Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Truth is Like Multiple Unicorns

Owl is in the habit of believing whatever she reads is the sovereign truth. Pandas are being gored to death by unicorns, fine, unicorns are just having ‘technical’ difficulties with their horns, fine, unicorns are actually working for Panda immortality with PETA, yeah okay. Sometimes it is hard to reconcile all of these truths but Owl does it anyway. There are multiple unicorns. However, sometimes even believing in multiple unicorns is not enough.

Last week, Owl found this Economist article on China’s response to the Egyptian riots. Namely China has clamped down on reporting so that it focuses on stranded Chinese and the instability rioting has on daily life. Commentary on how this is a fight for a new government is eliminated or downplayed. Search results redirect you to a government warning or articles that deal lightly with the topic. Owl was horrified. The evil government! The innocent people who don’t know what their government is up to!

Then Owl read the comments. In brief, The Economist has an agenda when it writes about China. Chinese search engines do indeed generate articles on the Egyptian riots. Chinese commenters pointed out they’d been involved in heated and deep online discussions about Egypt. In fact, they are able to access this article.  

Such is the strength of the printed word that now Owl is thoroughly confused. Her instinct is to believe the article. She does not think the commenters are lying, but perhaps they are part of an elite who can hack the censor. Does the average citizen have the same access to news? The Economist is a well respected magazine. It would not be full of lies and slander. 

No lies and slander here.
Owl sent an inquiry to her friend Kate who is living in China. This is her response:

Economist is a little bit full of crap - I tend to think that a lot of what they write on china is pretty hysterical and ooga-booga, like OHHH the CHINESE they are COMING FOR US!!!!! Which may in some ways be accurate but it just isn’t the full story, it's very one sided. Not that Economist is the only one guilty of it, NYTimes is no better, much less CNN etc. WRT Egypt, AFAIK it's just on Weibo that you can't search for Egypt, and even so last I heard you could still search "Egypt," just not "埃及“. Also, they only blocked search results, but not actual postings about Egypt. Also, AFAIK Baidu can still search Egypt riots…That said, official news media in China is focusing on the rioting, violence and anarchy more than anything else. Most people I've encountered in China are pretty conflicted about the government - on the one hand many of them recognize how much good the CCP has done for the country in such a short span of time, lifting millions out of poverty and developing huge cities in only 30 years. On the other hand, they are deeply cynical about the CCP and realize that they have no say and no voice, and are blocked from information via the "great firewall" and other kinds of censorship...and recognize the abuses of the government, and their powerlessness against it…

What frightens Owl is that if she’d read the print magazine which has no commentary, she’d never have thought to question the article. How can you question when you don’t even know what you don’t know?
And even when she read the commentary from Chinese people, living in China, Owl did not fully believe it. She had to ask someone whom she knew personally and trusted. What happens when people have no Kate?

Owl figures they must read. That’s what she does. Clearly it is working well for her. Owl wonders about business leaders who make deals with foreign companies, politicians who shape policy, and intelligence officers who provide these politicians with information. These people shape the world. These people get to declare war. Owl hopes they have far more comprehensive reading material, far less biases than she does, and the ability to question everything they read. It would be a tragedy if bad information led to a war and civilians and soldiers went up in flames because of some erroneous report.

Actually, Owl had a high school teacher who followed several major news networks to avoid the problem of bias. He would bring in clips from CNN, the BBC, the major French networks, and Al-Jeezera.

Owl admires him. He also reads the news until it explodes out of his ears. Owl has other interests like sleeping in or partaking in pie. She is not interested in giving these up to spend more time reading the news. Worse, Owl admits, even if she spends a lot of time reading the news or puzzling out all the layers of complexity that make up a full story, there is no proof that when push comes to shove she will remember the layers of complexity and act on them instead of the simple facts that are served up to her on a silver platter as the Sovereign Truth.

Recently Owl’s cousin from India asked her when America became independent. Owl floundered. Owl had vague memories of all of her history classes where her teachers promised her the only date she’d ever have to remember was July 4th, 1776. She also remembered her teachers telling her to be canny because July 4th wasn’t independence. Owl struggled. She knew July 4th was important because people eat hot dogs and fireworks and Owl always eats too many hot dogs and gets sick, but why? Why so many hot dogs in July? Owl prayed no one would shred her passport. Owl decided July 4th meant independence and she was hallucinating the part about being canny.

Owl consulted yahoo answers and saw that other people wanted to know when America gained its independence. Owl felt comforted. She wasn’t the only one! Then she thought about that again and stopped feeling comforted. She also noted that the answers to the question fell into three categories:

(1)   Shock and outrage. Tell me you aren’t an American. What are our kids learning these days? Idiot!
(2)   July 4th, 1776, duh!
(3)   It’s up for debate. July 4th, 1776 was when America decided it was independent and gave the memo to Britain, a.k.a. The Declaration of Independence. Sept 3, 1783 was when the Revolutionary War ended, the Treaty of Paris was signed and Britain accepted the memo. January 14th, 1784 is when the Continental Congress ratified the treaty officially establishing the United States as an independent country.

Owl will let you guess which two answers were the most common. (Owl also finds it psychologically interesting America celebrates the day it decided it was independent, not the day of actual independence.)

Owl is left with an uncomfortable realization. Despite the amount of time she spent studying history in school, despite the immense effort her teachers took to impress upon Owl that the truth has multiple layers, what Owl remembers years later is the simple facts, the ones that have been repeated over and over until they are embedded in the canon as the de facto truth, so obvious they can not be questioned.

American Independence. July 4th, 1776. Duh!


  1. "Canon".

    Tangentially relates to my definition of what separates a "professional" from a layperson reading Wikipedia. In vet med, sometimes you just gotta know when to say "fuck the tests" and do what's best for the animal as a whole, not just to bring the numbers down to some magical average. To be able to sift through keywords and data and zero in on what's really important/accurate and weight it accordingly, to know when to call bullshit and when to listen... that's why I'm ultimately grateful for having gone to JHU, because I can be skeptical and amused by, say, the Daily Mail ( )

    Of course, there's a fine line between professional confidence-in-one's-self and hubris. (A professor noted today that if the textbook/authority says something that goes against your logic, always keep foremost in mind the idea that the authority might, in fact, be wrong. And then double-check with some trustworthy sources.)

  2. @Gilrandir

    Thanks. Never would have caught that one.

    What do you think that vet school gives you that wikipedia does? The experience to know when to make that call? Is that something that no amount of reading will ever replace?

    But yeah. I did work in a lab one semester and the one thing I really learned was not to trust anything in a scientific paper. I had this idea that somehow professions did a better job than students do when they write a paper. It dawned on me that professionals, are the same students who bitch and whine about papers and take short cuts and maybe don't always double check their facts or make things up. Professionals are those people grown up.


  3. Re: cannon> I have been sensitized by Internet fandom. *sigh* XD;;

    Re: paper> That's a lot of what disillusioned me about scientific research, peeking behind the curtain and finding that the giant green-flaming booming-voiced Authority is nothing but you and I and the denizens of Mudd Hall. Midgets - standing on the shoulders of giants, perhaps, but still midgets flailing away at gels and PCR and not *lying*, per se, but perhaps nudging the results a bit more optimistically... and the neverending struggle for grant funding and the fudging and nod-nod-wink-wink that goes into *that*, god. I mean, I still think that Science as a whole is a wonderful thing that gets us ever closer to whatever Truth is out there to find, and most researchers are still fundamentally good people who also believe in the sanctity of Science, but now I temper that with a heavy dose of skepticism about the little-s scientists that make up the individual cells building up to any particular little-s science. And *this* is why it's important to read the Materials and Methods section, kids! XD;;

    Re: vet school> That Wikipedia "doesn't", I assume? XD I mean... I learn best when there's someone to actually explain things to me, point things out explicitly and with body language/stress/intonation, and I get a sense of what's important and what can be safely disregarded - and also, with enough repetition (and slight differences with each repetition), can shape an instinctual-type impression in my head. So when, say, I read a problem involving blood tests, I look at the CBC and go, oh, hematocrit and total plasma proteins are high, that probably means dehydration. When neutrophils are high and lymphocytes are low, that's probably a stress reaction and not actual infection. Blood chemistry panel - blood urea nitrogen and creatinine levels mean kidney indicators, liver enzymes and bilirubin generally indicate if liver damage is present but bilirubin is a little tricky because it's part of a couple of other systems (spleen, gallbladder, etc.) so it fine-tunes liver-stuff interpretation. At the moment, I work through these consciously, step-by-step, but after I've laid down the foundation of understanding and as these things keep showing up, I'll get faster and faster until I can do it like *snap*, I can glance over the diagnostic sheet and instantly form a list of hypotheses/differential diagnoses and, a moment later, figure out what additional tests we might need, or how to treat this disease. That, to me, is the mark of a pro. (Getting paid and having a professional manner even in the face of ridiculousness are also important.)

    I don't know how much of that you can get off Wikipedia/the Internet - home diagnoses are getting increasingly popular (Elbereth knows I do it all the time myself), but in unknowledgeable hands you end up with:
    (Hehe, I figured there was a term for it...) Their example is going from a symptom like "headache" and jumping straight to "brain tumor".

  4. (Also, more importantly, being able to apply all that intuition/at-a-glance/diagnostic ability on a real live animal with all its confounding factors and red herrings and some things can be put off till later but other things need to be treated now, and also it depends on what the owner can afford...

  5. @Gilrandir

    Re:Re:paper> Yeah. And when the stakes are so high, funding, the ability to keep your job, TRUTH, I can see how well, without quite meaning to, you’d nudge things just a little. Science strikes me as devastating at times. I heard about this guy who was getting critical acclaim for one of his experiments testing monkeys, and then it turned out the entire mechanism for calculating whatever they were doing was off by a few millimeters. All those years of training the monkeys, everything down the drain.
    Re:Re:vet school> Er yeah. Typoes. Argh. Whoa, this procedure is fascinating, in part because it’s completely unlike anything I’m doing. So it really sounds like being a good vet comes down to experience, lots of it. Does this mean that there are older vets who are better? Or are there bright young things too?
    Also yes—getting paid and having a professional manner even in the face of ridiculousness—what a fantastic line.

    Oh gods, yeah, I do that all the time when I’m ill. Jams actually had this huge medical bible with a flow chart even (do you have this symptom? If yes? If no?). She used to bring it out whenever anyone in the PMLO was sick and we’d spend hours diagnosing ourselves.

  6. I always find it difficult to form opinions on social or political issues because I feel hopelessly uninformed. There are always too many things to take into consideration, and it's too difficult to discriminate between sources. It's epistemic paralysis. Whenever I see someone confident in her opinions, I wonder: how did she arrive at her considered views? Or is she simply narrow and partisan without realizing it?

  7. @malaikhanh

    I feel the same way. (Minus a few issues like gay marriage and abortion which I feel like come down to personal philosophy and ethics. But then could you argue that every issue comes down to philosophy and ethics?) I am always torn between admiring and abhorring such confidence.

  8. I generally feel like I don't know enough to make a decision. However, I'm always a little bit suspicious of news stories, because *every* news station is biased...or maybe the particular writer is biased, or the editor, or what have you. And then again, a lot of the commentators on the stories might have been biased by similar stories, or by what their parents have told them, or their friends, or whatever. Truth really is such a subjective thing, especially when you're trying to find it from the outside of something...:P

    People who are super, super sure of the "truth" in regards to most things in politics actually scare me a little bit, because it seems that they're usually the ones least likely to change their opinions even when the truth they believe in is demonstrably wrong. (Although, to be fair, *I'm* biased against strong, inflexible views like that because I grew up in a really conservative Christian household.)

    Also, in regards to China, sorry for my complete ignorance, but I'm assuming that most people who have access to the internet also can read and write English? Are English speakers a minority or not? I know next to nothing about the Chinese government...part of the reason why I'm so hesitant to form opinions is because I know almost nothing :P

  9. Owl also finds it psychologically interesting America celebrates the day it decided it was independent, not the day of actual independence.

    How can you not? I find it interesting too. I'm curious if you have a theory as to why?

    Mine is because July 4th is the nation's first conscious act as a nation (provided it wins the war, but those crazy independent Americans already thought they were free, so the announcement counts, dammit!) whereas January 14th is just the confirmation date. "Yep, won the war, we're independent. But of course, we already knew that, we Declared, hello?!"

  10. @Miss Felis> Not only does China have the Great Firewall of China (behind which China produces its own niche-fillers to avoid relying on Western companies - like Baidu instead of Google) but... well, put it this way, even with Taiwan's relatively cozy government relationships with America, most of the common folk have about as much English vocabulary as you have, say, Chinese or Japanese vocabulary.
    (A visual from XKCD: They don't need no capitalist Farmville, they've got Happy Farm! XD)

    @Owl, re: vets> I feel like it comes down to an individual basis rather than age, per se. Obviously a 20-year veteran of some bustling clinic is *more likely* to be a better vet (as measured by patient health/outcome) than a noob fresh out of vet school, but it's more a probability than a hard-and-fast rule, like normal bell curves shifted a little to the left or right of each other with some degree of overlap. And maybe you get some older vet who's stuck in the '80s and hasn't been keeping up with the field. That sort of thing.

  11. @Miss Felis
    Gilrandir answered the question better than I could have. It is a question I have too though whenever I read the comments of people protesting the Economist's portrayal of a country. The audience is pretty self selecting--English speaking, interested in international relations, reasonably well educated.

    I think you put it beautifully: People who are super, super sure of the "truth" in regards to most things in politics actually scare me a little bit, because it seems that they're usually the ones least likely to change their opinions even when the truth they believe in is demonstrably wrong.

    I agree with you. Also, perhaps because it was the first time a colony realized it could declare Independence? There's a beautiful and crazed bravado about it. Hey. We're going to take on the British Empire! We're going to declare ourselves Independent!

    At least, I've always been taught that America was the first of the British colonies to rebel and all other struggles for independence were inspired by this one. I'm pretty sure this is romanticized.

  12. I think the 4th of July question is psychologically interesting too, and I think the date is most significant because (on a personal level) there's often a lot more struggle, effort and courage involved in taking that first step than there is in convincing other people to accept it/cooperate.

    I too join the ranks of the bewildered when it comes to news. There is so much going on, and we are being bombarded by so many different points of view originating from such varied forms of medium, that it seems impossible to grasp it all. My instinct these days is to try as much as possible to get at least some of the news from the horse's mouth. IMO someone 'on the ground' is going to have a different (and often more accurate) perspective than someone reporting from thousands of miles away. Also, it feels 'right' to ensure that the horse's mouth gets its say in reporting on what's going on its own back yard.

    That said, we have these days an unparallelled (did I spell that right?) opportunity to gather information - not only fact, but opinion (of various levels of 'informed'). If there's time, it's often rewarding to wade through a selection to get a more 3D version of the story.

  13. Miss Felis -- Many, many people in China have access to the internet. Comparatively very, very, very few people have enough English abilities to read, for example, this blog -- much less the Economist. Here in Beijing, at least in my experience, migrant workers from the countryside are just as likely to have a QQ account (kind of like a blend of Myspace and AIM) as a college graduate (I've actually noticed an interesting class divide similar to the US Facebook/Myspace divide, in that college educated people - especially those who are in frequent contact with foreigners - often use MSN messenger, whereas I've never met a relatively uneducated person who uses MSN rather than QQ). Even if they don't have a computer in their house, and many don't, they can access almost all the features of QQ (the Facebook/Myspace-like personal page with status updates, newsfeed and photos; the chat software; the forums; the marketplace; etc) on their phone. Internet Cafes are also ubiquitous and extremely cheap, though you are required to have an ID card to use the internet (probably the govt trying to keep track of who is visiting which sites).

    Additionally, there are Chinese equivalents to the social media we have - RenRen is their Facebook (and even models the blue and white design), YouKu is their youtube, and Sina Weibo is their Twitter -- and all of these are controlled, but their control doesn't impede their basic socia networking functions, and many, many Chinese people use them even without many or any English skills. Additionally, there are many, many thriving Chinese-language online forums like Tianya and NetEase where thousands of Chinese netizens debate current affairs and bizarre online memes in Chinese -- I recommend visiting chinaSMACK ( to read English translations of some of the conversations.

  14. Owl,

    I agree, our crazy bravado earned us the stripes to celebrate when WE say we're independent. I think it is romanticized when we start talking about how great we were in the founding years, but even so, I think there is some truth to that notion that we were the first to rebel against the Empire. I can't think of any colonies that did it before us, though perhaps that's a failing on my knowledge.

    Anyway, I digressed on a different topic altogether. This was a good, informative post!