Originally: The Media Very Rarely Lies and Sorry, I Still Think I Am Right About The Media Very Rarely Lying. Please don’t have opinions based on the titles until you’ve read the posts!

Table of contents:

  1. Comments Accusing Me Of Using An Overly Strict Definition Of “Lie”

  2. Comments Equating Lying With Egregiously Sloppy Reasoning

  3. Comments About Whether Infowars Believes Their Own Claims

  4. Comments On Why 8% Of Americans Said They Had Relatives Who Died From The COVID Vaccine

  5. Comments Pointing Out Very Clear Examples Of Media Lies

  6. Comments Making Other Claims Of Media Lies And Misdeeds

  7. Other Comments

  8. My Actual Thoughts

1: Comments Accusing Me Of Using An Overly Strict Definition Of “Lie”

Many people commented that they disliked my framing of “the media rarely lies”. They agreed with me that the media rarely says completely false things or explicitly makes up facts, but thought that the word “lie” should cover saying true things in a deliberately deceptive way, which we all agree the media does. For example, tomdhunt:

I think the pushback [ie large number of negative comments on the post] is largely related to different definitions of “lie”.

Media outlets generally have a very specific belief that they are trying to instill in their readers for any given article – they know what they want the takeaway to be. Often, the takeaway they are trying to leave their readers with is false. One can reasonably claim that setting out to make someone believe a false claim in this way is “lying”, even if the means by which you do it doesn’t involve directly stating any false factual claims.

I think the claim you’re making is correct, but characterizing this behavior – intentional, often grievous deception by means of context distortion and selective presentation – as “not lying” seems overly generous. I think the correct top-line representation of this phenomenon is “the media lies all the time (asterix, their particular method of lying doesn’t involve directly stating false claims)”.

This makes sense. I actually made a survey question for how people define “lie” the last time we had this argument; the results looked like this:

So 72% of people agreed that technically true but deliberately misleading things were lies.

Could I have saved myself some trouble if I had titled the post “The Media Very Rarely Says False Things”? Or “The Media Very Rarely Makes Up Facts”? I think people would have been equally annoyed that I was using “false things” or “make up facts” in a way that excludes technically-true-but-misleading statements.

Someone’s going to argue I should have gone all the way and titled it “The Media Very Rarely Lies, But This Is True Only In The Most Nitpicky Technical Sense Of The World Lie, And In The Normal Sense Of The Word They Definitely Do” - at which point I will remind you that I absolutely did that, I just put the second part in the subtitle instead of the title.

If you can’t bring yourself to read the non-bolded gray text, there’s no helping you.

2: Comments Equating Lying With Egregiously Sloppy Reasoning

Other people placed a lot of importance on the specific phrasing in the Infowars birth certificate article where it concluded “therefore, the birth certificate is false”. For example, Bakkot:

I’m with you on the general point but I think you’re being too charitable to InfoWars (and maybe others) in at least some examples.

Take the InfoWars birth certificate one: in addition to all the claims about layers and so on, it says “the document is a shoddily contrived hoax”. That is a factual claim which is false. They offer support for that claim which isn’t actually convincing, and the support they offer happens to be true but out of context, and I’m with you on calling the supporting evidence “not lies”. But “the document is a shoddily contrived hoax” is in fact flatly false, and is asserted by the article itself, not just “someone said”.

This seems wrongheaded to me. Reposting from my own comment there: when I say “Obama’s birth certificate is real and not a forgery”, I’m not tapping into the Platonic realm and reading the truth directly. I’m saying that I have seen a lot of evidence that makes me think Obama’s birth certificate is real and not a forgery, and have inferred the conclusion “it’s real and not a forgery” from that.

If later it turned out it was a forgery - say there was some amazingly vast conspiracy theory that I completely missed - I wouldn’t have been lying when I said the words “Obama’s birth certificate is real and not a forgery”. I would have been stating the conclusion I had inferred from my facts (which, in this hypothetical, would have been wrong, because I’m bad at reasoning).

Jones states his own facts and the conclusion he infers from them. If his conclusion is wrong, the correct term for this wrongness is “failed inference”, not “lying”.

Bakkot is still not happy with this:

I don’t think you’ve made a claim with reckless disregard for the truth, whereas I think InfoWars did. I am not at all convinced that InfoWars had a sincere belief that the birth certificate in question was a forgery. I think it is much more likely that they simply didn’t care to know the truth of the matter. And I think it’s reasonable to say that when someone makes it a false claim without caring whether or not it’s true, that’s a lie. This is the standard used for defamation in the US (“reckless disregard for the truth” is stock legal phrase), and defamation is usually understood to mean “lying about someone in a harmful way”, so I think this is a pretty normal standard.

At this point I acknowledge we’re disputing definitions, but I want to stand by mine. I’ve seen, again and again, that people are incapable of understanding that honest disagreement is possible. For example, I wrote about this here in the context of the millions of liberals who insist that conservatives can’t possibly care about fetuses’ lives and anyone who says they does must just be lying about it in order to justify their real program of oppressing women.

When someone says “Joe is a liar”, I don’t want to have to ask every time “Do you mean you have some actual evidence for this, or that they said something you disagree with and you instantly leapt to ‘this is reckless disregard for the truth because nobody could ever be so dumb as to honestly disagree with me’?” I think if we let people use the word “lie” this way, then the overwhelming majority of accusations of lying would be false. Why would we want to define a word in a way that dooms it to constantly be used incorrectly to mislead people?

I’m kind of sensitive to this because for almost every article I write, people in the comments accuse me of lying, or “pretending” I don’t know why the statements I made are wrong, or some other offense which I plead innocent to. My prior on “a randomly selected egregiously wrong person is lying” is much lower than the sort of people who make these accusations. I think people are just really paranoid about this, and we should use our terms carefully in a way that mitigates this paranoid rather than inflames it.

Some of this might be more convincing after you read Part 6 of this post, where I list commenters’ proposed examples of media lies.

Eric Newcomer writes:

I hope we can all agree that the NYT wouldn’t draw such big conclusions from such thin findings. The InfoWars birth certificate article doesn’t even really seem internally certain about how PDF layers work.

The critique I’m making now falls into the broader “InfoWars is much more egregious in its infractions than the NYT category.” But I do think it reveals the slippery line between knowing lies and what one might call “lies of egregious sloppiness.” If some serious part of a person knows that they haven’t proved what they’re claiming but they (or their bosses) insist on claiming that you have proved it, isn’t that a form of lying?

I’m sorry, but “lies of egregious sloppiness” sounds to me like “physical violence of egregious emotional violence”. Emotional violence and physical violence are both bad. Physical violence probably sounds worse to most people, and so it’s really tempting to, if emotional violence is really bad, say that that makes it a kind of physical violence. But I think that, although this is tempting, it’s false and you shouldn’t do it.

I don’t want to say you’re allowed to sound more confident than you are. If you’re 71% confident, and you falsely say you’re 72% confident, then you are lying. But if you are very dumb, and seeing a random piece of toast makes you 100% confident that Obama’s birth certificate is false, and you vomit some random words to that effect onto a page, then you’re an idiot but not a liar.

3: Comments About Whether Infowars Believes Their Own Claims

But I guess if you do want to be careful with the definition of the word “lie”, then it becomes important to know whether people at Infowars honestly believe their conspiracy theories or not.

I don’t want to defend super-hard the thesis that they do. I’m not sure. If you forced me to guess, I’d say something like for a randomly given Infowars reporter and a randomly selected conspiracy theory they’re reporting on, 40% of the time they think it’s at least plausible enough that they’re doing good work by reporting on it, 20% of the time they know on some level that it’s false and they’re doing something wrong, and 40% of the time they’re in some kind of weird superposition where it seems emotionally true to them and they feel this hard enough that they never get around to asking whether it’s literally true. I’m really not attached to these numbers, but man are a lot of you attached to the claim that they definitely know their theories are false and are consciously lying.

My main argument against this is that millions of people believe conspiracy theories - if they didn’t, we wouldn’t care so much about them! - and why shouldn’t some of those people work at Infowars? It would be quite a weird system for the conspiracy ecosystem to be run by an elite who secretly know they’re false, serving up fables to a base who believe them completely. How would you prevent some of the believers from rising into the elite? It would almost take a conspiracy of its own!

Eric Newcomer has a more convincing counterargument than I expected:

As an aside, I have personally worked at the NYT newsroom (reporting fellow) and at conservative outlet Washington Examiner. And I found the latter to be much sloppier and less worried about thinking through the impression it gave from facts. The Examiner would headline any big budget deficit number etc on my beat whereas the NYT had very detailed copy editors who would spot factual assertions in my copy that I didn’t even consider I was making and push back on them.

On InfoWars, it seems naive to presume that the outlet pushing the most misleading stories (InfoWars) is acting in good faith rather than just supplying readers with what they want. I get the point (one that Noam Chomsky has made) that outlets can just hire the bias that they want. But I actually think it’s fairly hard to staff up true believers who can write and report credibly for conspiracy and super rightwing type stuff – hence why a bunch of liberals like myself found themselves out of college writing for the local section of the Washington Examiner before it was killed.

I find that on an intuitive level, I’m not too surprised to learn this - most journalists seem liberal, it would make sense that conservative papers couldn’t entirely escape this effect.

On a more napkin-math level, I’m boggled - isn’t this embarrassing for the Examiner (and the journalists involved?) Wouldn’t they spend a lot of effort avoiding it? In a country with 100 million conservatives, is it really that hard to find a handful of them capable of writing news articles?

There are many people writing okay-quality right-wing Substacks that get like five views per article. Are they doing this for the (nonexistent) money, without believing in the cause? If not, why couldn’t these people have been Washington Examiner reporters? Or InfoWarriors?

I think Richard Hanania has a theory that a lot of liberals’ political advantage comes from a culture where they are happy to work themselves ragged for minimal compensation as long as it seems like like an impressive job they won’t be embarrassed to tell their friends and family about - ie intellectual college-degree-requiring labor. Maybe this is what the Examiner is taking advantage of? I don’t know.

I don’t know what kind of ethical principles Eric considered when he decided to work for the Examiner , but I bet he wouldn’t have agreed to work for Infowars even if they paid him much more money. This should also factor into our calculations about whether Infowars is being staffed by Eric-equivalents.

Human writes:

There is at least one former infowars employee who alleges that their stories are (at least often) known to be false. The most clear-cut example I can quickly find is here:

“Shortly after Jones began selling the supplements, someone posted a video on YouTube holding a Geiger counter displaying high radiation readings on a beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif. The video went viral, stoking fears that radiation from Fukushima was drifting across the Pacific Ocean. Jones saw an opportunity and sent me, along with a reporter, a writer and another cameraman, to California. We had multiple Geiger counters shipped overnight, unaware of how to read or work them, and drove up the West Coast, frequently stopping to check radiation levels. Other than a small spike in Half Moon Bay — which the California Department of Public Health said was from naturally occurring radioactive materials, not Fukushima — we found nothing.

“Jones was furious. We started getting calls from the radio-show producers in the office, warning us to stop posting videos to YouTube stating we weren’t finding elevated levels of radiation. We couldn’t just stop, though; Jones demanded constant real-time content. On some of these calls, I could hear Jones screaming in the background.”

See also here for a discussion of Jones admitting he was lying about Sandy Hook during the lawsuit.

4: Comments On Why 8% Of Americans Said They Had Relatives Who Died From The COVID Vaccine

Many people, including me, were confused by a poll in which 8% of Americans said they had a relative who died from the COVID vaccine. I speculated that maybe they were reading too quickly and misinterpreted it as “a relative who got the COVID vaccine”. But Tytonidaen wrote:

I think a more likely explanation is that many people are choosing to attribute deaths to the vaccine that are not actually from the vaccine. For example, let’s say Person A gets vaccinated and dies shortly after of some completely unrelated cause. And let’s say Person B, the loved one being polled, has priors about vaccines or the medical establishment or whatever that cause them to be convinced it was actually the vaccine that killed Person A.

In hypothetical reality, Person A lived a rather unhealthy lifestyle, had lots of risk factors for a heart attack, and would have died from a heart attack, regardless of whether they’d gotten the vaccine. Then, when Person A does, indeed, die of a heart attack, and by sheer coincidence had recently gotten vaccinated, Person B blames the COVID vaccine when polled, but it wasn’t really the vaccine that killed their loved one. It might be easier to believe that outside forces (like a vaccine) harmed the person than to believe that the loved one’s own actions did (like a poor lifestyle, not taking their meds, etc.).

That’s only one example, but I think the underlying dynamic could easily explain the poll results.

None Of The Above wrote:

In general, it seems like when you ask a factual question with partisan/CW valence on a poll, and the respondents don’t know much about the factual question, they answer the “whose side are you on” question instead. That is, if you ask Republican-voting biologists, they’ll nearly all tell you the Theory of Evolution is basically how living stuff came to be, but if you ask Republican-voting normies whose vaguely-remembered high school biology class may have mentioned Darwin a few times, they’ll answer that evolution is a lie–they don’t really know one way or another, they’re just answering the “whose side are you on” question. Democratic normies will far more often tell you evolution is true, but probably could do little better in explaining why than the Republican normies could in explaining why evolution is really an atheist lie of some kind.

Zack wrote:

I took a time-boxed peek at the Pollfish data. The 1500 results were splint into 3 batches of 500. I arbitrarily selected the Jul 4 file to look at.

In that file, there were 36 respondents who reported a household member had died from he vaccine.

Focusing on those responses, I noticed a few interesting patterns.

Of those 36 respondents, 10 responded “Yes” to both the question about death of a household member from COVID and death of a household member from the vaccine. I’m skeptical that 10 out of 500 people were unfortunate enough to have 2 household members die: one from COVID and one from the vaccine. (Especially because these are not large households; 4 of these 10 report that they have 1 other household member, and 5 of these 10 report having 2-4 other household members.)

Of these 36 respondents, 20 responded “Yes” to both the question about death of a household member from the vaccine and “Are you planning on getting future COVID vaccines?” I’m skeptical that 55% of people who had a household member die of a vaccine would plan to get the vaccine themselves.

Of these 36 respondents, there are even 4 who experienced a surprising number of adverse affects from the vaccine (Myocarditis, Pericarditis, AND Bell’s Palsy ) requiring hospitalization in addition to having a household member die from the vaccine. Of these 4, 2 selected all of the following: “It will likely shorten my lifespan”, “I am now unable to hold a job”, “I am now unable to work a full day”, “It impacts my personal life”, “It is a minor annoyance”. Those two are planning to get the vaccine again.

There’s some overlap between these respondents. Ignoring all of them drops from 36 who had a household member die of the vaccine to 12. I don’t see obvious inconsistencies in these responses.

However, there seems to be a broader issue with the survey design. They look at average time to complete each question, but average doesn’t seem like the right measure here (3 people took 10+ minutes to answer; summed, the fastest 250 responses took about as long as those slowest 3). Of the 500 responses, most people seem to answer 7-10 questions. I timed myself just reading those questions silently in my head (not thinking about the answers). Of three attempts, my fastest was a bit over 17 seconds. 40 people completed the survey in 17 seconds or less. I’m skeptical it’s possible for someone to provide a quality response to the survey that quickly. 225 people (nearly half) completed the survey in less than 31 seconds. I think that’s the fastest I could answer if I were seeing the questions for the first time.

It seems like Pollfish’s model may encourage hasty, poor quality responses; “Pollfish uses non-monetary incentives like an extra life in a game or access to premium content.” (https://resources.pollfish.com/pollfish-school/how-the-pollfish-methodology-works/) It seems like that creates a misalignment of incentives; the respondent is in a hurry to get back to whatever they were doing. They provide survey fraud protection, and claim it filters suspiciously quick or suspiciously consistent answers (e.g., the same answer for all questions), but it seems to be overlooking obviously problematic responses in this case. (https://resources.pollfish.com/pollfish-school/how-pollfish-prevents-fraudulent-responses/)

This bothered me enough that I emergency-edited the ACX Survey partway through to include (slightly differently phrased variants of) the two questions on the poll:

  • Did anyone in your family (as per your best guess) die of COVID?

  • Did anyone in your family (as per your best guess) die of COVID vaccine side effects?

I got 917 responses so far. On Kirsch’s original poll, the answers were 3.5% and 7.9%; on my survey, they were 6.8% and 0.9%. I think my higher rate of COVID deaths was because I carelessly changed “household” to “family”, which includes eg extended family. But why did I get so many fewer vaccine deaths?

Looking at these people’s other responses, they did not show a consistent tendencies to make things up or say outrageous things (except for one who listed their religion as “Satanist”). That having been said, they did have an atypical response pattern; most ACX readers are white male Westerners, but these people were 38% female, 38% nonwhite, and 88% non-American. Highest degree was 12% high school, 25% college grad, and 63% postgrad; IQs were listed as extremely high, just like everyone else who gives their IQs on my survey. Politics were significant for 25% Marxist (otherwise a rarity in my survey), but otherwise typical, and did not lean right-wing. They were slightly, but not overwhelmingly, more likely to distrust the media and dislike strong COVID responses than other survey respondents. Overall I don’t feel like I learned too much from examining them. The survey is still open (take it now if you haven’t already!) and I’m hoping to get more data on this later.

5: Comments Pointing Out Very Clear Examples Of Media Lies

Several people agreed with the wider point, but tried to find a counterexample - a media lie so explicit that nobody could ever deny it. Some people noted that the term “fake news”, when invented in 2016, was originally applied to a very specific kind of fake article, often from weird Macedonian article mills, that were saying utterly fake stuff in a way that even Infowars didn’t. Robert Stadler:

This was what was interesting about the phenomenon of “fake news” during the 2016 election, before that term was successfully hijacked by Donald Trump to mean “news stories I don’t like.” There was a wave of what looked like news articles, spread largely via Facebook, that were entirely fictitious. The people writing those “articles” were not journalists and were not trying to be journalists. They made up the stories out of a mix of rumor and complete fabrications, either for political purposes or just as click-bait (this has never been entirely clear to me).

It’s unfortunate that the term “fake news” has been so thoroughly tainted, because the existence of those articles was genuinely noteworthy, and it’s now harder to talk about them . . .

I don’t remember any myself (since it’s been 6 years), but here’s a study which has some specifics - http://web.stanford.edu/~gentzkow/research/fakenews.pdf

After some searching, Benjamin Jest (writes As Fair A Name) was finally able to produce a specific example - Nancy Pelosi Hanged At Gitmo - which does, indeed, claim that leading US Democrat Nancy Pelosi was hanged at Guantanamo Bay for “treason and conspiracy” on December 27, 2022. It seems to suggest that the order was given by Donald Trump, who is still President, and that Hillary Clinton had already been executed in the same manner in April 2021.

I will admit this is definitely an example of a “news source” making things up rather than just stretching the truth. The source, RealRawNews, claims on its About Page to be a “parody site”, but this outside article about them says they go back and forth between claiming to be a parody and claiming to be real. Some of their claims are more plausible than the Gitmo one - for example, that many Air Force pilots were resigning because of the COVID vaccine mandate - but equally false. They seem to go back and forth between “things that some conservatives might believe to be true” and “things that are obviously false but maybe gratify conservatives’ id”, adding or subtracting the “parody” label based on which one they’re doing at the time. It’s a fascinating business model, and I guess the term “fake news” fairly applies to it.

Yug Gnirob writes:

I don’t know how to find them, but I definitely remember several completely fake articles about Trump during and immediately after the election. One of them was him citing “an ancient law” that prevented President Obama from doing… some liberal thing, I don’t remember what. The most memorable one was immediately after the “Muslim Ban”, where they claimed it had resulted in the arrest of a high-priority terrorist on day 1. I feel like that one showed up on one of the fact check sites, but I’m not seeing it on Snopes.

I remember Stephen Colbert reporting the articles had been tracked down to a couple of Macedonian teens, who had discovered that writing fabricated pro-Trump articles was an easy way to make money.

6: Comments Making Other Claims Of Media Lies And Misdeeds

Beowulf888 on the LA Times and COVID:

Well, there are media outlets that propagandize—but I think it boils down to if it bleeds it leads. Most corporate media outlets have the economic incentive to increase the readership by grabbing one’s attention with scary headlines and articles. The perfect example of this phenomenon was in April 2020 when the LA Times interviewed an atmospheric chemist at Scripps. She made the claim that SARS2 virus particles in sewage were being carried back to land by sea spray. The reporters and editors uncritically relayed her comments as if she were an expert with the same credentialled expertise as a virologist or epidemiologist. There are numerous reasons why this would be very very low on the threat level even with what little we knew about the SARS2 virus at that time. This story was picked up by the media everywhere, and county health officials (either because there was public pressure to do so, or because they really believed her) shut down beaches up and down the coast of California. Did the LA Times and the news media really have any motivation to promote the closure of public beaches? I can’t imagine they did. But they did have a scary headline that would promote readership and spread LA Times as a news source. Some weeks later the LA Times did a retraction, but by that time it had entered the popular imagination that beaches were a potential vector for COVID infection.

I’m developing an allergy to the word “uncritically”. Being able to fact-check scientists is a rare skill - I’m not surprised nobody at the LA Times had it ready to deploy for this exact article.

Mike Mulligan writes:

The pushback is largely because you are doing a false equivocation between the New York Times (who you hate and have a vendetta against) and Infowars (who you are pretending does basically the same thing as other outlets). And you know this, but on your own metric it won’t count as a lie, because you just selectively misrepresented things.

On the two articles in this series, I’ve included phrases like “This doesn’t mean these establishment papers are exactly as bad as Infowars; just that when they do err, it’s by committing a more venial version of the same sin Infowars commits” and “Again, my goal here isn’t to . . . say NYT is exactly as bad as Infowars” and tried to explain the exact way that two things can both commit a similar error without one being exactly as the other (Hitler and someone who shot a robber in self-defense both committed a similar action called “killing people”, but this doesn’t mean they both killed exactly the same people with exactly the same level of justification). Still, I got numerous comments getting angry at me for saying that I was calling NYT exactly as bad as Infowars, and saying I was being deceptive / lying because of this. This is why I’m so convinced people are erring on the side of too mistrustful - you can fill your articles with sentences about how you’re not claiming X, and people will still find ways to accuse you of lying because you said X.

Garrett writes:

[The way Infowars covered Obama’s birth certificate] isn’t any different from eg. mainstream media coverage of anything which involves firearms. They make (or promulgate) so many stupid technical errors I’ve stopped paying attention to them at all. They could have 1 person on staff who’s responsibility is to understand firearms and run everything past them. But they don’t. To what should I attribute this continual stream of errors?

Is mainstream media coverage of firearms honestly flawed? Is it “reckless disregard for truth?” Is it a “lie of egregious sloppiness?” I think your answer to this question will depend more on how bad you want to accuse the mainstream media of being, relative to other forms of media, than on how you define these inherently slippery terms.

Jeremy Goldberg writes:

There’s an outright lie right now on the Washington Post homepage. A caption above a graph showing the inflation rate over time states, “Elevated prices coming down, annualized rate shows.” The chart shows the current inflation rate is 7.1 percent, down from a high of around 9 percent. Elevated prices are not coming down at all. They just aren’t elevating as fast anymore.

I asked Jeremy to guess the probability that this was an honest mistake vs. malice. He said (thanks for giving a clear answer!) 60-40 in favor of malice. I think this is pretty high, given that I had to read Jeremy’s comment several times before I realized what the error was supposed to be, but I’ve already said I lean towards the “all the rest of you are extremely paranoid” side of things.

Jiro writes:

I opened a thread on dsl: https://www.datasecretslox.com/index.php/topic,8430.0.html

People brought up several examples there. You can read the thread. One of the more famous examples was saying that Kyle Rittenhouse crossed state lines with a weapon. There are also a bunch of cases where the media says there’s “no evidence” for something that has evidence.

Someone also brought up your own example of people “tested for drugs” when they were actually just asked if they used drugs. I would count that as an outright lie, even though you don’t. I disagree that being asked if someone used drugs is a “test”.

Oh god, if saying there’s “no evidence” for something counts as a lie, then every media source in the country stands hopelessly condemned. I did write an article (here) on what the people who use that phrase might be thinking (if you can call it that).

I agree the Rittenhouse situation was pretty egregious, though commenters bring up that since he went across state lines and had a weapon, it wasn’t unreasonable for people to assume he brought the weapon across state lines. Still, you wonder whether news sources would have repeated reasonable-sounding-but-didn’t-actually-check slanders about someone they liked. I do think this is a good antidote to some of the “mainstream media is actually very careful and fact-checks everything in their original reporting” takes in the comments section.

David Riceman says:

How about Richard Landes’s new book “Can the whole world be wrong?” about the many lies in the cognitive war against Israel (e.g. Muhammad Al Dura)

See his discussion here for why he thinks this is a good example.

FractalCycle writes:

I’m collecting examples from other people, will post ones that seem like real counterexamples as I get them. Here’s one from recently: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/jsByfxvNA4x23stLY/a-letter-to-the-bulletin-of-atomic-scientists

Yes, I included this issue with the Bulletin Of Atomic Scientists in my last links post, and they really do come out looking very bad here. See here for more discussion.

Hank Wilbon (writes Partial Magic) writes:

I think the false Rolling Stone story a decade ago about the frat gang rape counts as the media explicitly lying, particularly as Rolling Stone is historically known for good fact checking (It is a plot point in the movie Almost Famous), however I think that counts as a “very rare” case and that Scott’s claim is correct.

I asked “Why? A woman said she had been raped, and Rolling Stone believed her. The woman was making it up, but Rolling Stone wasn’t” and Deepa commented “Isn’t it the job of a reporter to investigate? And be good at it?” I don’t want to pick on Deepa, but this is what happens when you have an overly expansive definition of “lie”!

TorontoLLB writes:

The most straightforward counterexample I can think of is the NBC manipulation of the George Zimmerman 911 call.

For example this:

“The 9-1-1 operator then asked: “OK, and this guy, is he black, white or Hispanic?”, and Zimmerman answered, “He looks black.”

was changed to: ““This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.”

In another segment they combined completely separate parts of the call to create an audio clip that presents him as saying ““This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. He’s got his hand in his waistband, and he’s a black male.”

There was other bits of reporting from the major networks that appear to be closer to fraud than selective amplification or choosing what not to report. Enough so that in Twitter threads asking people how they got “red-pilled” person after person refers to the media response to the incident.

I haven’t looked into this and I can’t confirm or deny that this is true.

I hope everyone finds at least one of these comments obviously fair, and at least another obviously unfair, in a way that encourages you to think more about these issues.

7: Other Comments

Paul writes:

What’s funny is the Weekly World News - the supermarket tabloid with headlines declaring Bigfoot had been found, and married to a local man’s sister!; JFK was still alive, etc. - would pass muster under this analysis.

They always had sources report stories to them. Those sources were just batshit crazy. Their strategy was simply not to question them skeptically to poke holes in their story as an ordinary reporter/person would, but to encourage them - “Wow, really, a wedding; what was Bigfoot wearing?”

I don’t mean to entirely dismiss the distinction you make. But in insisting that not a single story - not even one of the most egregious stories by the most irresponsible, disreputable, of barely-extant publications - is a lie, I think you try to prove too much.

In doing so, you retreat so far that you defend only a weak and emasculated position, not any of the broader or more meaningful points implicated by your piece.

Thanks for this - I always wondered what those tabloids thought they were doing, and for some reason this matches my model of human psychology better than my previous theories about “maybe they just made it up” - though I bet they do some of that too.

John Buridan writes:

I used to have very low priors against conspiracy theories and so was willing to hear out the arguments at length and go back and forth for many weeks and months on a single theory. I would say my conspiracy theory expertise is in creationism and government conspiracies, especially ones involving either Catholicism or Judaism. And I’m okay on one’s involving fluoridation, chemtrails, and GMOs etc.

One of my housemates was a senior when I was a freshman in college gave me the Adobe illustrator birth certificate shtick, and we went through it together. We downloaded the birth certificate, uploaded it to Adobe illustrator, and saw the weird things.

Then I went back to my day job where I was learning Adobe Illustrator. This is maybe 2 weeks later. And what do I find but that when I do this with any PDF, Illustrator renders it in the same janky way? Conspiracy dissolved.

I grew up surrounded by people who believed conspiracy theories, although none of those people were my parents. And I have to say that the fact that so few people know other people who believe conspiracy theories kind of bothers me. It’s like their epistemic immune system has never really been at risk of infection. If your mind hasn’t been very sick at least sometimes, how can you be sure you’ve developed decent priors this time?

Of course, this just all goes back to the dark matter beliefs of people in our outgroup. And the eternal question of where do good priors come from? How do some people’s beliefs get so messed up?

Thanks for this. I agree that a little bit of experience personally believing conspiracy theories, or knowing people who do, goes a long way. When I was a teenager, I flirted with a lot of pseudoarchaeology theories - think Graham Hancock, underwater pyramids, that kind of thing. I got better, but it left me with a visceral understanding of how people can genuinely believe weird things - not be lying about it, not be secretly making some kind of emotional point about how they hate the system, not be deliberately trying to be as sloppy as possible because you’re a bad person - just genuinely believe it because you tried to reason about it and failed. I think if you haven’t had that experience, then it’s really hard to understand people who have.

8: My Actual Thoughts

I should probably try to say, as clearly as possible, what I think.

It seems like all of these are different things:

  1. Reasoning well, and getting things right

  2. Reasoning well, but getting things wrong because the world is complicated and you got unlucky.

  3. Reasoning badly, because you are dumb.

  4. Reasoning badly, because you are biased, and on some more-or-less subconscious level not even trying to reason well.

  5. Reasoning well, having a clear model of the world in your mind, but more-or-less subconsciously and unthinkingly presenting technically true facts in a deceptive way that leaves other people confused, without ever technically lying.

  6. Reasoning well, having a clear model of the world in your mind, but very consciously, and with full knowledge of what you’re doing, presenting technically true facts in a deceptive way intended to make other people confused, without ever technically lying.

  7. Reasoning well, having a clear model of the world in your mind, and literally lying and making up false facts to deceive other people.

In a perfect world, we would have separate words for all of these. In our own world, to save time and energy we usually apply a few pre-existing words to all of them.

I prefer to reserve lying for 7 and the most egregious cases of 6, and to have a pretty high standard for accusing people of this rather than 2/3/4/5. I explain why I don’t want to call 4/5 lying here. I prefer a high rather than a low bar for accusing people of 6/7 as an empirical matter - I almost always see people erring in the direction of accusing people too quickly, rather than too slowly. This is my experience as a writer who personally gets accused of this a lot, but also of watching other people debate - see some of the examples above; hopefully you find at least a few of them unfair. I don’t think it’s especially dangerous or burdensome to make people say “that reporter was inexcusably stupid and misleading when he got those inflation statistics wrong” rather than “that reporter lied by presenting the inflation statistics the wrong way” if you don’t have that strong an argument that it was intentional.

Regardless of any of this, the point I’m trying to make with these posts is that the media, while doing all of 1 through 6 pretty often, very rarely does 7.