Witticisms #1

Wha’d you call me?
  • My laptop insults me every time I turn it on.  I have a fingerprint reader, and it doesn’t recognize me if I’ve washed my hands.
  • What is the Large Hadron Collider, the pride of physics?  It’s two photons playing chicken at the speed of light in an innertube with a 25-mile circumference.
  • Those who think they’ve died and gone to heaven wake to find the weather hotter than they’d expected.
  • There’s a Miami firm, Atlantic Shutters.  They have a business contingency plan if global warming leads to rising sea levels. They’ll just change their name to Atlantis Shutters.
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3 Rules-of-Thumb for Credible News Sources

What’s in Your Subscription?
  • Everyone should know by now that credible news sources are something you earn, not something you can recieve passively.
  • If you simply take as news what’s pushed at you, you’re being manipulated.
  • If you simply follow stories that appeal to you, you are allowing your preconceptions to limit what you take in, locking in your preconceptions.
  • I offer three rules-of-thumb for avoiding these pitfalls, but bear in mind, that there is no purely perspective-free perspective.
  • #1: Credible news sources distinguish between fact and opinion.
  • #2: Credible news sources perform their own fact-checking, seek to meet generally-recognized standards of fact-checking, and acknowledge their occasional lapses.
  • #3: Credible news sources acknowledge their own perspective and, while obviously preferring it, present it along with differing but still credible alternative perspectives.

#1: Fact v. Opinion

  • One standard way mainstream newspapers distinguish between fact and opinion is to separate out open and avowed opinion pieces in what are called the op-ed pages (Opinions & Editorials). The publisher typically presents its own opinions in unsigned editorials (meaning that they represent the views of the chief editor and/or publisher). Authored opinion pieces by columnists, named and pictured, are often paired to represent opposing perspectives, often more liberal v. more conservative ones. While not a perfect solution, media that follow such practices are showing a degree of good faith.
  • The limit to that good faith becomes evident in an in-between category, the interpretation of facts.
  • One useful media bias monitor that addresses the role of interpretation in news analysis is the Media Bias Chart at https://adfontesmedia.com. This site (which is transparent about who runs it, their background, and the methodology used in their ratings [always a good sign!]) categorizes media into four broad categories: 1) news, 2) fair interpretations of the news, 3) extreme/unfair interpretations of the news, and 4) nonsense damaging to public discourse.
    • The Media Bias Chart acknowledges that facts alone are not sufficient. They can be checked and verified, and thus should form the basis of any fair discussion. But to formulate and enact policy takes more than facts. It takes judgments about what those facts mean and judgments about both the appropriate ends to be served and the effective means of serving them. In other words, there is room for legitimate differences of opinion, and expressing these is another legitimate role for the media.
    • Prominent in the category of news only are the Associated Press (AP), Reuters, and United Press International (UPI). These are newswires, businesses that provide bare-bones factual accounts to a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and other media. In other words, their business model requires them to be neutral and factual because they must serve the broadest possible market. In a city newspaper like The Miami Herald, you will find articles sourced to that paper’s own staff, to other papers and their staffs or to newswires.
    • The business press, in this ranking, also clusters in the mostly news with some fair interpretation zone at its center to center-right. Explanation: businesses and investors want stability, both economic and political.

#2: Fact-Checking

  • With the advent of social media, the news cycle has sped up dramatically, squeezing the time available for fact-checking, meaning there will be more errors and more need to follow up and retract. Credible media will issue retractions from time to time, usually about minor factual slips on verifiable matters.
  • While credible news sources do their own fact-checking, they also hold each other to account, and are collectively held to account by third-party fact-checking organizations.
  • But those organizations themselves may embody perspectives, and those can change over time, especially with changes in editorship and ownership.
  • For a list of reputable fact-checking sites: webliteracy.pressbooks.com/chapter/fact-checking-sites/; these mostly focus on particular claims made by politicians and other opinion leaders.
  • For a general sense of the reliability of news media , mediabiasfactcheck.com rates a huge number of news media in terms of both their quality of fact-checking and their general left/right bias. This site has a “Factual News Search” feature that allows you to key in topics and see a clickable list of relevant articles from factually reliable media. You can even designate levels of bias, say, designating “least biased” sources only, or perhaps comparing views from “left-center” and “right-center”.

#3: Acknowledgement of Credible Alternative Perspectives

  • I don’t think there’s a formula for this, just as there is no set formula for how many counter arguments are needed in an argumentative essay nor a set rule as to when those counter arguments are presented fairly. These will be judgments based on experience with best practices and wide exposure to different perspectives. In other words, this calls for a degree of education and expertise, along wiht a good faith attempt at open-mindedness.
  • It’s easier to identify bad practices than good ones. One giveaway of bad practices is using emotion-laden terms designed to appeal to preexisting emotions and group identities rather than to a rational discussion between parties willing to listen to one another and seeking a common ground. Campaign speeches and presidential debates are more about this than about the fair comparison and evaluation of ideas and policies, though each candidate makes their own choices about the degree to which one or the other prevails in their remarks.

Nature v. Nurture: an Evolutionary Perspective

What, more homework?
  • Which determines who we are, nature or nurture?
  • This debate has raged for a long time in psychology, philosophy, and elsewhere. The emerging consensus in psychology is that the two are thoroughly intertwined, and that it makes more sense to sort out these intertwinings than to argue about which one is dominant.
  • I will leave the assembly of empirical data to experimental psychologists. My concern here is to show why this intertwining should not surprise us.
  • Evolution means that organisms adapt to their environment. Because resources are limited, competitive pressures for survival speed this process of adaptation along.
  • Thus, evolution, driven by natural selection under competitive pressure, determines the shape and articulation of organisms (anatomy), how their parts work (physiology), and the activities of the organism directed to its own survival (behavior).
  • Anatomy and physiology are clearly autonomous built-in features of the organism attributable to nature.
  • Some behavior, especially simpler behavior triggered directly by external cues, seems to be built-in or pre-programmed, thus also attributable to nature.
  • But where the deployment of the built-in natural capacity or the behavior requires internal initiation beyond automatic triggering by external cues, a developmental process of learning seems necessary.
  • Learning is just adaptation to the environment occurring in the individual rather than in the species. Initially, at least, the same processes drive it that drive natural evolution.
  • In other words, traits of organisms, whether in-built or learned, serve the same purpose and are subject to the same forces as natural selection.
  • I see three kinds of learning: 1) experience, that is, the accidental learning the organism acquires as it blunders about in its environment, 2) nurture, directed learning provided by adults of the species, and 3) self-realization, if the individual begins to direct its own development by developing its capacities.
  • Nurture can be applied loosely to any of these, but applies most strictly to the middle one.
  • But simply having a capacity is not enough, if to use it effectively one must initiate its optimal exercise from within, even if only as a narrowing of one’s responses to stimuli as one gains experience with them.
  • But why would nurture be necessary? Couldn’t nature suffice? Couldn’t nature build in all necessary internal processes in correlation with external stimuli?
  • Simpler organisms having little or nothing in the way of a brain are determined by nature. Although they too have simple behaviors and habits, one can think of these are as directly caused by inbuilt responses to triggering stimuli. In effect, it is more evolutionarily efficient (and thus successful) in some cases to discard individuals or species whose inbuilt traits are screened out by natural selection than to evolve capacities for learning.
  • In short, evolution is economical, and follows the most direct route to survival open to it.
  • But let us not be too impressed with ourselves. A tomato has some 7,000 more genes than a human does. In that sense, our brain, complex as it is, is a short-cut.
  • By evolving brains, nature has off-loaded some of the complexity its genetic blueprint would otherwise have to carry onto a new process for evolving adaptive behavior, namely, the organization of individual brains through the culture passed down within a community.
  • Cultural evolution is far more rapid than biological evolution. Ideas can be communicated faster than bodies can be reproduced. The greater differentiation among individuals building each their own unique internal experience, the multiplicity of perspectives, the division of labor, the accumulation and easy transfer of knowledge and skills, all make culture a far faster medium for adaptation than biological genetics ever could be.
  • The key idea here is that natural selection responds to the whole package of the organism, including its behavior, and behavior in humans is deeply affected by cultural beliefs
  • Cultural beliefs replicate themselves in the medium of culture, just as genetic expressions replicate themselves in the medium of DNA. Richard Dawkins distinguishes between two kinds of replicators, genes and memes (by which he means any idea that can replicate itself through a culture). Within culture, cultural selection will determine which memes replicate themselves most successfully. (See Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene, 1989, pp. 189-201.)
  • Those memes will play into natural selection when they produce behaviors that raise or lower prospects of gene replication within DNA, including the behavior of communities as recorded by history and the specialized histories of scientific and economic adaptations.