The stories that we are about to report on were inspired by actual events

Thomas Sowell wonders if facts are obsolete.

I agree. We can no longer distinguish journalism from the tabloids. But, I suppose, they are responding to incentives.

Tabloid journalism sells because people consume it.

I think the key question should be why do people consume it and/or prefer it to fact-based journalism?

Do we like drama so much that we don’t care whether it’s real or made up? “Reality” TV may prove that many of us do.

Perhaps newscasts should begin with a disclaimer that the stories they are about to report on were inspired by actual events.

Update: In his piece, Sowell reveals a fact about the Eric Garner case that I did not know (in bold):

…Garner did not die with a policeman choking him.

He died later, in an ambulance where his heart stopped. He had a long medical history of various diseases, as well as a long criminal history. No doubt the stress of his capture did not do him any good…

If this is true, then the media needs to do some soul searching. Sowell continues with:

…and he might well still be alive if he had not resisted arrest. But that was his choice.

In 2012, I wrote about an affliction I dubbed Blame Disorder. This would be a good case of that.

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Brain Pickings

Not sure how I’ve managed to miss the site Brain Pickings for so long. I discovered it today thanks to a Tim Harford tweet.

While writing about critical thinking, I thought how nice it would be to have some good guides about critical thinking. Someone beat me to the punch, with six, 2-minute videos designed for kids — but adults can learn something too. I’ve watched them and I recommend them.

Here’s a nice quote from Carl Sagan about a key balance to keep in order to think critically.

And, another interesting post I stumbled upon with a collection of thoughts about finding your purpose in life.

Looking forward to finding more interesting stuff there.

Great ground rules for dinner table discussions

From Bertrand Russell (via Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution via Brainpickings)

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

If we had a course or two in critical thinking and discussion in the junior high or high school curriculum designed to teach mastery of these ten ground rules plus some common fallacies, politically we’d be in better shape.

Similarly, an oath from Bryan Caplan of EconLog:

Blathering talk surrounds us, but I will take no part in it.  My word is my bet; I will always put my money where my mouth is.  When challenged, I will bet on my words, refine them, or recant.  When no one is present to challenge me, I will weigh my words and thoughts as if my fellow oath-takers were listening.

Similarly, several years ago a friend told me of a rule his workplace had implemented. It went like this:

If you are to point out a problem, you must follow it with, “…and this means we should do…” to show that not only have you discovered a problem, but you thought of a solution and you are willing to publicly advocate that solution.

At first blush, it may not be apparent how this last one is similar to the first two.

But, I’ve worked in companies that rewarded problem detection rather than problem solving. That led to a lot of, to use Caplan’s words, blathering talk as many people floated trial balloons of  problem detection in order to be rewarded for finding a problem. And, of course, they were not punished if it turned out that the problems they found were not problems at all. They were given credit for “at least, trying.”

My friend’s company had a similar problem. The leaders recognized it and put the new rule in place. It significantly cut the blathering talk. They correctly reasoned that if people were to have to present solutions along with their problems, that would be like asking people to put their money where their mouth was.

Why? Because it’s easy to see whether a solution solves a problem or not.

In other words, it’s easy to be a critic when you have nothing on the line.

One more story…I coach my kid’s soccer team. After a loss where our team looked scared of the ball, one grandparent told me after the game “You need to get them more aggressive, Coach.” I said, “I’d love to. Do you have any suggestions on how to do that? If so, I’m all ears.” He laughed and said “Nah” and I believe he realized that talk is cheap and it’s easy to criticize with nothing at stake.

How much of what you advocate, especially strongly advocate, would you bet on? Our opinions are typically much more refined in topics where we pay the direct costs of being wrong.

Through trial and error, I learned that paying a plumber to do what they know best is well worth the cost. It saves time, headaches and future catastrophes.

But, I can go on a whole lifetime holding damaging political beliefs, mainly because I never directly pay for the damage it causes. I can claim good intentions, without ever knowing whether those intentions actually ever helped.

Emotional Pleas

This letter to the editor was printed in the Kansas City Star today:

Frank Schwendeman whines about liberals forcing him to buy health insurance (4/2, Letters). What about states forcing people to buy car insurance? Obviously with your wealth you could afford taking a hit for your expensive vehicles or the liability, which would ensue if you were involved in a fatal accident that was your fault. Why not whine about that?

Also, what about mortgage companies “forcing” people to buy overpriced homeowner’s insurance on overpriced residences? Why not whine about that?

What about the government forcing people to pay taxes such as income taxes, property taxes, Social Security, Medicare, gas taxes and sales taxes?

What this is truly all about is that we are a civilized society, and these things are necessary for the welfare of the human community.

J.M. Harris

Kansas City, MO

This is a good example of someone making an emotional plea and not thinking it through to provide a logically valid argument.  Below are my responses to J.M. Harris.

“What about states forcing people to buy car insurance?”

First, that is a state not Federal government.  State and Federal government are not considered the same things here in the U.S.  The powers of the Federal government are fairly clearly defined for anyone willing to read the Constitution.  The rest of the powers are distributed to the states and the people. To argue if a state has the right to mandate liability insurance coverage you’d need to look at the specific state constitutions, which the letter writer does not do.

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