Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A MILLION DOLLAR CHALLENGE

At parties, you’ve heard me say that when it comes to my world view I am a “Skeptic.” (Right now, I am addressing only the people I have gotten drunk in front of, which it turns out is more of you then I wish to admit) Some of you think I use the word Skeptic as a general adjective, as in: “I am skeptical, please refill my wine glass.” To be clear, when I say I am a Skeptic I mean, I belong to an organized group calling, themselves “Skeptics.” Yes, there is such a group. You’ll be surprised to hear there are a number of such grumpy sounding groups. They publish grumpy magazines like "The Skeptic” and “Skeptical Inquirer.” They have grumpy podcasts like “Point of Inquiry” and “The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.” They have grumpy congressional lobbing groups and they even hold grumpy conventions. They just had one this month in Las Vegas where I’m sure no one gambled because no one believed they could win. That’s all a pack of lies of cause. They are not a bunch of grumpy people. They are just like everyone else. (I was about to say they are just like you and I, but since I myself am not know as mister sunshine I thought better of it.)

During the convention in Vegas, psychic, Connie Sonne participated in James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge. For those of you who don’t know, Randi is a funny old bearded Skeptic who has offered a million bucks to anyone who can perform any supernatural feat under controlled scientific circumstances. A MILLION BUCKS FOR ANY SUPERNATURAL FEAT. To this date no one has even passed the preliminary testing for this challenge. Let me repeat that. To this date no one has even passed the preliminary testing. That should tell you something about the “supernatural.”

Connie was no exception. Using a divining stone she thought she could identify three playing cards in an envelope. She failed on all three. I give her credit for trying, though. She seems sincerer, like so many who truly believer. But something she said during the question and answer session after the test particular struck me. She of cause gave some excuse as to why she failed the test. They always do. She said the test didn’t prove anything, and she still believes she has psychic powers. They always do. But then she was asked if there was any test that would change her mind. And without skipping a beat she said “no.”

Think about that for a second. There is no empirical test in the entire world that could change this woman’s mind about a particular subject. Call me naïve but I do not believe there is a single position that I hold that I am not willing to change my mind about give enough evidence. Granted some things would require a mountain of evidence for me to change my mind but still it’s possible. And that’s what Skeptics are. They are people who are willing to go where the evidence leads, even if they don’t like the results. In today’s world this ability is crucial. To participate in anything less is to enable fanaticism, partisan politics, and religious extremism.

Poor Connie, I don’t mean to lay all that at her feet. She is just some lady who thinks she can guess cards in an envelope. I don’t mean to pick on her but if more people were willing to accept evidence even when they don’t like the results (and we are all guilty of this, myself included) the world would be a far far better place. Our unwillingness and inability to listen to contrary evidence and weigh that evidence fairly is the reason we are the only developed country in the world without health care. It is the reason the US is involved in two overseas wars, and why we, as a species are doing nothing about the dying seas and global warming. And it is the reason some people believed (all evidence to the contrary) it is a good idea to fly planes into buildings. .....Do me a favor, change your mind about somethings.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

JACKSON'S CONTRIBUTION TO NEWS QUALITY


The Michael Jackson media circus reminded me of something I thought of a while back. Remember the Anna Nicole Smith nonsense over here estate and custody of her children? Well in the wake of her death I created a formula called the Anna Nicole Smith Inverse News Quality Index (© Nick Farrantello 2009). I think it also fits for Jackson. It works like this – The amount of air time that a particular news program gives to such stories (like Anna Nicole or Jackson) is inversely equal to the quality of that particular news show's overall performance. Not just its performance in covering Anna or Jackson, its performance covering all news. If you are listening to a station that is devoting all it's time to Jackson then (when it comes to news) that station probably blows. If the station you’re listening to doesn’t give the Jackson story much air time then that station is a quality new outlet. I believe that this relationship between air time and how reliabile and accuracy a particular news program is can be quantifiably charted , minute to minute. Although, I have no idea how to do that.
Here is the reasoning behind this formula. You see, beyond the reporting of Jackson’s death and one or two follow-up stories about what becomes of his estate, the Jackson story has no news content. A story has news content dependent on how many people it directly affects. If it impacts a lot of people’s lives then it’s an important news piece. Now, I know you are saying “but this story does impact people’s lives. Millions of people loved Jackson.” That may be true. Millions of people are interested in Jackson but almost no one will really truly be affected by Jackson. The only people really affected by Jackson's death are his kids, his family and maybe the people who own property around Neverland Ranch. But that’s it. In contrast if , lets say, congress passes a law that changes the tax code in the US then millions of people truly are affected and so that is a newsworthy story.
Here’s the funny thing. Stories like these, that are unimportant and mealy titillating, can acuallybe very useful. As a result of Jackson’s death, at this moment, media outlets all over the world have a clear choice. 1) They can run stories that are not newsworthy about Jackson and get ratings or 2) They can continue with their normal schedule, ignoring any further Jackson stories and maybe not get the ratings that they would like.

Moments like these can tell you which news shows are doing a good job and which are not. It tells you what’s more important to a particular news show, its ratings or its integrity. Take this moment to be aware of how much your favorite news network is covering the Jackson stuff. You know the one with the team of Jackson Special commentators and the news recaps scrolling across the bottom of the screen. That station might be blowing it. Take a second and surf the competitor’s station to see how many stories they are doing. If that hour long show you hate with that boring host is not talking about Jackson at all, maybe it’s time to rethink where you are getting your news from. Maybe boring is better.