Independent Voter Network, I have an ax to grind


Indypendun thought, yeahhhhh, ok. You have any termites?

Journo pros and profs, your feedback would be valuable

There, is that disclaimer enough, right in the title?

I’ve been following IVN on Facebook since I became aware of them shortly after their launch. I had such high hopes. In our hyper-partisan political climate (no, no that’s not mud on my hands, too *hides hands*) I was hoping for a breath of fresh air. I was hoping for actually rational, impartial analysis of the issues that matter. Instead, what I’ve found is a breeding ground for more than occasional bursts of Ayn Randian nonsense. Now and again one detects a whiff of disaffected left of center partisanship in the comments, but the articles posted tend to be red meat for the Randians, and judging from the frequent quality of the comments there, one gets the feeling that many of those Randians never made it all the way through either Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, much less the rest of her execrable corpus of novella-length diatribes on so-called objectivism. I have, and I’m still waiting to meet a philosophy PhD that doesn’t sneer at the term.

I don’t usually detect any actual independence of thought at IVN. That’s disappointing. Red meat for the trying to think class is also disappointing. But I am at my most disappointed when I see what appears to be an effort at critical thought, only to watch it fall apart time and again. Ultimately what I find at IVN is the mere pretext of independent thought, and that takes me into deeply cynical territory.

Why a pretext? It could be innocent, in which case it belies a degree of incompetence. Maybe there’s hope for them yet in that case. Or maybe the writers there know better, but they don’t expend the effort. That would be a dereliction of journalistic responsibility, which is not exactly a more flattering take than incompetence. Mind you, maybe they aren’t journalists, and merely advocates…with a pretext of independent thought. Or maybe they know better, but there’s a policy, spoken or otherwise, that prevents the exercise of their full abilities. In which case I could conclude that the writers themselves are merely mercenaries, no more devoted to independent thought than to any other issue someone pays the bills for. Prostitutes all, if that’s the case. Or maybe it’s that they know better and twist and distort issues under the pretext of independent thought to nurture a growing Randian-style audience of non-thinkers for profit and/or Koch-flavored political influence. If that’s the case, then they’re as mendacious as any partisan flak one might encounter. Or maybe it’s a mix of all or some of the above. If anyone has a flattering interpretation, I could stand to learn from it. I lack such a generous nature and would, indeed, prefer a better nature for myself should it be warranted.

All of that was by way of preamble. Yesterday, IVN ran an article from June 1 by one Steven Moore, “Nazi Slur in Google Search Results the Tip of the Iceberg.”

If you haven’t yet been following news of this so-called iceberg tip, Wired has a decently reasonable take on this tempest in an imaginary teapot. As Issie Lapowsky concludes at Wired:

It’s clear in this case that Google’s algorithms screwed up. But it’s not evidence of Google’s internal bias, and the fix didn’t come from a cover-up or conspiracy. Spreading the misleading notion that it’s either only perpetuates the very problem tech companies are already trying—and failing—to fix in the first place.

From my reading, that appears to echo the sentiments of any reasoned analysis I’ve read.

Fueled by the substance of my preamble, I was already primed to have a go at IVN for this bit of polarizing patch of ripped cloth on the crazy quilt of “ZOMG! Media and the Googs are nefarious for the the wrong reasons” dog whistling that passes for independent thought.

I replied to their article thusly:

What a stupid, click-baity approach to this. Google’s algorithm scrapes sources like Wikipedia for those little factoid bits. Wiki, in turn, has a problem with “vandals,” people who “deface” content by adding their own scurrilous bits of falsehood. Wiki works to protect against that, because those bits of damage to their content damage their brand. The only thing nefarious here is the ahole who vandalized the Wiki article that Google scraped.

For the first time ever, I actually got under the skin of a writer enough that they took umbrage and replied. I quote Moore (sorry, I don’t want to assume gender):

If you think my article is stupid, feel free to send me your own take. We publish about anything coherent that is sent to us.

Regardless of this incident’s origin, Google has a history of doing stuff like this. In my view, this is part of a pattern. What did you think of Dr. Epstein’s research?

What do you think more broadly of one of the largest corporations in the world having direct, unregulated influence in our elections?

Oh,  no he didn’t. That’s when my fun began. I took up his gauntlet.

It’s hard to engage with you in earnest when you don’t even start out making the attempt. My very specific issue was stated very clearly, insofar as your hed has all the features of click-bait. The clear implication is that the claim presented is but the tip of an iceberg while begging the question of the initial spurious claim. Insofar as Google’s explanation of the “Nazism” snafu is clear and adequate, when properly understood (I explained it down to a USA Today level) there’s nothing to see there, move along, ergo, it’s the tip of zilch because it’s not a tip. The initial claim needs to hold water before it can be the tip.

As to your expert, your vetting seems to be slipping. His own credentials may appear fine, and some of his publication history may be fine, but then there’s a gold nugget like this to consider: Cambridge Analytica is not the problem: Google and Facebook are the problem, a nominally serious piece, published in the Daily Caller? For Pete’s sake, that’s tabloid journalism, and tremendously right-wing biased tabloid journalism, at that. That’s a smudge on a CV, not a feather in a cap, and it speaks volumes as to whether this estimable “doctor” can actually be taken seriously if he’s got an ax to grind. Not all “doctors” are equal in quality.

So rather than wasting my time looking at the rest of his tremendous output, I’m going to wonder other vetting issues you should have wondered as some kind of putative journalist. What is the relevant critical reception of his work? That’s your job to ascertain and relate in an impartial manner, not the reader’s. You’re the one attempting to make a case. Peer review is just the foot in the door and means precious little in and of itself. If you believe it means more than it does, perhaps you should research some of the crises facing the scientific publications industry and see if you retain your faith in arguments from authority just because a cherry-picked researcher agrees with your own biases.

One might also wonder how familiar you are as a “journalist” with the different schools of psychological thought. How familiar with behavioral psychology are you? What you know or don’t know of the field is absolutely a measure of how adequately you vetted your expert. I harp on that, because if you pick nearly any issue, you can find an expert that agrees with the results you want, and you can find an expert that disagrees.

And here you are presenting one expert’s opinion on the matter (and another from a marketing company…that’s funny). You couldn’t find an opposing expert, present their position impartially, and arrive at a conclusion based on reason? Or is it just easier to find one who agrees and rubber stamp their work as though you understand it? And you have the gall to ask if I’m familiar with his research?

I could go on, but you’re already at a disadvantage and could use the time to catch up. I think you need some more unpaid internship before you’re ready for prime time. Don’t take my word for it. I’m sure I can dredge up a journo doc or two who could leaven my critique with their far greater experience. You’d accept their argument from authority, wouldn’t you? If not, on what basis would you dispute such critique?

That right there is your cheat sheet on how you should have handled this issue in your article.

I even made a generous offer:

If you’d like, I can blog that for you and send the link for your consideration. There’s a decent likelihood you might actually get that journo doc critique that way.

Then I felt generous again:

I’m feeling generous. Here’s something you could have uncovered in your vetting.

To that, I had attached a link to this article by Nicole Perlroth from 2012 in the New York Times feature, Bits.

Most commenters thought Dr. Epstein was too quick to shoot the messenger, in this case Google. “You need to stop getting hacked, rather than blame Google for pointing out that you run an insecure and potentially malicious site,” one person wrote. “It may seem unfair,” said another, “but if you are going to run a Web site on the Internet you absolutely must ensure the security and integrity of the content on the site. This is not the responsibility of Google, Yahoo, Yandex, Baidu or any other service.”

Weird how a little vetting lends clarity, isn’t it? Epstein [I’m borrowing from Dr. Sagan’s time-honored refusal to refer to those he considered poorly with PhDs as doctors, see also: Velikovsky] seems to have an ax to grind going back 6 years. The NYT Bits article is worth the read and the giggle in this context.

Finally, I throw down a gauntlet of my own:

And since you wondered about my familiarity with Dr. Epstein’s research [maybe you didn’t mean it the way it came across, but I heard it in a haughty, dismissive tone, it’s a common silencing technique], I dare say I am probably now more versed in his research than you. Did you know that, for all the kudos he’s received (as presented in his own bio on his own website…what could possibly be cherry-picked, right?) he didn’t actually have that much research pass peer review, unless I’m missing something. At best, he appears to have no more than 21 peer reviewed papers over a 20 year period ending in 97. If any of that research were even relevant (it isn’t), it’s 21 years old at the youngest. A high school kid would get dinged for references that old. What next? Well, he held the distinguished position of Editor in Chief of Psychology Today, an experience he himself describes in terms that convey disappointment side by side with whatever he achieved. It used to be published under the auspices of the APA. Then, as Dr. Epstein laments, became just another profit-making commodity and had turned into a pop-psych rag that he hoped to turn back around to a more scientific orientation. After 4 years of efforts, he’d accomplished some things, but when he was gone, he further laments, it reverted to pop-psych. This was an opinion he expressed in an autobiographical essay in ’96. What next? In ’07 he had a piece unrelated to today’s topic published in…pop-sci mag Scientific American. He did seem to get something through peer review (again, for what little that actually conveys to anyone familiar with peer review) in ’08 while a visiting fellow at UCSD, in the field of creativity. There’s another thing in ’10 in Scientific American. I guess he lost his distaste for pop-pubs after all, eh?

He also seems to have forgotten his position on parsimony from ’84, or he might have applied some of that thinking to his bizarre and paranoid ax to grind against Google. He seems to think it’s Google’s fault he got hacked once upon a time, after he’d declaimed loudly that he hadn’t been and smeared Google for inappropriately flagging his infected content as unsafe, but looky, whattaya know? Hacked. And that’s Google’s fault. For reasons. And he shows *nothing* in his CV to indicate any expertise at all in programming, database management, computer security.

If I wanted to punch below the belt a little, I’d jab at the fact that he worked with B. F. Skinner himself! If you know behavioral psych, you might recall Skinner as the ethically-challenged mad scientist that did experiments on his own daughter. Are you familiar with Walden Two [said in a decidedly snooty voice]? If not, you should read it. That Skinner had some nice things to say about Epstein.

Now? Looks like Epstein is trying to carve out his niche as the Dr. Oz of psych and not doing a very good job of it. which should probably actually come as a relief.

You, sir, seem to have staked your piece and your credibility on a has-been crank.

Here’s the Google Scholar link to the search results I was working from. I tidied them up a little bit with a few removals of people who aren’t Dr. Epstein. If you find evidence that I’m missing something relevant to his what, expertise?, in the matter of the moment, I’d love to see it. If you can find evidence that Google is suppressing his peer-reviewed and relevant research, you might actually uncover a nefarious plot. I’ll be over here holding my breath.

And while you’re at it, would you care to tell me how this independent thinking thing is supposed to work? That would be delightful.

If any of my journo folks or their folks want to let me know I erred and how, I’d just as gladly apologize to the poor schmuck. I think I left a mark.

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