Thursday, 29 November 2012

Leveson, The Media, And The Secret They Don’t Want You To Know.

Here’s something interesting about the world of counterintuitive probability – the more likely it is than an article will appear in a science magazine, political magazine or a newspaper, the less likely it is to be very accurate.  Yes you did read that right – the less likely it is to be accurate.  I’ll tell you why in a moment.  Today, Lord Justice Leveson has published his report on the culture, practices and ethics of the press, following a public inquiry launched in the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal. This report contains proposals for future media regulation, and an indictment of the press, politicians, and the police.  Everyone now knows that some factions of the media behaved awfully with the phone-hacking incidents.  Most people know (although not all admit it) that there is a toxic co-dependency between the press, the readers and celebrities (slebs) – inasmuch as journalists camp outside nightclubs to get a shot of Lindsay Lohan’s knickers, to feed the appetite of the numerous readers that love seeing Lindsay Lohan’s knickers – and in full circle, it is that kind of exposure that does no harm to the careers of those slebs.  That said, celebrities deserve a degree of privacy, and their not having it is largely due to saleability of the ‘name’, which is due to the voracious appetite of the fans, or the vicarious onlookers, that live through proxy gossip-feeders.

Most of you already knew all that about the media.  Here’s something you perhaps did not know – it is the secret that the media don’t want you to know.  The tree that Lord Justice Leveson is barking up is only a tree related to making the media accountable for reprehensible invasions of privacy and libellous claims.  The thing that is most wrong with the media will not be fixed by Leveson, or by David Cameron, or probably by any future Government.  I’m talking about the rubbish the media writes that is assumed by the majority to be correct.  If you’re the sort of person who values the truth then that’s a far more important issue than reprehensible invasions of privacy – because they are pretty conspicuous acts, whereas the rubbish is buried amongst the truths and half-truths, and it is rather excessive.

This is why it is likely that an article published in a magazine is not going to be true.  In fact, ask yourself this; what percentage of the articles in, say, The Times or The Guardian or The New Scientist are true?  I'll bet you went for a figure much higher than is actually the case.  Here's why newspapers, magazines and websites are likely to have a lot more falsehoods and inaccuracies than you'd expect. It's true that an Oxford biologist's new theory of abiogenesis is more likely to be true than a Liverpudlian roadsweeper's theory.  But if a newspaper, magazine or website publishes a theory, it is very likely to have quite a few falsehoods and inaccuracies - or if it is a socio-political opinion piece, even more so.  The reason is that people like to write things that shock, surprise or stir the attention, because that is what publishers know people like to read. The best way to produce material that people want to read is to write something contentious, or speculative or just plain controversial.  If a theory is contentious, or speculative or controversial, then the chances are it has plenty wrong with it (this is especially true of political opinion pieces).

Even scientific theories published in popular magazines and websites are likely to contain some errors - and science is seen as one of the more reliable disciplines.  You see, long before an article is submitted to the principal editor for publication, the author is compelled by policy to circulate drafts among experts in the particular field under consideration, and then address criticisms and comments – rewriting anything required.  This takes a lot more time than most publishers have to spare between pieces, so naturally corners are cut.  And, remember, I said that what grabs the intention and sells is the contentious, speculative and controversial material - so in terms of probability, in a busy press office, lots of attention-grabbing but questionable material is going to make it into the publication.  I'll bet if you could find a copy of 100 New Scientist articles from the 1950s you'd find most of them had a mixture of contentions that turned out to be right, but also numerous falsehoods or inaccuracies, and quite a few that were almost entirely wrong. 

That's going on within the relatively reliable edifice of science - now imagine the situation for political opinion, which is far more intractable and diverse and complex than the nuts and bolts of science. In political or social commentaries, even when a writer finds out facts, then circulates drafts among fellow so-called experts, and then addresses criticisms and comments, he is always under the rubric of the subjective interpretation of vast and complex data.  Further, he must then augment that data into an attention-grabbing piece with a catchy headline, and an opening gambit that will keep the reader interested.  Add up those probabilities into the melting pot, and it amounts to a lot of falsehoods and inaccuracies that you're reading on a daily basis. 

The logic is fairly straightforward; ‘Pig has man for breakfast’ is more headline grabbing than ‘Man has bacon for breakfast’ because ‘Pig has man for breakfast’ is more unusual.  But being unusual, ‘Pig has man for breakfast’ is more likely to be false, inaccurate or exaggerated, which explains why the more likely it is that an article will appear in a science magazine, political magazine or a newspaper, the less likely it is to be very accurate. 

This is something about the media that is not going to be sorted out any time soon – but it should give you a different perspective when reading material with a large readership.  Then again, given that in the writing of this Blog post I had in mind the goal of grabbing your attention - by my own assessment of probability, at least some of this Blog post should be false or inaccurate. :-)