Jordan Peterson is as mistaken about journalism as everyone else

Jordan Peterson is disturbed by the fact that journalists don’t act the way he (and basically everyone else) has been taught to believe journalists should act.

Here’s what I would say to Peterson: Cathy Newman was doing her job. So was the Guardian. Not doing their job badly, not dishonestly, but exactly as it is meant to be done, because journalism is not a public service to enlighten audiences, it isn’t there to expose truths or disseminate important facts, even if it does that by accident once in a while. (Buddy comedies do that once in a while too.)

Journalism is just another profitable form of entertainment media, showing stories to people for their amusement. Journalism is different from other entertainment media only in the kinds of storytellers and characters it uses. Even its style or mode of storytelling isn’t so radically different from a scripted drama or a children’s cartoon; they’ve found a clever way to suspend disbelief, that’s all.


Are there really no-go zones?

The “hard” definition of a no-go zone is an area of a city that is functionally sovereign, because law enforcement has more or less given up there. Instead, the area operates under some other system of law not sanctioned by government, with local unofficial enforcement structures. People who aren’t part of the subculture or ethnicity of the no-go zone are strongly urged not to go there and would likely be attacked if they did.

The “soft” definition is an area that has high crime, where police response time is typically slow, and where outsiders are advised not to go, at least not at night by themselves. Street gangs often dominate instead, and even sometimes offer protection services to locals. (This last phenomenon was described by Sudhir Vankatesh in his book “Gang Leader for a Day.”)

The evidence suggests hard no-go zones (as defined above) probably don’t exist, at least not in the West. Some news articles claim they exist there anyway, and then other news articles have a field day debunking the first ones, and then pro-immigration people have a field day Twittering about it and calling everyone who believed the stories paranoid and xenophobic.

Soft no-go zones certainly exist, and can be found in almost every city in the world. They have many common names: the hood, rough areas, blighted areas, ghettos, sketchy neighborhoods, etc. But “no-go” is a misnomer, since basically anyone could go there and, 99 times out of 100, not experience a confrontational incident of any kind. So they’re not really no-go zones at all. More like “don’t start a fight there” or “don’t go there and act a fool” zones.

But some aspects of hard no-go zones do exist in some of the soft no-go zones, and I suspect this is what people latch onto when they claim hard no-go zones exist in London or Paris or Stockholm or Dearborn.

For instance there are definitely areas where residents for whatever reason have more faith in, or loyalty to, their own local authority structures than the surrounding government. This was true in many black neighborhoods in the 1970s, and is part of how the Black Panthers rose to prominence. Some ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods have their own ambulances just for Jews and I’m sure the rabbis and their organizations there have a surprising amount of power.

Of course the most notorious example is Muslim enclaves that seem (to outsiders anyway) to basically be run by local clerics. Maybe cops can still patrol there, and maybe white non-Muslims can live or work there without being attacked very often, and this nullifies the “no-go” label, but operating behind the walls of those neighborhoods there is sometimes concealed a surprising amount of activity inaccessible to–or even sometimes at odds with the interests of–the wider nation. This is what we see from some of the sex slavery operations or terrorist recruitment organizations that have been uncovered over the years.

The above is the picture painted for me by many people who either live in or near those so-called no-go zones, or who seem to have read up on it and earnestly tried to determine whether no-go zones are real. My impression is that the most damning descriptions are simplistic exaggerations, but that those who scoff at the existence of no-go zones are naively discounting a lot of what’s really there.

Grand UFO hoax?

I am 95% confident this news story about a retiring FBI employee’s release of information on UFOs is a hoax. A grander one than I think Americans have had in a while, but a hoax nonetheless.

If I’m right, I can only guess about the possible significance of the story’s timing or who might ultimately be responsible for crafting it. Even if I had better than random guesses, they wouldn’t be worth much unless I could also predict how the story will evolve as people respond to it. So, I won’t guess.

Confirmation bias in an article about gender bias

Harvard Business Review reports on a study on gender bias in the workplace. Here’s the experimental design:

We decided to investigate whether gender differences in behavior drive gender differences in outcomes at one of our client organizations, a large multinational business strategy firm, where women were underrepresented in upper management. In this company, women made up roughly 35%–40% of the entry-level workforce but a smaller percentage at each subsequent level. Women made up only 20% of people at the fourth level (the second highest at this organization).

We collected email communication and meeting schedule data for 500 employees in one office, across all five levels of seniority, over the course of four months. We then gave 100 of these individuals sociometric badges, which allowed us to track in-person behavior. These badges, which look like large ID badges and are worn by all employees, record communication patterns using sensors that measure movement, proximity to other badges, and speech (volume and tone of voice but not content). They can tell us who talks with whom, where people communicate, and who dominates conversations.

We collected this data, anonymized it, and analyzed it. Although we were not able to see the identity of individuals, we still had data on gender, position, and tenure at the office, so we could control for these factors. To retain privacy, we did not collect the content of any communications, only the metadata (that is, who communicated with whom, at what time, and for how long).

It sounds like an interesting approach, and N=100 is respectable for what they were trying to accomplish.

A “large business strategy firm” might be representative of one type of work environment, but there are many others where women are allegedly discriminated against. I’m curious why the researchers chose this type of workplace over others, and whether they think discrimination against women happens in various types of workplaces for the same reasons.

Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated.

I wonder if they did interviews with participants after the study was over, to generate qualitative data that would have supported the analysis. Nothing like that was reported so I guess they didn’t.

Bias, as we define it, occurs when two groups of people act identically but are treated differently.

This strikes me as a very flawed definition of bias. Bias connotes an unfair treatment, but people can be treated differently for more than just how they act, as the authors flat out admit:

Bias is not only about how behavior is perceived in the office, but also includes out-of-office expectations. At this company, women tend to leave the workforce between the third and fourth level of seniority, after having been at the company for four to 10 years. This timing presents another possible hypothesis: Perhaps women decide to leave the workplace for other reasons, such as wanting to raise a family. Our data can’t determine whether this is true or not, but we don’t think this changes the argument for reducing bias.

I agree this doesn’t change the argument for reducing bias as commonly understood, but it does change the argument for reducing bias as the authors define it.

If men and women are equal stakeholders in a family, they should presumably be leaving the workforce at the same rate. But this isn’t happening.

Here the authors confuse “equal” with “identical.” A man and woman can be equal stakeholders in a family but the husband fulfills his role by working hard to put food on the table and keep the bills paid, while the wife fulfills her role by keeping house and doing most of the day-to-day child-rearing. Their roles are not identical. The aforementioned pattern is in fact so established that it’s a cliche, and I’m puzzled why the authors feign ignorance about it. Maybe it’s because that pattern grows out of our natural sexual dimorphism, fighting against which is the essence of feminism.

Previous research has also shown that men are perceived as more responsible when they have children, while women are seen as being less committed to work.

Left unsaid is whether those perceptions are based in fact. It would be inconvenient to let facts get in the way of an agenda:

One way to [reduce bias in the workplace] is to make promotions and hiring more equal.

And there it is. Gotta love the circular logic there. In related advice, one way to be the top chess player in the world to make Magnus Carlsen knock over his king whenever the two of you play each other.

Significant research suggests that mandating a diverse slate of candidates helps companies make better decisions. A study by Iris Bohnet of Harvard Kennedy School showed that thinking about candidates in groups helped managers compare individuals by performance — but when managers evaluated candidates individually they fell back on gendered heuristics.

If you have a mixed barrel of apples and oranges, and you’re going through looking for the tastiest piece of fruit, it might be easier to systematically compare one apple to one orange rather than to just grab random pieces of fruit and evaluate their flavor one after the other. It seems like that’s what the study basically found.

Another potential problem lies in workload. In this company, we measured higher workloads as individuals advanced to higher levels of seniority. This isn’t intrinsically gendered, but many social pressures push women around this age to simultaneously balance work, family, and a disproportionate amount of housework. Companies may consider how to modify expectations and better support working parents so that they don’t force women to make a “family or work” decision.

Am I misunderstanding, or are the authors calling for companies to give women less work than men at the same seniority level? And they call this a solution to gender bias??

Companies need to approach gender inequality as they would any business problem: with hard data.

The problem is, anyone can find the hard data they need to support their argument. The important part isn’t just having the data, it’s in what data you collect, how you evaluate it, and whether you’re open to updating your initial views after you and the person arguing against you agree on the source of the data and the method of analysis.

These researchers collected data about the tone of conversations and people’s physical proximity to one another, but they didn’t cross-reference it with data from interviews that might have suggested whether the bias they thought they were seeing was really there. They also didn’t disclose whether their hypotheses changed as a result of the experiment. Just because you’re collecting data doesn’t mean you’re doing science.

Most programs created to combat gender inequality are based on anecdotal evidence or cursory surveys. But to tailor a solution to a company’s specific problems, you need to seek data to answer fundamental questions such as “When are women dropping out?” and “Are women acting differently than men in the office?” and “What about our company culture has limited women’s growth?” When organizations implement a solution, they need to measure the outcomes of both behavior and advancement in the office. Only then can they transition from the debate about the causes of gender inequality (bias versus behavior) and advance to the needed stage of a solution.

I like that these researchers have introduced another approach to measuring bias, and I like that they talk about reducing bias on an organizational rather than an institutional level. But I wish they’d have used multiple approaches together to get more reliable findings, and I wish the article had resisted the clickbaity impulse to give the impression, especially in the headline, that the findings they got were universally applicable.

By the way, can’t gender inequality be caused by bias and behavior? Pitting the two against each other as mutually exclusive seems extremely disingenuous to me. We actually can’t advance to the needed stage of a solution so long as people–including even professional researchers!–are engaging in this kind of bad-faith false-dichotomizing.

Losses all around

I can’t think of a single winner from the recent events in Virginia:

  •  Obviously the biggest losers are the victims who wound up dead or in the hospital. No innocent person should ever expect to meet that fate when they go out into public.
  • I’m a great admirer of Robert E. Lee, and he deserves better advocates than these autistic reactionaries whose whole world is an echo chamber on the internet. Lee’s memory has already been dragged through the mud for decades, and it fares even worse from an event like this.
  • The Alt-Right, Neo-Nazis, and the Klan are totally clueless on PR. In fact, I can’t think of a more perfect way to paint them as vile lunatics than the actions and messages they’re already propagating on their own. It’s like Conquest’s Third Law, except it’s applied to a loosey-goosey jacky-wacky internet movement instead of a bureaucracy.
  • Trump hasn’t done himself any favors here either. My most charitable interpretation is that Trump is aware that news stories almost always blame the pro-white side in a clash of any kind but then quietly reveal facts later that indicate it was the other side who was the real aggressors, so Trump wants to distinguish himself by not jumping into the fray and dogpiling on the pro-white side the way Obama did. Also, Trump is constantly attacked, viciously, by the same journalists now awaiting a statement of condemnation from him, and he might take it personally.
  • America’s race relations probably won’t unravel from this event (in fact I think they’re generally much stronger than the media would have us believe) but crap like this sure doesn’t help.

The New McCarthyism

To most people, the name Joe McCarthy is synonymous with paranoia and witch-hunts. “McCarthyism” itself has become a term to describe an organizational state in which innocent people are subjected to accusations and have their careers and lives ruined by those with a mob mentality.

Of course, there really were communists in positions of influence in McCarthy’s time, and McCarthy exposed many of them. McCarthy is so reviled today not because we are now communists (although the term “communism” has lost a bit of its sting to many people) but because his methods seem to us so out of proportion to the threat he was trying to counter. Thanks to McCarthy, someone who merely expressed reasoned and even limited criticisms of capitalism, or who merely associated with critics of capitalism, risked being brought before a tribunal and blacklisted for life as a traitor.

A succinct way to summarize a typical modern commentary on McCarthyism would be that it was the conflation of “wrong” with “evil.” It is somewhat ironic, then, that McCarthyism is perfectly encapsulated in recent events at Google, the “Don’t be evil” company.

Last week a Google employee wrote a long, polite-yet-firm criticism of diversity hiring practices and the assumptions behind them. He made it explicit that he was not opposed to the goals of those practices, and offered suggestions for other ways to accomplish them. This piece of writing was quickly labeled a “screed” and a “fulmination” by journalists, and held up (mostly by people who never read it) as evidence of the very oppression the employee claimed was fallaciously assumed. Here, the people seethed, was a living specimen of evil!

After several days of fuming editorials and much public outcry for the employee’s head on a stake, Google fired him. The mob cheered for a moment and then began chanting its familiar mantra: “Not enough!”

One of the secondary points that had been made by the ousted employee was that Google claimed to support a culture of openness in which weighing evidence was valued over succumbing to bias, but that he knew the “women and minorities in tech” issue was such a sacred cow no dispassionate conversation about it would be permitted. This was his explanation for writing anonymously, and Google proved it to have been a valid one.

Cultures need immune systems. As a society that values inclusion and equal opportunity, we benefit from having a mechanism to identify and disenfranchise malicious racists, misogynists, and would-be traitors.

But this mechanism needs to remain finely calibrated to be useful, otherwise it causes a turbulent backlash. The end result of ordeals like this one at Google is not that women and minorities are put on their way to better representation in tech, but that all the people quietly keeping their heads down grow more resentful and less receptive to change. It’s a massive own-goal from a Progressive standpoint, but they might not realize it until decades later when people are calling them the new McCarthyists.

Life without the news

I no longer actively consume journalism. Occasionally I’ll read a headline if it passes before my eyes, but I never do anything with the goal of getting a headline in front of me. And I can’t remember the last time I sought out and read what was under a headline. It must be more than a year or two at this point.

This means I haven’t heard about what weather-related catastrophe is afflicting people in that place where people are currently afflicted. I don’t know what’s the latest thing Trump or his critics did or said that I’m supposed to be outraged about. I don’t know who’s leading in the NBA finals. I don’t know what horrendous crime was committed across town. I couldn’t tell you where was the latest terrorist attack or what it entailed. I have no clue which countries are currently bombing each other. I won’t know what new store is going to open in my city until I see the grand opening signs as I’m driving by.

Not knowing these kinds of things has not affected me at all. When I hear people discuss the news I get a giddy sensation of lightness and unencumberedness. The inside of my head feels clear and unsullied.

I strongly recommend this lifestyle change to anyone who reads more than one news article per week. If you try it for a month and don’t think it noticeably improves your life I will be very surprised.

How to lie like a journalist, part CDLXVII

Here’s an example of some typical local shock journalism. It’s a short article, so I’m going to analyze the reporting, discuss what the journalist probably meant, and reflect on why writing like this exists in the first place. (Note: I am going only off the written article; I have not watched the video.) Here’s the story, written by a reporter named Paul Orlousky:


Police in Kent are warning parents about a danger most probably never thought about — the possibility of drugs or blood contamination on a rest
room baby changing station.

Claim 1: Police in Kent are warning parents.

What does it mean that police in Kent are “warning parents”? Do police officers have a master list of addresses of people with children and going door to door? Are they posting fliers? Are they issuing alerts on emergency frequencies? Are they driving around neighborhoods delivering a warning message through a bullhorn out the window? Or did one police representative issue a vaguely cautionary statement to a reporter? Orlousky should have been more specific here.

Claim 2: Most parents “never thought about” contamination on a public changing station.

Does Orlousky have children? When you use one of those changing stations, usually the first thought you have as you’re opening it is “How gross is this thing? What can I wipe it off with? What can I lay down on top of it so my kid doesn’t touch it?” Or maybe I’m wrong and it’s only me and all the other parents I know who think like that. It’s my word against Orlousky’s because Orlousky doesn’t provide any evidence for his claim. (I was about to add “The difference is, it’s his job to provide evidence,” but actually, it isn’t! He’s only a journalist, not someone we should look to for trustworthy information.)

An incident Friday drew attention to the matter.

Whose attention? Where was their attention before then?

A man went into the Sheetz gas station on North Mantua and went straight to the bathroom. An employee had seen him do it before, according to Kent Lt. Michael Lewis.

“The employee was aware enough to realize that he had seen this type of behavior before from this same subject. The employee also believed the man who we now know is Jason Fischer had gotten high there before, so he called police, who responded quickly,” said Lewis.

When the officer went into the bathroom, the stall door was closed but he could see someone was standing inside through the crack. He ordered him to open the door.

The guy refused and the officer looked inside and saw Fischer shooting up, Lewis said.

I’m surprised “the guy” is considered an acceptable way to describe a man according to a major news outlet’s reporting styleguide. Then again, no I’m not. Or maybe Orlousky just forgot to put quote marks around the statement.

“He had the drugs prepared on the baby changing station in the bathroom stall, which is something very, very concerning to us,” Lewis said.

Also concerning, it appeared there was blood on the baby changing station.

Also concerning to Lt. Lewis? To Orlousky? To us readers? I’m touched that Orlousky is concerned, but isn’t his job to report the facts and not interject his opinion of whether they are “concerning”? (The answer is no. His job is to maximize clicks.)

The drugs are thought to be heroin or fentanyl. Fentanyl is 100 times as powerful as morphine and could easily be absorbed through the skin, and even more easily into a baby’s skin laying on the station.

Dosage is important here, but Orlousky doesn’t bother with those details. His job is to get us scared. Also, he said there was blood on the changing station, but it is very doubtful an IV user would leave drugs there. Orlousky would know that if he spent 15 minutes researching IV drug use. (And maybe he did research it–but again, Orlousky’s job is not to provide a complete picture of the facts, it’s to make readers alarmed.)

Police fear that most people don’t know that gas stations and other areas with public bathrooms are hotbeds for drug deals and almost immediate drug use.

If he was trying to sound more serious, Orlousky could have written “Lt. Lewis said police want the public to be informed about drug activity in gas stations and other areas with public bathrooms,” but that wouldn’t have had the words “fear” and “hotbed” in it. Are people actually ignorant of what goes on in gas station bathrooms? And are police actually “fearful”?

The bit about “almost immediate” drug use is odd. Does it matter whether the drug use is immediate, almost immediate, or if the delay between deal and use is measured not in nanoseconds but in minutes or hours?

Orlousky is probably trying to paint us a portrait of the drug user as desperate, impatient, scurrying hurriedly away from his drug deal to go get the stuff into his veins as fast as possible, hands shaking, mouth watering, eyes twitching nervously about like a scared rabbit. But that wouldn’t sound like journalism, so Orlousky had to write “almost immediate drug use” instead.

Another fear is young children walking into a public rest room alone, they could walk into someone using, or needles or residue left behind.

Whose fear? The police’s? Or Orlousky’s? Apparently he is suggesting it become one of ours.

I say “apparently” because I don’t think Orlousky is actually sitting at his computer cackling about how frightened he is manipulating his readers into being. More likely he knows that the number of clicks on his news stories will be related to his career success. Being a journalist was always tough, but in a world of blogs and alternative outlets and e-zines and social media and Buzzfeeds, conventional journalists are in a shrinking pond. Orlousky is feeling a crushing incentive to write stories in a way that maximize clicks while not crossing some boundary into non-journalism, and he is rationally using all the rhetorical tricks at his disposal in order to do so. What I’m illustrating in this post is the subtle, blurry, hazard-laden nature of that boundary. In fact I don’t believe there is one: journalism is nothing more than a posture.