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.

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 …

https://twitter.com/ghoulette27/status/520359403229179904

Or this one …

https://twitter.com/stu951/status/520329827694682112

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.

https://twitter.com/honeystaysuper/status/520564414312116224

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.

What is the secret ingredient in the fake news coverage? It is not just its integrity, its exposure of hypocrisy, and its questioning of the status quo; it is also its use of irony. The irony, sarcasm, and parody of fake news work to help us to take the critical distance necessary to form our own opinions. The fake news doesn’t tell us what to think; it asks us to think for ourselves. As we face yet another crisis that will likely cost our nation valuable resources and precious lives with no clear strategy for success nor end in sight, our nation’s future depends on citizens who know better than to believe the hype.

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.”