I’ll admit, I’ve been a little testy lately.
The word nerd in me has been more than a little annoyed by people using words like “story,” “article,” “op-ed” and “editorial” interchangeably. The logician cringes every time someone brings up changing medical advice, in this case on covid-19, apparently as proof that “experts” (their scare quotes, not mine) don’t know what they’re talking about, or worse, that they’re intentionally lying to, I dunno, start the New World Order that these people are so afraid of.
Sigh. Serenity now!
For that first bit, we can lay partial blame on cable news channels and their mixing of news and opinion, especially during prime time. At best it’s reported commentary; at the very least, it’s opinion, and sometimes nothing but. This is why I don’t watch cable news; there’s just so little actual news to it anymore. Plus, not having cable works for me since it seems cable companies are against a la carte pricing. I refuse to pay for ESPN and other channels I never watch.
For newspapers, “article” or “story” implies news or feature items in the news pages. Occasionally there will be commentary in those pages, but it’s clearly marked as such, at least in reputable newspapers. An op-ed or editorial is opinion, which resides, appropriately, in opinion pages. An op-ed may be reported commentary from a regular (think John Brummett) or guest columnist, or general rambling (me), while an editorial, which in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is on the left-hand side of the editorial page (funny how that works) is considered the opinion of the newspaper (the Voices page, which is the page to the right of the editorial page, and everything on the right side of the editorial page, represent the opinions of the writers and cartoonists, not the newspaper). In our paper, if we run an editorial from another paper, such as the Chicago Tribune, on the left side, it sits under an “Others say” banner and carries the byline of that publication.
Articles and stories are not op-eds or editorials, and vice versa (and none of them are ads … if you only knew how many people think articles and editorials are ads … sheesh). But people get them confused all the time, which helps lead to that second issue. When they’re getting their “news” from the commentariat, especially those who place value in conspiracy theories and people with no expertise, there’s going to be confusion.
Occam’s Razor (the simplest explanation is usually correct) can and should be relied on most of the time. However, political hyperpartisans are ignoring reality and logic to create chaos … at the worst possible time. Sort of like a toddler on a rampage. Especially if said toddler is orange and has a rabid ferret on his head.
Medical advice changes as more is known about a disease. Rabies (speaking of rabid ferrets) was once treated by holding victims underwater (didn’t work, and drowning isn’t much more pleasant than dying of rabies), burning the wound with a hot poker (owwww!) or ingesting or laying over the wound hairs of the dog that bit the victim (ewww). Now the disease is treated with a series of shots developed by Louis Pasteur in the 1880s. If I was bitten, I’d much prefer the shots, which came about through scientific discovery, over any of the previous treatments.
Covid-19 is a novel (meaning new) coronavirus, and the medical experts are learning about it as they go. Knowledge of how it’s transmitted, what precautions to take, etc., will change as they compile more data. In the beginning, there was not only little knowledge of how it spread but also a shortage of PPE, so the advice was that only those treating the ill and those who were infected needed to wear a mask. As time went on and it was learned the asymptomatic could spread the virus, the advice changed.
It wasn’t because a bunch of liberals got their tighty-whities in a bunch. If advice from experts in a field such as epidemiology changes, odds are it’s based on evidence, not on some political conspiracy, or because the experts don’t know what they’re talking about. Yes, there is always the slight chance that it’s not based on evidence, but scientists who bow to political pressure over facts lose credibility. (Dr. Deborah Birx isn’t looking so great right now.)
Opinion polls (the reliable ones, anyway) are based on random samples of respondents, and unless done only in one state, reflect national, not state, opinion. Polls done in states in the 2016 presidential race were accurate for those states, not the entire country. The national polls fell into the same range as the popular vote, so they were accurate for the actual vote; they polled voters, not the electoral college (there’s no way to do that).
Political race predictions, on the other hand, were not in many cases, which is why Gallup and other polling firms have gotten away from that. Though they’re based on the available evidence, they can’t account for human nature and those people who might be embarrassed to reveal for whom they plan to vote, or those who changed their minds at the last minute.
Likewise, scientific models (for climate or a disease, for example) are based on evidence available at the time they’re created. Human intervention can change the projections based on those models. It doesn’t mean that the scientists or the models “lied” (and models, which are not sentient, can’t lie; they only interpret data). It means that the world is constantly changing and it’s impossible to account for every little thing that might affect the outcome of the projection. They’re predictions, based on evidence, not necessarily what will happen.
Human nature is the deciding factor in all this. We have free will, which means we have the ability to change the future with our actions. Scientists can make an educated guess on what types of people will do what, like refusing to wear a mask or display hypocritical hyperpartisanship, but that’s only a guess. No scientist can accurately predict that.
Even though I’m sure more than a few of them have obstinate relatives who delight in going against “the deep state,” whatever the hell that is.
I’m ready for the day when logic returns, when more people realize that we’re wearing masks to protect others, not ourselves, that science isn’t evil, and that “fact” isn’t a four-letter word (OK, it is, but not that kind).
If I walk out one day and find that people actually understand that we’re in the same boat and they stop trying to paddle in different directions, it will be a happy day indeed.
I’m not expecting that day to come soon (I’m a realist, remember). But it’s nice to imagine it.
It would be even better to live it.