you can be in violation of the law and get prosecuted by the federal government, but if you mark your videos as “for kids” they will at best show up next to “Baby Sings ABCs” videos and you won’t make any money.

Anyway, all of this is what Michelle Malkin is reducing to “illegally collected children’s information on Youtube”. The rest of the article contains similar mischaracterizations or omissions of vital details. Take this:

Can you imagine a similar breach of minors’ photos and videos stored on students’ Google Drives or Chromebooks or smartphones or home computers used to log on to mandatory learning management systems integrated with Google, such as Canvas or Schoology or Blackboard? It’s easy if you try.

I can imagine unicorns. So what? We’re not here to imagine make-believe harms.

Notice how both articles invent hypotheticals or imagined harms. This would be reasonable if we were talking about the effects of proposed legislation or future inventions, but not in the case of already existing legislation and technologies. Since these things already exist, we can talk about their actual effects, not imagined ones.

Malkin’s article is worse in this regard (at least Batholet could cite the case of one homeschooling family that abused their kids, while Malkin could not cite a single case of harm to children due to Google/YT), but both are focused on imagined harm because the real life harms are so rare.

Why are both of these articles so far off-base?

Could the authors/Batholet be lying? I have no reason to think that Batholet is intentionally, consciously lying–she sounds too much like relatives I’ve had conversations with in real life who just spout off about homeschooling without knowing anything about it.

Malkin probably isn’t in it for the money, (being featured on VDare probably does not make you money,) but she could be intentionally misleading people because she sees Google/Youtube as her enemy.

I think both Batholet and Malkin are motivated by dislike of their enemies/outgroup. Malkin has written previously about YT censoring her, and Batholet clearly doesn’t like religious conservatives. Dislike of your enemy makes you more likely to believe absurd things about him (he must do terrible things, otherwise he wouldn’t be your enemy,) and attacking your enemy, even for imagined faults, raises your own social status within your own group. Meanwhile it is difficult for anyone within your group to question your claims because such questions look a lot like ‘trying to argue that the outgroup isn’t actually all that bad’, which leaves you vulnerable to attacks from other status-climbers.

The average in-group reader, then, only hears one dominant side being articulated by people they respect, and so if they do not have any independent knowledge on the subject (and none of us can know everything,) then they are more likely to believe the incorrect information.

So, TL:DR

People are more likely to believe wrong things when they

  1. Don’t know much about the subject at hand,
  2. The incorrect information comes from an authority within their in-group,
  3. It concern the out-group, or
  4. They’re repeating a euphemism without realizing it’s a euphemism.

(eg, Batholet’s claim that homeschooling is bad for democracy is really a euphemism for bad for her politics. If a euphemism gets repeated often enough, people start believing it literally, forgetting what it originally stood for.)

Speculations on Information flow and Covid

Entering speech-to-text experiment. Please let me know in the comments what you think of this and the previous text to speech experiment. Is it any different from my normal writing style with my fingers? Since this is our second experiment, I’ll be in a little better at using this technology. One thing I noticed last time was that I was talking too fast for the technology to really keep up with, and so in the end I had some very garbled paragraphs that I had to completely discard because I couldn’t tell what they were supposed to say anymore. I’m sure the app was doing its very best to figure out what I was saying, but this time I’m going to speak more slowly–I know you can’t tell that on your end, but I do wonder if it does something to the writing process.

Much as I would like to talk about something other than corona, when everyone is talking about corona, well, you talk about corona. Watching how people react to this pandemic has been very interesting to watch (the pandemic itself, of course, is awful). I can’t discuss corona from the point of view of a doctor or an epidemiologist or a virologist because I’m not one of these things. I can discuss it from my point of view as a lay person, watching the the social dynamics unfold. Early on in China, we had a few doctors noticing that there was an unusually bad flu and pneumonia season going on. I believe the first doctor reported on this was actually an ophthalmologist–an eye doctor–not a not an emergency, not a flu or pneumonia doctor. I’m not sure how this opthamologist actually knew that their bunch of pneumonia was going on–he must have been talking to other doctors, maybe some doctor friends of his. This means he wasn’t really the first person to notice that something bad was happening; he was just the first person to try to convey the information more broadly, perhaps because he already perceived it as well-known among people he knew.

He reported this in, I think, a doctor-based chat group he was in and and then, as we know, he was censored. Interestingly, he wasn’t harshly sensor by the CCP. It’s not like some big censoring agency collects all the chat log information and automatically sensors them, or automatically reads everything produced in China. Somebody actually in his chat must have reported him to the authorities. He reported him for being sensationalist, and this report made its way up the chain of command to the police and then they came and had a talking to him and told him not to raise any more alarms. So I don’t even know if the police had actually looked into what he was saying in any substantive way at that time, or if they were just going on the authority of the guy who’d complained about it. “If someone complained about it, it must be a problem,” kind of thinking.

And I’ve seen people even in the US defending the censors. They’ve compared it to yelling fire in a crowded theater–except, the thing is, the theater was on fire.

It’s reasonable to say “don’t yell fire in a crowded theater” if the theater is not on fire, but first you have to make sure the theater is not actually on on fire. If the theater is on fire and you tell people not to yell fire, then everybody dies in a fire.

And this is the situation we have now in Wuhan and other parts of the world: things got way further out of control than they would have if the doctor had been able in the first place to report what he was seeing to the government or to the right authorities. If he’d  been able to get support instead of being told “hey, you’re being alarmist,” then things would have gone a lot better. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to be alarmist to raise an alarm.

I feel like I’ve had the same pattern of conversation many times–take Galileo. We can talk about Galileo’s theories, whether they were right or wrong, but the fact is Galileo did end up under house arrest, possibly for being rude to the pope and for having theories about the way the universe works that the pope didn’t like.

Here’s where people jump in and argue that Galileo’s theories were wrong, therefore he deserved to be put under house arrest. Utter bullshit. You don’t put people under house arrest just because they have funny theories about the tides. (Disclaimer for the confused: Galileo claimed that the tides were proof that the Earth was sloshing around in space. The Earth does move through space, but the tides are not evidence of this.)

If you want to have scientific inquiry, some of your scientists will come up with funny theories, and if you put every scientist who comes up with a wrong theory under house arrest, you will very quickly run out of scientists. Was Galileo a jerk? Was he rude? I don’t know, but we don’t put people under house arrest for that, either. If you want people who can look at the established orthodoxy, who can look at authors like Galen and Aristotle who’ve been revered for about a thousand years, and proclaim that they’re wrong, then I think you have to accept that those people tend to be, by nature, cranky misanthropes.

If you limit your scientific inquiry only to people who are polite and deferential and never in their whole lives are rude to people (especially people whom they think are imbeciles), you’re not going to get a lot of science. And if you limit your alarm system about pandemics to people who can kiss the right ass while never sounding alarmed in any way, then you’re just going to end up dead.

Looking at the way information has spread, it’s been very striking how may “official” outlets were, early on, exceedingly wrong, eg:

Fox News? Wrong. CNN? Probably wrong. My local news network? Useless. Vox? Wrong. Official British medical experts who came up with the “herd immunity” plan? Wrong. CDC? Run by morons.

At least in the early stages, these folks seemed to know less about corona and its spread than, as I put it, random nobodies on Twitter. I know my little corner of the internet is interested in China–I follow a 3D printing account based in China, for example–I think people who are interested in technology are more likely to have contacts in their information orbit who are either in or reading Chinese publications, because there’s a lot of technological development going on in China, not to mention being home to a ton of technological industry. And of course some people are fascinated by autocratic governments like China (or just like the culture), Nick Land, for example, lives in China. It’s not just right-wingers, either: I know plenty of more liberal people who pay attention to things happening in China. I think it has more to do with being interested in technology or culture, and of course diseases.

I used to have some very nice theories about liberals and conservatives being split by their emotional reactions to disease, but the data in this pandemic is not supporting that.

blog_coronavirus_partisan

The NYTimes has this poll, but broken down by state so you can compare how concerned Republicans in New York are vs Democrats in New York, but the result is the same: in every state, Democrats are much more concerned than Republicans.

What’s the big difference between this outbreak and ebola? Speculatively:

Ebola: makes you explode, terrifying
Corona: suffocates you. Slightly less visually graphic, but still awful.
Ebola: Africa. Corona: China.
Ebola: quarantine would affect mostly people returning from Africa
Corona: quarantine affects everyone
Ebola broke out during Obama’s administration, so Fox News hyped it up to show how Obama wasn’t doing enough to protect us
Corona broke out during Trump’s admin, so Fox News has been downplaying it so Trump doesn’t get blamed.

Operating theory: where you get your news from matters. Those of us who get our news from the internet were plugged into Chinese happenings (not just internet racists). Those of us who get our news from the TV, by contrast, were less informed (even the TV racists).

Or maybe normies just aren’t as concerned about disease.

Whatever was going on, for whatever reasons, people on the internet were talking about the situation in Wuhan back in January. It was difficult to get trustworthy numbers, but it was pretty easy to get very concerning reports about things like “entire cities shut down.” At the time, we didn’t know whether China was overreacting or not, and we didn’t know whether the virus would spread or not. We’ve had previous concerning viruses like Ebola, SARS, MERS; these were bad viruses, but they never spread that well. (Technically, Covid is a SARS virus.)

The early stages in Wuhan were concerning because the CCP was definitely reacting like this was a huge deal, and this is coming from a government that has not historically acted like it has a huge concern for human life and well-being (at least from the outside perspective, eg, things like the Great Leap Forward killed millions of people,) but that makes it all the more concerning. If a government that doesn’t normally seem to care whether people live or die is suddenly concerned that people are going to die, you get worried.

(It may be that the Chinese government has changed a lot in its concern for human life since the Cultural Revolution and now puts in more effort to take care of its people, but that’s waiting into the weeds of Chinese policy and I don’t really know enough about China to comment coherently.) My point is just that the Chinese response certainly looked concerning.

It was concerning enough that very online people in the US were starting to plan ahead for the pandemic shutdown back in January. For example, I have talked to people who said they had started stocking up on food gradually, just buying a little bit extra each time they went to the store, a bag of rice here, a few cans of soup there, etc. This is a sensible way to do it, because if corona had turned out to be nothing, they you’ll eat the food eventually, and if there is a quarantine, you won’t be caught flat-footed. But most people simply ignored the news back in January–I think most people weren’t even aware that anything was going on in China.

Meanwhile, the reaction from governments and governmental bodies was much more muted. It’s been amazing to watch official medical folks working for the British government come out with ideas like “let’s just go for herd immunity,” which any idiot could have told you was terrible terrible idea. At that point, we had the examples of Iran and Italy in addition to China, so there’s really no excuse for proposing this terrible idea. Being ignorant about what an absolute disaster the Italian hospitals were at that point seems like almost willful ignorance, which is rather frightening.

Unfortunately the same thing is true here in the US. The CDC completely flubbed its early response to Corona. I’ve read a few of the emails released from the CDC, and I don’t see a lot of malice in these documents; I simply see a slow-moving organization that can’t get its act together and doesn’t realize how fast it needs to act. Some of this is probably because most of the health problems in the US, prior to Corona, were slow-moving problems. Our biggest issues these days are things like obesity and heart disease, conditions that will only kill you after multiple decades. The only major new communicable disease we’ve had is AIDS, which also takes years to kill you and hasn’t been a huge deal since the 90s. (You also generally have to be involved in some specific activities to catch AIDs. You can catch corona, by contrast, just by breathing.) So the CDC has not had to actually deal with a new, fast-spread epidemic disease in a very long time (if ever) and weren’t ready to act quickly. For example, they tried to deploy a digital questionnaire to airports for screening international arrivals, but the questionnaires had major problems, like an inability to save the information entered. Unfortunately, “predicting pandemics” and “coding questionnaires” are two different skillsets.

I think these people working for the CDC were probably watching ordinary TV news, which hasn’t done a great job of getting on the ground information about what’s going on with corna in different countries–CDC employees aren’t magic, after all. They have to get information from somewhere, and most of them are probably ordinary people who watch ordinary sources. If you watch MSNBC and MSNBC is not airing frontline reports from inside Chinese or Italian hospitals, then you have to go on YouTube to see videos of people dying in the hallways of Italian hospitals (maybe that’s not even on YouTube anymore. Maybe you have to go to LiveLeak). If you’re not the kind of person to seek out this information in the first place, or maybe you’re not in a group of people online who are talking about it, then you might not hear about it. It’s possible that maybe these CDC guys really just did not realize how serious this is and how fast they needed to act. They’re watching the media for information, and meanwhile the media is taking its cues from the CDC, and the whole thing becomes a circle with insufficient “official” sources of information.

As I’ve joked, early on you could have gotten better information from some random guy on Twitter named something like AnimeNaziTits999 than from the official government websites, but the CDC obviously can’t go getting its information from random anons. I can, because I’m just a random person with a blog, but the CDC has to get its information from official sources, or at least sources that don’t have really embarrassing names. The way some information sources are designated “official” is interesting, too. Sometimes that works–sometimes you really need to go to the official experts. For example, if you want to know about quantum thermodynamics, it’s really best to find an actual professor or read a real textbook on the subject, rather than listen to random lay people. People who haven’t put a lot of effort into learning quantum thermodynamics tend not to know anything about it (I don’t know anything about it, either), but there’s a ton of feel-good woo bullshit on anything related to “quantum.”

By contrast, there’s clearly no official route to get information from Wuhan, China, (or Italy) to the CDC–or if there are official routes, they have numerous choke points where people are suppressing information.

It’s not just China that’s suppressing information. I noticed the official news here in the US, until very recently, has had very little coverage of what’s actually been going on at the hospitals. I understand why we didn’t get much information about what was happening in Wuhan hospitals, but what about Italian hospitals? Our media can bring us a drone footage of migrants marching through Mexico, they can get into the front lines of refugees trying to cross from like turkey to Greece, they can even get embedded in military operations in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, but they couldn’t get into an Italian Hospital.

I don’t believe that for an instant.

I think somebody didn’t want this information getting out. Not necessarily because they’re evil, scheming people, but for the same reasons that the police didn’t want that doctor talking in China: they didn’t want people to be alarmist. Or they just weren’t set up to write articles on the subject. Clearly the New York Times was ready to write articles about Catholic highschool students who smiled awkwardly at Native American activists, but they weren’t ready to write articles about pandemics overwhelming Italian hospitals.

So we end up with very strange reports. We get told that in Spain they’ve commandeered ice rinks to store the bodies. That’s pretty graphic, but the net effect is like a media blackout on was actually going on in hospitals in the US.

Or perhaps the doctors don’t want things to reflect badly on their hospital, or are too busy to go pursuing media contacts. As an acquaintance pointed out, it’s very normal for employees to not be allowed to speak directly to the media about their jobs. So in China they have centralized censorship and in the US we have decentralized censorship. Great. Huge improvement.

But even if doctors can’t say much, you’d think media personnel who pride themselves on their investigative journalism heritage as the descendants of Woodward and Bernstein would say, “screw non-disclosure, I’m taking a camera down ER.” Folks who could get themselves embedded in a war ought to be able to manage an Italian ER, but I guess not.

We needed to know just how bad this was back in January. We needed to be making plans in February. At that point, people were still playing games and writing articles about how the flu was a bigger deal than Covid. The CDC needed to be raising the alarm and going on full alert, yelling that this was going to be a huge problem, but I don’t think they realized just how bad it was going to be, because they didn’t have the right information because their information chain, while normally good, wasn’t going through the right people and there were too many people with choke points on crucial information. We’ve got too many HR managers, too many PR guys at the hospitals telling people not to talk with the press, and too many people in the press saying that random anons on the internet are not valid sources of medical information (even though many of these folks on the internet are actually epidemiologists, virologists, doctors, etc).

An this has been happening in tandem with attempts by different organizations like Google, Twitter, and Facebook to crack down on the “invalid” information sources. Censorship, basically. Google has changed parts of their search algorithm to decrease results from blogs and increase results from more official websites, for example (before you run off to Duck Duck Go, I don’t think my blog is even indexed on Duck Duck Go). Shortly before corona really blew up, the social networks were debuting a beta program for identifying “fake news.” We can just imagine in a case like this where there has been a lot of incorrect information just because it’s a developing situation and we don’t know what’s going on yet, (we may never know how many people actually died in Wuhan) many legitimate news stories could get censored. Trying to weed out all of the fake news puts a damper on the real news and too many real things will get labeled as fake because we don’t know they’re real, yet. The real is in the future; it’s still developing. We don’t know what it is, yet. Too many real stories will sound, like the ophthalmologist raising the alarm in Wuhan, like a guy yelling fire in a crowded theater when the theater is actually on fire.

This is why I am against censorship and in favor of letting people run around saying dumb things, like that the tides prove the Earth. Yes, Galileo was wrong–and yet, the Earth moves.

Is the News Bad for You?

Whilst traveling through the darkest depths of the unexplored heartland of America, I encountered a mysterious beast I had only glimpsed in the many years since I left home at 18: 

The News. 

What was this flag-waving, headshot-zooming, sound effects-ridden creature, and why did it care that someone in Ohio doesn’t like “Baby its Cold Outside?” 

I really can’t stay (but baby there’s meth outside) 

Extended viewing (or listening) to what now passes for “news” on the 24-hour cable channels strikes me as bad for one’s mental health (possibly physical, as well.)

What is so bad about the news? 

First, it is a never-ending stream of disasters, and disasters naturally tend to make people anxious and worried. But the disasters featured on the news are rarely relevant to your own life–most of them take place on the other side of the country, if not the planet. 

In the past couple of months, you probably heard about wildfires in California, the War in Yemen, ISIS, someone shooting up a Christmas Market in Europe, Ebola in Africa, protests in France, children being gassed at the border, and of course the dire threat of secular Christmas Carols being taken off the radio in Ohio and rap music in Russia. 

Chances are good that none of these things directly affects you. 

How many news stories can you think of that actually occurred in your local community and have some relevance to your actual life?

The Guardian presents it better than I can:

News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you.

Strong words from a newspaper

At the very best, you are spending time and energy worrying about stuff that doesn’t actually affect you, while not learning about stuff–such as your neighbors’ thoughts on pest control–that actually does affect you. 

And at worst, you are making yourself ill by feeding your mind constant disaster footage: 

Witnessing images of extreme violence: a psychological study of journalists in the newsroom

User Generated Content – photos and videos submitted to newsrooms by the public – has become a prominent source of information for news organisations. Journalists working with uncensored material can frequently witness disturbing images for prolonged periods. How this might affect their psychological health is not known and it is the focus of this study. …

Regression analyses revealed that frequent (i.e. daily) exposure to violent images independently predicted higher scores on all indices of the Impact of Event Scale-revised, the BDI-II and the somatic and anxiety subscales of the GHQ-28.  …

The present study, the first of its kind, suggests that frequency rather than duration of exposure to images of graphic violence is more emotionally distressing to journalists working with User Generated Content material. 

If being exposed to the news is bad for journalists, it’s probably bad for you, too: 

The Relationship between Self-Report of Depression and Media Usage:

In this study, we tested if self-report of depression (SRD), which is not a clinically based diagnosis, was associated with increased internet, television, and social media usage by using data collected in the Media Behavior and Influence Study (MBIS) database (N = 19,776 subjects). … These analyses found that SRD rates were in the range of published rates of clinically diagnosed major depression. It found that those who tended to use more media also tended to be more depressed, and that segmentation of SRD subjects was weighted toward internet and television usage, which was not the case with non-SRD subjects, who were segmented along social media use. This study found that those who have suffered either economic or physical life setbacks are orders of magnitude more likely to be depressed, even without disproportionately high levels of media use. However, among those that have suffered major life setbacks, high media users—particularly television watchers—were even more likely to report experiencing depression, which suggests that these effects were not just due to individuals having more time for media consumption.

One woman I know got so worked up reading/watching articles and news reports about the Catholic Priest Scandals that she spent a week weeping and is now undergoing therapy for PTSD. 

Stupid? Yes. Nevertheless, people are doing this to themselves. 

Another woman I know recently announced that she thought “God was weeping” because things have gotten so bad in the world. After some questioning, she claimed that wars and third-world poverty are “worse than ever”–despite the fact that poverty is actually at the lowest it’s ever been and she lived through WWII

Does watching the news make you any better informed? 

No. 

From Pew, Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions

Since the invention of 24 hour Cable News Networks, general knowledge of political matters has gone down slightly. 

If you must follow the news, do so in print or listen to PBS/NPR--these are the sources with a track record for not actively making you dumber

Looking at those who get their news primarily through radio and television, for most, following the news more or less closely had no reliable relation to whether respondents believed clear evidence had been found that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were working closely together. Fox News was the exception. Those who followed the news closely were far more likely to have this misperception. Among those who did not follow the news at all 42% had the misperception, rising progressively at higher levels of attention to 80% among those who followed the news very closely. On the other hand, those respondents who get their news primarily from print sources were less likely to have this misperception if they were following the Iraq situation more closely. Of those not following the news closely, 49% had the misperception–declining to 32% among those who followed the news very closely.

More on this phenomenon.

This analysis is harsh on Fox, but keep in mind that it is specifically looking at misperceptions related to a war championed by Republicans–we might find a similar effect for different networks if we were looking for misperceptions related to something championed by a Democratic president. 

The news makes money by convincing you to watch it–that is, it has a self-interest in being addictive, not in making your life better. The constant parade of anxiety-inducing disasters is one way they capture your attention; the nausea-inducing zooming camera pans and waving flags are another. Some news personalities are actually good at their jobs despite the distractions, but on average, the more boring stations and media do a better job of conveying actual facts, probably because they are less distracting.

The news is one-way communication: it is a voice constantly talking to you, not you talking back (well, you can talk back, but it can’t hear you.) Would you spend so much time listening, in real life, to someone who never listened to you? 

There is something insidious about a voice that talks constantly to you, that decides what is an isn’t concerning, that uses psychological manipulation to keep you listening, and doesn’t listen to you. 

None of which is to say that the news media is intentionally evil or trying to cause harm–these things are just natural side effects of the way media works–the network that convinces more people to watch makes more money than the one that doesn’t. You have a natural desire to hear about disasters, because before the invention of mass media, almost all of them were actually relevant to your life. This also need not condemn any particular news channel–these factors apply to them all.

You can always tell someone who pays too much attention to the news, because their attention shifts radically from week to week. One day, Russia–a nation with a GDP smaller than South Korea’s and a per capita GDP almost as low as Mexico’s–is a critical threat to democracy; the next week Saudi Arabia, a dictatorship well known for things like “funding 9-11,” “women must wear burkas and can’t drive,” and “starving Yemeni children,” is suddenly catapulted from “not a problem” to “defcon 12.”

A week later, all of these things are forgotten because Trump paid off a prostitute, which is clearly a pressing national problem, right up there with Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. 

Remember, the European witch-hunt hysteria was spread via the newly-adopted printing press, which made it easy for reports of broom-riding, devil worshiping, and livestock metamorphosis to spread from town to town. The equally absurd Satanic Daycare Scare of the 1980s was also spread by the News, this time on TV and radio.

There are probably some good sides to the news–it’s probably worthwhile to be informed about the world on some level, and it’s certainly useful to know what’s going on in your local area or economic trends that affect your business. 

But be careful about letting strangers determine what you know and what you care about.

Is the Internet Making us Worse at Spotting Scams?

For a long time, I’ve believed that the internet was significantly decreasing peoples’ vulnerability to scams, mostly through the power of search engines + sites like Snopes and Wikipedia. So if your uncle says, “Hey, I heard about this rock in New Mexico with ancient Hebrew writing on it from the time of Moses,” you can look it up in Wikipedia and confirm that it’s most likely a fraud.

But maybe we’re just changing from believing one set of dumb ideas to another set of dumb ideas.

For example, my [relative] has mentioned a plan to colonize Mars a couple of times now. Apparently they’ve been talking about it on “The Big Bang Theory,” which “just goes to show (relative’s words, not mine,) how up-to-date the show’s creators keep their science.” I’ve heard nothing about this from anyone but them, which makes me rather skeptical. Yesterday they were complaining, “Why are we going all the way to Mars, when we haven’t even colonized the moon?”

IDK, why go to the moon when we haven’t finished settling Nebraska?

Anyway, today I happened across this article: Mars One Finalist: It’s All a Scam

Now, I know nothing about this; I don’t know whether it’s all a scam or not. But a private organization is not a “we”; it’s just people claiming they’re going to do stuff.

My relative gets their news these days largely from Yahoo, which isn’t terrible but probably isn’t the greatest. Not that yahoo necessarily intends to deceive, but a lot of their information is just as inaccurate as its ever been. (Yes, Bush won by the biggest margin ever, you keep repeating that.)

Of course, if you are misinformed about something, it’s rather hard to tell. So how could we figure it out?

(The perspective of an older-than-me person who has been observant long enough to have a good idea of how prone people were to being taken in by scams in, say, the ’80s as opposed to today would be valuable.)

The Great Informationing

I’ve never been convinced by the Singularity argument (when graphs start going straight up, my assumption is that a crash is immanent,) but I do believe we are in the midst of a great period of data conglomeration via the wonders of Google, Wikipedia, Snopes, etc., etc., with the effect that many formerly disparate strands of thought will (are) finally find each other, producing new insights.

The process has most likely been going on for quite a while, of course. For evidence, I point to the general plethora of nonsense that was widely believed back in the ’80s–UFOs, faith healing, crop circles, ley lines, ESP, psychics, horoscopes, Satanic daycares, and religion in general–that has drastically declined in popularity since the internet arrived.

The potential for data conglomeration to really benefit people seems most obvious in medicine.

There are probably some downsides, of course. Our general bullshit detection modes aren’t all that advanced, after all. So there’s still a lot of nonsense wandering around. But one can hope for a brighter future.