Sunday, March 30, 2014

Weekly reading list: Journalism, design, and the dream of a data-savvy citizenry

The first section of my next book will deal with data and science. I'm not trying to do another intro to stats textbook. I'm not qualified for that, and there's plenty of very good ones already. Rather, it's something written in a conversational style that may be useful not only to journalists or infographics designers, but to anyone interested in rational thinking.

I've been reading quite a lot about this in the year and a half since The Functional Art was published. I've also been collecting articles and blog posts to quote from. Last week, during the Malofiej conference, several interesting ones were published, and I decided that, instead of just saving them to Evernote, I'd share them here. This may become a weekly or bi-weekly feature. We'll see.


CUNY's Massimo Piggliuci has launched a new website called Scientia Salon. The first substantial articles so far, besides the opening manifesto, were written by Alan Sokal. You may remember him thanks to the famous 'Sokal Hoax', which exposed the inanity of many prestigious academics in "studies" and "theory departments. This case led to two excellent books (1, 2.)

Sokal is back with an essay titled 'What is science and why should we care?' It's divided into three parts (1, 2, 3.) Quoting:
My use of the term “science” is not limited to the natural sciences, but includes investigations aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of factual matters relating to any aspect of the world by using rational empirical methods analogous to those employed in the natural sciences. (...) Thus, “science” is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in our daily lives.
The paragraph below is related to my concern about the rise of PR, which I explained in the Tapestry and NICAR conferences:
(The) most dangerous set of adversaries of the evidence-based worldview in the contemporary world (are) propagandists, public-relations flacks and spin doctors, along with the politicians and corporations who employ them — in short, all those whose goal is not to analyze honestly the evidence for and against a particular policy, but is simply to manipulate the public into reaching a predetermined conclusion by whatever technique will work, however dishonest or fraudulent.
Indeed. And the challenge is that many journalists and communication designers, those professionals who supposedly follow a paramount moral imperative of our time —'When you see bullshit, say "bullshit"'— are either incapable of doing so (see here,) unwilling to do so, or lack the means to do so.


Fortunately, this watchdog task is being crowdsourced. Scientists and citizens in general are writing more media criticism these days, apparently. As I suggested in A Confederacy of Truth-Tellers, citizens may need to take over the task of holding power accountable in a world in which reliable news publications are vanishing.

Christopher Chabris, co-author of The Invisible Gorilla, has just written a rebuttal of a post from Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, a website that is still struggling to find its personality. Chabris' illuminating commentary is a good primer on statistical control, confounding variables, and experimental design. If you teach data journalism or visualization, recommend it to your students. We see sloppy journalism like the one criticized here too often. Quoting:
FiveThirtyEight has not upheld the best standards of "data journalism." If that term is to have any meaning, it can't simply refer to the passing along of other people's flawed "data," especially when those people are producing and promoting the data for commercial purposes. Nate Silver earned his reputation, and that of his FiveThirtyEight brand, largely by criticizing—and improving on—just this kind of simplistic and misleading inference. It's sad to see his "data journalism organization" no longer criticizing superficiality, but instead promoting it.
Amen to that.

Also about FiveThirtyEight, it's exciting to see that its contributors don't shy away from terms like p-value, t-test, or significance. Bravo, Emily Oster. Silver has been interviewed by Jon Stewart, by the way. Good stuff.


If you are among those who think "I just want to be an artist!" or "I just want to write," perhaps you ought to consider this: In just 12 pages of today's The New York Times Sunday Review section you'll find three articles that deserve scrutiny and thought.

The first one is a review of academic literature on how porn consumption affects teenagers. The second reveals that "spurious relationship" is a term that has not entered Ross Douthat's vocabulary yet. This may not be that surprising, if you read his column regularly.

The third one deals with autism and its most and least probable causes. It'll make you despair at the sheer stupidity of news media, but also recover your trust on its self-correcting mechanisms. It'll also induce you to revisit your battered copy of Ben Goldacre's Bad Science.

Another must-read: An interview with Aron Pilhofer. Quoting (highlights are mine):
Journalism is one of the few professions that not only tolerates general innumeracy but celebrates it. I still hear journalists who are proud of it, even celebrating that they can’t do math, even though programming is about logic. It’s hard to get a journalist to open up a spreadsheet, much less open up a command line. It is just not something that they, in general, think is held to be an important skill. It’s baffling to me. Look at The Sun-Sentinel, which just won another Pulitzer for a story on speeding cops that you could only do with data analysis. You would think you wouldn’t have to make the case that this is core to what journalists should know. It’s a cultural problem. There is still far too much tolerance for anecdotal evidence as the foundation for news stories.


Please don't miss Errol Morris' 'The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld' four-part series. It's not about Donald Rumsfeld. It's not even about the politics of deceit. It's about epistemology.

Finally, and going back to the idea of the citizen-watchdog, watch the video below. Are you listening, CNN, Anderson Cooper, and Ellen Degeneres? You should.