Friday, August 15, 2008


Truth is very much in the news this week, with numerous reports coming out of the Olympics about misleading aspects of the Opening Ceremonies and questions about the ages of Chinese girl gymnasts. There is a new book out about Barack Obama; it's going to be a bestseller even though it states things that are demonstrably false, and the author admits his "goal is to defeat Obama." Every day, polls come out, and the media dutifully reports on them in the most misleading way. The Chicago Tribune (and I'm really not trying to pick on them) prints a letter today:

The term "recession" is well-defined and leaves no room for debate:

It is two consecutive quarters of negative growth in the American economy.

Letter writers and the many columnists and pundits who write for the Chicago Tribune should be reminded of this fact.

They should realize that no matter how often they write it or say it or repeat it, a recession hasn't happened.

Their dislike of the current administration doesn't justify falsely portraying the facts of the economy.

As a semi-frequent reader of this blog will tell you (and I'll agree; my contention is different, and I'll not repeat it today), this is absolutely wrong. It is not a matter of opinion, and the Tribune should not be publishing this under the guise of presenting a point of view.

The Obama book is beneath contempt, and has been written about well by other writers (by Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast, among others). What is appalling is that this book has been published by Simon and Schuster, under the auspices of political whore Mary Matalin. (Timothy Noah at Slate does a good job of dismantling this here, and Joe Klein has some interesting comments here.) I've written about Matalin before, my objections to her are not political (I find her husband equally odious). It shocks me that she continues to be a respected part-time pundit, when her connection to the truth was severed the day she fell in love with Dick Cheney.

I'm sure I've had something to say about polls before, but a quick search didn't turn up anything. The media tends to mischaracterize poll results, it is clear that they don't understand them, and the public deserves better. First, there is a confidence interval attached to polls; it is not impossible that the pollster just happened on 418 people who all rabidly support Obama (just as it is possible for a coin to turn up heads 418 straight times). It isn't likely, but it can happen, which is why even the plus or minus 4 points you hear only represents a 95% probability.

Second, the increasingly irritating trope that any result within the margin of error is "a statistical tie." Kevin Drum has an interesting post on this. To sum up the post, if Obama leads McCain by 2% and the margin of error is 3%, this will be reported as a statistical tie. In truth, Obama has a 74% chance of being ahead.

But which of these does the public get exercised about? Of course, it's the revelation that the Opening Ceremonies featured a little girl singing who really wasn't, because the actual singer wasn't cute enough. And the Chinese gymnastics team may have faked ages of their "women's" gymnastics team to let fearless and flexible youngsters compete in contravention of the rules.

Which of these do you object to? Are these all wrong because they represent untruth, or does your opinion depend on your nationality or political party? We easily accept that Natalie Wood didn't sing in West Side Story (she looked more like a Maria than Marni Nixon, I guess). We ignore Bela Karolyi's solution to the age problem, even though he made it front-page news (he doesn't think there should be limits at all).

I don't have anything profound to say here. Once we start regarding the truth as relative, we open the door for all kinds of things. As long as we let each person determine where the line of "acceptable truth" is, we're going to have numerous versions of it. And that makes communication difficult, for if you define your truth, and I define mine, and they're far enough apart, we won't have any basis to talk at all. And that's what we see more and more in public life.

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