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.

Reuters’s unbiased impartial reporting

Reuters’s editor-in-chief assures us that his organization is honest, fair, unbiased, impartial, and every other thumb-sucking cliche journalists whisper to themselves in the bathroom mirror each morning. Let’s see if he’s right.

In their “Pictures of the Month” collection, Reuters includes this image from Trump’s inauguration. Read the caption.

Screen Shot 2017-02-02 at 2.32.18 PM.png

These are people “reacting” to Trump’s inauguration, Reuters tells us. Is that honest?

Reuters is telling us this girl came all the way to DC with her MAGA cap and her digital camera, but when the time came for Trump to actually be inaugurated she looked hurt and afraid. What a poor, naive little soul, but at least she’s come to her senses. Should we pity her, or is she really just a racist scumbag worthy of only our derision? (I mean, she clearly has the hat.) We’ll never know because it’s impossible for employees of Reuters to walk up to strangers and ask them questions.

At least the Reuters camera doesn’t lie: look at the deep contrast, the saturated dark tones, the vignetting! Reuters’s editor-in-chief would remind us that these are not post-production effects; it’s exactly what your eye would have seen had you been there. It was just as melancholy a time as it looked for those poor Trump supporters who, judging by their faces, either suddenly realized what a terrible error they made or else decided they truly didn’t care what was going on and retreated into unrelated private conversations, proving what decent we people knew all along: that these are fickle and stupid know-nothings with short attention spans whose votes ought to be discounted.

Yes, Reuters informs us this crowd is reacting during Trump’s inauguration. It couldn’t possibly be that it was bitter cold that day, that the ceremony wasn’t actually going on at the moment the photograph was taken, or that these people are actually not reacting to anything but rather are in the process of walking from one part of the Washington Mall to another. There’s no way the girl in the foreground is looking down in order to make sure she doesn’t trip over a curb or something…no, she’s obviously feeling consternation and embarrassment about her ideological choices. A journalist’s job is to portray the truth of that moment forthrightly, and there can be no doubt that’s what has been done here.

That Trump’s supporters are filled with anxiety and fear at the demon they have unleashed is an important thing for us to know about, and we should feel grateful for the service Reuters has bravely performed for us. We are now better appraised of the truth, and Trump was not just wrong but delusional to call journalists dishonest. Thank you Reuters.

How to lie like a journalist

The editor-in-chief of Reuters writes about how his organization will be covering Trump.

He’s right: it’s not every day that the president says journalists are “among the most dishonest people on earth.” It’s also not every day that Trump says something true. But this apparently was one of those days.

Journalism is not simply the faithful reporting of events. Such a thing cannot exist because for each event there are countless perspectives. A limited number of perspectives have to be chosen, and for a report to be comprehensible to readers this number often cannot exceed one or two.

Not only is there no perfect way to choose a perspective, there is also no way to measure whether the best perspective has been chosen. But let’s suppose God endowed journalists with a supernatural ability to know which perspectives best reflected the reality of the universe, and for editors to determine precisely how much relative coverage journalists had afforded a given perspective. Would that mean news reporting would become fair and impartial?

Certainly not. Journalists still carry their own biases, and these find their way into the reporting via the choice of words and phrases, tone of voice, context, order in which facts or events are presented, and a myriad other tricks. (It doesn’t matter that some of these tricks are perpetrated deliberately and some by accident.)

Editors are supposed to intercept and correct for these biases, which would be a nice idea except that editors (even ones hypothetically endowed by God with the ability to perfectly detect bias) carry their own biases as well!

Reporting goes directly from journalists and editors to the public. By the time anyone else has their say, the report has already been released and a large portion of the audience will receive it blindly, without being aware of the judgment and bias it contains.

Any journalist will readily admit this problem. And yet here we have the editor-in-chief of one of the largest news companies on the planet claiming that his organization “reports independently and fairly,” and again that they report “fairly and honestly,” by “remaining impartial.” He claims that he and his organization “practice professional journalism that is both intrepid and unbiased.” (Emphasis added to all quotes.)

This is why Trump is right to call journalists among the most dishonest people on earth. Journalists are necessarily dishonest in their work, they are knowingly dishonest about their work, and their dishonest work has an enormous impact on what the world thinks and talks about, perhaps more than any other single profession.

Now would be a great time for a field-leading news editor to acknowledge this issue and provide ideas on how it can be addressed. (My suggestion has long been that journalists reposition themselves as imperfect, biased perspective-givers whose reports of events are delivered to third-party subject matter experts for analysis and review before they reach the public; but this would mean a cut in journalism’s prestige as Prophets of Truth, and we can’t have that can we?)

Instead, Mr. Reuters Editor-In-Chief doubles down on the lies. What does that tell you?

In which I concern troll BLM

The recent incident in which four black thugs kidnapped and tortured a retarded white kid for apparently racist reasons got me thinking about the problem of how a group or a movement can remain legitimate in the face of embarrassment by bad people who purport to be members of it.

(Obviously, this incident is not the only example of this problem, which does not only exist on the identitarian Left. But since thinking about this incident kept me up late, this is the example I choose to focus on. Besides, the problem is not distributed evenly across the political spectrum.)

If I was in some way a representative of BlackLivesMatter and I had an opportunity to speak to journalists, what would be the best way for me to respond to an incident like this?

So far it seems that BLM representatives have tried to distance BLM from the thugs, saying things like “These criminals do not represent BLM, and BLM does not condone violence.” That’s basic CYA, but there are a few issues with it:

  1. There are lots of other videos and media showing BLM activists condoning violence in words or actions.
  2. Because BLM isn’t an organized movement but more of a cause du jour that anyone can participate in, “true” membership is unfalsifiable.
  3. It doesn’t address the relationship between BLM statements and acts of violence that seem to have been inspired by them.
  4. It’s a cliche CYA statement that has never persuaded anyone except lawyers who are on the clock.

Issue #1 is actually the least serious. By now most people realize and are jaded by the volume of information available online; it’s well-understood that one can compile quantitative data to support just about any viewpoint. A BLM activist could say “For every video showing BLM activists committing or condoning violence I can show you two videos of a white person committing or condoning violence in the name of some cause you consider legitimate,” and even if objectively there are more actual incidents of one than the other, the “bottomless bowl” nature of the internet creates the (plausible) impression that both are uncountable, resulting in a stalemate.

Issue #2 is the most intractable. I don’t know whether it’s true but I’ve heard that BLM protests have been funded by George Soros–yet BLM does not have any certifiable badge of membership or agreed-upon “includes/excludes” list of actions, goals, and values.

Either would be a quick way to verify (via membership or actions/statements, respectively) who/what is representative of the movement and who/what is not. The latter (an “includes/excludes” list of actions, goals, and values) would be the more realistic thing for them to have, and is even possible if a few dozen high-profile people would sign their name to a document containing such a list, Declaration of Independence-style. But it’s so unlikely to happen I would put its probability at less than 0.1% over the next four years.

That list would consist of a series of statements like this:

We will [action] in order to [goal] because we believe [value]. We will not [action] because we do not believe in [value].

So for example, an item on BLM’s list could look like this:

We will hold peaceful protests in order to bring attention to unfair police brutality against black people because we believe justice should be administered equally. We will not commit acts of violence against innocent people because we do not believe two wrongs make a right.

And so on. There are still concepts and terms in there that could be debated and shown to be unclear, but it’s a fairly simple way to at least remove 80-90% of the current ambiguity.

Issue #3 is the one I feel most pessimistic about because it’s the haziest yet also probably the most important. The relationship between one person’s speech and another person’s action is not well understood, and in any case is extremely complicated. Statements intended to be peaceful have often been used to justify violence, so clearly there are a lot of unpredictable intermediaries between a statement and an action.

This is true no matter how carefully the statement is uttered, because humans are not perfectly rational; just to name two innate human characteristics, our tribalism and violent urges–though evolutionarily necessary and often still useful–twist and blur the perceptible arrow of causation.

BLM can never disprove that a violent act was inspired by their statements, and the more they try the more disingenuous they look. Yet at the same time they cannot take responsibility without nullifying themselves. (That might be why Obama, when commenting on the incident, was so quick to blame the internet and social media. On the face of things he’s correct in part, but this is still passing the buck, or at least passing the 50 cents.)

Issue #4 boils down to a failure of imagination and persuasive ability. What kind of statement or action would persuade a white guy who’s skeptical of BLM’s good faith that BLM earnestly just wants equal justice and disavows violence? BLM representatives should think about that.

One solution could be to conduct their own highly visible symbolic internal witch-hunt–punishing a few thugs like that as a message to the others. Or maybe it’s create a casual holiday called Make a White Friend Day. Or better yet, Make Friends With a White Cop Day, where the message is “We know not all white cops are racist, and we want to work with the non-racist ones to help put an end to this problem.”

Those are just the first three ideas off the top of my head and have their own problems, but all three would be way more effective than the existing perfunctory disavowal.