Monday, August 27, 2018

Oh, stop it

Is it time to complain about the misinterpretation of public opinion data again?  Yes, and Nate Silver is the one overplaying things here.

The point of the complaint seems to be that @MeetThePress is overemphasizing the stability of Trump's approval based on a single poll finding. To be fair, yeah: Most journalists writing about survey data would do well to dial back the loud adverbs, just on principle. But on the whole, there aren't a lot of reasons to reject the null here, and when in doubt, it's always good to err on the side of not jumping up and down for the sake of jumping up and down. Let's have a look at the data and see why.

The NBC/Journal poll (n = 600 registered voters, 44% approve, 52% disapprove) is the only one I know that was in the field entirely after the (ahem) events of Tuesday. The "margin of error" at 95% confidence is +/- 4 points. As Silver notes, the approval finding is down 2 points on an NBC poll that was in the field Aug. 18-22, and with 2 points being almost exactly the standard error,* he suggests that that's a bigger finding than "stable."

I think not, for a couple of reasons. NBC/WSJ surveys from June and July showed 44% and 45% approval, respectively, so one perfectly good interpretation of the approval result is "same as in June." More importantly, though, all samples are estimates. We can't prove that the population value (the actual figure that the samples are trying to estimate) has remained stable at 45% since June, but findings of 44-45-46-44 would be a really good representation of such a reality.

It's also entirely possible (when in doubt, bet the mean) that Trump's approval has inched up and then down since June at exactly the rate the samples indicate, or even a bit more or less. The findings could reflect a change in population value from 48% to 42%. They could also all reflect a steady population value of 48% or 42%; that would be a much less likely but still nonchance result (assuming identical sample sizes, which isn't spelled out in the pdf). And any of those results could be an outlier; a 95% confidence interval tells you that one of every 20 will be, but it doesn't tell you which one (or which 20). The safest conclusion about Trump's approval among registered voters since June is: Yep, pretty stable.

True, a decline of 2 points would be "reasonably big"** if "it held across other polls," and it'd be bigger if the SE was 1.5 instead of 2, but "other polls" haven't happened yet, and I'd rather that poll stories talk about what has been found rather than what might be. And "pretty stable" is what this poll has found -- like it or not.

That, I think, is the real issue: the urge to bash the methodology when you dislike the results of a survey. That's normal journalism, in that journalism finds it hard to resist pounding the data into the shape of a story, however hard the data resist. But business as usual -- specifically, the urge to proclaim that Trump's support was "tanking" when the data said no such thing -- runs the risk of making us look both biased and stupid. I'd prefer we aim for "neither."

* For approval, the square root of ((.44)(.56))/600, if you're scoring along at home; multiply by 1.96 to get the "margin of error" at 95% confidence. For simplicity, you can use .25 for the product, which would give the maximum margin for any finding based on the whole sample.
** See what I mean about the damn adverbs?

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Friday, August 17, 2018

You may be a batter ...

Always nice to see the Sport of the Gods crack the Top 5 at the Fair 'n' Balanced network, isn't it? At least, until they start writering:

The Texas Rangers pulled off a move on Thursday that reportedly hadn’t been seen in more than a century.

The team managed a triple play without retiring a batter after Los Angeles Angels player David Fletcher smacked a ground ball toward third in the fourth inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, reported.

Seem a little out of adjustment? As in, you have to start a triple play at "without retiring a batter," because otherwise you can't reach three outs? See if it makes more sense in the story Fox cribbed from:

It had been 106 years since a Major League team turned a triple play in which the batter was not retired before the Rangers turned the trick in Thursday's 8-6 win over the Angels at Globe Life Park.

... According to STATS, this was the first triple play in which the batter was not retired since June 3, 1912, when the Brooklyn Dodgers did it against the Reds.

Oh. The batter. The definite article, you might say. If you can wade through the hurling and snagging and random apostrophes, here's Fox's description of the play:

The bases were loaded when Rangers’ infielder Jurickson Profar snagged the incoming ball and stepped on third: out No. 1. He then tagged the Angel’s runner on third, Taylor Ward: Out No. 2. Profar then hurled the ball toward teammate Rougned Odor, who touched second base.

Out No. 3. Triple play.

Which kind of leaves out why Ward was still in the neighborhood ("Every runner thought it was a line drive, that's why we got a triple play"), but you get the idea: Cool triple play!* Just not quite the one we were led to believe.

* Not that there are humdrum ones; "exciting triple play" is in the "brutal murder" category of Needless Words.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

On the bringy deep

Damn, Nation's Newspaper of Record! How weird do you think people in the South talk, anyway?

Because of an editing error, an article last Wednesday about the Southern cooks Todd Richards and Virginia Willis misstated Mr. Richards’s recollection about one of the ways his father helped shape his sense of Southern food. He said his father was “brining chickens all over the house,” not “bringing” them.

Nice to see that the Times's beloved "false titles" rule yet survives the hand that mocked it, too.

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Sunday, August 12, 2018

The missing middle

If you're fond of Fox (and you know you are), you've seen this fake news trick before. It's how "a longtime activist against Islam" arrested for violating a court order gets into the headlines as "arrested for filming outside child grooming outside trial": all you do is leave out the middle term in the news syllogism.

In the case at hand, as it turns out, there are half a dozen middle terms, assisted by a head fake from the particular journalistic use of "after" to mean "as a consequence of" or "in the course of" ("2 killed after truck hits car"). This is more or less the sequence, as Fox tells it:

  • Suspect tries to fill water cup with soda
  • Employee tells him he'll have to pay for that; suspect declines and leaves the restaurant
  • Employee follows to remind suspect he isn't welcome back
  • Suspect responds by trying to kick employee and heads for another restaurant
  • Cops pursue him into bathroom of second restaurant, where he begins "to resist and fight with the officers"
  • Enter the Taser
So, technically, yes. He was "Tasered after filling water cup with soda," but you probably don't need to look over your shoulder the next time you go for seconds -- any more than the jackbooted advance guards of sharia law will swoop down on you if you go to Britain and decide to film a random street scene with your phone. The latter is a more distinctively Foxian ideology, but the former is ideological as well, as long as you count tabloidism as an ideology.

And yes, "Coke Fiend" is in strikingly poor taste, but at least it holds out the possibility that someone at Fox thinks "Coke" is a generic term for soft drinks.

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Saturday, August 04, 2018

In the paint

Did something seem oddly familiar about this morning's Fair 'n' Balanced lead story?

President Trump responded by Twitter on Friday night to a CNN anchor's recent interview with an NBA superstar.

"Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn't easy to do. I like Mike!" Trump tweeted.
"Recent interview," you say? Could that have been ... the topic of Tuesday's lead story?
LeBron James criticized President Trump on Monday, accusing him of trying to divide the country by using sports as his focal point.

The new Los Angeles Lakers star said Trump created a wedge by capitalizing on the controversy surrounding former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem.
It's hard at this remove to tell who's dunking on whom, given that the president seems to be practicing his set shot while LeBron either calms the crowd or rubs the invisible magic lamp that summons Don Lemon. But the Fox treatment does suggest that there's one whiny, dumb snowflake on the court here, and it isn't either one of the smart people who did an interview on Monday.

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