Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘journalism’

Horse thieves and inverse probabilities

Reading Ron Chernow’s magisterial new biography of Ulysses Grant, I came across this very correct statistical inverse reasoning from the celebrated journalist Horace Greeley (whose role in the high school history curriculum has been reduced to the phrase, “Go West, young man” — that he denied having invented):

All Democrats are not horse thieves, but all horse thieves are Democrats.

This seems like an ironic bon mot, but after he became the Democratic candidate for president against Grant in 1872 he tried to use a milder version unironically as a defence of his new party colleagues:

I never said all Democrats were saloon keepers. What I said was all saloon keepers are Democrats.

Presumably he meant to add that if we knew the base rate of saloonkeeping (or horse thievery) in the population at large, we could calculate from the Democratic vote share the exact fraction of Democrats (and of Republicans) who are saloonkeepers (or horse thieves).

Very fine people of 1863

I’ve just been reading Ron Chernow’s new biography of U.S. Grant, struck by some of the parallels to current events. As interim Secretary of War Grant was at the center of the struggle over the Tenure of Office Act that served as the pretext for Johnson’s impeachment. Johnson’s supporters charged Grant with lying and drunkenness. The New York Tribune retorted

In a question of veracity between U.S. Grant and Andrew Johnson, between a soldier whose honor is as untarnished as the sun, and a President who has betrayed every friend, and broken every promise, the country will not hesitate.

And Grant’s opponent in the 1868 presidential election, New York governor Horatio Seymour, had

Denounced the Emancipation Proclamation as “a proposal for the butchery of women and children, for scenes … of arson and murder.” During the 1863 draft riots in New York, Seymour had praised the responsible hooligans as “my friends”.

Shades of Charlottesville.

On the one hand, it might be comforting to know that the US has come through worse. On the other hand, to say that current affairs have their parallels in the extreme crisis of civil war, and in a state of division that could only be “resolved” by policies that imposed essentially a century of apartheid in the southern states, is hardly comforting.

Male nurses and politically incorrect comments on gender

I was just reading this article by journalist Conor Friedersdorf, complaining about how Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson is being unfairly treated by journalists, who try to twist his subtle anti-feminist arguments into crude anti-feminist slurs. He certainly has a point. But then one comes to comments like this

[Interviewer]: Is gender equality desirable?

Peterson: If it means equality of outcome then it is almost certainly undesirable. That’s already been demonstrated in Scandinavia. Men and women won’t sort themselves into the same categories if you leave them to do it of their own accord. It’s 20 to 1 female nurses to male, something like that. And approximately the same male engineers to female engineers. That’s a consequence of the free choice of men and women in the societies that have gone farther than any other societies to make gender equality the purpose of the law. Those are ineradicable differences––you can eradicate them with tremendous social pressure, and tyranny, but if you leave men and women to make their own choices you will not get equal outcomes.

20 to 1? That seems really high. For nurses and for engineers. So I decided to do something rude, and check the numbers. For nurses, I found these statistics. There’s a lot of variation in Scandinavia. In Denmark it seems like about 20:1 female to male. But in Norway it’s 9:1. In Iceland it’s 100:1. Looking further afield, in Israel and Italy 20% of nurses are male. And in the Netherlands nearly 25%. This does not look like an ineradicable difference to me. It looks like path dependence and social context.

What about engineers? Here Peterson is, to use the technical term, talking out of his ass. There is no country in the EU with such an extreme gender imbalance for engineers: The most extreme is the UK, with about a 10:1 male to female ratio. In Sweden it’s 3:1, in Norway 4:1, and in Denmark 5:1. In Latvia the fraction of female engineers is up to 30%.

I think, if you want to make provocative “I’m just trying to be rational here” public arguments, you kind of have an obligation not to make up your supporting facts.

Kettle logic on Fox News

Most Republican leaders, in their concern to defend the president from accusations of racist over his terming African nations and Haiti “shithole countries” and saying “get them out”, have resorted to one of two strategies:

  1. Fake news. He didn’t say it, and it’s outrageous to suggest that he did.
  2. Harsh but true. He did say it, and it shows how forthright and unconcerned he is with liberal pieties.

Neither is entirely satisfactory. It is natural, then, that a Fox News correspondent, in the spirit of Freud’s “kettle logic“, combines the two:

I think it’s either fake news or if it’s true, this is how the forgotten men and women in America talk at the bar.

The bar is the new locker room. It’s kind of weird, though, when the best defense for the president’s behaviour is, he’s talking in the formal setting of a negotiation with senators the way even average uneducated Americans would only talk in a private setting when somewhat inebriated.

True friends and False friends

This week’s Spiegel has a headline quote from Emmanuel Macron:

Ich bin nicht arrogant… Ich sage und tue was ich mag.

I don’t know whether everyone does this, but whenever I read a line translated from a language that I know well, I subliminally translate it back. Often you find, particularly in news reports, that lazy translators have used false — or at least dubious -cognates. For example, I vaguely remember a quote from an English source referring to a leader being irritated by protests getting translated into irritiert, which actually means confused.

In this case, my own subliminal process stumbled over the cognate tue, meaning “I do” in German — so Macron said “I say and do what I want”, but “I kill” in French. Which immediately mapped onto another language giving me a momentary flash of Oscar Wilde’s famous line from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

Yet each man kills the things he loves

It would have been pretty interesting if Macron had actually quoted Wilde to say “Je tue ce que j’aime”.

As for the other part, it’s probably a pretty good bet that if you find yourself insisting “I’m not arrogant”, you’re probably pretty arrogant. Speaking of which, I recently came across these videos of Donald Trump actually (and apparently unironically) acting out the classic punchline of the guy who boasts about his exceptional humility:

In the second one he manages to innovate beyond the obvious comedy of boasting about humility, by going one step farther and ridiculing the interviewer for being too stupid to be able to appreciate his humility.

The World’s Greatest University(TM) has a bad PR day

Pity the poor flack in Harvard’s press office that needs to deal with two remarkable instances of cravenness in a single day: Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government bowed to criticism from the CIA to revoke its invitation to military whistleblower and transgender activist Chelsea Manning to come for a short stay as a “visiting fellow”. And Michelle Jones who rehabilitated herself in prison after a gruesome childhood that culminated in the neglect, abuse, and possibly murder of her own child, to emerge 20 years later as a noted historian of the local prison system, to be admitted to multiple graduate programmes in history, but had her acceptance at Harvard overruled by the university administration. (more…)

Intimate English

Der Spiegel posted a little quiz for people to test their colloquial English skills. Some of the questions strike me, as a native English speaker, as somewhat off. For instance, the first question is:

Sie kennen einen Geschäftspartner aus dem Privatleben und machen Ihre Kollegen darauf aufmerksam. Wie sagen Sie es – ohne unfreiwillig Gerüchte über Ihr Intimleben zu streuen? [You know a business associate from your private life, and want to mention this to a colleague. How do you say it — without unintentionally arousing scurrilous rumours about yourself.]

  • I know him privately.
  • I know him a bit better.
  • I know him personally.

The second one is obviously anglicised German. The third sounds like you’re saying, I’ve actually met him, rather than knowing him by reputation or having heard him give a talk. The first one sounds like something I might say, even if in reality I’d be more likely to say something slightly more specific about the context from which I know him: He’s my neighbour, I know him from the rabbit-breeding club, we do hang-gliding together, etc. But their favoured answer is #3, and about #1 they have this to say:

TMI – too much information. Da hätten Sie auch gleich ausplaudern können, dass Sie die Person schon mal nackt gesehen haben. Ihre achtlose Bemerkung klingt auf jeden Fall so, als wollten Sie ein wenig mit einem intimen Geheimnis prahlen. Doch das will niemand wissen. Jemanden privat zu kennen, bedeutet im Englischen, sie/ihn in einer vertraulichen Weise zu kennen, die in der Öffentlichkeit nichts zu suchen hat. Nur als Tipp: “Private parts” im Englischen sind die Geschlechtsteile. Sagen Sie deshalb “I know him personally”, und Sie werden garantiert nicht missverstanden.

You might as well have blurted out, that you’ve seen this person naked.* Your careless comment certainly sounds, in any case, as though you wanted to boast of an intimate secret. But no one wants to hear this. To know someone privately means, in English, to know him or her in a confidential way that has no place in public discussion. A tip: “Private parts” in English are the sex organs.

*Which, in a German context, actually doesn’t necessarily mean that you know him well, but only that you’ve been to the same beach, or possibly the naked swimming hours at the local pool.


On the BBC website there was this article about increasing dissatisfaction among university students in the UK, as measured by their response to a survey question about whether their studies provided “good value for money”, and questions about their happiness and wellbeing. I was struck by this sentence:

Young women and gay students at university are particularly likely to feel unhappy.

Why “young women” and not simply “women”? I’m willing to bet that they are not basing this on a distinction in reported happiness between younger and older female students. Those who are gay are referred to simply as “students”. Most students are, in a general sense, young, but why is this emphasised for the women? Why are the women not referred to as students? I feel like there is some invidious stereotyping going on here, but I can’t quite put my finger on what is irritating me.

The other statement is overridden

Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler used to be the gold standard for political obfuscation, with his declaration (when he had to reverse previous insistence that no one in the White House was involved in the Watergate break-in “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.”

Trump, recognising that his Watergate reboot won’t pull in 21st-century viewers if they have to watch a “third-rate burglary” investigation playing out over 2 1/2 years, is ramping up the malfeasance (Russian espionage! billion-dollar bribes!) and the pace, while still hitting the classic Nixonian marks (asking the CIA to block an FBI investigation!) One place where they’ve been exceeding their originals is in the obfuscatory rhetoric. Following on Kellyanne Conway’s celebrated rechristening of lies as “alternative facts”, we have budget director Mike Mulvaney explaining why Trump’s explicit promise not to cut Medicaid was now being reversed. NY Times reporter John Harwood:

“Overridden”! Like a good reboot, it’s reminiscent of the Zieglerian original, yet somehow punchier, with a novel twist. (Tens of millions of poor people losing access to healthcare. Great cliffhanger!) The critics, though, might carp at them reaching for effect this way on their policy statements, where Nixon himself was pretty solid, leaving perhaps less headroom for further amplification when we get to the corruption charges.

Some are saying the show might not even be renewed for another season.

By the way, I’ve just read Evan Thomas’s biography Being Nixon. I’ve never had much patience for those who claim that Nixon got a raw deal over Watergate — the burglary and cover-up were just the most salient aspect of the presidential malfeasance and abuse of power — but I understand better why many people would have seen his fall as tragic. Great talents that could have served the country well, sadly bonded to a flawed personality that dragged himself and the country into a mire of recriminations.

Comparing Trump to Nixon is deeply unfair to Nixon.

Wake-up call

Microsoft responds to the worldwide ransomware attack on Windows XP:

The governments of the world should treat this attack as a wake-up call.

A wake-up call where they kill sick people in need of medical treatment. I’m not staying in that hotel again.

Fortunately, it turns out that no one was responsible: not Microsoft, not the NSA. Here in Britain, the government that skimped on funding vital infrastructure for the National Health Service so that their computers didn’t get urgent security patches looks likely to be re-elected in a landslide, because the important thing is not what a government does in office, but whether its plans for what it would do get leaked to the press several days early.

Strong and stubborn stable leadership.

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