I had more time than usual to plumb the NY Times this morning, so I’ll use that to put some thoughts down on what I found interesting or worth continuing to think about, etc. Some of my NYT habits have changed and some are a little embarassingly pedestrian, but I really do love that paper. I think it was while I was a post-doc that I really discovered it and contrasting it with the Chicago papers (there were 2 at that time) and the Detroit papers (there were 2 at that time), it was just so manifest that the writing was superior. I’m not talking about the opinions, just the writing. I grew up with the Washington Post (1970s and 1980s) but haven’t read it enough as an adult to compare. My pattern today with the NYT is to 1) go through Sports (gagh, but it’s a habit I won’t let go of). 2) Go through the Review section 3) Preserve the Book Review – as it’s my go-to for the rest of the week, 4) Look at what’s on the cover of the magazine issue 5) At least skim through the front section (international news) 6) Set aside other sections as time allows.

There were a bunch of interesting things today – current events about the shutdown, the editorial coming out with a full throat engagement with the threats from anti-vaxxers, and an interesting opinion piece about the role of rich people within progressive and liberal circles. The latter was one I wanted to debate and would like to come back to it at some point. But the first one I thought about was one on the topic of ‘fake news’ and the readiness with which it is engaged.

The NYT usually has one article in the op-ed section that is written by researchers of one flavor or another. They have an embarassingly similar way of starting out. “Problem X is important today. Could it have to do with Y or Z? Our research done recently shows …”. I know that this is the thrust of most research articles, but it’s jarring to see it in a non-scientific format and feels very plastic and in the interest of excessive self-promotion. Despite my own academic and research background, I cringe at these. Despite that, today’s was mostly interesting. The premise of today’s research article is that there is sense of an increasing willingness of people to accept fake news – information put into social media which is at best incorrect and at  worse a lie – and it would be beneficial to know why. The authors assert that there are two formulations into understanding this: 1) It’s due to greater tribal/partisan sensibilities and people will rationalize against facts to buttress their own associations; and 2) It’s due to people simply not opting to put in the effort to think about things, especially when they are broadcast in sensationalist bursts which is a feature of our era (think twitter). The article was pretty cool into what ways you can measure  these things: there’s a test known in psychological and behavioral circles which asserts falsehoods carefully chosen so that individuals who don’t think about them very hard will give wrong answers. It can thus provide a kind of measurement of how prone an individual is to go with ‘their gut’. They gave this example: in a race, you pass the 2nd place person. What place are you in now? Gut response tends to say ‘1st’ but the answer after thought is clearly ‘2nd’.

So, it was a nice read, not too didactic but lays out measures, premises, ways of thinking about the problem. The end is a little weak where they try to talk about how to reconcile the ‘two camps’ with what they clearly see as definitive results showing the latter. They fall into the tendency of drawing conclusions without having quantitative backing: effect A clearly exists is extrapolated into ‘effect a is important perhaps even mostly important’ into ‘effect A needs to be the prime driver in how we understand X’. That was at the end of the article and maybe I was getting analytically lazy though!

 

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