Positivism and objectivity (or, data and calling b.s.)

I somehow stumbled into a long think piece about the inadequacies of “Big Data,” which includes everything from FiveThirtyEight to, somehow, dating sites. Echoing Jay Rosen’s work on the futility of a purely “objective” view, it’s called “View from Nowhere.”

The gist of it is that the positivists, here defined as people who think we can figure everything out through data (my philosophy professors probably defined it differently, but this definition actually makes sense to me), are conceited in their belief that they can step away and let data discern truth. We all have biases, writer Nathan Jurgenson says, even if they only show up in the way we ask questions. It’s like the old saying on computers’ fallibility being directly attributable to bad programming: “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Jurgenson’s critique is reasonable, but I also found myself thinking about a recent post from the most grounded journalist or ex-journalist I know, Lex Alexander, who fretted about the media’s outright refusal to call bullshit on anything or anyone.

The terms get slippery here. To some extent, Lex and Jurgenson are both criticizing the “View from Nowhere” that has indeed led to some journalistic malpractice over the years. My McCarthy studies taught me how easy it is to manipulate journalists who are trying to get “both sides” of an argument. Reporters and editors must have the inclination, the guts, and the knowledge base to say, “Yeah, hang on, I’m going to check that out.”

But my issue with Jurgenson’s piece is that I hope people, while recognizing the limits of “Big Data,” can also see it an important tool for calling bullshit.

A lot of controversies in modern media aren’t opinions. They’re facts. We have people in elected office who go against science on climate change and evolution. They go against history on … well, American history. They go against economics whenever convenient.

Outside politics, we have a populace that believes in a lot of junk. Anti-vaccination movements. The latest chain email from Grandma about that African-born Obama trying to usher in an Islamofascist state. And so on.

Big Data isn’t perfect. No source is. And frankly, the data journalists like Nate Silver are really good at explaining the limitations of their own work. Silver doesn’t just pass along numbers from Rasmussen without challenging the methodology.

But in a land of people so desperate to believe whatever someone tells them to assuage or reinforce their fears, we desperately need Big Data. Because Big Bullshit is a monster.

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The brilliant Jan Hooks

Before Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon smashed the “boys’ club” image on Saturday Night Live, Jan Hooks lit up the stage in the fondly remembered Carvey-Hartman years.

As a fellow Georgian, I always appreciated her country/Southern characters — Tammy Wynette singing Stand By Your Man over various classical pieces, or this classic …

Or this one …

And if you’re Southern, you can often pull off a good Irish character as well.

She also excelled at playing celebrities with outsized personalities, from Nancy Reagan to Diana Ross. And more abstract characters, like the obsessive-compulsive glamorous party host in this ad for Calvin Kleen.

Outside SNL, she was the long-suffering wife on Primetime Glick and the star of a memorable scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure:

She had a wonderful chemistry with Phil Hartman, another versatile “glue” cast member, no matter which sketch they were in. Even playing Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Or Frank Sinatra and Sinead O’Connor.

Hartman left us far too soon. He was just beginning to enjoy his post-SNL career on NewsRadio. And now Hooks has gone as well.

You and me both.

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Left Behind – way, way behind

I’ve always held a deep distrust of the Left Behind phenomenon. It seems to preach to the “I’m saved and you’re not” school of arrogant Christianity.

So I got a kick out of this review of the Nicolas Cage “reboot” of the series on film:

They want churches to book whole theaters and take their congregations, want it to be a Youth Group event, want magazines like this one to publish Discussion Questions at the end of their reviews—want the system to churn churn away, all the while netting them cash, without ever having to have cared a shred about actual Christian belief.

They want to trick you into caring about the movie. Don’t.

(We tried to give the film zero stars, but our tech system won’t allow it.)

Yes, that review is from Christianity Today.

Also good, from Rotten Tomatoes (and I think I know the writer): “Yea verily, like unto a plague of locusts, Left Behind hath begat a further scourge of devastation upon Nicolas Cage’s once-proud filmography.”

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1994 revisited: Americans wrong about recession

Today’s headline: Americans think we’re in a recession. They’re wrong. But still… – The Washington Post.

Same as 1994.

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All-time great performances: Fishbone on SNL

March 23, 1991. I was sitting in the commons room at Brown House, my happy home for the past three years. I was terrified of the world outside Duke. We had watched most of the Gulf War on the same TV. The recession limited our job prospects. I had concluded I wasn’t going to find the woman of my dreams in college (in retrospect, a good thing — I still had some growing up to do).

Saturday Night Live was a nice respite for us. The musical act that night was Fishbone, which existed on our plane as one of those bands whose name we had heard but little else.

By the time Angelo Moore got three-quarters of the way through a front flip to kick off Kendall Jones’ blazing guitar solo, my jaw was hanging open. I couldn’t believe guys could run around and create such chaos on stage while playing such a powerful rock song called Sunless Saturday.

I was vaguely aware that my dormmates were less impressed. Angelo’s antics aren’t for everyone. “Dirty Walt,” the dude with the Mohawk doing backup vocals and not playing trumpet even though he was supposedly the band’s trumpet player, freaked out a few people.

But after it ended, all I could do was say, “That … was awesome!”

Not sure my dormmates ever looked at me the same way again. I didn’t mind — I went out and bought The Reality of My Surroundings and listened to it nonstop that summer. It’s still in my top 10 or 20 albums of all time.

It’s No. 57 here: StompBeast: THE 100 BEST SNL PERFORMANCES (3 of 5).

(Unfortunately, my quest to find video of The Time’s marvelously choreographed performance of Jerk Out is still unfulfilled.)

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We R not smrt

Canadian magazine Maclean’s looks southward and shudders.

A few painful excerpts from a thorough beatdown that starts with a bunch of frightening statistics on America’s willful scientific ignorance:

If the rise in uninformed opinion was limited to impenetrable subjects that would be one thing, but the scourge seems to be spreading. Everywhere you look these days, America is in a rush to embrace the stupid. Hell-bent on a path that’s not just irrational, but often self-destructive. Common-sense solutions to pressing problems are eschewed in favour of bumper-sticker simplicities and blind faith. …

Then gun laws, where the column assumes the point rather than proving it. Then Patriot Act stuff and book-banning.

If ignorance is contagious, it’s high time to put the United States in quarantine.

Before we can complain, the column follows up with our math test scores.

They don’t appear to be getting much smarter as they age. A 2013 survey of 166,000 adults across 20 countries that tested math, reading and technological problem-solving found Americans to be below the international average in every category.

Then it gets debateable. Is it such a bad thing that we’re not watching TV news? Do we have to be so serious that we read The Washington Post?

But it returns to solid ground with a look at “elitism.”

Both ends of the political spectrum have come to reject the conspicuously clever, she says, if for very different reasons; the left because of worries about inclusiveness, the right because they equate objections with obstruction. As a result, the very mission of universities has changed, argues Liu. “We don’t educate people anymore. We train them to get jobs.”

So does all this ignorance lead us to this conclusion?

There’s a long and not-so-proud history of American electors lashing out irrationally, or voting against their own interests. Political scientists have been tracking, since the early 1950s, just how poorly those who cast ballots seem to comprehend the policies of the parties and people they are endorsing. A wealth of research now suggests that at the most optimistic, only 70 per cent actually select the party that accurately represents their views—and there are only two choices.

Or is that a function of the two-party system and our “us vs. them” approach to politics, which we treat as a spectator sport?

Either way, it’s depressing. So we’ll finish with a comment from Groundskeeper Willie.

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How to edit, old-school

Among the pearls (pardon the pun) from this Jeff Pearlman interview with longtime Sports Illustrated editor Peter Carry are these handy four rules of editing (I’ve put the most frequently violated rule in bold):

Rule 1: The best ideas come from the guys in the field (and Lord knows whatever other sources outside your office), so listen. Refine. Combine. Bad ideas result in bad stories, no matter who’s doing the writing. Rule 2: Listen and talk to the writer. Don’t nag, don’t hang over her shoulder. But do have a discourse. Challenge. Help the writer refine the idea. Rule 3: Read the damn story all the way through before you lay a pencil or a cursor on it. This seems like a simple matter, like medical personnel always washing their hands before they touch a patient, but you’d be surprised how often patients and stories get prematurely handled. Rule 4: Be gentle but be firm.

He also has some interesting tales of the old days, comparing the SI office to Mad Men.

via Peter Carry | Jeff Pearlman.

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