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Friday, February 3, 2017

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Wow. Just wow. Yesterday, Kellyanne Conway disclosed to the world news of the "Bowling Green Massacre."

And some people believed her.

I guess it's no surprise in the current political climate (where half the country think that "gaslighting" refers to some romantic mood set by this administration) that making up what are easily debunked stories is considered acceptable for "news."

When we have the need for articles with headlines like this:

you know we've gone down the rabbit hole into a world turned upside down. Since when have we had to use the word REAL in front of the word facts? Isn't that redundant? If a story isn't real, it's fiction.

How has the term "alt-facts" become a thing? If facts aren't real, they aren't facts. As any writer knows, words have specific meanings, and those meanings have power. Choose and wield your words as you would a surgical instrument--for precision. A scalpel, not a mallet. Know and use the correct instrument. The correct, precise word for alternative facts is LIES. 

While the GOP, and particularly this administration, are masters in the art of lying, and their followers are happy to be led down that garden path, I blame liberals for starting us down that path with the oh-so-trite and misleading axiom that "perception is reality."

Not when your perception is incorrect it's not. Then, it's a misperception. 

This ridiculous and patently false phrase became quite de rigueur in the late 90s and early 00s. It's echoes can still be heard in many halls and offices where agencies are trying to accomplish goals related to complex scientific ideas that a vast majority of the population don't have the educational or intellectual foundation to fully grasp. (Think climate change communication, think astrophysics, think stem cell research.)

This is not to say the audiences are stupid, but they didn't get sufficient science education at the requisite level to understand all the many disciplines and concepts at play. Just because you took A & P in college doesn't make you a doctor. A medical doctor spent many years learning all she needed to know to get that title. Similarly, understanding the natural world means spending years learning the many and complex concepts, strategies, and processes involved. That 100-level science class that you may, possibly--or not--have had as a freshman in college (and may or may not remember at all) doesn't begin to provide a complete picture on which it build an accurate framework, nor does it make you an "expert."

For the layman, actual, factual information and explanations of any specialized field can sound like gobbledy-gook. The easy, comforting sound bite is easier to digest. Filled with misperceptions, these at least give people something to latch onto. The easier they are to understand, the more comforting they are, the better.

Although the thinking behind "perception is reality" as applied to learning is solid---before we can learn new information, our misconceptions must be identified and addressed, then those can be corrected with factual information--what's happened is we've been too accommodating of the misperceptions. We did a great job of recognizing the misperceptions, but stopped short of correcting them. We bastardized "Respect other people's opinions" into accepting that all opinions are just as valid as facts. We let the mantra that "not everyone has to think the same," extrapolate into "being wrong about facts is just as valid as the facts themselves."

Those cliches about the validity of opinions and varied views are only true when we're talking about subjective topics like beliefs, and phenomenon that aren't subject to scientific evaluation to determine whether or not they're factual. Your taste and preference in food, art, music, your religious beliefs--those are subjective. They depend on individual perception and circumstance: how, when, and where you were raised, what you're accustomed to. There is no right or wrong, just different.

Scientific facts aren't that. They are objective and evidence-based. They are built on observation, measurement, and verification. The scientific method starts with a hypothesis (perception), but then it goes further and validates that hypothesis, or corrects it, through experimentation and evidence. Misperceptions are identified, addressed, and corrected through the scientific method. Repeat after me:


Now go learn the facts. If the subject matter is too complex, find someone who really is an expert in that field to help you understand it. HINT: Politicians are not experts in any field other than getting re-elected.

How do you--or I, or anyone--keep from getting caught up in the hysteria of "alt facts," aka lies and damn lies, flooding social media and even some (not particularly credible) alt-news sources? Here are few ideas:

Follow only credible news sources. Here's that list of 10 good places to start. Don't believe these? You might want to subscribe to Stars and Stripes, the US Military news source. Each year, they get blasted by half their readers for having a left bias, and the other half for having a right bias. Pretty strong evidence they're neutral. They also select a panel, balanced between newspaper editors and publishers considered left- and right-leaning, to evaluate a random selection of news stories they published in the past year and rate the "slant." Again, they typically come out in the center.

Check out the Poynter Institute's many online courses on news- and media- literacy designed to help you understand and evaluate news stories and news sources to determine their credibility. They also offer a number of online courses in fact-checking.

Finally, since the title of this blog is lies, damn lies, and statistics, let me address that last one: the dreaded "s-word." Many people have learned nothing more about statistics than this quaint phrase, often attributed incorrectly to Mark Twain. The actual, verifiable source (and who Mark Twain himself credited as such) is British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. 

Image from

Statistics is nothing more than math. It's a way to evaluate your numbers--the data you've gathered--to determine if they're meaningful and accurate, or if the results are random and arbitrary. Our brains like to put order on chaos. We see patterns when they may not exist. Statistics gives us a way to check our own biases and determine if the imposed and supposed pattern actually exists. 

Can statistics be used to lie? Not really. They can, however, be used to confound those who are ignorant of how statistics work. One oft-seen example is when news sources report on poll results. Turn to one channel and you'll hear, "Polls show that 24 percent of people support the president's actions." Yeah! Look at that! Clearly, he's doing the right thing. 

At least, that's what it may seems like to someone who doesn't actually understand math and statistics. Turn the channel and you hear the same story, reporting the same statistic: Seventy-six percent of the people polled oppose whatever that action is.

Spin? Yes and no. It depends on if you know your numbers. As I tell my students, statistics can only be used to lie to those who don't know statistics. 

If you don't want to be lied to, learn statistics.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

World Travel and The New Ugly-American

I just returned from a wonderful trip to Mexico where the people are open, warmhearted, and welcoming to all. I went to visit a friend who has had a dream--the true American dream--since she was young, to join the Peace Corps to help others in parts of the world that don't share many of the advantages we do. (Of course, if you're paying attention, you'll also know that they have many advantages we're short on: things like empathy and a willingness to help others even if they can't get anything from that person  in return, and the willingness to share what they have, even when they have very little.) 

picture of the Plaza Principal, Mascota, Jalisco, Mexico
Mascota, Jalisco, MX
Well, at least I believe that part of the American dream is to help others achieve similar levels of success to what we've done. When I think about our country, about our standing on the world stage, I see us as helpers. Whether it's been protecting freedom and democracy from fascism during two world wars, or sharing our technology, resources, and knowledge with other countries in the aftermath of those wars, or in the aftermath of natural disasters, the United States has always stood as a beacon of freedom, exploration, discovery, and above all, sharing with those in need. 

Or maybe that image is all in my mind. That's what I got--mostly--from textbooks and history classes: this idea of a noble patriotism, based not in shallow symbolism (flag waving, sloganeering, and Bible-thumping), but in scientific and engineering accomplishments, learning, and an unending abundance of goodwill toward humanity, regardless of nationality.

But now, all that's in question, isn't it? Were we every truly that way, or have we always been the selfish, loud, and petulant little kid that tagged along, annoying the more reserved, established, and reputable older kids on the block? Have we only been tolerated because of their good manners?

Everyone's heard the reputation of US tourists as "ugly Americans." Anyone who has traveled extensively for the purpose of broadening their horizons, learning about history and new cultures, and with genuine curiosity has witnessed the reason for that nomenclature. There are certainly a good deal of loud and abrasive tourists who love to go elsewhere just to reassure themselves that everywhere else is different--and therefore worse--than home.  

Ugly Americans. For a good summary of the characteristics of
this species, check out this blog post.

In my travels around Jalisco, Mexico, I had the opportunity to speak with Mexicans and Canadians about what's going on in the US these days. Their perspectives were eye-opening and a bit discouraging to someone who loves to travel and explore other cultures, geographies, ecosystems, and societies. 

For the most part, the Mexican people have something of a cynical/fatalistic/pragmatic view of government--what happens happens and we can't do anything about it, so just go on about your life and do the best you can. Yes, they can and do vote, but it's the money in the background that makes the decisions, not the voting public. While they empathize with the US's current plight, they've also found a silver lining: Hurray! At last, they don't have the worst leader in the world! Trump is making their very unpopular president, Enrique Peña Nieto, look like a hero for the working class people. I'm sure they're all getting a good chuckle over Trump shooting his own country in the foot with his temper tantrum over a wall. (I guess he doesn't know that our flat screen televisions, refrigerators, avocados, and a great deal of other foods we enjoy come from there, and their prices are all going to skyrocket if he gets his way.)

I think the funny-scariest part of their response is that they're calling what they're observing north of the border the "Mexicanization of the USA." With their vantage of hindsight--they've "been here, done this"--they know we're following in their footsteps.

Give that some thought! 

Solar lighting to "evitan el calentamiento global" (global warming).
Maybe the Mexicanization of the US would be an improvement, given their embrace and application of
scientific evidence and factual information is so much more advanced than ours?

Perhaps even more telling about our position on the world stage these days was the reception from Canadians when I was in Puerto Vallarta. They're usually pretty gregarious, but weren't. They'd politely say hello and talk generally about where they were from and for how long they'd be visiting Mexico, then turn away to diligently study their novel, phone, or start an intense conversation with someone else.

I wondered if I needed to shower or something, but passed the sniff-test. 

So, I sat in my lounge chair and listened in as they joked about how US citizens don't realize that they (Canadians) and the Mexicans are also Americans, how there's a whole other American continent to the south of us, and how we aren't A-mericans, but 'Muricans. Then I knew it was safe to initiate a conversation.

What they told me is that they'd been avoiding talking with any US Americans lest they be one of those "crazy, angry Trumpers." They are actually afraid, not just to talk with them, but physically afraid of them! They've seen the news, heard the stories, and heard Trump himself--as well as his supporters--bully, berate, and brag about using physical violence with anyone who doesn't wholeheartedly agree with them. Of course they're afraid. (Aren't we all?)

Image from Storify. Click to see 82 of the best Donald Trump cartoons on Twitter.

Yep...that's the reputation we now have around the world thanks to Trump and his ilk. The Ugly American stereotype has gone from a pleasant joke to a fear-filled and possibly legitimate concern. How long before other countries impose travel bans on us to prevent violent 'Muricans from entering their countries? "But the stereotype isn't true of all US Americans," you say. That doesn't matter to our government implementing bans on others, why should it matter to others when banning us? Don't forget--we're leading the charge to have a "facts-be damned" world.

These folks were from BC and Saskatchewan. There were others from Quebec. They all had questions about how the American people could be so stupid, so duped by a man who is--clearly to the rest of the world watching--a con-artist. I wish I had answers, but I could only share in their confusion.

The Mexicans are, as always, open, gracious, and happy to accept expats. There are many thriving expat communities all around Mexico, including in Puerto Vallarta. Nice to know that's an option, should we become refugees from an increasingly fascist and hostile government. 

Yerbabuena: a possible refuge in the mountains of Jalisco, Mexico.
Or Puerto Vallarta, if you prefer the coast.
The Canadians, too, said their communities are making plans and discussing how best to deal with the anticipated rise in medical visitors once the ACA is gone, and with an expected influx of American refugees as the racist, misogynistic attacks, abuse of academics, scientists, and other non-white, non-ultra-right increase. 

Or maybe Canada is more your thing? (image from @KalenaKalena on Twitter)
It's disheartening to know that now the default impression that people from other countries have of us is that we're all like the petty, vindictive little boy in the White House right now. It's also encouraging to know they're supportive and willing to help of those of us who aren't. 

Yep. This is what the morons who voted for the #LiarInChief (aka #BullyInChief) wanted. They got it, but sadly, so did the rest of us. 

We are now all labeled the new Ugly Americans. It will be assumed we are all ignorant troglodytes who'd as soon shoot a foreigner (or compatriot) as hear facts or have an intelligent discussion. People's first reaction, worldwide when they see someone clad in a baseball cap and running shoes (the uniform of the ugly American) will be to cross to the other side of the street, pull their children in closer, and avert their eyes. Trumpers may be dumb enough to believe him when he says, "I didn't do/say that" and "My supporters didn't do/say that"--even when it's captured live on television and shown again and again on the news and shared on social media around the world. The rest of the world isn't as easily gaslighted. They've seen what you're capable of and will protect themselves from it...from us. 

For those gullible, naive, or dumb enough (take your pick) to believe that the rest of us are upset because our candidate lost, I say a resounding NO! That's not why sane people protest and resist. 

Here's the reality of why we're upset: Because an angry, ignorant, belligerent fool now represents to the world the face of the US and of US citizens everywhere. Because his words and actions make us less safe in the world. Because he--and his supporters--don't represent my values, American values, Christian values, or decent human being values. He--and now the rest of us by association--represent the triumph of evil over good, greed over mercy, and ignorance over knowledge.

THAT is why we won't accept this. That is why we #resist