Dissemination of Information

Chinese Typewriter

In every era, in every area, there emerge individual geniuses.  In economic terms the success of society lies in harnessing the output of these individuals, and this seems to come down to three major considerations:  Dissemination, Collaboration and Enabling.

Europe had no great advantage in the world of the High Middle Ages.  China and the Ottoman Empire enjoyed many advantages over the Europeans.  What changed the game for Europe was the printing press, which disseminated information widely.

The printing press was a chinese invention.  The chinese long used wood carved block prints to copy books and playing cards etc.  They even invented a moveable type block printing press.  But the technology was unsuited to the Chinese alphabet.  As an example look at the photo of a Chinese typewriter above.  It is a laborious and time consuming process to hunt down the correct character and type it onto the page.  Touch typing is not an option and speed typing is out of the question.

Out of pure serendipity the moveable type press was perfectly suited to European alphabets.  Once it was trialled it became clear immediately that printed books, pamphlets and periodicals were here to stay.

What followed was an explosion in the availability of knowledge.  When Petrarch wanted books in the 14th Century he had to delve into the basements of churches all over Europe to unearth old copies of Roman and Greek originals.  150 years later Erasmus was able to buy books from a printer.  Universities could expand their libraries from 100’s to 1,000’s of texts.

Universities were the centres of the second consideration; collaboration.  Before the arrival of the university collaboration occured only when a wealthy patron collected scholars in his court.  Usually this was done by rulers because few people have the resources to bankroll a room full of scholars.

A university is a financial model which takes income from students to bankroll the collaborative research of the senior academics.  It is the perfect collaboration engine.  These days we also have collaboration in other forms, but behind closed doors.  When the military brings “intelligence” together they have no intention of sharing the results widely.  Similarly private corporations are motivated to protect their intellectual property from the competition.  Only Universities, with the “publish or perish” mantra are motivated first and foremost by collaboration to expand the human body of knowledge.

Enabling is the final consideration of the three.  A salutory lesson in how important enabling is lies with the Arabic world.  When the first European presses were printing bibles and selling like hot cakes a printer in Venice looked east for a fresh market.  He printed a Koran.

When the Ummah, the controlling body of Islam, saw this first attempt they were horrified.  As with early bibles the printed Koran contained errors.  Instead of working to fix the errors the Sultanate banned printing in the Ottoman Empire.  The result of this decision was to plunge the Arab world into a technological backwater.  From being one of the most advanced centres of maths, astronomy, physics, geography etc they lost pace against the West becoming the “Sick Man of Europe”.

Enabling academics involves accepting that they can have some theories that people find uncomfortable.  During the “McCarthy Era” with Reds under the Beds and the Hollywood blacklist in operation many academics with socialist leanings in the USA found themselves under investigation.  That is not the environment that stimulates research.

Today, in particular in the USA, certain pressure groups use social media to “expose” academics in an attempt to close them down.  These attacks mostly come from the religious right and many are motivated by a distinctly anti-academic faith based approach to learning which runs exactly counter to scientific method.  The 1925 Scopes trial on the teaching of Darwinism in Highschool is the most famous instance, and these attacks persist to this day.

Anti-intellectualism is a universal tool of populism of both the left and the right.  Nazis and Communists are equally enthusiastic in the burning of books they dislike.  They share this fetish with religous fundamentalists of all creeds.

Beware anyone who opposes the dissemination of information.

 

Telling Lies #2: Conflation

oitnb-10

Black Prisoners outnumber Whtes 4 to 1

You have heard it every time you have heard a US politician up for election.  Being tough on crime gets you elected.  So forget the truth, it’s time for conflation!

Conflation is when you take data from different sources and blend them into a statement that appears, on the surface to be correct.  It seems right.  Who’s going to challenge it?  And if anyone tries to challenge it just bury them in statistics.

So the US politician will wade into the debate saying that “we need to get tough on repeat offenders” and nobody will argue with that.

Then they say “our jails are overflowing with repeat offenders” and nobody will argue with that.  The prisons of the USA are the product of the plea bargain system where you throw the book at an offender and have them plead to a misdemeanor and let them walk, first time out.  So the prisons ARE overflowing with repeat offenders.

Then they move into conflation.  “Men of colour are proportionally the majority prisoners in our jails”.  The audience nods.  The audience assumes the candidate just said “Most of the prisoners are black”.  But he didn’t.

He took a couple of different statistics and sort of blended them together into a statement that, while not an outright lie, is intended to misdirect you.

THIS IS THE BORING BIT THAT YOU WILL NOT WANT TO READ:

In the USA the Black people make up about 13% of the population.  Black people make up about 37% of the prison population.  Black people have an incarceration rate 4 times higher than white people in the USA.

So how can this political candidate say 37% is the majority?

Well, he kept the word “proportionally”.  In long worded terms he is saying that if you took 10,000 Black men and 10,000 white men and 10,000 Hispanic men and filled a prison from these 30,000 men you would find that 45 prisonners are white, 83 are hispanic and 231 are black.  So man for man, in a prison population of 359 people 64% would be black.  If the USA poplation was divided equally by the 3 races, which it is not.

This is the kind of maths that easily sells the public on harsh sentencing and larger prisons.  Especially when the public are white voters.  These are the kind of conflated statistics that sound very real.  They just seem to be right.  Every time you turn on the TV and see inside a prison what do you see?  A LOT of black folks.

This same process of conflating different statistical sets can be used to confuse any argument.  It is a very popular tool with populist politicians who tend to represent more marginalised and less educated people in society.  If you just lost your job to a Romanian immigrant you WANT to believe that 80% of Romanians are here illegally.  You WANT to believe that they are criminals.  So when someone hands you those statistics on a plate you eat them up.

If you live in a small rural village in the West of Ireland and you hear that 200 Syrian refugees are arriving next week to live in the closed hotel what is your first assumption.  Do you believe that 50% of the Syrian adults have 3rd level education?  Or do you believe that 10% of the young males have been radicalised by Islamic fundamentalists?  I can conflate statistical sets to sell either side.  But you, as a reader, which will you consume?

It is a technique of marketing also.  Nowhere better than in marketing of weight loss products.  How do you get fat?  By eating lots of fat.  So if you cut fat out of your diet you will lose fat!  Here is our sugar, it is 100% fat free.  They have conflated the fat on your waist with the fat in your diet.  Which is a bit like saying that bats can fly, so watch out for flying baseball bats.

How can you spot conflation?

A trick is to tell yourself to look for the kid in the china store.  You know the kid who went wild and broke all the china?  Seems correct?

It was a Bull in a china shop.  And it was a kid in a candy store.

One a metaphor for a pending disaster, the other for unbridled excitement.

Conflate them and suddenly you have a kid in juvenile court facing a charge of vandalism.

 

Telling Lies #1: Correlation

parisexplosion

 

I am starting a series of posts about how to tell lies, especially in politics and the media.  The Guardian is a newspaper I generally respect but in the headlines above they are lying.

Lies are usually pretty subtle.  People who tell overt lies are caught out, and have to retract the lie.  But a good liar will put information in front of you and let you add 1 + 1 to make 3.

The news article is about a Paris bakery explosion.  This was an accident.  Bakeries are dangerous places.  Flour dust suspended in the air is highly combustible.  If you are ever on the docks when wheat is being offloaded from ships you will see warning flags telling you of the explosion risk.

Add gas to the mix, and a naked flame and the Bakery is even more dangerous.  So, in Paris there was an accident in a Bakery and the explosion killed three people.  Sad story, but not the stuff of headlines, not the stuff likely to win a Pulitzer prize.

But what if you could add a bit of spice to the story?  Is there another angle.  As it turns out there is a Gilet Jaunes protest in Paris every Weekend this year.  So this explosion happened on the same day as yellow vested protesters were gathering in Paris.

So what we have here is a correlation.  A correlation is when two events occur together.  Kids get fat in a period of ten years.  You find that ten years ago a fast food outlet opened beside the school.  So obesity in children correlates to the presence of a fast food outlet.  But did the fast food cause the obesity.

Good science tries to avoid jumping to conclusions.  You will hear scientists say “correlation is not causation.”  Just because two things happened at the same time does not mean that one causes the other.  You may research the fast food outlet and find that none of the obese kids are actually eating there.  Scientists need to eliminate all the other possibilities, changes to transport, changes to school meals policy, changes to family incomes in the past 10 years, etc etc.

But a Journalist, especially a bad journalist, has no such scruples.  In the article above, in the second headline, the explosion is correlated with the Gilet Jaunes protest, and it is held out as a juicy possibility for another story.  Could protesters have blown up the Bakery?  Is there a conspiracy?

Populist politicians make widespread use of the correlation lie, and the greatest perpetrators in modern society are anti-vaxxers who maintain causative relationships exist when administration of any vacceine correlates with an outbreak of any condition in the recipient.

Correlation is NOT causation.  It takes work, but do the science.  Verify, verify, verify.

 

Happy Birthday Julius Caesar

Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar was born in 100 BC, making him 2118 today.  We know this because of the calendar he gave us.

A populist politician in the mould of the brothers Gracchus and his own Great Uncle Gaius Marius.  Caesar wanted to move power from the Senatorial class and absentee landlords and spread the wealth to the working classes of Rome, the Plebs and the Legionnaires.

In the process he set in motion the events that led to the collapse of the Republic and the creation of an Empire.  Caesar has given a lasting lesson to the democracies and republics of the world.  Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

Cassius speaks to Brutus

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
“Brutus” and “Caesar”—what should be in that “Caesar”?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ’em,
“Brutus” will start a spirit as soon as “Caesar.”
Now, in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed
That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!
When could they say, till now, that talked of Rome,
That her wide walks encompassed but one man?
Now is it Rome indeed, and room enough
When there is in it but only one man.
O, you and I have heard our fathers say
There was a Brutus once that would have brooked
Th’ eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.