Friday, August 30, 2013

Confirmation Bias


The great American documentarian Errol Morris published a book last year, A Wilderness of Error: The Trails of Jeffrey MacDonald (Amazon). For those uninformed about the case, Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor called the police for help on February 17, 1970 from his home in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The police arrived to a horrific scene, with his pregnant wife and two young daughters slaughtered brutally. MacDonald claimed that they had been killed by a band of drug-crazed hippies. Over the next several years, MacDonald went from presumed victim, supported by his ex-in-laws when first implicated in the murders, to the lead suspect. Nine years after the killings he was finally brought to justice, and remains in prison today. Joe McGinniss had followed the case as it unfolded and later wrote a book Fatal Vision made into a blockbuster TV miniseries in the 80s.

I decided to show my students the Morris film The Thin Blue Line earlier this week and happened upon Fatal Vision free on YouTube. As I was doing some other work, I half watched the film and then was drawn to do some research online to find out what ultimately happened to MacDonald. While doing that research, I came upon the following clip from Morris: You Tube. Here and in the book, Morris claims that most of what we know about the MacDonald case is based on pure fiction and that it is quite possible that an innocent man has sat in prison for over 30 years. This, of course, follows the case he compiled in The Thin Blue Line, which actually freed a man stuck on Death’s Row for 10 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

What both cases show us is the considerable danger that emerges from Confirmation Bias – the tendency of people to favor information (or evidence) that supports their beliefs or hypothesees. Morris puts it succinctly in the form of a question: “Does a theory in some ways determine the kinds of evidence that you look for and the kind of evidence that you reject?” The answer to this question is a resounding yes and well known to anyone that studies human behavior. People do not look through innocent or objective eyes, they look through eyes attached to their brains and thus heavily influenced by their tastes, experiences, background, beliefs, values, knowledge and the like. And as people try to make sense of the world and establish their ways of being in it, the ways of seeing they have developed within their cultural milieu heavily influence that ontology.

Turning to the world of politics, we see a fundamental problem with the world we live in today. I have already discussed the issue of selection bias on this blog – where the framing of the available options heavily influences the choices people make. Here I consider the related concept of confirmation bias. Essentially, in a world where it is easier to find news and media that support your general worldview and to avoid or ignore media that doesn’t, can it be argued that confirmation bias has only grown in significance? It certainly appears that we are entering more and more irrational times, where people simply ignore evidence or arguments that challenge their belief systems. Sure this is true of conservatives, with studies showing that they only strengthen their resolve when confronted with counterfactual evidence, but it appears to be true across the political spectrum – with people holding so steadfast to their opinions, there is no room for reason or transformation to actually occur. How can we negotiate in a world where people are trapped in their own ideologies, unable to see outside them? Does democracy really have a deeper meaning if it merely becomes majority rule? What roles do technology and education play in reinforcing, or potentially challenging, these trends? I think these are all questions we should explore in great detail, determining ways to expand the presumed the array of choices available (selection bias) and to give people the open-mindedness and critical thinking skills to overcome our collective penchant toward constantly confirming whatever we believe; as wrong as we may be.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Maybe It's Time for Another March?

Arsenal Comfortably Through (2-0)

Arsenal finished the job they started last week in Turkey with a comprehensive 2-0 win (5-0 in aggregate) at the Emirates today. The resurgent Aaron Ramsey was the difference maker again, scoring both goals in the 25th and 72nd minutes. It was an impressive performance against a clearly overmatched opponent but again highlighted some of the concerns associated with the closing of the transfer window less than a week from today. Among those is the crisis that emerges whenever any of our core starters go down. Some thoughts from the game …

1.     Midfield: while Cazorla might still be the most talented midfielder we have, Ramsey has arguably become more important to the team at present. He has taken hold of the box-to-box role in Arteta’s absence and provides a more direct approach that creates more opportunities than the Spaniard, while tracking back more than any of our other midfielders. Ramsey has scored important goals in the UCL before – one hopes this translates to the league going forward. Cazorla is still a wonder to see and could well have scored and had two assists but for better finishing by Giroud. Wilshere, on the other hand, still has work to do to get back to top form. He still has a tendency to dribble into double and triple coverage losing the ball, or sending errant passes to opponents that starts counterattacks. He did have a number of beautiful passes today though, and his creativity could be a key to the season going forward. I do think we still need a holding midfielder added to the squad, with Cabaye looking the most likely option at present. Just splash the extra cash and be done with it, Wenger!
2.     Attack: the injury to Podolski reinforces the notion that we need reinforcements. A winger seems necessary, or we could pick up a number 10 and put Cazorla on the left. A bunch of names are being bandied about. I would put Juan Mata at the top of the list, though Di Maria would be a strong addition as well. If Ozil is available and Man U doesn’t go in for him, I also think he would be a great addition to the team. We clearly also need another striker, as Giroud is improving but can’t play every game this year.  
3.     Sz: I don’t think we necessarily need a replacement for the young Pole, but he does need real competition and maybe guidance from an older player if he is to improve. He had a number of important and impressive saves today, but made two mistakes that could have easily led to goals. In a general sense, it seems too easy to get around the current Arsenal defense and we clearly need our starters or another CB if we are not to ship too many goals this season.

So to beat a dead horse, this is a team with a lot of young talent coming into their own, but one that lacks a cutting edge in some key positions and sufficient depth that could both prove decisive as the season wears on. I don’t know who one could blame for this besides Wenger, who appeared to let too many players go without finding replacements. One example among many is letting Djourou and Coquelin go without restocking, as both might have been useful once Verm, Kos and Arteta went down injured. We might very well be even further depleted going into the key derby this weekend and it could cost us in the struggle to maintain our supremacy over our North London rivals. Let’s hope not!  

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Miley Cyrus Spectacle at the VMAs

I can never recall being called a prude, but after watching Miley Cyrus’ performance at the MTV Video Music Awards this morning, I must say I was left even more creeped out then Will Smith and family appeared to be (ABC News). Being over 14 years old, I am not, of course, a fan of the Billy Ray Cyrus scion – but do believe that this performance went even further then those Lolita nymphet images that caused such a stir a few years ago in Vanity Fair. Cyrus is now 20 and free to do as she pleases, but there is just something unseemly about this teen stars growing up and giving these performances to remind fans of this transition (remember the Britney Spears kiss with Madonna several years back?). In any case, the performance and reaction does bring up a few interesting points for those of us who study popular culture seriously …

  1. Should parents of teenage stars be tried in court for reckless endangerment? Seriously. Besides the fact that Cyrus is singing about the new drug de jour Molly (a supposedly more organic form of Ecstacy), look around the American wasteland at all the ex-teen stars who are either drug addicts, has beens, overweight, in rehab or, maybe worst of all, trying to revive their careers on reality shows. On a side note, I can’t wait until Justin Bieber’s fall – believing him to be the latest incarnation of the devil (Damien Omen IV).
  2. Will cool always involve white people trying to act black? And does it have to end up so embarrassingly most of the time? Among the slants on the story today is appalling accounts of Cyrus twerking with Robin Thicke – after her tongue wagging (like a porn star), slapping a female dancer on the butt and dancing around a host of Teddy Bears like a furry in heat. Cultural critic John Leland argued in his book Hip: The History (NPR Interview), that hip has always evolved around the black-white “Dance of conflict & curiosity that binds it.” Hip emerges out of African American culture, though it draws its mass appeal, and sellability, from white desire to capture this mythologized vision of “blackness.” We see this with the Beats, the tough-nosed Noir stars of the 40s, the cool Hollywood stars of the 50s, the edgy rock stars from the 70s on and in so many other manifestations. With the teen pop star, it is pure imitation of hip, cool as pure commodity with no allegiance to its deeper adherence to: 1. Bohemianism (anti-materialism), 2. Individualism, 3. Creativity, 4. Cool Indifference (these kids are trying so hard with their spectacle performances) or 5. Rejection of social conventions (their tacit revolt is so couched within selling, it undermines any nod to stepping outside the normative).
  3. Robert Thomas Farris of Yale agrees with Leland’s contention, though giving it a more playful backdrop: “The telling point is that the ‘mask’ of coolness is worn not only in time of stress, but also of pleasure, in fields of expressive performance and the dance. Struck by the re-occurrence of this vital notion elsewhere in tropical Africa and in the Black Americas, I have come to term the attitude "an aesthetic of the cool" in the sense of a deeply and completely motivated, consciously artistic, interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, of responsibility and play” or as designer Christian Lacroix argues, “"...the history of cool in America is the history of African-American culture. While one can find these cues throughout popular culture, it is particularly true of white teenage pop artists from the Backdoor Boys to N’Sync to Justin Timerlake, Justin Bieber and, to stay on topic, Miley Cyrus in this performance. It is important to note that this should not be seen purely in a negative light, as white people “acting black” certainly augured a forward movement in race relations in America – most obviously expressed in white teenage suburbia’s ongoing love affair with hip hop. 
  4. On a final note, many will be troubled by Cyrus acting like a “whore,” though few will say it. I would say the more troubling aspect is her acting like a consumer whore that will do anything to sell her “brand” to the public, now that she has transitioned fully from Disney star to young adulthood. The television show that made Cyrus such a huge celebrity pushed the notion that you could be famous and normal simultaneously. But is this possible? Of course not. Yet this notion is spoon-fed to our children, along with the idea that one must brand oneself at a young age if you are to succeed in a world that fully revolves around the spectacle society. Is this really a positive message for the youth of today and tomorrow? What are the long term effects of this messaging system on all those who fail to find fame or fortune? Is alienation amplified even further when one is constantly engaged in the process of creating the most appealing, and sellable, version of themselves to the world?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Time Magazine and Soft Censorship

On the iconic day in the Iraq War when the Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down in Baghdad (with the help of U.S. Marines), CNN showed the video footage over and over again, seemingly providing semiotic proof of the fact the administration was right in their assessment that the Iraqis wanted U.S. forces to overthrow their long dictator. However, CNN World juxtaposed those images with the costs of war – showing video of civilian casualties and dead bodies. While the U.S. coverage whitewashed the war in general until Abu Ghraib (See MIT and Video), the rest of the world saw a more realistic and contested perspective of what was happening on the ground and the fact at least 117,000 (and probably closer to 250k Iraqi civilians were killed). This is not an isolated situation, with “objective” and uncritical coverage increasingly the norm on all channels except MSNBC (from the left) and Fox (from the right). And magazines are often complicit in this “soft censorship” where framing, emphasis and flak are all used to undermine a truly critical perspective on the news that matters.
                                                                                 
Here we see a great analysis from Daily Kos on Time Magazine’s complicity in this long standing problem with the fourth estate, in this case using the diversionary strategy to perfection …

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Arsenal Win 3-1 at the Cottage

After the disappointment at the Emirates last weekend, it was imperative for  the Gunners to get back on track quickly. And they have down just that with six goals scored, one conceded and two wins in a four day stretch. The North London side got started early with a 14th minute serendipitous opening from Olivier Giroud, after an errant shot found him open in front of goal. He beat the keeper to the ball and slotted it past, earning his third goal in as many games. After some missed opportunities and a number of quality saves from Szczesny, Podolski made it 2-0 in the 41st minute, following up a nice save by placing the ball between a number of Fulham players and past Fulham goalkeeper David Stockdale. Arsenal played on the counter in the second half and wrapped up the game with a second from Podolski in the 68th before Darren Bent added a meaningless goal in the 77th, to score in his Cottager debut.

It was a strong performance from the Gunners throughout, but shouldn’t comb over the fact that this team still needs reinforcements. Cazorla did look back at his near best, with a number of penetrating passes, often to Walcott charging in on the right wing. Ramsey had another great game, earning man of the match honors, Sagna deputized well in the middle, having to cover for the still shaky Jenkinson – who has not been the same player since losing his starting birth upon Sagna’s return last season and Podolski had a great game with the two goals, leaving one to wonder why there are rumours of his imminent departure on loan. It appears it must just be rumours though, as we are already far too thin in every area of the pitch except midfield. And Olivier Giroud appears to be coming into his own, as predicted, not only scoring the first goal but holding up and distributing the ball with confidence. However, as with the game last week, it appears far too easy to penetrate through our midfield and defense and get shots on goal (Fulham had 16 with 7 on target). Yes we are suffering through the injuries of Vermaelen and the one-game suspension of Kos, but it is absurd to only have three CBs at a club like Arsenal. The other issue, it appears, is that Ramsey, Cazorla and Rosicky are great going forward but rather suspect coming back. Ramsey is a hard-nosed defender but without Arteta by his side, we are just too open from 40 yards in. This leaves one again wondering if we will ever get the defensive midfielder (or holding if you like) we clearly have missed since Alex Song departed.


Looking forward, Arsenal have the second leg of the UCL qualifying tie on Tuesday and then a number of winnable games between the all-important North London Derby next weekend and Liverpool match on November 1. To win those games, we clearly need reinforcements beyond the CB and Defensive Mid I suggested above. As to a fourth Central Mid, I suggest one who could play right back in a pinch. Alternatively, we could groom Sagna for as a backup CB and bring in a right back (sending Jenkinson out on loan), though that seems unlikely. We could also use a backup goalkeeper, or someone to take over if Sz goes on a cold run (he was impressive to me today). And we need that marques signing, preferably a striker or high quality winger. Benzema would be welcome, though one wonders where that leaves the surging Giroud, or maybe a final bid for Suarez (though I guess I’m kicking a dead horse there). Cabaye would also be a good signing, and one hopes we up the bid and complete that good business. Until Tuesday … COYG!

Friday, August 23, 2013