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self-steeping tea

All right, look Newsweek, I get it. You need a catchy title for a throwaway article, ideally one you can tie into recent events bubbling up on search engines to get those sweet, sweet hits. And it’s understandable that once you start off with that headline, you don’t want to disappoint all those readers who came in to read about people who believe that a flyby of Pluto was just a part of a complicated conspiracy. But at the same time, two idiots who can’t even articulate what it is that was actually conspired and why, and seem to have no idea that there are two of them, aren’t a movement by even the most generous stretch of the imagination. No one except them believes that the New Horizons flyby didn’t happen and most of the people who comment on their videos do so to tell them how incredibly scientifically illiterate they are. For example, take this gem…

A man who goes by Crow Trippleseven questioned the initial Pluto images in a YouTube video last week… His argument: How is it that NASA’s images of Pluto, supposedly taken from a only few million miles away, are of poorer quality than those he took of Jupiter with his telescopic camera from 484 million miles away?

Well, let’s see, you have the lack of an adjustable focal length on the space probe to reduce the amount of moving parts and the fact that Jupiter has a diameter of 86,881 miles and comes as close as 365 million miles to us, while Pluto is 3 billion miles away at its closest and is just 1,473 miles across, or 8 times farther away, 58 times smaller, and fainter by a factor of thousands. So Crow expects a far smaller object, much farther away to be seen as clearly as the largest one in our solar system, gets schooled by countless people who actually realize this because they can do basic math and understand middle school optics, and his ignorance of basic science is proof of a conspiracy and comments calling him out on his imbecilic video are actually “death threats” in light of which he must keep his identity secret. But hold on, what is the actual conspiracy he’s trying to expose? Why is NASA staging a flyby of a would people are slightly curious about?

Maybe the truth is that NASA can’t do as much as we’ve been led to believe. It is a hard thing to know. Why does any government lie to its people? While there seems to be no simple answer, it seems to be the way of things. Governments lie and always have.

Ah, that clears it up. No, wait, no it doesn’t. He’s basically saying that he has no idea why there was a staged flyby of Pluto, what anyone had to gain form it, and what was the point of doing it in the first place, but dammit government lie and this must be a lie too. He’s just there to wake up the sheeple to the fact that there are conspiracies everywhere. His supposed counterpart in the movement of two dullards is just as clueless, basically just saying that he has no idea why a space agency would fake a mission but he knows they faked it. He also appears quite sure that the flouride in his local drinking water is poisonous and doesn’t understand that spacecraft can indeed propel themselves through a vacuum on top of re-tweeting pro-precious metal standard economic pamphlets based on what I’d like to call the peek-a-boo theory of economics, i.e. “if a currency isn’t backed by precious metal I can see and touch, it’s not real money.” So in short, he appears to be a somewhat bored rebel looking for a cause rather than for a clue.

However, this pair does teach us an important lesson. While some of us look to space to get an amazing little dose of inspiration and hopefully a glimpse of our future beyond humanity’s small, fragile blue cradle, others look to the heavens to find something else to complain about with the utmost confidence in their own genius, desperate to come across as incisive thinkers who have answers to life’s toughest questions and out-think the average person. These are people with a huge chip on their shoulders, people who want to be appreciated and admired for their feats of intelligence and insights, and whose eggshell-thin egos cannot process the fact that they more often than not end up coming across as the exact opposites of what they wanted to project. I’m sure they think of an article about them in Newsweek as long overdue recognition, while it really just let them humiliate themselves in public while calling them a movement to milk a few hits…

pop culture aliens

If you don’t remember Chandra Wickramasinghe, here’s a quick refresher. Back in the day, the scientist worked with Fred Hoyle, the brilliant astronomer whose really poorly supported notions about the origins of life inspired many a creationist, and led him and a few of his colleagues on a hunt for evidence of panspermia, the idea that life originated somewhere in deep space and as our planet was finally settling down after its turbulent infancy, it settled here and evolved into all the species we know, and numerous ones we don’t. On the face of it, it’s not an inherently bad, or even wrong idea. It has actually been around since Darwin started wondering about the very same questions, and despite being occasionally criticized, it’s still popular in astrobiology. There does appear to be plenty of interesting evidence in favor of at least some building blocks of life coming form space, especially from asteroids and comets. This is why finding complex organic structures in the carbon layer of 67P wasn’t a surprise at all. In fact it was widely expected.

Yet according to Wickramasinghe, it’s proof that comet 67P is actually teeming with life and the scientific community at large needs to step up and announce that we found aliens. Despite how generously he’s treated by The Guardian’s staff writer however, he’s not a top scientist and his claim to expertise in astrobiology comes from declaring pretty much every newsworthy event in any way related to viral and microbial life as undeniable proof of aliens. He’s done this with mad cow, polio outbreaks, SARS, AIDS, and one of his fans recently declared that Ebola could have come from outer space. His proof of all this? Pretty much none. What papers he published to at least clear up how he thought life actually got its start and how it can travel across billions upon billions of light years so easily were in a vanity journal which was basically mocked into shutting down after failing to include a single entry of real scientific merit, and are absolutely inane. Hey, personally, I’m a huge fan of the panspermia hypothesis myself, but even in my very generous approach to reviewing astrobiology papers, what Wickramasinghe produced was absurd.

But of course, as all cranks eventually do, Wickramasinghe cried conspiracy after his work was battered by other scientists, declaring that astrobiology was a discipline under assault from the conservative geocentric cabal made up of old scientists hell bent on shutting down research on possible alien life forms in the wild. This came as a surprise to the flourishing researchers who had been studying extremophiles, theoretical alien biochemistry, and discovering more proof of organic molecules and water floating in space. You see, astrobiology is doing great and keeps advancing every day. Wickramasinghe, on the other hand, is not doing well because he doesn’t actually conduct any rigorous scientific experiments while desperately aspiring to be the person who goes into the history books as the scientist who discovered alien life. His constant attempts to stay in the media spotlight with his out-of-left-field proclamations and conspiracy theories are the typical self-serving machinations of a vain elder past his prime jealous that someone else is going to do what he aspired to accomplish. Honestly, it’s a sad way to end one’s career, to just chase after those doing the real work with outlandish soundbites and wallowing in self-pity.


Yesterday’s trip into world of bleeding edge physics and what makes up the fabric of space and time may have been a little out there, so why don’t we take a stroll right back into exploring our more base, human appetites? Just two days ago, we took a look into the world of sex-obsessed fundamentalists who are taught that premarital sex causes cancer, and it’s their job to bring all the fallen whores and heretics into God’s good grace with offensive, demeaning metaphors for their sexual pasts. Now, of course we’ve long known that more than 9 out of 10 adults who live in the real world had premarital sex, so obviously society is doomed according to them because all these lustful sinners do is exchange detailed notes about their previous partners, spending a hedonistic lifetime in a state of perpetual disappointment. Or something like that. But my snarky skewering of hot and bothered zealots aside, this does raise an interesting question. How many sexual partners do people actually have through their lives, and has this changed with the dawn of what the media trumpets as “the hookup culture” it blames for the death of relationships?

Now, it’s at this point that we would be expected to whip out some averages and should most of the media be correct, we’d find that from the Boomers, to Generation X, to the Millennials, more and more partners are being registered. But surprise surprise, that’s actually not at all what we see from the data. In fact, the number of average lifetime sexual partners has been declining in the last half century. With the unmistakable help of the 1960’s sexual revolution, baby boomers more than doubled their parents’ tallies to 11 partners, Generation X had one partner less than that, and the over-sexed youth of today tops out at 8 sexual partners on average. Contrary to a constant hysterical screech in the media, we’re not having more sex than ever. In fact, we have something like 27% less of it, having it later, and using protection more and more. Again, unlike we’re constantly told by the morality police, the real world results of comprehensive sex ed are very clear; those exposed to it delay sex, stay healthier, and have fewer partners.

But even that’s not the whole story. Should you actually look at some of the raw data from both formal sexual behavior surveys and casual opinion polls on the web, you’ll find that the average number of partners is actually a very misleading statistic. In reality, “kids” today are having even fewer sexual partners than they appear to from the macro picture. When raw data is plotted on your typical bell curve, putting the number of reported partners on the Y axis and the number of respondents who gave this number on the X axis, you’ll find that the curve peaks quickly and its right side has a long asymptotic tail. In fact researchers who looked into data for 33,000 people to measure our attitudes about certain sexual norms and acts, noted this rather prominently as evidence that most people actually have relatively few partners. If you’ll play around with Slate’s handy little sexual history calculator, you’ll find that the typical 25 year old has just 6 partners or so, just slightly more than his or her grandparents back in their sexual prime.

When you explore the available stats, for all their minor flaws, far from the world ending not with a bang, or well, too much banging, the only change has been that we have become much more open about sex. The media, religious zealots, and helicopter parents are mistaking the youth’s more liberal attitude to talking about sex for their interest in having more sexual partners, when in fact more of them are having sex in the context of relationships, and hooking up less. There’s no hookup culture, no college sex clubs with weekly orgies on every campus, and experiments with the likes of Tinder or hookup sites are over after just a few encounters for the vast majority of Millennials. The scandalous, shameless hooking up right and left is mostly in the minds of the media and the self-appointed, attention-starving morality police, which has a talent for creating salacious and ridiculous rumors about teenage sex that a media hungry for clicks and ratings at any cost is eager to splatter everywhere without even the simplest fact-checking.

Certainly, none of this means that there are no young swingers or millennials who had so much casual sex, they have to make full blown spreadsheets to calculate their final sexual tallies. But they’re a very small minority. In fact, the aforementioned 25 year old today with 50 partners will find him/herself in the 95th percentile, and no one in that age group reports triple digits. While I admit this is totally anecdotal, I have met several people who could credibly claim between 100 and 200 sexual partners, and all but one of them were Gen Xers. And even in an environment where such matters can be discussed freely, this is still rather uncommon and requires a rather long-term dedication to hooking up since the majority of their potential partners would not want to have sex outside the context of some kind of relationship. So with all this considered, can we please drag the myth of an anonymous hookup culture ensnaring young adults through its evil social media and smartphone tentacles behind a shed and put it out of its misery? Please?

sleeping cell phone

Correlation does not mean causation. While it can certainly hint at causation, without evidence showing it, correlation is either curious or outright irrelevant. We could plot the increase in the number of skyscrapers across the world next to the rise of global obesity cases and claim that skyscrapers cause obesity, but if we can’t explain how a really tall building would trigger weight gain, all we did was draw two upward sloping lines on an arbitrary chart. And the same thing is happening with the good, ol’ boogeyman of cell phone radiation, which is supposedly giving us all brain tumors. So, were you to take Mother Jones’ word for it, there are almost 200 scientists armed with over 2,000 studies showing cell phone usage causes gliomas, or cancerous tumors in the central nervous system. When you follow the links, you will find a small group of scientists and engineers signing vaguely worded letters accusing corporate fat cats, who care nothing for human lives, of killing us for profit with cell phones, wi-fi, and other microwave signals that have been saturating our atmosphere for the last half century.

Here’s the bottom line. While there have been ever so slight, tortured correlations between cell phone use and gliomas, no credible mechanism to explain how cell phones would cause them has ever been shown, and every study that purports to have observed a causative mechanism, sees it only in a sterile lab, watching exposed cells in petri dishes. If every such experiment was truly applicable to the entire human body, we’d have a cure for every known type of cancer, as well as drugs that would let us live well into our fifth century. Cells outside the protective bubble of skin, clothes, blood, and without the influence of countless other processes in our bodies and outside of them are the weakest, most speculative level of evidence one could try to muster in showing that electromagnetic fields could cause cancer. My hypochondriacal friends, the words in vitro and in vivo sound similar, but in practice, the two are very, very different. We find more cases of cancer every year not because we’re mindlessly poisoning ourselves with zero regard for the consequences, but because we’re getting really good at finding it.

Just like in the not too distant past people worried that traveling at the ungodly, indecent, not at all meant for humans speed of 25 miles per hour in a train would cause lifelong damage, we’re now dealing with those who believe that all these newfangled electronics can’t be good for us if they’re invisible and have the term “radiation” in their official description. They’re terribly afraid, but unable to offer a plausible mechanism for harm, they rebut skeptics with histrionics invoking tobacco industry denialism, anti-corporatism, and full blown conspiracy theories, calling those in doubt communication industry and electronics shills. Now, for full disclosure I should note that I work with telephony in a very limited capacity. My work centers around what to do with VoIP or other communications data, but that would be enough for those blowing up the Mother Jones’ comment section for that article to dismiss me as a paid shill. Should I protest and show my big doubts about their ideas, they will conveniently back away form calling me a shill sent to spread propaganda to declaring that I’m just a naive sap doomed to suffer in the near future.

It’s infuriating really. Yes, yes, I get it goddamn it, Big Tobacco lied after science ruled that their product was killing their customers and spent billions trying to improve their public image. But in that case, the scientists demonstrated irrefutable in vivo proof of the crippling effects of nicotine and cigarette tar on lab animals, identifying dozens of chemical culprits and how they damaged healthy tissues to trigger tumor growth. Sleazy lawyers were trying to stem a tsunami of quality studies and cold, hard numbers, not vague speculative ideas about how maybe cigarettes can cause cancer while lab studies on rats and mice failed to turn up anything at all. A preemptive comparison of the two does not suggest the rhetorical sophistication of the person doing such comparisons, but intellectual laziness and utter ignorance of how science actually works, and it serves only to clear the debate of any fact or opinion with which this conspiracy theorist doesn’t agree. It’s a great way to build an echo chamber, but a lousy way to make decisions about the quality and validity of what the media sells you. It is, after all, worried about hits, not facts.

But hold on, why would someone latch into the idea that cell phones and GMOs cause cancer, and there’s some shadowy cabal of evil corporations who want to kill us all either for the benefit of the New World Order or their bank accounts, and refuse to let this notion go like a drowning man who can’t swim clinging to a life raft in the open ocean, with sharks circling under his feet? Consider that you have a 33% chance of having cancer in your lifetime, and our modern, more sedentary lifestyles will hurt your health long before that. We can blame genetics, the fact that getting old sucks and we don’t have a cure for aging, and that there is no perfect way to cheat nature and avoid degenerative diseases completely, that we can only stave them off. Or we can find very human villains who we can overthrow, or at least plot against, responsible for all this as they contemplate killing us for fun and profit with deadly cell phones, toxic food, and poisonous drugs that kill us faster to aid their nefarious goals. We can’t fight nature, but we can fight them, and so we will. Even if they aren’t real, but projections of our fear or mortality and the inability to control our fate into equally fallible collections of humans who sometimes do bad things.

newspaper face

If you were to listen to today’s newspapers, blogs provide nothing but sensationalism, rehashes of other blogs, and are just generally ran by rather untrustworthy people sitting at their kitchen tables in their underpants, looking for whatever brings in the big hits. Yes, all major newspapers now feature blogs on their sites but don’t tell their editors that because all to many of them seem completely unaware of this fact as they boast about the need for newspapers to do the longform investigative work that seldom gets done anywhere else, and use this to justify keeping a quickly failing business model afloat through paywalls and lawsuits. And this is why it was very odd for a case against a news clipping service to basically say that readers don’t need any more than the clipping provides, arguing that giving away the lead of the article renders the whole thing totally irrelevant to the public which is why the clipping service should have to pay the papers.

Now it’s true that only newspapers sometimes have the resources to send reporters on complex assignments and work on stories that will take months to result in a huge article that shines new light on something we thought we knew, or exposes a case we want to know more about. Since newspaper ownership is now more of a prestige symbol than a viable business, profits could be sacrificed for the PR value of the resulting story. But PR doesn’t pay the bills and the barriers to investigating big stories keep getting lower and lower. If you’re a professional blogger, you can get a really good chunk of your research done with Skype, Google, Twitter, and Facebook, and when you do need to go out and track someone down for some answers physically, airfare can certainly be justified since you could work from your laptop anywhere with a wi-fi hotspot. You’ll also get a well-researched story and it will cost you less and make you money in ad revenue.

But instead of learning from bloggers how to work more efficiently, newspapers are sticking to a dead tree with ink model and trying to mount paywall after paywall to protect what they’re saying people don’t even need to read past the first paragraph or two. And that makes me wonder why even read them until a huge story comes along. Why print all that paper? Why bother with good, old-fashioned column inches and not simply go all digital with an on-demand print option? The big papers are already doing that with e-readers so why not kill the trees, cut the prices and get bloggers in on the act, learning form them how to attract hits and make the best use of their time and resources? Of course not Nick Denton style mind you, but more of an Ars or Wired who are in the tech game and absolutely get it despite being owned by the dinosaur Conde Nast, which just so happens also made a winning choice on buying Reddit. If there’s so much stuff that’s not worth reading past a few paragraphs, why waste time and money trying to get paid for it?


Skeptics and vocal atheists across the web fumed when Newsweek published a cover story that proclaimed the afterlife to be real based on a firsthand account of a neurosurgeon who nearly lost his bout with meningitis. His tale is hardly atypical from ones we’ve heard many times before across a wide variety of patients who had one foot in the grave and were revived; lush greenery and white fluffy clouds leading to a wonderful and peaceful place, a companion of some sort for what looked like a guided tour of Heaven, all the pieces are there. Such consistency is used by the faithful to say that there must be an afterlife. How else could the stories be so consistent and feature the same elements? If the patients were simply hallucinating as their brains were slowly but surely shutting down, wouldn’t their experiences be radically different? And aren’t a number of them extremely difficult to explain with what we know about how the brain functions?

It’s not as if people could sense when they’re about to die and are constantly bombarded with a description of how they should ascend to Heaven for eternal peace and rest. Wait a minute, wait a minute… They can and they are. So wouldn’t it make sense that so many near death accounts of an ascension to an afterlife follow the same pattern because the patients who remember their alleged journey to the great beyond are told day in, day out how this pattern should go? Most of the tales we get come from the Western world and have a very heavy Judeo-Christian influence coloring them. There’s also a rather odd prevalence of ascending to Heaven in these accounts and cases of people describing torment or something like Hell, while certainly not unheard of in the literature, are exceedingly rare. This either means that much of humanity is good and could look forward to a blissful afterlife, or that most people experience a natural high before death so they feel peaceful and at ease, dreaming of Heaven, while others still feel pain and see Hell.

And this is when Occam’s Razor has to come into play. The second assumption, while not very comforting or marketable to believers who still doubt the idea of an afterlife, makes the fewest, and the most probable assumptions, and if therefore more likely to be true in the absence of a stronger case for a genuine Heaven. We tend to choose the afterlife version of the story since we’re all fundamentally scared of death and no amount of arguing why death is natural or how it just has to happen and there’s nothing we can do about it makes this fear any less. The stories give us hope that we won’t simply cease to exist one day. But whereas believers are satisfied by anecdotal tales, the skeptics feel that we deserve more than just hope being spoon-fed to us. If an afterlife exists, we want to know for sure. We want empirical data. And that’s why trying to sell a story that tickles those who already believe or want to believe in the worst of ways is so rage-inducing to so many skeptics. We need truth and facts to deal with the real world, not truths that people want to hear and facts they can discard at will when they don’t match their fantasy.

At the Slate, political blogger David Wiegel decided to play media mythbuster and publicly clarify Rick Santorum’s instant punch line of a quote about "smart people" not supporting what he sees as the true conservative movement. And he’s right that Santorum was trying to be very bitterly, obnoxiously sarcastic and was really decrying liberal paternalism rather than saying that there’s no such thing as a smart conservative. Even Santorum’s disdain for colleges can’t really come to the rescue of those who desperately wanted to catch him on a Freudian slip because his loathing for post-secondary education is based on the 1960s stereotype of colleges being a communist haven where the evil, godless reds recruited political sleeper cells. What we can say about his argument that conservatives must resist leftist snobs who want to tell them what to do, is that it’s revealingly hypocritical because while he decries liberal paternalism, he very forcefully pushed for rightist paternalism and lashed out at libertarians for not following his lead.

Basically, according to him, liberals telling you what to do is evil because they hate families, and children, and little puppies, and grandma, and apple pie, and they’re sinners constantly mad at God. On the other hand, conservatives publicly declaring what positions should be appropriate for married couples during sex, how to run your household, and who you can date, love, marry, or divorce is perfectly fine because they fall in line with Santorum’s ideology and you better get those listening ears out and pay attention or the terrorists and gays win as America descends into a bisexual-multispecies orgy while Sharia law rules the land. How this would work out since under Sharia law the punishments for premarital sex and homosexual behaviors are extreme to put it mildly, is left for the listeners to imagine in cold sweat. But details and self-awareness are really not Santorum’s strong suits. If they were, he’d at least try to pick whether gays or Muslims are the bigger threat and wouldn’t blatantly advocate doing the exact same thing he opposes from the other side of the ideological divide. The fact that he can’t do that is scary.

A recently trumpeted paper on astrobiology did some very interesting modeling in a search for places on Mars where some very tough terrestrial microorganisms could survive and came to a very surprising conclusion. It appears that some 3.2% of the red planet could be habitable by volume, which would make it more friendly to life than our seemingly idyllic world, a world which has been populated with countless living things for billions of years. Now, considering that the Martian surface is as inhospitable to life as it gets because it’s constantly bathed in radiation potent enough to kill even the most radiation resistant creatures we know to exist, all of this habitable alien real estate is underground, where the deadly rays can’t reach and the temperature and pressure are just right for liquid water to flow through porous rock. Good news, right? If we just dig enough, a future robot, or better yet, a human astrobiologist, should be able to find honest to goodness little aliens.

Yes, little green germs aren’t exactly the little green men of classic science fiction, but hey, at least they’ll be a real extraterrestrial organism and we’ll know for a fact that we’re not alone in the universe. If life could arise on two planets in the same solar system and might be swimming under miles of ice on a moon that looks like a better and better candidate for alien habitation every day, certainly the entire universe is teeming with all sorts of living things, right? Hold that thought. One of the big caveats of using these models as a definitive guide for alien hunting is the lack of detail. In their zeal to report a sensational story, most pop sci outlets just repeated the great statistic and used it as a tie in to Curiosity’s upcoming mission to track down where exactly Martian microbes would settle into a nice colony to call home. But the simulations merely looked at how far down into the red planet’s caves and rocks we could go and still find possible traces of liquid water. The question of an active, frequently stirred and replenished nutrient base for life to function was briefly mentioned in the paper’s disclaimers for future research, despite being the second main prerequisite for habitability.

Of course it’s perfectly fine for a scientific paper to focus on just one narrow question and leave tangents for a team interested in building up on its work. It’s only frustrating when a premise is obviously flimsy or just out of left field and all the important details are waived off as something for others to refine. But in this case, the pop sci news circuit neglected to mention that the authors only set out to see how far Martian rovers could keep on following the water, as per NASA’s strategy for finding life on the red planet, and reported their results as one, big, definitive model showing that Mars is actually more habitable to life than Earth by volume while all it really says is that under the Martian surface, liquid water should be quite plentiful if we extrapolate some models of our own subterranean conditions and ecology to our diminutive, red, desert cousin in the inner solar system, and does a fairly thorough job of establishing the reasoning behind this conclusion. The leap from where we could find water on Mars to declaring that the typically monolithic block known as "scientists" estimate that the caverns of Mars hold three times the habitable territory by volume than Earth from that conclusion was simply a sensationalistic over-exaggeration. We don’t know how truly hospitable to life Mars really is.

But all that said, Mars is a very promising target for extraterrestrial microbes and the curtain of radiation which makes life nearly impossible on its surface will actually aid in our search for them. As noted in the reference, leaving our equipment to soak up the powerful UV rays for a few hours would sterilize it and any biota found in caverns or after digging several dozen feet into the red soil is then extremely likely to be native rather than the forward contamination from our own world. And yes, that means we absolutely should go there and devote as many resources as possible to make walking on Mars a reality. Of course the R&D involved won’t only benefit astrobiologists since the necessary reactors, self-sustaining habitats, and treatments to combat the damage caused by constant exposure to radiation could generate tens of billions in revenues and profits for all of the companies involved in putting together the mission’s toolkits if they channel them into mass market products ranging from medical devices to infrastructure. Actually, come to think of it, maybe one of the best things we’d be able to do for the world’s fragile economy is to go on a hunt for some little green germs and test all the pop sci news friendly astrobiology papers like this one on the actual surface of another planet. We tried just about everything else at this point and it doesn’t seem to be working, so why not think outside the box for a bit?

See: Jones, E., Lineweaver, C., Clarke, J. (2011) An extensive phase space for the potential Martian biosphere Astrobiology DOI: 10.1089/ast.2011.0660

Back in September, news worldwide reported the results of a paper which claimed that a supercomputer had a knack for predicting revolutions and key global events, able to pick up on the events of Tahir square in Cairo and even get a fix on Osama bin Laden’s location. After reviewing the paper in question, I quickly got a strong vibe of many previous projects tried to use computing data to predict the future, projects a lot like Nexus 7, an attempt to mine reams of correlated data for predictive markers. Amazingly, after decades of failure to do that, there are still computer scientists who believe that all they really need is more data and then they’ll find what they want. Just like I wrote before of such attempts, more data simply cannot yield accurate predictions, and the supposed success of the supercomputer in question is actually a retroactive look at speculation followed by the claim that because negative sentiment about Mubarak in Egypt was widespread and because rumors of bin Laden hiding out in Pakistan persisted for years, the supercomputer effectively predicted both. And this is essentially what economist Tim Harford astutely called the God Complex in a relevant TED presentation.

Now, let’s say that the supercomputer in question was given a set of events like the sudden chain of extreme protests in the Middle East which saw over a dozen people self-immolate in front of government offices to which it spat out a chain of events for the Arab Spring, predicting the toppling of the autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, the civil war in Lybia, and the assassination attempt on Yemen’s Saleh. That would be an impressive result and certainly the methodology used to arrive at these conclusions would merit further study. However, I am not aware of any computer coming up with such results. In fact, the paper’s model simply reflected all the buzz about the growing protest movements in Egypt and managed to pinpoint the FATA region of Pakistan as bin Laden’s hiding spot, not even close to where he was actually found, simply echoing the pundits who said that FATA was home to Taliban groups and al Qaeda elements which would be happy to harbor him and very loath to cooperate with any authorities looking for him, no matter what those authorities offered in return. This means that we’re not looking at a predictive model but a news aggregator which knows how to search a few preset keywords in the articles it’s fed and come to a general “mood” of the media.

As an attitude barometer, this machine is fairly effective. But as a predictive model? Not even close. You could even make the same kind of model at home and see its shortfalls for yourself. Simply make a list of negative words like “autocratic,” “tyrannical,” “aggressive,” and “outcry,” a list of positive words like “approval,” “cheers,” “welcomed,” and “helpful,” and a list of neutral words like “consensus,” “mediation,” “satisfied,” and “relaxed,” then include them into a script to parse a news article and identify said words. Then, have the script evaluate how many words fell in each category, giving each category a simple score. For example, 1 would be positive, a zero would be neutral, and -1 would of course be negative. Average your scores together to get a number in between the 1 and -1 bounds and assign that to the news article. Likewise, you should also identify the cities and countries from where the news comes (virtually always listed in the header of a wire service release) so you can map the location. Finally, assign a location flag and a color between green and red with which to flag your article on a map. Keep scanning article after article until you get a lot of data points, connections, and red and green flags. This step may take you a while unless you have a supercomputer. Then, after you’re all done take a look at your map and try to predict the next war, revolution, and scientific breakthrough.

Kind of a challenge, isn’t it? How accurate do you think you will be? And keep in mind that you have to have an extremely well balance news source base. Your map after a few thousand Fox News articles and roughly the same number of AlterNet articles is bound to look very different since the reporting biases will influence word choices, and remember that your entire model runs on those bias-affected words. A world pictured by writers who are on the far right is rather different than the world pictured by those on the far left. Which one would you choose as the most reliable model? Do you trust your own worldviews and those of your news sources to be as impartial as possible and balance out every bit of spin and bias no matter how slight by sheer quantity? It would also be interesting to note foreign language sources and what they say. Come to think of it, this might actually be a very interesting experiment to conduct and it might tell us even more about the state of the press at any given time period. Just don’t use the results to try and predict what will happen over the next year. Many sages have tried and failed and for good reason. A mutation of post hoc ergo prompter hoc is very limited in what it can offer an aspiring soothsayer so if you really want to try to be one, I suggest cold reading. It’s about as effective and requires a lot less coding and a lot less math.

See: Leetaru, K. (2011). Culturomics 2.0: Forecasting large-scale human behavior using global news media tone in time and space First Monday Online Journal, 16 (9)

Virtually every culture, sub-culture, and profession has it’s own method of posturing about how big and oh so very, very important you and your work are, basically, what’s known as a penis waiving contest. Just like male primates are thought to try to intimidate each other with their erections and do so to win mating rights, and as it would seem, female preferences places size limits on those erections, humans use their job titles, cars, and media mentions to boast about how successful they are to win access to more resources or positions of authority in their social group to the extent that we let them before calling them boastful or obnoxious. Pundits like to brag about how many shows they do on a weekly, if not daily basis. Lawyers proudly mention any high profile case on which they worked. Scientists have the impact factor of the journals and studies they publish and the more citations they have, the logic has been going, the better and more prestigious their work. So if a study finding a correlation between violent video games and violence is frequently brought up, well, it must be better than a more obscure one that did not and more valuable in a court case. Right? Actually, no. It isn’t.

One would think that trained scientists, who know that the true value of work is in the data, wouldn’t pay nearly as much attention to it as university quants who use impact factors to judge the worth of a scientific effort. I’m sure you’ll remember how many scientists complained about complicated experiments being reduced to just a couple of meaningless numbers during the tenure decision process, and how many physicists wrote brief rants about impact factors not being what they once used to be on my posts dissecting arXiv studies. So why would a pair of psychologists try to argue that because a legal brief with more popularly cited studies on the alleged link between violent video games and aggression is better than one with less known ones? It’s essentially an argumentum ad populum in academise. Could it be that the psychologists in question, Craig Anderson, Brad Bushman, and Deana Pollard Sacks, who always tend to find that video games and porn are evil and make people more aggressive, are trying to raise their profiles a bit with a few media mentions? The media loves to jump on a controversial topic and they certainly study a few of them. No problem there, but that doesn’t mean they can wave around a paper-thin conclusion as if they had some sort of scientific evidence of relevance to the case, which is exactly what they seem to be trying to do. Their argument boils down to this: in a legal brief arguing that violent video games cause aggression there are more people who published some sort of study in a peer reviewed journal than in the counter-brief, therefore, it’s a better argument.

Do I really even need to point out why this argument is flawed? Shouldn’t I just leave it at that and let this huge and glaring fallacy remain self-evident? We’re talking about 69 people who did a study on the video game and aggression link signing a document saying that video games can make people aggressive and managed to publish it in a top tier journal at some point in time. So because those 69 people were rounded up by a lawyer and signed his brief, that means there’s now a strong link between video games and violent behavior? Say, I seem to remember psychologists who published in respected journals signing on to the Satanic ritual abuse cases concocted by hoaxers to make money from Christian fundamentalists. And there were more than a paltry 69 of them signing just one legal brief. Does this fact mean that we were wrong and there’s now solid, empirical evidence of Satanic ritual abuse and its harm based on how many times papers on it were cited by others, even if it was to show the conclusions as erroneous? Yes, having your paper cited and then dissected actually ads to your impact factor the same way as having it cited as evidence for follow-up or similar work. An impact factor only tells us how much of a splash a paper made, and in the case our trio of psychologists has made, this only extends to the journals. We don’t even know how widely the papers themselves were cited in other scientific literature or in what context. We just know they published in a good journal.

We also can’t rule out the influence of lawyers themselves. One would think that a lawyer on the hunt for a few self-appointed experts in a controversial field is probably not going to solicit perfectly objective advice. He will find those who are willing to agree and ask their friends as well. Plus, a brief worded with enough conditions and qualifiers is easy to sign. Yes, sure, depending on the person’s mood, content of the game, lifestyle and upbringing, and how much Red Bull a player had, some aggression may persist after playing a violent game, fine. Does this now mean that video games make you aggressive and there’s now evidence that it’s harmful to all players? No. Studies on several dozen freshmen at a university and the signatures of 69 people who at some point studied the topic an iron-clad case does not make. And so what if people stay a little aggressive for a few hours if they play Grand Theft Auto or Halo? Rates of violent crime are down across the board, both adult and juvenile. So whatever aggressive feelings a few people might have in a lab or at home don’t exactly seem to be spilling out into the street. If the premise here was true, we’d expect to see spikes in violent crime with new editions of violent blockbusters. We don’t. So why do we insist on making a big deal out of it? To me it seems like just another case of old fogeism in action, coupled with a plea for media attention…

[ illustration by Olly Moss for Wired Magazine ]