Have a look at the following news story and tell me if you notice anything odd about it:
Now, it’s difficult to get the full scope of this news story without looking at the report, and unfortunately it got taken down as of the writing of this piece (unclear why, but the page is a 404 now).
However, we can still use this news article as an example of why it’s critical to think about where a statistic comes from any time you see one. In this case, the report and the article both mention a ‘1 in 10 billion chance’ of a cell phone causing an electric spark that ignites a fire at a gas station.
The report itself uses this language, citing that there are approximately 1 billion gas fill-ups at stations in Canada in a given year, and the length of time that cell phones have been around (~20 years). However, the report goes on to mention that there hasn’t been a single reported case of a cell phone causing a fire at a gas station, anywhere in the world.
This seemingly tiny difference totally changes the meaning of the report, and sets the absolute maximum risk at 1 in 10 billion, not the overall risk. Something that has a 1 in 10 billion chance of occurring, which is also something that millions of people do every week, would lead to multiple occurrences every year. And since gas station fires due to cell phones are not constantly being reported (and in fact have *never* been reported), the risk is surely a LOT smaller than 1 in 10 billion.
It’s critical to take news stories as presented and think critically about them, because people who write the news aren’t necessarily experts in that field (and usually, they aren’t). One neat thing I’ve heard to try is to read a news story that relates directly to something you know extremely well, whatever that may be. Look for inaccuracies, simplifications, or outright factual errors in the story, and you’ll surely find plenty that doesn’t quite hold up.
It’s a good practice to expect every news story to be about as factual as that, but it’s a lot harder to spot those inaccuracies when you’re not an expert at what’s being presented. The important thing is not to take everything you read or hear on the news at face value.
I’ve noticed recently (maybe it’s just because I’m paying more attention to political news lately) this very annoying trend when it comes to news stories that get even a little bit of attention. This video by Vox is talking about the Green New Deal, but I feel like I feel the exact same way about the SNC-Lavalin incident, to name just one recent example.
I’ve been feeling for the last year or three that whenever a big news story breaks where opinion could potentially break across political lines, all the news spends all of its airtime just talking about the political impact and outcomes of the story, and if the story still has traction in the days or weeks afterwards, you’ll hear endlessly about what other people are saying about it now.
I really don’t like when this happens with the news, because it does nothing to inform the public about the actual issue at hand, it just applies a partisan lens to every news story.
With the SNC-Lavalin ‘scandal’ news story, the Liberal government’s alleged pressure on the attorney general’s office to avoid prosecuting the company directly, we see a great example of this, in my opinion.
How I have experienced news coverage of SNC-Lavalin
When this story first came out, the narrative was that of a ‘scandal’ from the highest echelons of the federal Liberal government, with the office of the Prime Minister being accused of applying pressure to the attorney general in dealing with a bribery case with SNC-Lavalin and the Libyan government.
From the time details started to come out, I was already looking to journalists and the news to understand what actually happened, to figure out if anything improper had taken place. However, what I found on the news, on Twitter, and from every pundit and opposition politician, is outrage that the Prime Minister would do something like this.
Even the sparse details I put in the paragraph above were pieced together over a few days, and I still don’t feel like I really fully understand all that actually took place leading up to and after the events of the ‘scandal’. I am not of the opinion that absolutely nothing improper took place, or that an investigation should or shouldn’t happen (it probably should).
I actually feel like I still don’t have enough details about the case to know whether I think deferred prosecution was the right call in the original case, much less whether anything unusual or improper took place afterwards. My main point in talking about all of this is that in spite of trying to stay up to date on the news surrounding this story, I feel woefully uninformed and end up hearing “Politician calls for Trudeau to resign” as the much bigger headline that “Here’s how deferred prosecution works, and the attorney general needs to remain independent”.
I don’t know about you, but hearing that the head of the opposition thinks the current Prime Minister should step down (especially when it’s a conservative saying that about a liberal), is not a headline that should really exist (because he says it all the time). That’s a separate conversation altogether from considering what I would say is a more reasonable headline, which is “Should The PMO Get Involved In Federal Prosecution Cases?”, or something like that.
What Can We Possibly Do About This?
There’s no easy answer to this question. Staying informed is key, but it’s difficult to get partisanship on an issue out of your head once it wriggles its way in. The best thing I can think of to try is to be very careful when reading news to think about who is paying for it, how they are funded, whether the writer or editors might have a reason to be biased, and whether the objective facts are likely being described in the story.
Using any social media to follow the news, whether you follow news organizations, or just friends and family, is very difficult, because many people are just there to push their preferred version of a story, or end up reinforcing biases and digging in even deeper on opinions and positions formed emotionally.
Reading the news in general is easier than ever with the internet, but it’s also easier to write and publish anything you want, and otherwise legitimate news organizations can get caught up in this kind of bad journalism too from time to time. Nothing is black and white here, and pretending it is damages journalism and divides us in ways we don’t even consciously realize.
Vox has posted this before, but it was updated recently with new clips to bring it to the present. It highlights the partisan shift regarding climate change in American politics, from acknowledging that climate change is real, to Republicans realizing the best (only?) way to actually fight climate change effectively from an economic perspective is a tax on greenhouse gas pollution, which of course would be very unpopular for their base (and the business interests funding their re-election campaigns).
It’s particularly galling to me when you hear the Republican politicians early in the ’16 year’ timeline making points that are good and true about what needs to be done, both with respect to acknowledging the outcomes of scientific research, and to the effects of climate change in general. This is skillfully juxtaposed with clips later in the video where those same people are reversing those previous opinions with industry talking points about the economic impacts of climate change in the coal industry, for example.
It’s very frustrating to see this all play out like this on a linear timeline, because the hypocrisy of politics in general is expertly laid bare by the editor, with no context or narration given other than sound bites. The conclusion this video presents is quite an obvious one to me, and I think I would be hard pressed to find somebody who wouldn’t agree.
It’s politically disastrous for a Republican to support the existence of climate change because it will require a tax increase on businesses in order to actually have an impact in the short term (before non-polluting alternative energy becomes more economically advantageous, which will happen in due course). So those politicians, almost exclusively old white dudes, I note, cling to their voters and the business interests supporting their re-election, rather than taking action to prevent the worst effects of climate change.
We, as humans, are not used to our actions having a global impact, and I think this is why it’s so hard for individual people to accept that something they are doing could ruin the planet and ‘habitat’ of millions of others, but that’s the reality of what’s happening here. Our biology and instincts haven’t caught up with the scale of our civilization, and empathy on a massive scale will be required in order for any real change to come about on this issue.
Climate, and the well-being of all humanity, should not be a partisan bargaining chip, and I just hope we won’t be too late to fix the problems being caused right now when presented with even more obvious symptoms of the problem. It’s worth bearing in mind this adage: “The Earth will survive humanity, but humans may not“.