In the 1970’s, an appetite-suppressant candy was being marketed to Americans by the Dep Corporation, and was made available in chocolate, butterscotch, caramel and peanut butter flavors. They decided to call their product, AYDS, a name which seemed innocent enough at the time during which it enjoyed strong sales.
What a difference a few years make.
By the mid-80’s fear of the human immuno-deficiency disease, AIDS, pervaded western society and sales of the now unfortunately named dieting product plummeted. Changing circumstances can quickly render proven marketing slogans lethal to one’s goals. This is the fate that befell the warmongering campaign phrase “stay the course” this week as the flaws in the current US policy in Iraq became too big to hide. Progressive blogs and YouTubers were the first to ridicule the revisionist way this policyshift was announced. Keith Olbermann drew attention to the self-contradictory spin (i.e. lying) a number of different times on his show, and his latest eulogy to the now defunct rhetoric nicely summarises the developments of the last week:
However he did forget to mention one member of the “coalition of the willing” who also once used the phrase that everyone now avoids like a bad disease — Tony Blair (used twice in his statement while standing side-by-side with George W. Bush).
Why do people continue to listen to bad prognosticators? Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy, a website that explores and corrects many misconceptions in space science, explains why astrology is believed by so many people despite having no basis in scientific fact. Astrologers rely on people’s tendency to remember the hits while forgetting the misses. It is not just astrologers that take advantage of selective memory, but also anyone in the business of predicion. It takes special effort to draw one’s attention to the misses before one loses trust in their chosen method of forecasting the future.
“This is the fourth quarter, there’s two minutes left in the game, and we’re down two touchdowns. There may not be enough time left.” — Larry Diamond, one of a panel of experts advising the Iraq Study Group.
I was listening to Today on BBC Radio 4 in the morning and they included an excerpt from last week’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in which he interviewed James Baker. The BBC included a snippet of the interview while reporting the leaked recommendations of the Iraqi Study Group which allegedly include a dramatic departure from “stay the course”. What is most curious about this is that a real interview excerpt from a fake news show was deemed suitable for inclusion in a serious BBC programme. One can only conclude that the countless other James Baker interviews by more mainstream media sources didn’t bother to ask the question that Today wanted answered: “Why do they say that? We don’t want voters to know what we’re planning until after the elections, because we don’t want to politicise it. Isn’t that the whole point?”. I read somewhere that more and more Americans are relying on the BBC for international news. Looks like the BBC have to rely on Jon Stewart for American foreign policy news.
Stephen Colbert’s Green Screen Challenge ended last Monday.
I feel sorry for runner up, George L, although it looked like he had a lot more resources at his disposal than the other entrants. He might have clinched it had he not let Jar Jar survive , but you can’t win ’em all.
I think people in general need to have a firmer grasp of basic statistics as it crops very often in decisions of extreme importance. Those in ignorance are too easily fooled and manipulated by persons with an agenda to push and who know how to misrepresent statistical techniques. A newspaper article meant to be shocking claimed one third of all deaths occuring on the weekend! Well, duh! Friday evening to Sunday night is one third of a week. Likewise, in Scott Adams’ Dilbert, the boss gets angry and suspicious when told that 40% of sick days are taken on a Monday or a Friday.
With even more damaging consequences, in 1968 a couple was found guilty of a robbery because the jury was given bad instruction on the calculation of probability. The jury thought the probability that an innocent couple sharing all 6 attributes as those who committed the crime was 1 in 12,000,000 and convicted on that basis. When conditional probabilities were taken into account, the chance of coincidence increased to about 1 in 4 — far from beyond reasonable doubt.
More recently in the UK, a solicitor was convicted of killing her two children on the basis of an expert witness who testified that the chances of two Sudden Infant Deaths in the same affluent, non-smoking family were 1 in 73 million. To arrive at this figure he had to assume that two SID deaths among siblings are independent events but provided no evidence of this. The calculation is rubbish if SID has a common cause that is specific to the family, e.g. is genetic or traced to a pollutant in the home.
In the Intelligent Design vs. Evolution battle over education, the pro-creationists held that the chance that all the evolutionary mutations necessary to bring human beings into existence occured completely at random is so vanishingly small as to be impossible. This is the fallacy of equating the improbable with the impossible. I could shuffle a deck of cards and deal out all 52 face up, noting each one in order. When I work out the probability that such an order will come up, I will get a very tiny number (smaller than 1 in 8 followed by 69 zeros). And yet the event happened, because I just dealt out the cards in that very same sequence!
It’s business as usual at YouTube despite the Google buy out. Left leaning blogs have been circulating an old press conference clip in which Bush expresses doubts whether North Korea has increased their nuclear arsenal. At least Jon Stewart on The Daily Show has seen the bright side of the North Korean nuclear test – they now have one less nuclear weapon.