Archive for Commentary

Information Quality

It doesn’t matter the topic, there will always be a glut of information at our fingertips. Right now, the topic is the novel coronavirus, its spread, its mortality rate, and the measures put in place to limit transmission. As usual, there is good information and plenty of bad information. People share this information without even a basic examination of its merit. I have noticed there are a few different categories that bad information typically falls into.

  • Bad information may look like good information
  • Hearsay
  • Good information shared in ways that limit its credibility
  • Old information that may not be the best in an evolving situation
  • Garbage information that has no merit at any time

When I use the term “bad information,” I am referring to two broad subcategories. The first subgroup includes the use of clearly marked opinion or commentary pieces as support for an argument. That other people exist with the same opinion as you is not proof that your opinion is correct or valid. Opinions do not equal facts. Facts can support opinions, but it should never be vice versa. The second subgroup is information that may be formatted to appear reputable, but it should not be used as substantiation for a debate. This includes content from media outlets that are known for sensationalism (New York Post, Fox News, anything relying on clickbait) or others with strong biases that drift away from fact reporting and more into the realm of commentary. The Media Bias Chart does a great job of showing a continuum of sources and where they fall in terms of bias and amount of fact reporting.

If your goal is to share factual information (and it should be), it is incumbent upon you to share it in the best way possible. Do not rely on hearsay or secondary/tertiary sources if a great primary source exists. A recent example in the image shows where Suellyn has “a doctor in the family” who has been “given information” from a “laboratory.” Her post seems very informative. After all, the person that told her this (a doctor – doctors are smart) heard it secondhand from a person at a laboratory (ooooh – scientists work in those). Then correlation was confused with causation by insinuating that a commonality between patients is proof of a causal effect. There were even some initial media reports that highlighted this potential connection thanks to a tweet from a French health official. That’s good, right? Suellyn was just trying to warn us all. Except Suellyn isn’t a doctor. She didn’t even name the doctor in her family, so there’s no way to verify the claim and no reputation at stake if it turns out to be wrong (and evidence strongly suggests that it was wrong). None of this stopped her post from being shared over 159,000 times. People may have made the choice to set aside accepted use of a common drug or alter a care plan put in place by a medical professional based on this information. Sure, people are each responsible for evaluating the information they rely on, but I would argue that it is therefore even more important for people to be responsible for the quality of the information they share with others. You’re not helping others do their best work at a weakened and vulnerable time of their life when you supply them with terrible tools. Thanks, Suellyn and every person who shared this well-intentioned falsehood. Thanks 159,000 times.

Good information can be shared in bad ways. If you can share a primary source or a quality secondary source, please do so directly when you can. Avoid sharing a screenshot of information. Information can be updated on a webpage or social media post, but your screenshot presents a freeze frame locked in time that will never be of higher quality than the moment it was captured. Heck, even above I shared a screenshot of Suellyn’s terrible post, but I included a link to the original post in the text. I somehow doubt the quality of her post will increase over time.

In a rapidly evolving situation, old news may not still be the best news. Around election time, it is very common for election returns to be shared (and wild assumptions based on them) with only a small percentage of precincts reporting results. More recently, numbers relating to confirmed COVID-19 cases or deaths from it have been changing multiple times daily. This can lead to confusion or it could seem like poor quality reporting if you see different numbers in various places. It’s helpful to remember that the media outlets scurrying to produce content for you to look at are also having a tough time sorting it out. The first reports of events like these are often not entirely accurate. (linked commentary article from 2013). In times like the present, focus on sharing information that helps people plan and make good decisions. Knowing how many confirmed cases or deaths is not nearly as helpful as knowing about business/school closures or best practices for social distancing.

Last but not least is the garbage information that is omnipresent in our world. This information isn’t just missing the mark in terms of accuracy or a little outdated. It is wild conjecture with usually zero substantiation. I’ve also noticed that this information tends to be authored and shared by people who don’t like to be asked for substantiation. I’ll leave a full-size screenshot to this post below so that you can read a fantastic example of garbage information.

Notice the utter absence of sources. When a person shares this, they are endorsing the information, whether they realize it or not. If I were leafletting controversial information on a city sidewalk, it would be absolutely reasonable for people to assume that I was endorsing the information. People would be right for believing that my purpose was to persuade them and not just to stimulate a discussion or let them do the research to verify it. Moreover, if people that I know get this information from me, any credibility on the topic at hand that they perceive me as having, and indeed my credibility in all other matters, is immediately on the line. Unfortunately, many people do not see this as the case. However, if you are a vessel through which bad information passes, it is not unreasonable in my opinion to see that as being part of the problem rather than the solution.

What about…?

You’ve written a thoughtful post or comment speaking against a particular policy or practice. You’ve done your best to contribute meaningfully to the discussion by avoiding logical fallacies and substantiating claims with evidence. Then someone responds…

I didn’t see you crowing on about this issue/policy when [other politician] did it!

If you frequently wade through the rhetorical sewer that is a thread of internet comments, you know this kind of response is all too common. Instead of engaging with the issue constructively or providing a reasoned rebuttal, they have instead chosen to insinuate that you are a hypocrite. This lazy response is called whataboutism, and it has its history as a state propaganda technique employed by the Soviet Union.

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Paper or plastic?

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Greenbacks

I carry cash. I always have. As a member of the last generation to grow up before the widespread existence of cell phones, I learned to always have at least a little cash on hand, if not only in case of an emergency.

Overall, people carry very little cash. A May 2014 survey by Bankrate showed that more than two-thirds of adults carry less than $50 in cash at any given time. Nine percent of respondents reported carrying no cash at all.

Of course, there are benefits to using alternatives to cash. When cash is stolen, it’s gone. Using cash may be more time consuming in certain situations. Cash doesn’t earn cool perks like airline miles or a meager percentage rebate.

People are still using it, otherwise we wouldn’t keep printing it in newer, more colorful designs. In 2012, more than $358 billion (face value) of currency was printed, roughly 90% of which replaced damaged, out-of-circulation money.

So what are the benefits of using cash? Data from Intuit shows that 55% of small businesses do not accept credit card, though that number will continue to fall as it becomes even easier to accept cards through mobile point-of-sale systems like Square. Currently though, 45% of small business, some of which you may want to patronize, may not accept a card. Businesses (and those working in tipped professions) may prefer cash as it is easier to keep off the proverbial books. Keep in mind: during a power, phone, or internet outage, a business may be unable to process card transactions.

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How to Spot a Parody News Item

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EDIT: The list of example sites are only accurate as of the original publish date of this post. That list is ever-growing with players only rarely dropping from the scene. ALWAYS verify anything that appeals to your emotions or deeply-held beliefs by checking to see if other reputable sources have also reported on the topic.

If you’re on Facebook or Twitter, it is highly probable that one of your friends has posted a story from a parody website thinking it was genuine. At they very least, you have probably seen some viral image or video purporting something that is absolutely incorrect. How do you sort the fact from fiction? It’s quite easy, if you’re intelligent and level-headed enough to take a few seconds before spreading nonsense. While the internet has made spreading BS very easy, it has also made researching potentially-BS items very easy. If you read something that is just too good to be true or has even the slightest hint of conspiracy to it, just google the keywords to see what comes up. If you’re fairly certain something is false, just google the keywords with the word “hoax” to find discussions of its inaccuracy. For example, I came across this gem on Facebook: Ramen noodles are coated with cancer-causing wax? It would take a very stupid person to believe that something like that would go unnoticed by the FDA or unreported through any of the many reputable worldwide media outlets. Someone who shares this is so dumb that they think the governments of the world, the media, and the manufacturers of the aforementioned death noodles are involved in some massive conspiracy. That’s the only thing I can come up with, because if you take two seconds to google “ramen noodles cancer,” you’ll see that some of the top results are sites devoted to calling out nonsense. Snopes.com is usually on top of things. New potential hoax items are researched and discussed on the site’s forums until enough information is available to determine if something is true, false, a mix, or simply falsely attributed. Visit this site before you share anything questionable, because it just might save you the embarrassment of being called out by one of your smarter friends who consumes their media a tad more critically. If a politician said something that seems too good to be true, a cure for something has existed all along, or something seems just a bit too ironic, check it out first. It also helps to know the websites that do nothing but post fake news stories. Most people are familiar with The Onion, but I still see someone taking a headline seriously once in a while. Below are some more parody websites that get shared waaaay too much:

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Vegetarians eat what they deserve

I have no problem with vegetarians. I really don’t. I equally have no problems with vegans, pescatarians, ovo-lacto-whatevers, or any other dietary choices. People choose vegetarian diets for many reasons including concern for animal welfare, living a healthier lifestyle, or concerns over food safety. Polls show that the 7-13% of Americans who identify themselves as vegetarians have followed that diet for 10 or more years. There are studies that show marginal extensions in lifespan and other health benefits from eating vegetarian, so why don’t more people do it?

I don’t like vegetables. That’s why I don’t do it. When I was young, my vegetable intake was limited to corn and potatoes, primarily. Now, I enjoy a leafy green salad, the occasional slice of onion on my hamburger, and green smoothies. I still cannot stand broccoli, cauliflower, cooked spinach, carrots, celery, beets, radishes, bell peppers (occasionally), tomatoes (I know they are a fruit), and peas. That is not an exhaustive list by any means. As an adult, I absolutely have more options at salad bars and buffets than when I was younger, but there are plenty of foods that I still avoid. THAT’S why I’m not a vegetarian. I’d be limiting my diet to a very narrow set of foods. My current schedule also makes it hard to plan and pack meals, so I eat out frequently. Have you ever looked for vegetarian options at fast food restaurants? I haven’t, but I hear it’s horrible.

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Separating pseudoscience from science

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It’s so easy for people to “research” a new health technique or practice or dietary approach and find plenty of websites supporting it, but are these practices backed by science or do they just look and sound scientific?

Spoiler Alert: It’s almost always the latter.

A few symptoms of pseudoscientific hype from RationalWiki:

  • A simple idea that purports to be the one answer to many problems (often including diseases)
  • A “scientific-sounding” reason for how it works, but little to no actual science behind it; for example, quote mines of studies that if bent enough could be described in such a way to support it, outright misapplication of studies, or words that sound scientific but make no sense in the context they are used in
  • Prefers to use abundant testimonials over actual scientific research [emphasis added]

I’m not trying to imply that there are zero positive benefits to some of these practices. I just want to reinforce that many of these perceived benefits may very well be the result of the Placebo Effect, a real phenomenon in which people who are given a dud treatment experience measurable results. Medical studies and pharmaceutical trials administer placebo treatments to measure the difference between what the medicine can do and what the mind and body may do if they think they are receiving a legitimate treatment.

Not every health technique, treatment, or method undergoes the strict scrutiny of a regulatory body. For some things, it simply isn’t commercially viable; for others, there exists enough empirical data to preclude testing entirely. This process exists for a reason though: anecdotes don’t cut it. One thing many articles on pseudoscientific processes share is a reliance on and overabundance of anecdotal evidence.

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How the NFL Fleeces Taxpayers

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I really enjoyed this scathing review of the public finances supporting professional athletics in this country, particularly the NFL. It is available to read for free at The Atlantic.

Not being a fan of pro-athletics, many of these facts were news to me. I knew public subsidies were often used to build stadiums, but I did not know that the State of Louisiana outright bribes the Saints to stay in town. I knew many leagues were privately owned, but I did not know that the league itself was a non-profit entity. How was that ever allowed to happen?

Pro-football coaches talk about accountability and self-reliance, yet pro-football owners routinely binge on giveaways and handouts. A year after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the Saints resumed hosting NFL games: justifiably, a national feel-good story. The finances were another matter. Taxpayers have, in stages, provided about $1 billion to build and later renovate what is now known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. (All monetary figures in this article have been converted to 2013 dollars.) The Saints’ owner, Tom Benson, whose net worth Forbes estimates at $1.2 billion, keeps nearly all revenue from ticket sales, concessions, parking, and broadcast rights. Taxpayers even footed the bill for the addition of leather stadium seats with cup holders to cradle the drinks they are charged for at concession stands. And corporate welfare for the Saints doesn’t stop at stadium construction and renovation costs. Though Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal claims to be an anti-spending conservative, each year the state of Louisiana forcibly extracts up to $6 million from its residents’ pockets and gives the cash to Benson as an “inducement payment”—the actual term used—to keep Benson from developing a wandering eye.

A Letter to the Editor re: Peavine Road

busybody-1I would like to voice strong opposition to the efforts to designate the Peavine Road section of TN-101 as a scenic parkway. The primary motivation behind this movement seems to be a desire to place restrictions on the amount and kinds of outdoor advertising allowed which will supposedly reduce distracted driving and protect property values. What such a designation would actually do is undermine important free market principles by barring private citizens from earning money on their own property.

Residents of Fairfield Glade have voluntarily chosen to live in a community that imposes strict covenants on property owners. Those living along Peavine Road have no similar restrictions on the use of their land, and in a tough economy, some have chosen to supplement their income by allowing advertising on their property. The agreements between property owners and those they choose to do business with should not be subject to subversion by outside parties.

One can be dissatisfied with the amount of outdoor advertising they see along Peavine Road, but an appropriate response to that is not to pursue measures that would restrict property owners’ rights without compensation. In fact, I maintain that drivers should be focusing on their immediate surroundings on the road instead of fixating on advertisements or otherwise taking in the natural scenic beauty that apparently exists just behind every billboard.

There are many locations in Cumberland County where one can enjoy nature and its beauty including the Cumberland Mountain State Park, the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area, as well as the views supplied by most roads that branch off of Peavine. The yards of private property owners need not be added to the list.

“For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.” – 2 Thessalonians 3:11 KJV

Corey Shepherd

Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD [cute, huh?]) Act

I received a notice from Bank of America today in regards to changes to my account that will be going into effect in February of the coming year as a result of recent cutely-named and intentionally-backronymed legislation. I didn’t follow this piece of legislation as it went through Congress, but from the lay wording in this letter, I am disgusted by how our government is supporting the poor personal financial habits of American consumers.

Everybody would like some relief. Sure. It’d be great, but one shouldn’t depend on it.

Here are some of the tenets of the CARD Act as quoted from my letter from Bank of America that I am disgusted with.

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Combatting our Culture of Crass Conspicuous Consumption


I love looking through all of the direct mail that I receive. I have stand-alone DSL now instead of Charter Cable internet (which saves me about $20 per month on my internet bill.) So, direct mail does have the potential to reach an appropriate target audience. I recently received the above mailer advertising a credit card called Venue whose tagline is “Making luxury affordable.” Read more