• Last April, I wrote about a bad habit of many journalists to infer the emotional states of the people (hereafter “newsmakers”) they’re covering based on the newsmakers’ expressed emotions. The reporters syllogisms were as follows:

    Premise: Newsmaker appears to have/is expressing emotion X.
    Conclusion: Newsmaker has emotion X.

    I countered that this is a leap of logic wherein the reporters have assumed an infallible power of reading minds. The simple flaw in their logic is easily illuminated by noting the fact that humans sometimes misrepresent themselves. The only conclusion that could truly be drawn from the above premise is that “Newsmaker seems to have emotion X,” or better yet, “Newsmaker has expressed emotion X.” As with any other subjective conclusion, it should be up to the news audience to determine whether the newsmaker was sincere or not.

    I did not receive a lot of feedback on this commentary, and so I suspect that it seemed to some to be a petty correction. If someone is crying, then surely we can assume they’re upset about something. I wouldn’t disagree in our everyday lives. If we see a friend expressing great emotion, I think it would be reasonable to assume (unless we suspect from experience that they have a habit of utilizing such alleged emotion for an advantage) that they are sincere, and so worthy of an expression of compassion. However, when reporters treat those in the news as though they are incapable of artifice, they are undermining their claims to journalistic objectivity. Consider the following two very recent examples, with which I intend to reinvigorate my argument against this crime against journalism:

    (1) In the United States, President Obama will soon be nominating a new high-powered person to take on the role of Secretary of State to replace the outgoing Hilary Clinton. Most indications are that his first choice is US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, while his second choice would be Senator (and former Democratic Presidential candidate) John Kerry. There are many politics enveloping each choice, one of which is that, if John Kerry were approved, he would have to give up his Senate seat, which would give a recently-defeated Republican candidate an excellent chance of taking his spot. This would be good for the Republicans. Therefore, when the Republicans express grave concern about Susan Rice’s candidacy, they may (at least in part) be playing politics. Nevertheless, I heard the following on MSN-BC:

    REPORTER: The Republicans are very upset by the possibility of Susan Rice’s appointment.

    This reporting statement gives credence to the notion that the Republicans have sincere reservations about Ambassador Rice. Maybe they do, but by framing this statement as an objective assessment of emotion, the broadcaster has told the audience that they have every reason to trust the political party’s “concern.” I doubt that the reporter was trying to influence us in that way (since it is, after all, a Democrat-leaning network); instead, they were most likely once again under the influence of lazy journalism. In lieu of taking the time to describe exactly what they could objectively see and hear, they rounded off from their nearest perception (that the politicians sounded upset) to fact (that the politicians were upset).

    This is why I argue that, even in cases where it seems patently obvious that an emotion is sincere (such as with apparently grieving people) reporters should be obsessive about never saying more than they can legitimately claim to know. Instead of referring to someone as “sad,” they should describe what they actually witness, perhaps that “the person’s voice faltered,” and then we the audience will draw our own conclusions.

    (2) In Canada recently, a man was arrested at the border for allegedly trying to smuggle kids (who weren’t his own) into the US. His stated justification was religious, and so the radio station said, “X man believes Y religious precept.” Such a statement presumes that the man is not a religious con artist. Hopefully, we the audience might still suspect the insincerity of the man’s religious claims, but we have to consciously see past the broadcaster’s credence-giving statement. None of us knows what any other person believes: we only know what each other says. But, by couching religious claims as “beliefs,” broadcasters imply their sincerity, and so fallaciously create the impression that all devout religious representatives are equally devout religious believers. This is a serious leap of shorthand. Religious spokespeople already have extreme power in our world; they don’t need the extra benefit of being treated as though they always say exactly what they truly believe.

    In short, it is not the job of journalists to tell us who to trust; all we need is facts.

  • Okay, I admit this one is mostly a pet peeve, and I feel bad even bringing it up, as some of my favourite people indulge, but it’s time I took a side: I believe it is silly to write without capital letters.

    (1) THE FORMAL CASE

    Personally, whenever I read an email message expunged of capital letters, unless the communication came via a phone that lacks easy capitalization, the message seems to me to be encumbered by laziness. The writer does not seem to feel that I, as a reader, deserve the expense of effort they would have needed to utilize their SHIFT key.

    But who am I to judge? If my fellow email corresponders choose to type without grammar, spell check, or capital letters, that is their right. Perhaps they enjoy letting the letters fall where they may without the confines of “correctness.” And maybe in particular social communication circles, going uncapitalized is simply the preference of the group because it is perceived as easygoing.

    Nevertheless, I think it is worth noting that, in certain cases, following some rules of language can be a way of showing our correspondents that we respect them—kind of like not accentuating a burp during a dinner party. And so the more formal, and the less we know someone, the more I think such belches of grammar and spelling can stand out.

    I have recently witnessed job applications in which candidates omitted capital letters from their cover letters. Baffle me! Can they really expect a professional agency to take them seriously if they don’t take themselves seriously enough to apply the occasional SHIFT key to our initial interaction? Should the employer also expect a high five instead of a handshake during the interview?

    (2) THE PET PEEVE CASE

    Now—just for fun—I’m going to try to make the case against a capital-free existence even in personal correspondence. In my humble suspicion, capital letters have a useful function in our language: I think they help to alert the reader to natural punctuation breaks in our paragraphs, and so make our writing easier to digest on the first pass.

    I’m in favour of using original styles to communicate material, and so I wouldn’t make this argument if I could see a single benefit to excluding capital letters.

    As far as I can tell, there are four possible arguments for a expunging the SHIFT key from one’s typing vocabulary:

    (2.1) EASE

    Perhaps non-capitalizers think that the SHIFT key is far too labour-intensive given its modest gains. As you wish: if the shift-free genuinely believe that pressing an extra button once or twice a sentence is a significant waste of time and calories, then I support their decision. However, I do request that they check their data. When I’m at my keyboard, one finger hits the SHIFT key while the others keep on typing, so I don’t actually find shifting takes any extra time, nor in fact, many extra calories (indeed, my shifting finger does not seem any more buff than my non-shifting fingers).

    (2.2) TREND/HABIT

    It seems some have cut capitals from their emails because of the text-messaging boom. When one is typing on one’s small phone, capital letters are often more difficult to employ, and so, I think, much more acceptable to exclude. As a result, given the popularity of non-CAPS-texting, capital letters may seem passé to some even when they’re easy to apply. Moreover, because people are used to going capital-free in text messages, they may argue that it’s simpler to maintain that habit in emailing as well.

    My argument here would be that text messaging is a form of communication shorthand. Since each letter costs a lot more energy to type on a phone, it’s all about finding the simplest message to get your point across. “c u b4 the show,” for instance, gets “See you before the show” done on a smaller budget. That makes sense to me. Similarly, in the past, Morse Code left many words out to send the most pertinent information; this does not mean, though, that when famous sea captains wrote tell-all books about their experiences, they wrote in simplified beeps of language. No, it was merely the Morse medium that gave them that exemption. The definitive convenience within one does not have to undermine quality of the other.

    (2.3) PERSONALITY

    Probably the most common explanation for removing capitals from one’s writing is that of personality. Anti-capital snobs believe that they have a unique flavour of being that is illustrated by their lack of oversized letters. I do not intend such a shiftless existence any harm, but I must ask the practitioners of this theory if they are aware that many people have used the very same “unique” same small-lettered technique before them.

    (Indeed, I understand that the now expired poet, e.e. cummings, was one of the first to go capital-free. Most commonly, he de-capitalized his poetry and sometimes signed his name sans capitals. Some speculate, however, that he offered the latter as a gesture of humility as opposed to a recommendation for others to do the same.)

    Not that things worth doing have to be unique or original (good manners, for instance), but, if one’s reason for excommunicating the capital letter is because they think it illuminates an originality of personality, I must suggest that it does not.

    (2.4) AESTHETICS

    A friend of mine has explained that she uses the no-capital system because she likes the look of it. Fair enough. The only thing I can say to her is that most of the time one’s written words are meant for other people to read, so might it not be worth considering whether they enjoy such diminutive lettering, too? Moreover, given that written language is generally meant for communication, does she not worry at all that she might be giving up clarity for the sake of looks? Or is going capital-free the ultimate victory of fashion over substance?

    (3) THE COUNTER CASE

    For those who would like to take me down via an appeal to hypocrisy, I freely acknowledge that I have probably made at least one grammatical error somewhere in this message. However, please note that I have specifically tried to avoid such mistakes. In contrast when one goes capital-free, one is choosing to resist.

  • This may seem like a small matter, but I think it is a symptom of how many in our media unduly segregate their subjects into only black or white. Consider the following fallacious phrases that I have witnessed in the media:

    “Is the new gas tax going to help the environment or is it another burden on families?”

    “Are boiled lobsters animal cruelty, or are they good eating?”

    Um, why can’t it be both?

    Use of such ridiculously black vs white phrases is so prevalent in our media that I have come to the speculation that the use of false dichotomies may be taught in broadcasting and/or journalism schools:

    PROFESSOR: All right, what you need to do for every issue is ask the audience to choose between the top hope of each side of the argument.

    STUDENT: What if the answer is somewhere in the middle?

    PROFESSOR: Boring! Remember: Black or white will excite! Grey won’t pay!

    STUDENT: Right, I forgot.

    PROFESSOR: Memorize it!

    STUDENT: So how do we do it?

    PROFESSOR: Okay, give me a significant government policy.

    STUDENT: How about the recent plan to build a major new transit line?

    PROFESSOR: Good, what’s a possible benefit of this policy?

    STUDENT: That it’s good for the environment and will reduce congestion.

    PROFESSOR: Okay, and what’s a criticism of it?

    STUDENT: That it’ll cost lots of taxpayer money.

    PROFESSOR: Perfect! Here’s your headline question: “THE NEW TRANSIT LINE: ENVIRONMENTAL HERO OR MAJOR TAX BURDEN?” Now everyone has to move their philosophy to one side or the other!

    It is the popular media’s craving for the simplicity of definitive answers, I suppose, that provokes them to invoke false dichotomies – in spite of the fact that false dichotomies are among the great enemies of logic. To quote myself in the Twitter version of SethBlogs: “You either agree that false dichotomies are a blight of human communication or you believe in violence against puppies.”

    Which brings me to my very important hockey-based point. Well-known hockey player, Ryan Smyth, who grew up in Edmonton, Alberta and has played most of his hockey career for the Edmonton Oilers, is famous for his ability to go into the tough areas in front of his opposition’s net to score goals. Hockey pundits, therefore, categorize him as a tough-nosed veteran player and nothing more.

    No hockey commentator whom I’ve heard has noticed that, when he’s not in front the opposition’s net, he moves like the most iconic and distinct Edmonton Oiler skater of all time, Wayne Gretzky. I’m not saying that Smyth possesses the Great One’s magic skills (who could?), but his stride and passing motion look more like the all-time NHL scoring leader than any player I’ve ever seen.

    This should not be surprising given that Smyth would have learned his love of the game while Gretzky was winning Stanley Cups for his city’s team, and so the young Oiler fan might have patterned his style after his hero. Smyth lacks Gretzky’s bounty of abilities, obviously – perhaps part of the reason he added a toughness to his repertoire since he couldn’t score 200 points a season like his idol – but Ryan Smyth, in spite of being a lumbering skater, is—-to my eye—-one of the best passers in the league.

    And yet TV announcers who follow him always seem surprised when he provides a great pass—-I’ve never heard them acknowledge that it’s a regular part of his skill set. I guess they’ve long answered the question: “Is Ryan Smyth tough in front of the net or is he a great passer?”

  • This is nothing new.

    Most agree that advertisers and political agenda holders will try to mislead us with statistics and emphasis. Indeed, the statement “You can use statistics to prove anything” has been around for years to capture our general frustration with the misuse of facts and figures. I think it should be noted, though, that numbers can only prove what is true, so in reality, they cannot prove anything you want – but, with clever emphasis (or non-scientific collecting of them), they can be used to imply flawed conclusions.

    For instance, a reporter who is assigned to do a story that demonstrates the (alleged) substandard play of the local sports team will take the team’s following list of results—

    WIN
    LOSS
    TIE
    TIE
    LOSS
    TIE
    TIE
    TIE
    WIN
    TIE

    —and, from one side of his mouth, say that the team is playing so poorly that it has only won two of its last ten games. But if the same scribe is asked to demonstrate that the team has fared well, then he or she will happily note, from the other side of their mouth, that the team has impressively only lost two of its last ten games.

    In reality, if viewed collectively, the statistics are perfectly clear that the team has fared exactly evenly (2 wins, 2 losses, 6 ties) in their last 10 games. The numbers did nothing wrong! The blame should be squared at the interpreter of those stats who cruelly abused their earnest willingness to help and emphasized only the part that seemed on the surface to support their conclusion.

    Thus, in defence of statistics—which, when compiled scientifically, are innocent figures, who just want to depict their environment as accurately as possible—I have collected over the past few weeks some examples of emphasis gone wrong:

    (A) “The 53 year-old grandfather of two”:

    In a recent feel-good story, a reporter was trying to emphasize the impressiveness of a man’s swim across some great distance—especially since he was older than the average practitioner of such an activity. Apparently, the man’s 53 years on their own didn’t sound old enough, so the journalist referred to him as a “53 year-old grandfather of two.” My understanding, though, is that there is no evidence to indicate that 53 year-old grandfathers of two are any older than 53 year-old grandfathers of one, who in turn have not been shown to be any older than 53 year-olds in general.

    (B) “We’ll cover the tax on your purchase”:

    It seems on the surface here that retailers are simply trying to capitalize on their customers’ general tax resentment, and so are saying, “I’m on your side: I’m going to cancel out the tax.” But, in fact, if they had simply given a discount equivalent to the tax rate, they would have saved the customer more money:

    If, for instance, an item cost $100 and the tax rate was 10%, then – before the discount, the total price of the purchase would have been $110. But the noble, anti-tax warrior is covering that total tax of $10, so the consumer only pays $100. In contrast, if the company had simply given a 10% discount on the purchase, the pre-tax price would have been $90, which – taxed at 10% – would be $99 total.

    Not a remarkable distinction in such a small purchase, but when I recently overheard a car company boasting that they would cover the tax for their beloved consumer, their tax-hating friendship seemed particularly expensive (on a $15,000 car, the distinction between “covering a 10% tax” and “giving a 10% discount” would be a distinction of $150, i.e. $1500 savings vs $1650).

    (C) “Three-time boxing champion”:

    In most sports, to be a three-time champion means that you have three times gone into a championship tournament and won. So the more-time champion you are, the better. In the boxing world, however, the “times” are calculated differently because, in that world, you stay the champion until someone defeats you. So, when you first win, you’re a one-time champion. If you lose your belt and regain it, then, you become a two-time champion. Thus, someone who never loses their championship will end their career as a one-time champ, while someone who loses it twice and regains it twice is a three-time champion. This is still impressive, but, unlike in other sports, being a three-time champion is not necessarily better than being a two-time champion.

    Nevertheless, when advertising the appearance of a champion boxer, promoters will universally capitalize on the phrase “3-time champion” as though it means the same superior result as it would in other sports.

    (D) “The lowest/highest paid X in the country”:

    Politicians enjoy defending or criticizing social facts in their own jurisdiction by comparing them to adjacent neighbourhoods. For instance, to prove that BC’s rate of X is too high or low, they’ll say, “BC has the third most/least X in the country” (as compared with the other nine provinces).

    Such a factoid presumes two things: (A) that there is a significant difference between the highest and lowest, and (B) that because X is the most, it must, by definition, be too high, and if it is the lowest, it must be too low. In fact, it may be that, even though Canada, let’s say, gives the most per capita of any country in North America to fighting curable diseases in Africa, a moral philosopher still has the right to argue that we should be giving more. Meanwhile, even though a certain population may be the worst paid in their profession in the country, that doesn’t necessarily mean that, ethically, they’re underpaid. Maybe Canada as a whole pays a lot for that profession, and so even the tenth-rated province may still pay pretty well. Similarly, Shakespeare’s “worst” play isn’t necessarily bad. It may still be better than most of us could write.

    (E) “50% percent more”:

    Anytime someone compares an increase only by percentage, it’s likely that they realize the numbers on their own aren’t impressive enough to compel us. If, for instance, the Canucks are penalized six times compared to with the rival team’s four times in a hockey game, the difference doesn’t sound particularly significant. But our beloved GM Mike Gillis would prefer to say, “We were penalized 50% more times than the opposition!” Wow, that sounds like a lot!

    Percentage comparisons, I’m sure, can be useful, but when they’re used without the numbers to justify them, I can’t help wondering what the presenter of them is trying to hide.

    (F) “People who do X, tend to…”:

    I recently heard an advert on TV for multi-grain cereals stating that those who eat multi-grain foods tend to weigh less. Clearly, the cereal seller is hoping that we will notice this correlation and assume causation: “It must be the multi-grains that are causing those people to weigh less, so, if I eat them, there’ll be less of me, too!” In fact, of course, it may simply be that the person who eats multi-grains tends to care about their health, and so tends to do other things for their health as well – such as exercising more often – which in turn may be the actual cause of their leanness.

    Obviously, this correlation vs causation distinction—as with all of my examples—is no great epiphany. We all know that advertisers, politicians, and interest groups manipulate the numbers for their greater good. Moreover, numbers themselves will rarely be perfect given that the collectors of statistics can so easily over-focus on particular groups or ask leading questions. But at least the statistics’ governing body—the scientific method—aims in good faith to cull such errors in collection. In contrast, the quoting, referencing and emphasizing of particular statistics without considering their context and complexity seems to be occurring without a police officer. So, for the sake of promoting the integrity of statistics in general, I think it’s worth pointing out these deceptions whenever we see them so that the well collected and well-defined facts can stand out as the sincere creatures that they are.

  • As we gather around our televisions to witness the Vancouver Canucks vs the Boston Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, we will hear, with increasing frequency, about the beauty and honour that the referees could bestow on the game if only they would “let the players play”! I couldn’t agree nor disagree more.

    By “letting them play,” Canada’s leading alpha male and CBC commentator, Don Cherry – amongst many other hockey aggression protectors—-means that the NHL referees should, as much as possible, keep their whistles out of the games and not call so many penalties. To his mind, such red tape disrupts the players’ ability to decide the contests via their own grit and determination.

    Cherry apparently sees hockey as a test of heart and aggression, so that, when one player “illegally” fouls another in the joyful pursuit of that great good, the referee should most of the time ignore the infraction so as not to stunt the beauty of the battle. After all, if a player crosses a line in the rules while seeking his gritty dream, and we punish him for it with a sanction that could hurt his team, then we will force the player to pull back his heart-felt play to avoid further reducing his team’s chances. To the hockey-is-war fan, such restrictions are obscene: the referees’ egos, they claim, are ruining game!

    But what about the skill of the game? Some of us come to hockey broadcasts because, along with impressive physical confrontations, we love exquisite stick handling demonstrations and deft passing plays, but every time a grunt worker illegally obstructs one of our athletic Einsteins, he limits the skill players’ ability to play their game. Since the early 1990s, when Gretzky and Lemieux roamed the rinks and the goals flowed like Cherry whine, NHL scoring has reduced significantly. In fact, by 2005, the game had become a little dull to many viewers, which provoked the NHL to set up a competition committee to investigate ways to allow the skill players more room to demonstrate their talent.

    One of the many resulting rules is that players in the defensive zone can no longer throw the puck over the sideline glass to stop the play: if they do so—-intentionally or not—-they will leave their team shorthanded for two minutes. Don Cherry hates this rule. “The players don’t mean to do it,” he has ranted many times. Instead, he argues, they are simply trying to get the puck out of danger by banking it high off the side wall, but sometimes they accidentally shoot it too high and so it goes out of play.

    This argument implies, first of all, that the players would never purposely throw the puck out of the play because it would be unsporting. Has Cherry met the NHL mentality?

    This is a league made of goalies who are applauded if they can “accidentally” knock their own nets off their moorings so as to stop the play if they think they’re about to be scored on (“Nice veteran move,” commentators will cheer, as though winning is an intrinsic good regardless of the rules broken to achieve it). In a sport that salutes the motto, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying”, of course players would intentionally throw the puck out of play in order to save a goal! They’d tackle their opponent every time they touched the puck if they thought they could get away with it.

    The League has said that, if a player directly sends the puck out of play in his defensive zone, he goes to the penalty box for up to two minutes. Brilliant! Cherry’s right that most of the time the players, therefore, are no longer going to purposely throw the puck in the stands, but this just means that they either don’t have sufficient skill to get the puck away from danger without sending it out of play, or the offensive team is doing such an excellent job of pressuring them, that they don’t have time to make a stronger play. Sounds good to me. I don’t see a problem with penalizing a player for unintentionally going out of bounds in their failed attempt to complete a high-risk play. Similarly, I’m sure tennis players don’t mean to hit the net: and yet, when they do, the judge will not let them play through the error because they intended a better shot. Walking the tight rope between a high-skill play and a penalized one requires great skill at great risk. If you don’t have it in you to complete, then don’t try for it.

    (In Cherry’s version of the hockey universe, players who lack the skill to keep the puck in play are rewarded with a reprieve from danger that the higher-skilled players would not receive, and thus sometimes ironically acquire better results for lesser execution.)

    The NHL rules are not perfect (personally, I would like more skill-protecting regulations in place), but the league has improved conditions in recent years for skill players. Whereas previously a defensive player could often get away with holding onto an offensive player’s stick, there is now a specific penalty called “holding the stick” that has, to my hockey eye, reduced the ridiculous behaviour. (Can you imagine a baseball catcher, upon realizing his opponent is about to have a good swing at a home run, simply reaching out and holding the offensive weapon?) To the Cherry crowd, such penalty calls are petty: “C’mon, just let them play!”

    Well, what about the high-skill player who’s trying to create some offence? What’s wrong with letting him play by penalizing those who use illegal methods to stop him?

    Officially, NHL referees are told that, if they see a penalty, they are supposed to call it regardless of the effect it will have on the game, but, as these playoff games become increasingly significant, the on-ice umpires cannot escape the pressure to stay out of deciding the outcomes of the matches. Thus, when games go into overtime, infractions that would have been called in the early part of the game, seem to be called less often.

    This hands-off approach pleases the Cherry-minded who will accuse those refs who don’t follow the unofficial “Let them play” rule of tampering with the players’ ability to decide the game for themselves. It implies that gritty, by-any-means-necessary players are more worthy of determining the results than skill players. But why not give skill a chance, too? Why not let those who possess it be unencumbered by the rule-evading specialists? If we call the penalties according to the line that the league has determined fairly balances skill and grit, then players can by all means decide the outcome within those limits. If they want to play without hearing the referees’ whistle, then all they need to is play by the rules. Let the skill players, play.

    P.S. Go Canucks, Go!

  • Once upon a time in history, citizens were presented with soothsayers whose duty it was to predict the results of athletic events. Some say that the prognosticators were so pure in their perceptions that they did not need to know anything about the subject matter of their postulations. Even more impressive, it has been speculated that the predictors weren’t aware that they were making predictions! Apparently, you see, these Nostradamus impersonators were populated by animals, such as monkeys, elephants and octopi, who were provided references to competing groups so that they could, somehow in their behaviour, indicate the more likely victor.

    I’m hoping I’ve tricked you into imagining that I’m referring to an ancient time where animals were sometimes elevated to the status of deities who could apparently see all. In fact, the omniscient creatures that I refer to have existed in our recent history on our televisions, where various broadcasters have competed to provide us with the most endearing animal pundit.

    Most recently, I witnessed a local-to-me television station employing a divine critter of their own to anticipate the results of my Vancouver Canucks. Is this continuing ritual meant to be merely adorable, or, in those cases where the animal “selections” prove accurate, are we also supposed to be intrigued as well? When Paul the Octopus selected food from the logo of the team that would win particular football/soccer matches eight out of eight times during the 2010 World Cup, some seemed genuinely amazed and apparently wondered if the animal actually had some extra sensory understanding of the sport.

    (I have no idea whether any of these animal surveys are conducted scientifically, but let us assume that there was no accidental or intentional biasing of the subject: it won’t affect the ire of this rant.)

    If it’s true that some people believe that the only reason the sea creature could have chosen his food so consistently with the results of the matches is because he was powered by some greater force or perception, I think it’s worth pointing out that, when it comes to chance, every unlikely possibility is obligated to come true now and then. “Improbable,” that is, simply means that something is less likely than all the other options combined: it doesn’t mean that it can only happen with the assistance of magic. If, for instance, you flip a coin twice in a row, the chance of getting heads both times is 25%. Thus it “probably” won’t happen, but it certainly might. In fact, it is one of only four possibilities for what could happen:

    (A) Two heads in a row
    (B) First heads, then tails
    (C) First tails, then heads
    (D) Two tails in a row

    Each of these combinations has exactly a 25% chance of happening, so each possibility is, in fact, improbable, and yet we know that 100% of the times that we successfully flip a coin two times in a row one of these improbabilities will come true. Thus the improbable is to be expected (we just don’t know which improbable is going to occur).

    Similarly, each individual who buys a ticket has a tiny chance of winning the lottery, and yet, with every draw, it is likely that someone will come up big. That doesn’t demonstrate that the winning ticket holder was psychic: it simply means that, if you throw a ball into a crowd, it’s probably going to land in someone’s hand even though every person in there had a small chance of getting it.

    When it comes to individual animal predictors, then, it is not actually surprising that they are sometimes “right” many times in a row. The law of probability demands it! (25% of the time in the case of two coin flips, 12.5% in the case of three flips, and 0.39% for eight guesses.) Paul feeding “accurately” eights times in a row is to be expected occasionally. After all, every possible combination of eight coin flips had an equal 0.39% chance, and yet one of them had to come true: and Paul’s 1 in 256 prediction had just as good a shot as any other.

    It may still seem surprising that Paul would win the lottery right while the cameras were watching him, but how much failed animal predictor footage was thrown away before Paul’s accuracy was brought to the public’s attention?

    Sometimes, the coin-flip combination you guess for will be the one that comes up, but once again, that doesn’t make you, nor any confused animal, a psychic. It just means that you and chance were in the same place at the same time. My bet is that, on average, when any of us make predictions that have a 1/256 chance of coming true, we’re probably right approximately every 256th time, so don’t be surprised when your wild guess does come true.

    Perhaps, most people aren’t actually impressed when the animal nudges their nose at the right prediction, but are instead pleased to see a cute creature on stage, and so are happy to play along with the prediction game that justifies the non-human appearance. Fair enough, but in that case, instead of imposing psychic behaviours on our animal neighbours maybe the broadcasters could spend the time studying the creatures’ natural behaviours and tendencies.

    Unless you genuinely believe there is something more than the standard workings of chance contained in an animal-logo-nudging exhibition, I submit the display provides us with no nutritional content other than the animals’ natural charisma. The spectacle is not even original any more! So, instead of spending animals’ rare time on screen forced to pretend that they care about our sports, maybe we could let them teach us about their genuine interests.

    I look forward to the day that the sports announcer says, “We were going to take this time to show you the basketball game predictions of Humphrey the Hippo, but we realized that we could let you flip your own coins at home, and so, in lieu of such artificially constructed animal behaviour, we would now like to spend one genuine minute with this Hippopotamus and Dr. Henrietta the Hippo Scientist.”

    Go Canucks, Go!

  • I’ve been criticized, in my non-blogging life, for ranting at journalists who attribute particular emotions to people they cover. Consider the following fictional coverage of Jane Newsmaker’s comments on Joe Bad-guy’s criminal sentencing:

    JANE NEWSMAKER (yelling): I’m disgusted that Joe Bad-guy didn’t get more time in jail.

    JOHN REPORTER: Newsmaker was angry that Bad-guy didn’t get more time in jail.

    SETH: What?! How does Reporter know whether Newsmaker was genuinely angry or not?

    SETH CRITIC: Well, Newsmaker looks pretty angry.

    SETH: Yes, but it’s perfectly conceivable that Newsmaker’s not actually emotionally involved in the case, but is presenting so for a political purpose.

    SETH CRITIC: No, from a reporter’s perspective, it’s reasonable to describe an angry-looking person as angry.

    I have been baffled more than once to find that smart people are not always convinced by my perfectly logical rant on this point, so I was delighted to hear from CBC radio, yesterday, proof in an example. As you probably know, there is speculation (based on an apparently leaked draft of a report by Canadian Auditor General, Sheila Fraser) that the Conservative government of Canada have been up to some inappropriate financial dealings:

    MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: The Conservatives have been spraying money around like drunken sailors in Tony Clement’s riding…

    CBC COMMENTATOR: Ignatieff was clearly shocked [by the controversy].

    Shocked?! I have no idea whether or not the leader of the Canadian Liberal party is indeed startled by the controversial happenings in Tony Clement’s Huntsville riding, but I can see plenty of reason why it would benefit him to be perceived as shocked. After all, to be seen as a leader with integrity is a highly coveted position in this political campaign and so, if one politician is caught in a controversy, it looks good on their rivals to be so above the alleged misconduct that they are dismayed by it.

    In support of that very point, the possible Conservative villain Clement, himself, accused his critics of using the controversy to score unearned political points. He claims that the final report by the Auditor General will exonerate him, but he says because his rivals know that Sheila Fraser won’t reveal those details until after the election, his enemies are merely feigning rage about what she’ll eventually say.

    I hope Clement is wrong about the Liberals’ intentions, but his counter-criticism is now part of this political dispute. For the CBC reporter to state outrightly that Ignatieff “was shocked” is to take a position on the debate. It is to suggest that, in fact, Ignatieff is speaking from the heart on this issue. I’m not saying that he’s not, but a reporter should not make a claim in any direction on what is motivating any political leader. Leave the opinion-making to editorialists (and bloggers, of course :)).

    I doubt the CBC journalist made this inappropriate psychological claim with any intention to bias his audience. Instead, I think he is merely guilty of lazy journalism probably as a result of the common trend amongst reporters to describe their subjects with the emotions they perceive in them. It is simple and effective to characterize someone who is yelling as “angry,” since it seems so clear that they are piping mad. And what’s the harm, some would argue? In many cases, such attributing of emotion to newsmakers appears innocuous. For instance, when a widower responds to his wife’s death, it seems so right to note that he is grieving.

    Nevertheless, the fact is reporters never know with certainty what any newsmaker is thinking and in turn they do not know whether or not a person may be presenting an emotion (that they don’t actually have) for a political purpose. For instance:

    WIDOWER: I loved my wife dearly. I will spend the rest of my life trying to track down her killer.

    REPORTER: The football star was devastated by his wife’s death.

    And the possible truth of the matter: the widower was the killer. Once this fact is suspected, the lazy reporter will have a lot of explaining to do: “What made you so sure the athlete was devastated? Did you really just take his word for it?” To avoid such an embarrassing fate, my suggestion is simply that reporters stick to the facts:

    CORRECTED REPORTER: The teary-eyed football star vowed to find his wife’s killer.

    In this case, if it turns out that the widower is the killer, the reporter would no longer need to recant his testimony because everything he said was true (there was indeed tears in the famous athlete’s eyes and he did promise to find the killer). All that journalists need to do is make a habit of always reporting only what they can verify about their newsmakers and they’ll never have to worry about accidentally making outrageously false claims.

    Portal to my update on this rant.

  • Several times now I’ve heard articulate TSN hockey commentator, Pierre McGuire, comment during a hockey telecast that a certain performer is not only a great player, “..but an even better person!” This irks me each time because, although I don’t doubt that the athlete possesses a delightful personality, I can’t help wondering if Mr. McGuire is taking liberties with his definitions: it seems to me that a hockey player would have to be a pretty awesome human being to outshine the hockey skills that have gotten them into professional hockey.

    My concern was brought to rant, then, when McGuire referred to superstar, Steven Stamkos (who is currently the league’s second leading scorer) by this same “even better person” claim.

    So let me get this straight. According to my friend Wik, there’s well over 1.44 million registered ice hockey players world wide, and Stamkos is probably one of the top 10 best of those players. That is to say, he’s in the approximately 99.9993th percentile of hockey players. But he’s an even better person! So he’s in at least the 99.9994th percentile of human beings. He’s basically the best person in a 145,000 person radius! Not bad for a 20 year old!

    It is of course possible that a hockey player (Trevor Linden) is as great at being a human as he is at playing hockey, but it seems a fairly daunting task, and so I can’t help wondering how exactly Pierre McGuire defines the words “even better person”. I’m guessing Mr. Stamkos is very likable and easy to be around, and makes Pierre feel comfortable to be himself. But has Steven made great efforts to change the world for the better?

    I looked around the web to see what sort of work the Steven Stamkos Foundation must have done for charities in Africa, and how much money the millionaire himself has surely donated to save wounded polar bears.

    Strangely, I didn’t find much evidence of anything particularly generous coming out of the Stamkos Empire. But, on the website for the Tampa Bay Lightning (for whom Stamkos works), I found, from 2009, a “Steve Stamkos Answers your Questions” page, and the following query from a fan…

    “…have you thought about using your celebrity status to bring awareness to a certain cause or charity?”

    “Yes,” Steven cheerfully wrote back, “it’s definitely crossed my mind. I won’t go and say I’m a celebrity, but I definitely thought of that.”

    (See, that’s the kind of modesty from a young star that certainly does make him seem like a delightful fellow. I see what you’re saying, Pierre!)

    He goes on: “I attended numerous charity golf tournaments this summer in and around my hometown of Markham, Ontario. I also donated some jerseys and sticks to great causes. I’ve thought of having a Steven Stamkos Charity Golf Tournament back in my hometown. I think we’ll wait a couple of years and see how the next two seasons or so progress, but having a charity event is definitely on my mind and will be coming in the near future.”

    Very nice. Definitely sounds like a great fellow. He might have a charity golf tournament (which I suspect is all work and no play for celebrity name behind it) and he’s donated some of his used equipment to auction off to people willing to pay a lot to a charity for them. Very very nice.

    Now, at the time of that quote, Stamkos was only 19, so go easy on him, SethBlogs! But, before you rant back at me for being too hard on the young star, be advised: I’m not actually meaning to imply (with my sarcastic tone above) that he’s not a very good person. In fact, I think Stamokos seems very likable, and I wouldn’t kick out of a conversation if I met him. However, perhaps Mr. McGuire could hold off on ranking him as one of the top 2000 people in Canada (per the math of his statement) until he’s done a few more good deeds?

    Thanks so much.

  • In sports, when underdogs win unexpectedly, there seems to be an almost unanimous tendency amongst such winners to suddenly deride those who predicted they wouldn’t win.

    INTERVIEWER: How does it feel to win?!

    UNDERDOG CHAMPION: Yeah, everyone was counting us out. They were all bashing us. Nobody believed in us, but ourselves, and we proved them all wrong!

    I find the indignant tone of such remarks to be a wee bit confusing. It’s as though the vindicated athletes think the pundits were maliciously targeting them in a manner akin to someone telling a child they would never amount to anything…

    PUNDIT: I predict the Rangers will beat the Blazers 4-2.

    BLAZERS’ PLAYER: Oh, great, so you’re saying I’m not good enough to win?! You don’t believe in me just like my parents never believed in me! Thanks a lot.

    Surely the players understand that, if predictions are to be made, someone has to be estimated to lose, so their designation as underdog was not necessarily mean-spirited. But maybe I’m missing the point. Perhaps the players simply don’t like being predicted upon at all…

    INTERVIEWER: So how does it feel to be go into this tournament ranked number one?

    HIGH RANKED PLAYER: Actually, I find the whole notion of rankings to be disrespectful: I’m tired of being treated like a piece of meat whose results can be anticipated by non-players. Instead of typecasting us based on past performances, why don’t you just wait and see what happens? Whatever will be, will be!

    Strangely, though, such railing against complimentary predictions doesn’t seem to happen. Instead the players only seem resentful when they’re not picked to win. Actually, that’s not completely true. More accurately: they only object when they’re not picked to win, but end up winning after all. However, I’ve yet to hear an assault on predictions of losing when they prove accurate…

    INTERVIEWER: So, how do you feel about your 5th place finish?

    5TH PLACER: Well, let me first point out that everyone predicted I would come in 5th. And I just want to say ‘Screw you!’ to all those people that didn’t believe in me.

    INTERVIEWER: So you feel you should have been predicted to fare better?

    5TH PLACER: Yeah! It would have been nice if someone would have believed in me. I see that all sorts of people believed in Mr. World Record Holder over there. Isn’t that nice for him? So not only does he get the glory of winning, he also gets the pre-event accolades, too. Couldn’t those predictions have been shared out evenly? Or better yet, here’s an idea: why not treat us all like we have an equal chance of winning and not predict at all!?

    So, given that the athletes only object when they are inaccurately predicted to perform worse than they do, maybe their objection is not that their results were estimated, but instead that that the alleged experts got it wrong. Hmm, but the problem there is that if inaccuracy of prediction is the only issue, wouldn’t the “overdog” players predicted to win complain when they lose?

    INTERVIEWER: So how does it feel to lose after being the favourite in this tournament?

    OVERDOG LOSER: Well, the truth is I was a little irritated in the first place when we were ranked so highly. Clearly, the so-called experts don’t know what they’re talking about. They said we’d come in first, and did we? No. I just feel really bad for the fans who were given false estimates by the pundits.

    So I’m not sure what the solution is to this apparent paradox. When I coached kids’ rollerblade hockey, a four-team tournament was divided into “Gold Medal Winner”, “Gold Medal Runner-up”, “Silver Medal Winner” and “Silver Medal Runner-up”. Admittedly, one of my ten year old players approached me afterwards and said, “Why are we being called ‘Silver Medal Runner-Up’? Didn’t we come in last?” Nevertheless, perhaps sports prognosticators can learn from such efforts to protect people from ever thinking they’ve lost…

    PUNDIT: I believe equally in all four teams in this tournament. They’re all ranked number one in my books! If I had to choose – and it’s basically a coin flip – I would rank the Bears ‘1A’, the Tornados ‘1B’, the Lions ‘1C’ and the Ravens ‘1D’.

    RAVENS’ PLAYER: Awesome! We’re ranked number 1!

    P.S. Similarly, consider Jim Carrey’s (academy award worthy) Lloyd Christmas in one of the great (and most underrated) comedies all all time, Dumb & Dumber…

    (SPOILER ALERT: Don’t view you if you haven’t yet seen this brilliant movie!)

  • I notice, from the previews, that the new movie, “The Tourist” (starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Joli), features the following conversation (approximately):

    DEPP’S CHARACTER: You look ravenous.

    JOLI’S CHARACTER: You mean “ravishing”?

    DEPP’S CHARACTER (confidently): I do.

    Hee, hee, very funny, but I call accidental inverted plagiarism! That is, my brother has been mixing up those two words in the reverse manner for years…

    BROTHER: Man, I haven’t eaten all day. I am so ravishing!

    SETH: I think you might mean, “ravenous”.

    BROTHER: Yeah, that’s what I said.

    SETHBLOGS: Yes, I’m sure it was: I just hope you’ve been telling people all day about your “ravenous” self-analysis.

    ===================================================================

    SETHBLOGS NOTE: As a result of comments from my readership, I have discovered that my claim that the tourist engaged in “accidental, inverted plagiarism” may be inaccurate. Please read the below comments for details.

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