It’s already started, but in the weeks and months to come, we can expect to see many more recriminations about who’s to blame for the disastrous flooding of America’s fourth-largest city.
Undoubtedly, there will be plenty of blame to go around. News reports going back years already indicate that Houston city planners and state officials alike have failed to prevent sprawling development in flood-prone areas, have dragged their heels or covered their ears in response to scientists’ warnings about rising seas, greater moisture in the atmosphere, increasing risks of extreme rainfall and extreme drought. And certainly the same holds true across many other states, and at the federal level as well.
Of course, budgets that have starved infrastructure spending, anti-regulation zeal, and legislation that — in far too many ways — has enabled bad behavior by business at the expense of ordinary citizens, essentially privatizing benefits and socializing risks … all these also hold a share of the blame. But the rest of us have all played our small parts as well.
Any one of us who shushed talk about greenhouse gases, the oil-and-gas sector or climate change during previous natural disasters because “now is not the time to politicize things”… we’ve helped enable, just a little bit, so much denial and so many bad decisions higher up. Most of us — most — are perfectly capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. Guess what? We can drive a rescue boat, set up cots at an emergency shelter or fill up sandbags while also talking about the elephant in the room: climate change.
Anyone who snickered at Al Gore, or nodded knowingly when someone on TV railed about “Climategate”… you’ve enabled this current disaster in a small way too.
For every journalist who’s lazily turned a climate science story into a he-said-she-said piece by also quoting a repeatedly discredited climate change denier, there are hundreds or thousands of us who said nothing, wrote no letters to the editor, made no calls to the newspaper’s ombudsman (if it had one) to complain about the tedious and irresponsible false equivalency.
For every news report about an oil giant’s behind-the-scenes funding of climate doubt and denier propaganda, there are thousands or tens of thousands of us who maybe hold a bit of stock in one of those companies, but shrugged off the possibility of divesting or at least joining in some shareholder action to demand better behavior.
For every city, state or federal lawmaker who fought tooth and nail against proposals to limit development in flood-prone areas, decarbonize the economy or tax polluting businesses for their carbon emissions, there are millions of us who said nothing because we didn’t want to pay for any of these things either.
Sooner or later, though, reality has a way of making deferred bills come due. And we’ve just been handed a whopper for Harvey. Unless we start taking very different actions now, we can expect more bills like it to keep coming.
Today’s hue and cry over “fake news” is nothing new. History is filled with stories of people insisting that reality isn’t real. History consistently proves these people wrong in the end.
In the shorter term, reality has another way of putting a damper on irrational, non-evidence-based and just-plain-stupid assertions and policies: they often cost way, way more in the end than do rational ideas, making them fiscally irresponsible as well.
In other words, they’re “penny wise, pound foolish.”
While I was visiting Saint Augustine earlier this year, a guide at the historic Castillo de San Marcos recounted how city leaders long ago once tried to save money by paving some roads with wood blocks instead of stone. Heavy rains and flooding eventually caused those pavers to float away, though, so the city ended up having to spend money anyway on a more long-lasting alternative.
You would think the people in charge would learn after things like this happen again and again. But they often don’t.
You would also think the rest of us would care more about costly mistakes like this. Again, though, too often we don’t. Because these costly mistakes are frequently made in the name of various strongly held political beliefs about “belt-tightening,” “personal responsibility” and “law and order.”
In the past two weeks alone, for example, federal courts have ruled against Texas redistricting maps three times, citing those maps’ intentional efforts to discourage minority voters. So the Texas legislature will have to go back to the drawing board and waste time and money redoing something it should have done right the first time.
As Esquire’s Charles Pierce noted today, “This fandango has been going on for six freaking years.”
Not exactly fiscally responsible or in the best interest of taxpayers or voters, right?
You’ll find the same costly mistakes in the get-tough-on-crime area too. Look no further than the Chicago Police Department’s history of unjustified beatings, shootings and other misconduct. Whatever you think about “law and order,” you’ll likely agree that having to pay $662 million between 2004 and 2016 for settlements, judgments and lawyer fees is probably not a good use of taxpayer dollars.
What about the economic calculus of climate change prevention vs. climate change costs and damages? Don’t get me started. Lord Nicholas Stern covered that in exquisite detail in a ground-breaking report in 2006, and — 10 years later — he continues to stand by those findings.
And now, with a hurricane with the potential for monstrous flooding across hundreds of miles fast approaching the coast of Texas, comes word that the U.S. Border Patrol plans to keep its roadside immigration checkpoints open during evacuations. Not only is this needlessly cruel in the middle of a developing natural disaster, it’s dumb too. If you’ve ever had to evacuate for a hurricane, you know it’s slow, bumper-to-bumper traffic for miles on end. Checking papers — or doing anything else that makes evacuation even slower — puts lives at risk. Not just those of the undocumented, but the lives of everyone in those sprawling traffic lines.
Penny wise and pound foolish, it seems, isn’t always even about pennies and pounds. Instead, it’s sometimes about punishing other ideas, beliefs and people, no matter the cost.
Remember “Jaws,” when the guys on the Orca first spot the shark? Hooper, Richard Dreyfus’ character, asks Chief Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider, to step out on the bowsprit, over the water, so he can take a photo of the shark. Brody’s not interested, but Hooper knew what he was doing: without the police chief in the frame, the photo wouldn’t provide a proper scale of the beast. Anyone looking at a picture of a shark with nothing but ocean on all sides would have no way of knowing whether it was a four-foot fish or a 25-foot monster.
That’s what good journalism does: it not only reports the who, what, where, when, why and how, but it provides context… a sense of perspective that helps readers understand the scale of the story in relation to the subject’s place in the world.
Done well, this providing of context helps a story make sense to readers who might not be as steeped in the details of the topic at hand as the subjects of the story and the journalist might be. For instance, it could make more clear why a 2-degree C average global temperature increase from climate change could be devastating for millions, even though a 2-degree difference on any day might simply mean you wear a sweater instead of short sleeves.
Done badly, or manipulatively, though, a journalist’s perspective doesn’t enlighten. Rather, it can be used to mislead, misinform or inflame.
When used this way, news is no more accurate than those forced-perspective photographs you’ve probably seen that purport to show someone holding an impossibly large dog, rat or gecko. There are no four-foot-long rats in the Holocene, but a clever camera angle and a person holding a smaller rat in a particular way can make it look like it’s a giant.
Now, a trained zoologist would likely spot such deception instantly. But someone who knows nothing about rats could very well be fooled.
The same holds true with perspectives in written or spoken reporting: a climatologist watching a misleading news report about, say, historic carbon dioxide concentrations or past sea levels will be able to spot the deception. Viewers with little science training, though? Not so much.
That’s why manipulated news — not necessarily “fake” news — can be so damaging. It uses an imbalance of information to convey not facts, but a particular viewpoint with a particular aim. And that leaves readers or viewers not only misinformed about one thing, but less informed (as Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll (PDF) discovered about Fox News viewers) about the world as a whole. When that happens, conditions are ripe for all sorts of false, ridiculous, illogical and unrealistic beliefs to spread… from the existence of four-foot rats and large wads of undigested gum in your digestive system to global “conspiracies” of climate scientists or vaccination advocates “in it for the money.”
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.” – Roy, “Blade Runner”
Of all the qualities I find hard to understand in my fellow humans, one that’s especially baffling is incuriosity. The universe is such a vast and amazing place, and we each have so little time in which to take it all in… how could anyone not want to soak in as much of nature’s wonders as possible?
Children, of course, are naturally curious. Curiosity is the impetus that drives their learning about the world: What happens when I drop this egg? What does a dog think? Why am I right-handed but he prefers his left hand? Why is the sky blue?
So many questions. We all had them at some point. But for some of us, sometime in our early years, that curiosity faded, as did the sense of wonder.
Which is why yesterday’s total solar eclipse across the U.S. was such a joy. News broadcasts, social media posts and photos from coast to coast showed kids and grownups of all ages taking a break from their normal daily activities to go outside, don cheap, silly-looking glasses — if not welders’ helmets or boxes with pinholes — and stare at the Sun as it changed from bright disk to crescent to blotted-out corona. And almost every image showed them doing so with child-like grins of delight. The eclipse was special and amazing and wonderful and just so cool.
Surprisingly, there were tears too. My favorite moment was when The Weather Channel’s Stephanie Abrams had just watched the totality end in Madras, Oregon, took off her glasses to begin wrapping up the moment and was suddenly speechless, choking with emotion. She didn’t know why she was so emotional, she said… she just was.
I’ll admit I shared those tears. And I suspect many others did as well. A brief glimpse of nature’s all-too-often ignored grandeur — a peek at God, if you will, whatever God might mean to you — especially while in the company of millions of your fellow humans, can do that.
Hold onto such moments, if you can. Because wonder and curiosity are not just for children, as yesterday’s little miracle showed. They enrich the mind and the soul, and draw us together in good ways, when far too many other things pull us apart. We need more of these moments… many, many more.
Why do we care what is real or isn’t? What does it matter?
Some 2,500 years ago, a disinformation campaign aimed at the Persian king Xerxes thwarted that ruler’s ambitions of conquering Greece and changed the course of Western civilization. Several hundred years later, Roman emperor Julius Caesar drummed up political support among common citizens by writing a book about his wars in Gaul; the first-hand accounts served to polish Rome’s image as a great empire and brought public opinion against Caesar’s critics in the Senate.
Long before Facebook, Twitter and today’s attacks on “fake news,” people have been using carefully crafted information – and disinformation – to achieve their personal, political or other goals.
Does this mean that any effort to sort truth from falsehood is pointless and hopeless from the start? Of course not. As anyone who lives in the physical world, as opposed to the digital one, knows, we understand that some things are fundamentally true because we see them happening, or we see and feel the very real effects they have on our lives.
We’re still real, physical beings who depend on the real, physical world for our essential needs. We could be hooked up to the fastest Internet connection via the most advanced gaming/multimedia computer available, but we wouldn’t be able to enjoy it for long without also having access to oxygen, water, food, sleep and shelter. You might rule in the online world, but an untreated influenza infection or a blow to the head with a hammer could still kill you. Until we can upload our consciousness into the digital realm, we remain susceptible to real-world threats ranging from poverty and malnutrition to war and pandemics.
In the digital world, though, threats are trickier, harder to understand and more difficult to verify. A phishing email, for example, might look very much like a message from someone you know at work. Instead, it could actually come from an online scammer or hacker who’s figured out how to game your company’s IT system and trick you in hopes of stealing money or inside information. Similarly, an unflattering picture of a world leader could go viral, reaching millions via social media, long before the original photographer might discover her image had been digitally altered and hijacked by someone with an agenda.
Thanks to advances in technologies like machine learning, such digital tricks are fast becoming easier to pull off and harder to detect. It won’t be long before audio and video files, rather than just photos, can be doctored to make it look or sound like people are saying and doing things they never said or did.
Which leads us to more questions: How do we even know what is real anymore? Have we reached the point where anything could potentially be true?
Our best understanding of the world still matters. Dangerous diseases and injuries are treatable and survivable because centuries of science and medicine have developed essential knowledge and skills: antivenin can prevent you from dying from a cobra bite, a tourniquet can keep you from bleeding to death from an arterial wound. We can plan for a sunrise church service on the beach next Sunday because astronomers and meteorologists have a pretty reliable understanding about when the sun will come up and the likelihood of rain or storms. Some things are true because years and years of observation, experience and experimentation have shown them to be true… or at least close enough to truth to help us make better, rather than worse, decisions.
To dismiss knowledge like this and assert that everything is in doubt and anything might be true is to jump down the rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland and surrender ourselves to whoever or whatever sounds most appealing and most compelling. But that’s taking a chance on information sources who might have their own best interests at heart rather than yours. Are you really willing to be a dupe of someone who – like the Athenian naval commander Themistocles did with his misinformation campaign against Persia’s Xerxes – is looking to manipulate you for personal, political or financial gain?
If there’s any good reason for us to try to separate real information from misinformation, it’s this: you don’t want to be a sucker.
Since receiving considerable — and justified — criticism for helping Trump’s election with false equivalence coverage, media outlets have become better about adding “he said without evidence” caveats whenever the president says or tweets something outrageous. However, it appears for now that they’re applying that lesson to only one subject: the president himself.
This is a mistake, and it needs to be corrected ASAP.
Case in point: recent coverage of the planned, and now postponed, “March on Google” events. Marches in several U.S. cities had been announced by people angered by Google’s recent decision to fire a software engineer whose leaked manifesto questioned diversity efforts and used bad science to suggest biology might explain why fewer women work in tech. Presumed to include supporters of the so-called “alt-right,” the organizers have since delayed those marches citing “terrorist threats.”
And guess who they blamed for those alleged threats? The “alt-left” best known for having recently been called out by President Trump in his “all-sides-to-blame” press conference meltdown, which followed the deadly white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend.
On their Website on Wednesday, March on Google organizers said they were postponing the events due to “credible threats,” including one from the “alt-left” that purportedly referred to a planned attack by automobile. But their announcement offered no supporting evidence — no screen grabs, no voicemails, no quotes, etc. — and provided no specifics on the “relevant authorities” contacted.
Subsequent news coverage about the postponement varied in how such vague “threats” were reported. Many were appropriately straightforward or cautious; CNNMoney, for example, went simply with the headline, “The ‘March on Google’ is off,” while Mashable used the more skeptical, “Google protests called off after organizers blame Trump’s newest scapegoat.”
Too many other outlets, however, reported the news in more credulous terms. New York Magazine left out the “alt-left” part but still headlined its story, “Alt-Right Organizers Cancel the March on Google, Citing ‘Terrorist Threats.'” And Politico ran with the completely unsubstantiated headline, “Organizer puts March on Google on hold after threats.” In the accompanying story, it also noted that the group “received threats,” rather than “allegedly received threats” or “said it received threats.”
Journalists and editors need to keep working to do better. Remember: Every word you choose in reporting news, especially on powder-keg topics, matters. So choose them carefully and make sure they’re truly justified.
Just as pseudoscience — “science-y sounding” information that is not scientific — is dangerous when used to convey misinformation about health, energy, the environment and other topics, “pseudonews” is dangerous when used to convey misinformation about politics, finance, regulations, public policy and other matters of importance to citizens and society.
It’s not necessarily “fake news,” because it might accurately portray certain events and occurrences, although not everything about those events and occurrences. But, just as with pseudoscience, pseudonews is designed to deceive and mislead, not inform, educate and enlighten.
And this is where our current digital landscape complicates things greatly: with hundreds of thousands of websites purporting to present news from every angle and viewpoint, it’s incredibly difficult to sort real news from pseudonews… because there’s so much more of the latter. Unfortunately, technology companies have enabled this confusion because it benefits their bottom lines — in the form of advertising dollars — to the detriment of factual reporting and healthy public discourse.
As Jonathan Taplin noted in an Aug. 12, 2017, commentary in The New York Times, “Google Doesn’t Want What’s Best for Us”:
“The rise of Google and the other giant businesses of Silicon Valley have been driven by a libertarian culture that paid only lip service to notions of diversity. Peter Thiel, one of the ideological leaders in the Valley, wrote in 2009 on a blog affiliated with the Cato Institute that ‘since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of capitalist democracy into an oxymoron.’
“If women should not even have the vote, why should we worry about gender diversity in the engineering ranks?” Taplin continued. “The effects of the darker side of tech culture reach well beyond the Valley. It starts with an unwillingness to control fake news and pervasive sexism that no doubt contributes to the gender pay gap.”
While there are plenty technology leaders who don’t share Thiel’s retrograde beliefs, too many others have for long attempted to stay “neutral,” to stay above the fray of gender politics, race politics, climate change politics and a cornucopia of other fraught politics. The result, however, has been an explosion of pseudonews and misinformation across the online world, from Facebook to Twitter, Google to Reddit, and beyond.
That ugliness has now begun spreading out further into the “real world,” where anonymous trolling and ugly memes are replaced by very real and physical threats to the well being of individual people, democracy and society as a whole. If “neutrality” and “all-sides-are-equal” responses were inadequate before, they’re now unacceptable.
In the wake of this past weekend’s events in Charlottesville, I thought it might be helpful to consider science’s understanding of hedging language, and how word choices can color our understanding of news coverage and officials’ responses.
Hedging language uses cautious wording to imply lower certainty in a statement. Cognitive linguist/philosopher George Lakoff wrote famously in 1972 that it is the job of such words to “make things fuzzier.” Newcastle University’s Writing Development Centre, for example, offers these two example sentences, one with hedging language and one without:
“Water shortages trigger conflict between nations.”
“Water shortages may trigger conflict between nations.”
Hedge words are common in academic writing to reflect the level of certainty — or lack thereof — in a study’s findings, the university notes. However, they’re also regularly used in political speech, news coverage and other public pronouncements. Sometimes the use is well-intended, in the interest of reflecting accuracy as well as possible. At other times, though, hedging can be more disingenuous and designed to suggest uncertainty where there is none.
Consider the findings of a 2014 study by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, who found that two U.S. newspapers — The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal — used hedging language in their climate change coverage considerably more than did two counterparts in Spain, El Mundo and El Pais. Interestingly, the study also found that the use of hedge words in climate change news stories increased among all four newspapers over time, even as certainty in climate science itself increased.
“Uncertainty is an inherent feature of contemporary scientific inquiry as well as everyday decision-making,” researchers Adriana Bailey, Lorine Giangola and Maxwell T. Boykoff wrote in their paper, published in the journal Environmental Communication. “Yet ‘translating error bars into ordinary language,’ as Henry Pollack described it (2003, p. 77), may result in varied representations of uncertainty with different potentials to inform individual and collective action, particularly since the reduction of uncertainty around scientific issues has long been framed as a prerequisite for meaningful political and policy progress (Zehr, 2000).”
Hedging language can include many different types of words and phrases. Expressions like “for the most part,” “more or less,” “pretty much,” “sort of” and “typically” all fall into that category, as do other words or word combinations like “possibly,” “apparently,” “to our knowledge,” “it seems,” “might” and “I guess.” Hedging can also be expressed through passive, agentless language, like the president’s use today of “Justice will be delivered,” in his belated condemnation of white supremacists’ actions in Charlottesville.
In their “Hedging Annotation Manual,” Columbia University researchers Anna Prokofieva and Julia Hirschberg offer several questions that can help decide whether speakers or writers are hedging their words:
- “Is the speaker being deliberately uninformative (or under-informative)?”
- “Is the speaker uncertain?”
- “Is the speaker trying to downplay the force of their utterance?”
“If the answer is yes to any of these, then there is a much higher likelihood that the utterance under consideration contains a hedge.”
Hedge words can be used for a variety of reasons, Prokofieva and Hirschberg note.
“Their use has been correlated with many discourse functions, such as trying to save face (Prince et al, 1980), indicating politeness (Ardissono et al, 1999) and cooperative intent (Vasilieva, 2004), as well as attempting to evade questions and avoid criticism (Crystal, 1987). In general, hedging can be seen as a manifestation of the speaker’s attitude towards a claim and towards their audience (Isabel, 2001). The use of hedge words (or the lack thereof) can shape an audience’s opinion of the speaker and of their argument (Blankenship and Holtgraves 2005; Hosmon and Siltamen 2006; Erickson et al, 1978). As such, locating hedge words and identifying their scope (that is, the propositional content that is being ‘hedged’) may help us identify when such dialogue actions are taking place.”
Common hedging language:
as far as I can tell
as long as
can be viewed as
for the most part
I don’t think
if I understand him/her correctly
if I’m correct
if you will
in a sense
in a way
in case you don’t remember
it would appear
more or less
one doesn’t/one does
so long as
so to say