Questions and answers

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Aaron Dinkin (formerly known as Dr. Whom) on Facebook:

Just got unexpectedly interviewed by Global News. Topic: Is social media ruining the English language? My answer: no.

He adds:

Just you watch, everyone, they'll edit it to take whatever I say out of context and make it sound like I'm buying into the premise.

And after the piece appeared:

Yep, that's what happened:

You can watch the whole thing —  "Proper grammar increasingly enforced on social media", Global News 8/20/2013 (this direct link may work, or look for Minna Rhee's report on "Social Media and Grammar" at the bottom of the page) — but here's how they used Aaron's bits:

Aaron can tell us whether the questions preceding his quotes were actually the ones he answered, but in any case, I expect that he experienced what Pascale Riché, the Washington correspondent for Libération in 2005, wrote about after a similar experience in 2005 (my translation — the original is here):

A journalist from the Washington Post interviewed me on the telephone about our annual Block Party (this consists of blocking the street and relaxing on the pavement for half a day). I responded to her at length, I told her about my discovery of the importance of community in the U.S., I cited Tocqueville, I made a digression about the bond created by children on the block and more broadly in American society…

What remained from all this in the paper? The following:

"Her neighbor, Pascale Riche, pulled all the tables from his house and lined them up in the street, so everyone could dine together banquet-style.

"It was perfect," Riche says. "I'm French, and in France we like to have conversation around a nice dinner.

I imagine in retrospect what went on in her head while we talked: "I wish he'd stop blathering on with his pop sociology… When is he going to tell me that he's French and that he loves food… Ah, there it is, he finally came out with it!"

The worst thing is that in her place, I would perhaps have kept the same idiotic quotation. My neighbor Ruth said to me yesterday evening: "So now you know what the people that you interview think of your articles!"

As I observed at the time,

This example is from a feature on block parties rather than from news articles on a sports championship, but the situation is the same one that I described in a recent post on the ritual role of material from interviews in stories on the NBA finals. The journalist knows what (s)he wants to write, and what sort of facts and quotes are needed in support, and therefore manipulates the person interviewed so as produce suitable copy — in this case mainly by selecting a few suitable fragments from a long interview. At least, that's Pascale's professional opinion about what happened.

In my experience — both personal and second-hand — science reporting often works pretty much the same way. The reporter may not approach an interview with the idea of learning more about the topic, much less providing an accurate characterization of the views of the person interviewed, but rather with the goal of getting suitable quotes to slot into a narrative that is already more or less in place.

Aaron's shorter version: "Just you watch, everyone, they'll edit it to take whatever I say out of context and make it sound like I'm buying into the premise."

Update — I asked Aaron whether his Q&A sequences in the broadcast were actually sequential, or rather involved some audio editing to slot his answers into the framework of the story. His answer:

Man, I don't even remember. The first soundbite was at the end of a long discussion on how people judge each other on the basis of sociolinguistic performance, but pay less attention to whether they're conforming to standards in informal contexts—so somebody misspelling words on Twitter or whatever (an informal context) is going to be exposing themself to that kind of negative evaluation. And the second soundbite was one of the times when I was saying something along the lines of 'this isn't anything special about the Internet; it's always been the case that people have to learn the standards for formal writing as a distinct register from informal discourse' (well, the new thing is just that there's a newly prevalent "informal writing" register, I guess, not that the formal-writing register has to be learned).

I'm going to translate that as "the broadcast questions and the broadcast answers were probably not adjacent in the original interview".

Some other relevant posts from the past:

"Imaginary debates and stereotypical roles", 5/3/2006
"Audio photoshopping at NPR", 5/31/2007
"In president, out president, fake president", 12/5/2008
"Filled pauses and faked audio", 12/28/2008


  1. Jona said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 7:41 am

    "In my experience — both personal and second-hand — science reporting often works pretty much the same way."
    Science often works pretty much the same way.

    [(myl) Good point. According to an old metaphor, scientific research amounts to asking questions of nature. Sometimes scientists know the answer that they want before they ask the question, and keep phrasing the question a bit differently until they get something approximating the answer they want. And in other cases, we record Nature's discourse, and devise after the fact a question that would make a given statement especially interesting, if it had been the answer to that question.]

  2. tpr said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 8:04 am

    I wonder if journalists even realize they're doing it. It may be that everything not confirming their biases is covered in a SEP field.

  3. Fred Thrung said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 8:10 am

    Hilarious that a quote about correct use of language includes " Is social media ruining the English language?"
    And there I was thinking medium = singular, media = plural.

  4. Monty said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 8:41 am

    This post dovetails nicely with the earlier piece on MoDo…especially the observations about using quotes to fill-out a pre-existing narrative. (MoDo simply altered the quotes to complete her "story.")

    PS – No title?

  5. Jeff DeMarco said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 8:45 am

    I suspect singular media is pretty much standard usage these days.

  6. Mark P said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 9:07 am

    If you watch TV interviews carefully, you almost always see the reporter feeding words to the interviewee. It's, "Does that make you feel unimportant (sad, outraged, offended)?", instead of, "How does that make you feel?" And often (usually) the interviewee says something like, "Yes, that makes me feel unimportant." They never add, "How thoughtful of you to supply just the word I needed."

  7. Ellen K. said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 9:41 am

    The word "media" in English is a collective noun, and as such can be treated as singular or plural for verb agreement, depending on how it's used. Here, the singular verb is appropriate, since we are talking about social media as a unit.

  8. Mark P said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 10:03 am

    @myl – I don't see the physical sciences as operating the way you say in Jona's comment. That is essentially the criticism that deniers of anthropogenic global warming aim at climatologists, which, in my opinion, shows a lack of understanding about how this type of science works, within the context of science itself and within the context of society as a whole. AGW deniers say that climatologists want to find evidence supporting AGW in order to get funding or to jump on the bandwagon or for some other non-scientific or illegitimate reason. In reality, a climatologist would be delighted to find evidence disproving AGW because it would make his reputation forever. I understand that scientists are subject to the same type of conscious or unconscious tendencies as reporters, but I'm not so sure that the physical sciences allow quite that much leeway in posing questions, performing experiments and analyzing data.

    [(myl) Dick Hamming often said "beware of finding what you're looking for", as I've mentioned before. He was warning about not over-interpreting the fact that some particular mathematical model seems to fit measurements of some physical phenomenon pretty well.

    My most vivid personal encounter with this aphorism was through Jim Kaiser's skepticism about the physical validity (as opposed to modeling convenience and approximate amplitude-spectrum prediction) of standard transmission-line models of vocal tract acoustics. For some discussion, see here.]

  9. Jona said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 10:18 am

    Mark: A climate scientist would also probably be delighted to "disprove" global warming because that would mean the future would be a lot less shitty than what's probably waiting for us.

    But I agree that it's probably moreso brain and behavioral sciences with their 90%+ rates of positive findings and unfalsifiable hypotheses (or rather: a weak Lakatosian "hard core" and huge protective belt) that work a lot like journalism.
    The less one is bound by the data, the more one is free to prove one's biases right.

    The discussion may freely transition to evolutionary biology, minimalism or any of the other usual suspects now.

  10. KeithB said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 10:25 am

    Ray Comfort is guilty of this. He produced an anti-evolution video by interviewing scientists and leaving most of the nuance on the cutting room floor:

    [(myl) More generally, this is known as "contextomy" or "quote mining". But I think that it's not generally recognized how common this is in mainstream journalism, especially in situations where the interviewees are not in a position to complain loudly and effectively.]

  11. AJD said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 10:40 am

    Formerly known as Dr. Whom?

  12. Mark P said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 11:03 am

    @myl and Jona – I have seen something like this in the defense world. In some cases, certain phenomena are hard to model physically. If a test gives some results that can be matched somehow, by changing assumptions, parameters or initial conditions, or by changing code, then the new code is used to predict the results of new tests, without any regard to whether the changes required were valid or even physical. This is completely different from the practice of redefining the goals of a test depending on the results of the test.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 11:13 am

    Just to use the AGW kerfuffle for illustrative purposes, there are two different ways in which a climatologist could in principle achieve fame and fortune (?) by disproving the current dominant-majority-in-the-field position: a) come up with a model which (in the eventual opinion of a critical mass of others) fits the data better and which produces a different analysis of the past and different (and ultimately verified?) predictions for the future: or b) demonstrate to enough people's satisfaction that the whole field is just bunk – that no one at present or in the foreseeable future actually has the ability to generate an adequate mathematical model of the extremely complex system that is our planet's climate, i.e. a model that makes testable (and accurate when tested) predictions about the future or perhaps even a model that coherently explains the past without a lot of selective data-mining. Widespread public acceptance of option b) might destroy quite a large chunk of climatology as a respectable field of scientific endeavor that anyone rational should want to give tenure and/or grant money to the practitioners of (although to take an analogy in another field lots of people still make money from credulous suckers with fancy mathematical models purporting to predict future trends in the stock market even though tenure committees in economics departments may be more inclined to think they're bunk). It is not hard to come up with theories as to why people who have invested the time and energy to get Ph.D.'s in climatology might be (if only subconsciously) less open-minded toward the possible merits of option b.

    Linguistics is imho sort of an interesting discipline because one can achieve some success as a reputable scholar by saying We Just Don't Know. You can debunk someone's fanciful theory about what Basque is related to without having to offer a rival theory other than "it's an 'isolate,'" which of course is just a jargony way of saying We Just Don't Know and We May Never Know. There's enough other stuff that We Do Know that admitting the inability to answer a particular (objectively interesting) question (and, indeed, treating new attempts to answer that question as presumptive evidence of crackpottery) does not undermine, but rather enhances, the discipline's credibility. I suspect that academic disciplines vary somewhat in this regard (and of course the variations may themselves differ depending on time and place), and there is some sort of complicated self-sorting process by which more arrogant/overconfident personality types are attracted to disciplines where that's more of a professional advantage and more epistemically humble types are attracted to disciplines where that mindset is the more advantageous one. One could also rephrase that slightly more cynically in terms of which disciplines are a good fit professionally for people who can devastatingly critique someone else's theory without necessarily having a coherent affirmative theory of their own to offer as an alternative, as opposed to disciplines where people like that are shunned as unconstructive and anti-social with bromides like "it takes a theory to beat a theory." (Was it Nietzsche who said the power to create is second only to the power to destroy?)

  14. ThomasH said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

    "Is social media ruining the English language?"

    More than the anti-social media?

  15. Rubrick said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

    I've found that as a rule of thumb it's safe to ignore any article whose title is a question: "Is social media ruining the English Language?", "Is the Nexus 5 the iPhone-killer?", "Is the Republican party doomed?". Question-titles generally signify "We don't actually have any knowledge to impart to you."

  16. Brett said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

    @Rubrick: In physics, the observation is sometimes made that if the title of a paper or talk is a yes-or-no question, the answer is always "no."

  17. Steve Morrison said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 8:02 pm

    @Rubrick: That is known as Betteridge's law of headlines, among other things.

  18. John McIntyre said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 10:42 pm

    A post with an explanation, though not an apologia, of what happens in daily journalism.

  19. Jon said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 2:48 am

    A boss of mine was once interviewed by the BBC Horizon team about a controversial claim in his area. The interview went on for half an hour, during which he explained all the reasons why the new claim was unreliable. At the end, they asked him "If it was true, would it be important?" He said "Yes, if this was true, it would be important". That was the only sentence of his interview that was broadcast.
    Later, when I went for media training myself, one of the first recommendations was: if possible, go for a live interview.

  20. maidhc said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 2:57 am

    I heard a good example of this during the recent rail disaster in Quebec. A CBC reporter was interviewing the local member of the provincial legislature, and was clearly trying to get him worked up into an angry tirade against the railroad company, and the politician just kept giving factual answers. Like this:

    What are your feelings toward the railroad company now?
    You know the town is very vulnerable to accidents because so much of it is close to the railroad line.
    Do you have a message you would like to send to the railroad company?
    The town was originally built to service the railroad, that's why it was built near the track.
    Are you angry with the railroad company?

  21. JD said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 8:08 am

    Just a note: the name of the French journalist is Pascal (without an E) , the WP journalist spelled it wrong.

    [(myl) I wondered about that…]

  22. Picky said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

    @Jon: that would be interesting if the resultant programme did not cover the fact that the claim was controversial and if so why. Otherwise … what is your point? That the bloke who gave the interview had a right to have the lot broadcast?

  23. Picky said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 3:41 pm

    Equally I'm not sure what Riché's problem is. Are we saying Riché was misquoted? No, we're saying the interviewee has some kind of right to determine which part of the interview should be reported. Isn't that just nonsense?

  24. Alex Bollinger said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

    Picky: Journalists are supposed to pull quotes from sources that maintain the general intent of the source. This is in their styles guides and stuff. It's, like, important in that profession.

    Just pulling a few words about how he wanted to have a big table to eat and talk at the same time, according to him, was not really the intent of what he was saying.

    Now a journalist can either pull a sentence that's not part of the main point or can use something that is the main point of what the Riche was saying. If the journalist picks the latter, the reason is obvious: the journalist was trying to convey what the source was saying. If the journalist picks the former, then one has to wonder why. Riche and others in the article assert that it's because the journalist was just waiting for a sentence that sounds like what they were looking for in the first place.

    Which leads to a big question: if journalists already know what they want sources to say, then why are they interviewing them in the first place?

    On a related note, Riche sounds like a wanker. And even he admits that he was just related pop sociology of limited intellectual value, so it's all forgivable as we all have wanker moments.

    I just want to know why the French think that they hold a monopoly on eating and talking at the same time. Do they imagine that the entire rest of the world eats in TOTAL SILENCE? That can't be it; the only meal I ever had in total silence with others was on a retreat in eastern France.

    Who knows. It's a weirdass meme that comes up every now and then in France, where they're like, "We're French, so we talk while we have a meal. Isn't that so BIZARRE???" Um, no. No it's not.

  25. the other Mark P said,

    August 24, 2013 @ 12:24 am

    I understand that scientists are subject to the same type of conscious or unconscious tendencies as reporters, but I'm not so sure that the physical sciences allow quite that much leeway in posing questions, performing experiments and analyzing data.

    You're wildly optimistic about the lack of leeway with the physical sciences. Have you read any of the what the physicists write about "alternative universes" etc? That's without entering the whole bogus field of string theory, based on precisely no experiments whatsoever.

    Much of neuroscience doesn't inspire me with much confidence. Bogus ideas based on limited experimental information is far too common.

    And climate science isn't really one of the "physical sciences" anyway. It's not in the same league as chemistry, physics etc. It's a brand new and untested amalgam of them for a start, with a large mix of statistics thrown in. And we all know that statistics is the easiest way to prove whatever you want.

    The physical sciences live or die on experiments. Climate does not provide that option.

    It's like evolutionary psychology, in that it's all done backwards. That allows "just so" stories to predominate. Proving mostly what the scientist wants to prove. That the field is full of highly trained PhDs doesn't stop it being filled with large amounts of nonsense.

    Did you know that increased training in science tends to make people more sceptical of global warming? Perhaps it's because they do know how easy it is for scientists to fool themselves.

  26. Steve Kass said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 12:14 am

    A bit off-topic, but related to Steve Morrison's mention of Betteridge's law of headlines. In this week’s New York Times, the answer to "Would a Gay Man Be Welcomed Home in Montana?" was “yes.” While I hadn't heard of Betteridge's law, it was about halfway through the article that I thought to myself “Huh? This isn't what the headline led me to expect.”

  27. Sili said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

    Always tape a personal copy of your interviews – as PZ Myers discovered the hard way.

  28. Mark P said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

    @the other Mark P — You don't sound extraordinarily familiar with climatology. Climatologists test their models by initializing them at some time in the past, running them, and then comparing the results to what actually happened. You can, of course, argue that they cook the books, but you can say that about anything. The Apollo moon landings, for example.

    You also say, "Did you know that increased training in science tends to make people more sceptical of global warming? Perhaps it's because they do know how easy it is for scientists to fool themselves."

    No, I do not know that because it is not true. I would like to see where you got that idea, because it didn't come from physical scientists.

  29. Jon Weinberg said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 9:13 pm

    @Mark P: The reference is to an interesting study by Kahan et al., at . Concern about climate change was strongly correlated with subjects' holding what the authors described as egalitarian/communitarian rather than hierarchical/individualist views, but very weakly *negatively* correlated with increased science literacy and numeracy. Pulling the numbers apart, it turned out that for folks with egalitarian/communitarian views (predisposing them to credit climate change evidence), increased science literacy and numeracy was associated with increased perception of risk; but for folks with hierarchical/individualist views (predisposing them to reject climate change evidence), increased science literacy and numeracy was associated with lower perception of risk.

  30. Extravaganza said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 6:58 am

    I always try to bear this in mind when reading media stories that confirm my biases.

    For example, my outrage at the recent NSA scandal has been tempered by the realisation that the reporters concerned are almost certainly mining the leaked documents very selectively, searching for the quotes they need to fill in the blanks of the standard Plucky Hero Defies Oppressive State story.

  31. Mark P said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 10:56 am

    @Jon Weinberg — So, basically, the study does not say that increased training in science makes people more skeptical about the source of global warming, since "scientific literacy" does not imply training in a physical science. I haven't read the entire study, only the abstract, but based on that, the main point to take away is that views on global warming are correlated with political views, which was pretty evident before the study. I also suspect that there are a number of issues with this study when taken beyond that conclusion. A more reasonable study would be to ask climatologists what they think, since they are most familiar with the issue. That has already been done, with a result of about 97% agreeing with the idea that human activities are resulting in global warming.Of course, you can find disagreement about that number, too. The views about whether climatologists support AGW is also strongly correlated with political views.

  32. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

    Can we apply Betteridge's law to resolve the AGW controversy by counting up the number of headlines of the form "Is AGW a hoax?" versus headlines of the form "Will melting glaciers submerge Manhattan?" assuming each such headline counts as a datapoint supporting the "no" answer to its respective question?

  33. Ray Dillinger said,

    September 1, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

    String theory is a sincere attempt to describe and explain the observed results.

    The problem is that none of the mechanisms it invokes are observable or testable, and it could also be formulated in a way that describes any set of observed results. Thus it says nothing useful.

    Global warming science is different in that it describes and explains the observed results, and invokes observable mechanisms that have been tested and are still being tested by previous and ongoing experiments. And that, whether we like it or not, its hypothesis is in the process right now of definitely being proven true, or we wouldn't have had ten of the hottest summers on record in the last fifteen years or started having hurricane seasons where we get through the whole dang alphabet.

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