Monday, November 12, 2007

Me or your lying eyes?

Look what's back in the news:

The monasteries of Myanmar used to teem with saffron-robed Buddhist monks, revered as spiritual guides and moral authorities in a country in the grip of a repressive military regime.

The Ridger raised a pretty good question about this last month: How come all those stories about "saffron-robed monks" tend to come with pictures of people in wine-dark seas robes? Is that some kind of monkish camouflage, or is it something journalists write (or news desks insert) because "saffron-robed" goes in front of "monks" the way "war-torn" goes in front of "Lebanon"? Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?

Now have a look at today's Breakfast Experiment over at the Log, which takes a couple of healthy whacks in passing at Sunday's nearly-full-page "Your Brain on Politics" tale in the NYT. In particular: It's irresponsible to take the responses of 10 medical students (or whatever) recruited at UCLA as a proxy for the reactions of 55 million male or 55 million female U.S. voters. Their conclusions might be true, or they might not be, but the fact that some of their evidence comes from high-tech brain-imaging machines doesn't make the results any more likely to generalize to American voters as a whole than if they asked for a show of hands in their Introduction to Neuroscience class.

For our purposes, we could add: Nor is the evidence any more credible because it's published in the Times' Week in Review section, rather than the Hogwarts weekly or some other journal that's open about its dedication to the nonempirical world.

It's worth noting what reality-based nonjournalists say about the journalism they read. They aren't accultured to all the craft norms we take for granted. When we turn red robes into saffron, or base our statements on some sort of magickal argumetum ad fMRI, they don't simply take it in stride; they wonder what the hell we're doing.

Suggestions for the week: Observe stuff carefully. Distinguish observations from inferences. Be open about how stuff is measured and what the measurements actually say. This doesn't mean we all need to rush out and get research degrees in cognitive neuropsyc. It means having more fun with the tools we already have.

Today's exercise? Discuss the presentation of evidence in this news report. For extra credit, would muttering "Dewey Defeats Truman" be an example of:
a) The genetic fallacy
b) Argument ad hominem
c) Picking on the competition, or
d) All of the above?


Blogger Strayhorn said...

Just this morning I was reading a story in one of the weekend editions of the WashPost about the new Air Force utility uniforms and how airmen in Iraq were modifying them.

One man, who was quoted as "David Bear," had made a particular modification which was illustrated with a photo. And the name tape on the uniform blouse clearly said "Hernandez."

I guess Heywood Yablome and Seymour Butts were both busy at the time.

4:43 PM, November 12, 2007  
Blogger Pam said...

Try to keep up with fashion, Fev! Obviously, you can't wear saffron after Labor Day. :)

7:50 AM, November 14, 2007  

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