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On cancers, false balance and the judiciary

Climate change has for long been my go-to example to illustrate how absolute objectivity can sometimes be detrimental to the reliability of a news report. Stating that A said “Climate change is real” and that B replied “No, it isn’t” isn’t helping anyone even though it has voices from both sides of the issue. Now, I have a new example: cancer due to radiation from cellphone towers. (And yes, there seems to be a pattern here: false balance becomes a bigger problem when a popular opinion is on the verge of becoming unpopular thanks new scientific discoveries.)

This post was prompted by a New York Times article published January 5, 2018. Excerpt:

From 1991 to 2015, the cancer death rate dropped about 1.5 percent a year, resulting in a total decrease of 26 percent — 2,378,600 fewer deaths than would have occurred had the rate remained at its peak. The American Cancer Society predicts that in 2018, there will be 1,735,350 new cases of cancer and 609,640 deaths. The latest report on cancer statistics appears in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. The most common cancers — in men, tumours of the prostate; in women, breast — are not the most common causes of cancer death. Although prostate cancer accounts for 19 percent of cancers in men and breast cancer for 30 percent of cancers in women, the most common cause of cancer death in both sexes is lung cancer, which accounts for one-quarter of cancer deaths in both sexes.

This is a trend I’d alluded to in an earlier post: that age-adjusted cancer death rates in the US, among both men and women, have been on a steady downward decline since at least 1990 whereas, in the same period, the number of cellphone towers has been on the rise. More generally, scientific studies continue to fail to find a link between radio-frequency emissions originating from smartphones and cancers of the human body. Source: this study and this second study.

The simplest explanation remains that these emissions are non-ionising – i.e. when they pass through matter, they can excite electrons to higher energy levels but they can’t remove them entirely. In other words, they can cause temporary disturbances in matter but they can’t change its chemical composition. Some have also argued that cellphone radiation can heat up tissues in the body enough to damage them. This is ridiculous: apart from the fact that the human body is a champion at regulating internal heat, imagine what’s happening the next time you get a fever or if you go to Delhi in May.

Those who continue to believe cellphone towers can damage our genes do so for a variety of reasons – including poor outreach and awareness efforts (although I’m told TRAI has done a lot of work on this front) and, more troublingly, the judiciary. By not ensuring that the evidence presented before them is held to higher scientific standards, Indian courts have on many occasions admitted strange arguments and thus pronounced counterproductive verdicts.

For example, in April 2017, the Supreme Court (of India) directed a BSNL cellphone tower in Gwalior be taken down after one petitioner claimed radiation from the structure had given him Hodgkin’s lymphoma. If the court was trying to err on the side of caution: what about the thousands of people now left with poorer connectivity in the area (and who are not blaming their ailments on cellphone tower radiation)?

This isn’t confined to India. In early 2017, Joel Moskowitz, a professor at the Berkeley School of Public Health, filed a suit asking for the state of California to release a clutch of documents describing cellphone safety measures. Moskowitz believes that cellphone radiation causes cancer, and that Big Telecom has allegedly been colluding with Big Government to keep this secret away from the public.

In December 2017, a state judge ruled in Moskowitz’s favour and directed the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to release a “Guidance on How to Reduce Exposure to Radiofrequency Energy from Cell Phones” – a completely unnecessary set of precautions that, by the virtue of its existence, reinforces a gratuitous panic. By all means, let those who believe in this drivel consume this drivel, but it shouldn’t have been at the expense of making a mockery of the court nor should it have been effected by pressing the CDPH’s reputation to endorse the persistence of pseudoscience. What a waste of time and money when we have bigger and more legitimate problems on our hands.

… which brings us to climate change and the perniciousness of false balance. On December 20, 2017, Times of India published an article titled ‘Can mobile phones REALLY increase the risk of brain cancer? Or is it too far-fetched?’. It quotes studies saying ‘yes’ as well as those saying ‘no’ but it doesn’t contain any attributions, citations or hyperlinks. Sample this:

Lab studies where animals are exposed to radio frequency waves suggest that as the waves are not that strong and cannot break the DNA, they cannot cause cancer. But some other studies claim that that they can damage the cells up to some level and this can support a tumour to grow.

It also contains ill-conceived language, for example by asking how radio-frequency waves become harmful before it goes on to ‘discuss’ whether they are harmful at all, or by saying the waves are “absorbed” in the human body. But most of all, it’s the intent to remain equivocal – instead of assuming a rational position based on the information and/or knowledge available on the subject – that’s really frustrating. This is no different from what the Californian judge did or what the SC of India did: not consider evidence of better quality while trying to please everyone.

Featured image credit: Free-Photos/pixabay.

What's common to #yesallwomen, scripta manent, good journalism and poka-yoke?

Featured image credit: renaissancechambara/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I’m a big fan of poka-yoke (“po-kuh yo-kay”), a Japanese quality control technique founded on a simple principle: if you don’t want mistakes to happen, don’t allow opportunities for them to happen. It’s evidently dictatorial and not fit for use with most human things, but it is quite useful when performing simple tasks, for setting up routines and, of course, when writing (i.e. “If you don’t want the reader to misinterpret a sentence, don’t give her an opportunity to misinterpret it”). However, I do wish something poka-yoke-ish was done with the concept of good journalism.

The industry of journalism is hinged on handling information and knowledge responsibly. While Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution protects every Indian citizen’s right to free speech (even if multiple amendments since 1951 have affected its conditionality), good journalists can’t – at least ought not to – get away with making dubious or easily falsifiable claims. Journalism, in one sense, is free speech plus a solid dose of poka-yoke that doesn’t allow its practitioners to be stupid or endorse stupidity, at least of the obvious kind. It must not indulge in the dissemination of doltishness irrespective of Article 19(1)(a)’s safeguarding of the expression of it. While John/Jane Doe can say silly things, a journalist must at least qualify them as such while discussing them.

Not doing that would be to fall prey to false balance: to assume that, in the pursuit of objectivity, one is presenting the Other Side of a debate that has, in fact, become outmoded. With that established: On January 5, The Quint published an opinion piece titled ‘Bengaluru Shame: You Can Choose to Be Safe, So Don’t Blame the Mob’. It was with reference to rampant molestation on the streets of Bengaluru of women on the night of December 31 despite the presence of the police. Its author first writes,

Being out on the streets exposes one to anti-social elements, like a mob. A mob is the most insensitive group of people imaginable and breeds unruly behaviour. As responsibilities are distributed within the group, accountability vanishes and inhibitions are shed.

… and then,

When you step out onto the street, you are fraught with an incumbent risk. You may meet with an accident. That’s why there are footpaths and zebra crossings. You may slip on the road if it is wet! Will you then blame the road because it is wet? This is the point I’m making: Precautions and rights are different things. I have a right to be on the roads. And I can also take the precaution to walk sensibly and not run in front of the oncoming traffic.

Because traffic and the mob are the same, yes? The author’s point is that the women who were molested should have known that there was going to be an unruly mob on the streets at some point and that the women – and not the mob or the police – should have taken precautions to, you know, avoid a molestation. The article brings to mind the uncomfortable Rowan Atkinson skit ‘Fatal Beatings’, where the voice of authority is so self-righteous that the humour is almost slapstick.

The article’s publication promptly revived the silly #notallmen trend on Twitter, admirably and effectively panned by many (of the people I follow, at least; if you aren’t yet on the #yesallwomen side, this by Annie Zaidi might change your mind). But my bigger problem was with a caveat that appeared atop the article on The Quint some time later. Here it is:

It has been brought to our attention by readers that the following “endorses” opinions that The Quint should not be carrying. While we understand your sentiments, and wish to reiterate that our own editorial stand is at complete variance with the views in this blog, … we also believe that we have a duty of care towards a full body of readers, some among whom may have very different points of view than ours. Since The Quint is an open, liberal platform, which believes in healthy debate among a rainbow of opinions (which saves us from becoming an echo chamber that is the exact opposite of an open, liberal platform), we do allow individual bloggers to publish their pieces. We would be happy to publish your criticism or opposition to any piece that is published on The Quint. Come and create a lively, intelligent, even confrontational, conversation with us. Even if we do not agree with a contributor’s view, we cannot not defend her right to express it.

(Emphasis added.) Does The Quint want us to celebrate its publishing opinions contrary to its own, or to highlight the possibility that The Quint isn’t really paying attention to the opinions it holds, or to notice that it is irresponsibly publishing opinions that don’t deserve an audience of thousands? It’s baffling.

Look at the language: “Lively” is fine, as is “confrontational” – but the editors may have tripped up in their parsing of the meaning of ‘intelligent’. They are indeed right to invite an intelligent conversation but the intent should have been accompanied by an ability to distinguish between intelligence and whatever else; without this, it’s simply a case of a misleading advertisement. Moreover, I’m also irked by their persistence with the misguided caveat, which, upon rereading, reinforces a wrong message. I’m reminded here of the German existentialist Franz Rosenzweig’s thoughts on the persistence of the written word, excerpted from a biography titled Franz Rosenzweig and Jehuda Halevi: Translating, Translations, and Translators:

Permanence depends more upon whether a word reaches reception or not, and less upon whether it is spoken or written. But the written word, because captured in a visible physicality, does offer a type of permanence that is denied to the spoken word. The written word can be read by those outside the “intimacy” of two speakers, such as letter writers; or of the “one-way intimacy” that arises between one speaker, such as the bookwriter and many readers. The permanence inherent in the written word is framed within boldness and daring on the part of the speaker: translated or not, there is a thereness to the written word, and this thereness is conducive to replay for the hearer through rereading.

TL;DR: Verba volant, scripta manent.

The Quint article was ‘engaged with’ at least 10,300-times at the time this post was written. Every time it was read, there will have been a (darkly) healthy chance of convincing a reader to abdicate from the decidedly anti-patriarchic #yesallwomen camp and move to the dispassionate and insensitive #notallmen camp. A professing of intelligence without continuous practice will every now and then legitimise immature thinking; a good example of one such trip-up is false balance. This post itself was pretty easy to write because it used to happen oh-so-regularly with climate change (and less regularly now): in both cases today, there is an Other Side – but it is not in denying climate change or refuting #yesallwomen but, for example, debating what the best measure could be to mitigate their adverse consequences.

Corrected: Environmental journalism in India and false balance

Featured image credit: mamnaimie/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

I’ve developed a lousy habit of publishing posts before they’re ready to go, and not being careful enough about how I’m wording things. It happened recently with the review of Matthew Cobb’s book and then last evening with the post about false balance in environmental journalism. I don’t think my blog is small enough any more for me to be able to set the record straight quietly (evinced by the reader who pointed out some glaring mistakes). So this is fixing the false balance post. Apologies, I’ll be more careful next time.

In the same vein, any advice/tips on how to figure when an opinion is ready to go (and you’ve not forgotten something) would be much appreciated. What I usually do is take a break for 30 minutes after I’ve finished writing something, then return to it and read it out loud.

It’s no secret that the incumbent NDA government ruling in India has screwed over the country’s environmental protection machinery to such an extent that there remain few meaningful safeguards against corporate expansionism – especially of the rapacious kind. Everything – from land acquisition, tribal protection and coastal regulation to pollution control and assessment – has been systematically weakened. As a result, the government’s actions have become suspect by default.

For journalists in India, this has come with an obvious tilt in the balance of stories. Government actions and corporate interests have become increasingly indefensible. What redemption they may have been able to afford started to dissipate when both factions started to openly rub shoulders with each other, feeding off each others’ strengths: the government’s ability to change policy and modify legislation and the companies’ ability to… well, fund. Prime example: the rise of Gautam Adani.

In Indian journalism, therefore, representing all three sides in an article – the government, corporate interests and the environment – (and taking a minimalist PoV for argument’s sake) is no longer the required thing to do. Representation is magnified for environmental interests while government and corporate lines are printed as a matter of courtesy, if at all. This has become okay, and it is.

Do I have a problem with this? No. That’s why doing things like asking corporate interests what they have to say is called a false balance.

Is activist journalism equivalent to adversarial journalism simply by assuming its subject is to right a wrong? Recently, I edited an article for The Wire about how, despite the presence of dozens of regulatory bodies, nobody is sure who is responsible for conserving and bettering the status of India’s wetlands. The article was penned by an activist and was in the manner of an oped; all claims and accusations were backed up, it wasn’t a rant. I think it speaks more to the zeitgeist of Indian environmental journalism and not the zeitgeist of journalism in general that opeds like that one have become news reports de jure. In other words: if only in Indian environmental journalism, there is no Other Side anymore for sure.

This advent of a ‘false balance’ recently happened in the case of climate change, where a scientific consensus was involved. That global warming is anthropogenic came to be treated as fact after scientific studies to assess its origins repeatedly reached that conclusion. Therefore, journalistic reports that quote climate-change skeptics are presenting a false balance of the truth. A decision to not quote the government or corporate interests in the case presented above, however, is more fluid, influenced not by the truth-value of a single parameter but by the interests of journalism itself.

Where this takes us isn’t entirely difficult to predict: the notion of balance itself has had a problematic history, and needs to be deprioritised. Its necessity is invoked by the perception of many that journalism is, or has to be, objective. It may have been associated with objectivity at its birth but journalism today definitely has mostly no need to be. And when it doesn’t need to be happens only through the advent of false balances.

Has 'false balance' become self-evidently wrong?

Featured image credit: mistermoss/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Journalism’s engagement with a convergent body of knowledge is an interesting thing in two ways. From the PoV of the body, journalism is typically seen as an enabler, an instrument for furthering goals and which is adjacent at best until it begins to have an adverse effect on the dominant forces of convergence. From the PoV of journalism, the body of knowledge isn’t adjacent but more visceral – the flesh with which the narratives of journalistic expression manifest themselves. Both perspectives are borne out in the interaction between anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and its presence in the news. Especially from the PoV of journalism, covering AGW has been something of a slow burn because the assembly of its facts can’t be catalysed even as it maintains a high propensity to be derailed, requiring journalists to maintain a constant intensity over a longer span of time than would typically be accorded to other news items.

When I call AGW a convergent body of knowledge, I mean that it is trying to achieve consensus on some hypotheses – and the moment that consensus is achieved will be the point of convergence. IIRC, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that the ongoing spate of global warming is 95% a result of human activities – a level of certainty that we’ll take to be just past the point of convergence. Now, the coverage of AGW until this point was straightforward, that there were two sides which deserved to be represented equally. When the convergence eliminated one side, it was a technical elimination, a group of fact-seekers getting together and agreeing that what they had on their hands was indeed a fact even if they weren’t 100% certain.

What this meant for journalism was that its traditional mode of creating balance was no longer valid. The principal narrative had shifted from being a conflict between AGW-adherents and AGW-deniers (“yes/no”) to becoming a conflict between some AGW-adherents and other AGW-adherents (“less/more”). And if we’re moving in the right direction, less/more is naturally the more important conflict to talk about. But post-convergence, any story that reverted to the yes/no conflict was accused of having succumbed to a sense of false balance, and calling out instances of false balance has since become a thing. Now, to the point of my piece: have we finally entered a period wherein calling out instances of false balance has become redundant, wherein awareness of the fallacies of AGW-denial has matured enough for false-balance to have become either deliberate or the result of mindlessness?

Yes. I think so – that false-balance has finally become self-evidently wrong, and to not acknowledge this is to concede that AGW-denial might still retain some vestiges of potency.

I was prompted to write this post after I received a pitch for an article to be published on The Wire, about using the conclusions of a recently published report to ascertain that AGW-denial was flawed. In other words: new data, old conclusions. And the pitch gave me the impression that the author may have been taking the threat of AGW-deniers too seriously. Had you been the editor reading this, would you have okayed the piece?