Archive for the ‘Brooks Jackson’ Category

Constant repetition doesn’t make it true

February 25, 2008

Constant repetition of a claim may cause people to believe it, but repetition doesn’t make it true.

Unspun by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Be a skeptic, not a cynic or a naive person

December 30, 2007

When confronted with a factual claim:

  • A skeptic demands evidence
  • A cynic doesn’t demand evidence, he just automatically assumes the claim is false
  • A naive person also doesn’t demand evidence, but he automatically assumes the claim is true

Both cynicism and naivete are forms of gullibility:

  • A cynic is easily led to believing that any claims made by xyz are false and not to be trusted
  • A naive person is easily led to believing that any claims made by abc are true and should be trusted

Be a skeptic.  Demand and weigh evidence and keep your mind open.

— Extracted from Unspun by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Absolute certainty is elusive

December 23, 2007

You might think that all swans are white because you have never seen a black one. But there are black swans, in Australia. Karl Popper, a famous philosopher, held that even the so-called laws of science are hypothetical, subject to being disproved someday by new evidence. You only need one counterexample to disprove a claim of “never” or “always.” All swans are white — until you see a black one. But you can never tell when that will happen.Perfect knowledge is seldom if ever available to humans. For one thing, new information is constantly arriving, and human learning is constantly expanding.

While we can’t be absolutely certain, we can be certain enough to make a reasonable decision.

In the U.S. court system there are various standards of certainty. A criminal trial requires a much higher level of certainty than a civil trial to convict a person. (Consequently, an individual may be found not guilty in a criminal trial and guilty in a civil trial, e.g. O. J. Simpson).

In our everyday lives, we have to pick an appropriate standard of certainty. With trivial matters the level of certainty can be low, but for nonreversible decisions such as when choosing a spouse or a president, a much higher level of certainty is required.

Be as certain as you need to be.

Unspun by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Reputable websites

November 23, 2007

From the excellent book Unspun by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson:

Amid all the deception and misinformation on the Internet, some sites stand out as mostly reliable and unbiased. Here are a few of them. All are free, unless otherwise noted.

URL Description The National Center for Health Statistics, of the Centers for Disease Control, has official data on births, deaths, accidental injuries, marriages, and divorces. The “FastStats” feature allows easy location by topic. The online version of Consumer Reports magazine, publishing unbiased test reports since 1936 on products of all sorts, from autos to kitchen appliances. Published by the nonprofit Consumers Union, which accepts no advertising or even free test samples. A $26 annual subscription can prevent mistakes costing much more. The Center for Responsible Politics is a private, nonprofit group that collects official data on political donations and lobbying and provides useful analysis of which interest groups gave most. Lawmakers of both parties rely on the Congressional Budget Office for analysis of economic trends, federal spending, and the deficit, and of the likely impact of any new legislation. The Kaiser Family Foundation, whose stated mission is to “help improve health policies and programs for people in greatest need,” provides a wealth of nonpartisan information about Medicare, Medicaid, private health insurance, AIDS, and women’s health. The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects official statistics on unemployment, jobs, inflation, and wages. The U.S. Census Bureau site supplies official statistics on population counts, poverty, household income, health insurance coverage, and home ownership. The Energy Information Administration has official statistics on all sources of energy, including gasoline prices, sources of crude oil, nuclear power, and solar power. The “Kids Page,” more sophisticated than it sounds, provides basic summaries. Dr.Stephen Barrett’s respected and thoroughly documented “guide to Quackery, Health Fraud, and Intelligent Decisions” about medicine. The U.S. Government Accountability Office is a hard-nose, non-partisan watchdog agency set up by Congress. The site contains reports on “high risk” programs vulnerable to fraud, waste, and mismanagement. is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. This site monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews, and news releases. The Librarian’s Internet Index has links to thousands of websites that have been screened by professional librarians — people who look things up for a living. It’s more than 20,000 entries are organized under 14 main topics and nearly 300 related topics.

TV, newspaper, and magazine reporters and editors decide what we learn

November 5, 2007

When a CNN/New York Times poll asked people where they learned most about health-related issues, only 1-in-10 said from a doctor; 6-in-10 said they learned most from television, newspapers, or magazines.

What reporters and editors find newsworthy often is a poor measure of what people really need to know. We get spun by mistaking how often we hear about something for how often it really occurs.

For example, breast cancer gets enormous attention in the news media. Yet, the plain fact is that women are nine times more likely to die of heart disease, and more than twice as likely to die from a stroke, and lung cancer kills far more women than breast cancer, and so do other chronic lung diseases, such as emphysema.

Psychologists call this effect the availability heuristic, a mental bias that gives more weight to vividness and emotional impact than to actual probability.

Unspun by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Related blogs:

Have you ever wondered why other people are so unreasonable and hard to convince?

October 25, 2007

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” [Leon Festinger, et al., When Prophecy Fails (1956)]

Have you ever wondered why other people are so unreasonable and hard to convince? Why is it that they disregard hard facts that prove you’re right and they’re wrong? The fact is, we humans aren’t wired to think very rationally. That’s been confirmed recently by brain scans.

Psychological experiments have shown that humans tend to seek out even weak evidence to support their existing beliefs, and to ignore evidence that undercuts those beliefs. In the process, we apply stringent tests to evidence we don’t want to hear, while letting slide uncritically into our minds any information that suits our needs.

The Wisdom of Crowds by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson

When is a “large” coffee a large coffee? Names that deceive

October 19, 2007

“California Ripe Olives grow in a variety of sizes: small, medium, large, extra large, jumbo, colossal and super colossal,” the industry website informs us. Of seven sizes, “large” is actually the third smallest.

The Starbucks Corporation doesn’t even use the term “large.” The smallest size on the menu is a “Tall” coffee (12 oz); the next size up is a “Grande” (16 oz) and the largest size Starbucks call “Venti” (20 oz).

Always ask, “What’s behind that name? Does it really describe the thing that they are trying to sell me? What should be a more accurate name for it?”

unSpun by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Johnson

Fear Sells (advertisers and politicians know it and exploit it)

October 13, 2007

Poor Edna. She was one great-looking woman, so it was strange that she couldn’t land a husband. And nobody would tell her why she was often a bridesmaid but never a bride … The reason Edna was headed for spinsterhood was breath so offensive that “even your best friends won’t tell you.”

The above was an advertisement that Listerine Mouthwash ran in 1923. The ploy worked: the company sold tanker loads of Listerine.

This advertisement gives us a window into how we can be manipulated by appeals to our fears and insecurities. Advertisers know it and exploit it. So do politicians.

In his State of the Union address on January 28, 2003, President Bush said that Saddam Hussein was pursuing weapons of mass destruction and invited listeners to imagine what would have happened if Saddam had given any to the 9/11 hijackers: “It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.”

This appeal to fear helped generate overwhelming public support for the war.

FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt. Advertisers exploit it to sell their products. Politicians exploit it to sell their policies.

Fear has been a staple tactic of advertisers and politicians for so long you would think that we would have become better at detecting their use of it. But fear and insecurity can still cloud our judgment.

Here’s the lesson in a nutshell: “If it’s scary, be wary.”

Unspun by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson

“Anecdotal evidence” is an oxymoron

September 17, 2007

[Definition] Oxymoron: two terms that contradict each other; a contradiction in terms.

Interesting stories (i.e. anecdotes) don’t prove anything.  They could be far from the typical. Anecdotes are not evidence.

Example: a person saw a crow drop walnuts onto a street as a car was approaching.  The car ran over the walnut, breaking it apart.  The crow then flew down and ate the contents of the walnut.

This is an interesting story, but in no way does it prove that crows are clever enough to learn such a neat trick as using human drivers to prepare their meals for them.  In fact, a scientific study was done and it concluded that crows do not possess this ability.

Lesson learned: an anecdote is just that – an interesting story.  It doesn’t prove anything.

— Extracted from Unspun by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson

The price-equals-quality fallacy

September 11, 2007

“We tend to think of higher-priced goods as being of better quality than lower-priced goods; but while You get what you pay for may be folk wisdom, it isn’t always true.”

“In the 1950s, Pepsi competed with Coca-Cola by selling its soda at half the price of Coke and advertising twice as much for the nickel. But more people bought Pepsi after it raised its price, a lesson not lost to other marketers. ”

“The price-equals-quality fallacy is exploited in many ways. Many second-tier private colleges and universities make sure the sticker price of their tuition is close to (or even higher than) Harvard’s, Princeton’s, and Yale’s, in the hope that parents and students will take the mental shortcut of equating price with quality.”

“Consumer Reports magazine, which conducts carefully designed tests on all sorts of products from automobiles to toasters to TV sets, often finds lower-priced goods to be of higher quality than those costing much more. For example, in a comparison of upright vacuum cleaners on the magazine’s website in 2006, the $140 Eureka Boss Smart Vac Ultra 4870 was rated better overall than the $1,330 Kirby Ultimate G Diamond Edition or the $700 Oreck XL21-700. The Eureka was also better than the highly advertised $500 Dyson DC150.”

Unspun by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson