30 March 2013

Why naps are better than infographics, or why the PM is not a shape-shifting reptilian

So, when I first started this blog, I did promise (threaten?) the occasional rant.  I suppose it's time.  This has nothing to do with religion, or magic, or the esoteric tradition.  Sometimes I just get irked.  Sue me. (actually, don't sue me, that's a hassle.  On the other hand, I don't have any money, so it isn't really worth your while.)

Infographics, at least as I understand them, were originally used by news outlets to provide information in a quickly digestible form so that people would have access to important data without having to do extensive and difficult research themselves.

In the age of the Internet, Facebook infographics have become a common way to make an argument quickly and reach a wide audience. I don't think that I've ever reposted an infographic.  I might have done.  There are a few issues I feel sufficiently passionately about that I might have sent some clever picture on its merry way through the internets.  I know that I've reposted articles that I've later found to be false, and I've made a point of at the very least taking them down or in some cases actively promoting a correction.  It does happen.

I don't pretend to be an expert on infographics or a student of their history. My information here is drawn purely from my own experience. Old news infographics always or at least generally included a source for the data. Facebook infographics very rarely do. This isn't a terrible problem in itself. The sources are much more readily findable using search engines than they may have been in the past. So while providing a source might be a good idea it isn't absolutely necessary.

If I had my way, infographics would simply vanish because the number of deceptive, ill-researched, ill-supported, or just plain false infographics vastly outnumbers the useful ones, but since that is highly unlikely I would like to provide a set of guidelines that I hope will become best practises. If you feel you must post an infographic to your Facebook page or other social media outlet consider the following:

Lie down and take a nap, or have a cup of coffee. See if the feeling passes. Seriously. Do you NEED to disseminate this information? Are you preaching to the choir or are you actually informing anyone? Sometimes if we let our passions cool, posting that witty picture of the Pope throwing a hand grenade at a kitten while carrying a sign promoting GMOs and singing the praises of Hugo Chavez seems like less of a good idea. If you still think it's worthwhile, continue.

Before posting, make sure that if your infographic includes statistical data, factual claims, or scientific conclusions, (as most do) that these are borne out by actual facts. Is what the infographic claims correct? If not, STOP NOW. The majority of infographics I've seen on my own Facebook page are nonsense. Just for the record, the Vatican is not a major shareholder in arms manufacturer Baretta; Fluoride in drinking water does not cause brain cancer; Barack Obama is not a secret Muslim; homeopathic "remedies" are in fact sugar water; and Stephen Harper is not a shape-shifting reptilian alien. (I admit, I'm not 100% on the last one.)  Remember:  you are responsible for what you post.  If you post something that is misleading or false, it may well be the case that you did so inadvertently or unintentionally.  In fact, I assume that you earnestly believed what you were sticking your name on for everyone to see.  But if you repost, you become a party to the lie, and it's an easy trap to fall into.

If there is research available, ask yourself, "how would I respond if I were asked to back up these claims?" If you have a solid reputable source for the data, consider presenting that as backup for your infographic. It can only make it more convincing. There are still people out there who would rather read an article than an infographic.  Not many, maybe, but some.

If you are convinced, based on research, and not merely your passionate belief, that the information is in fact correct, ask yourself, "is the research supporting the claims made in the infographic readily findable by a slightly more intelligent than average Facebook user?" If so, go ahead and post as is. People who have doubts will be able to corroborate the infographic easily. Otherwise, it is best to at least have your backup ready to hand. On the other hand, if the research is available, why not just point people to it? Does the clever picture really add anything?

Consider whether the information presented is done so fairly. Does it present a controversy as settled when in fact there is significant debate among reputable experts? Does it misuse or cherry pick data to paint an overly rosy or overly dismal picture? Does the creator (assuming it isn't you) have an agenda or an axe to grind? These are all things that you might want to consider before posting. If the answer is "yes" to any of these, you should consider just saying "no."

Excursus:  If your infographic contains a typographical error, as an unusually high number seem to do, understand that for those of us who are members of the International League of Pedants, this is sufficient to dismiss the idea presented out of hand without further comment.  Typographical errors, while understandable, still make you look like a half-wit, especially when you can't go back and correct them.  I could keep going into a tangent on advertising with typos in it, but this is sufficiently ranty as it is.

Lastly, do you fully endorse the claims of the infographic? If you don't, consider finding another or just speaking your own mind. At the very least, include a caveat, because otherwise readers will take you at face value; they will assume that the position represented is yours. If you put yourself out this way, don't complain when your friends attribute the opinions to you.

I'm not opposed to infographics as such. I think they can be useful. But like any other means of disseminating information, they have to be handled carefully, because they run the risk of doing real damage to a public space that we all share.

15 March 2013

Bad Thinking For Sale, or Why Shape-shifting Jesus is my Pal

It's been a while, I know, but when something piques my interest, I have the really bad habit of finding out what other people think of it.  In the case of the internet, more often than not this means reading comments that random folks have left on a news story or blog entry.  Frankly, it's a bad idea, because I generally just manage to make myself infuriated and as irrational as the comments I'm reading.  Sometimes, however, I manage to keep my cool, and take a more dispassionate approach to what I see as bad thinking.  Today I am a cucumber.

This morning, I was pointed by a friend to a wonderful article on a recently translated text fragment.  You can find out all about it here.  Briefly, the text recounts the events leading up to Jesus' crucifixion but paints a remarkably different picture than the canonical accounts.  This is something, of course, in which I am always interested, so I took my time with the article.  One of the most interesting elements, to me, is the explanation of why Judas marks Jesus with a kiss at the moment when he delivers his erstwhile Messiah to the authorities.  To be honest, I'd never given it much thought, despite the fact that the "Judas Kiss" has become deeply ingrained in our ideas of loyalty and betrayal.  The more than a millennium-old text gives a fascinating answer:  Jesus was a shape-shifter, and could appear in many guises.  The kiss was needed to point the authorities to someone whom they wouldn't necessarily recognise.  Makes sense to me.

Wait, what?  That's right…Jesus was a shape-shifter.  In my ongoing quest to make room for more awesome in my life, I had to move a few things over to give pride of place to that.  Shape-shifting Jesus is right up my alley.  After all, this blog takes its name from the phrase "miracle of the one thing," but I haven't yet talked about miracles.  I should.  Miracles are, well, miraculous.  I believe in a world in which the miraculous is possible.  I recommend the article to everyone.  It's a neat read about an extraordinary text that enriches the literary, historical, and textual tradition of Christianity.  I really liked to write-up, too.

Then, I started reading the comments.  Now, one of the things pointed out in the article is a quote from the translator of the fragment, Roelof van den Broek from Utrecht.  Van den Broek says, "The discovery of the text doesn't mean these events happened, but rather that some people living at the time appear to have believed in them."  That seems eminently reasonable to me.  As a scholar, he doesn't want to be mistaken for someone who is claiming that this is somehow an unimpeachable account of factual history.  It's a mistake that I think few would actually make, but best to defend oneself against those sorts of accusation.  Van den Broek is a translator, not an apologist.

I read a comment on the article from a random netizen.  It read, "The writer is correct 'it doesn't mean any of these events actually happened'.  Which really seems more likely, everything you know about reality was suspended or somebody lied? A question that should be asked of every faith." (I've presented the comment intact, including its misquotation) As I said, sometimes I'm able to just comment on bad thinking as such, and I want to take an opportunity to do so here.

This comment is a classic example of what we refer to as a "false dichotomy".  I do a whole section in my Introduction to Ethics classes on false dichotomies. I tell my students, whenever someone presents you with two options and says that you have to pick one, you can be sure of one thing:  you're being sold something.  Dichotomies rarely reflect the realities of our lives, which tend to be vastly more multifarious than simple either/or distinctions seem to suggest. When someone presents you with a false dichotomy, he or she is hoping desperately that you'll take your brain off the hook long enough to buy what he or she is selling.  I wasn't buying in this case.  Let's look at the options we've been presented:

  1. Miracles are the result of the laws of the natural world being suspended.
  2. Miracles are lies.

Actually, even if you believe that the first is impossible, isn't it just as likely that someone is reporting something that he or she earnestly believes, despite being mistaken? Assuming malice seems to be getting ahead of ourselves.  But let's go further.  Is our understanding of the universe sufficiently complete that we can claim that if we can't explain something, the laws of nature must be suspended?  The fact of the matter is that our knowledge is, in the scope of the whole of what can be known, infinitesimal. It seems to me more likely that there are lots of things that look like the suspension of natural laws to us that are simply obeying laws we don't yet understand.  I'm not looking for some scientific explanation for every miracle, but I think as we come to understand more and more about our universe from a scientific standpoint, these astounding events will become comprehensible.

The desire to dismiss the miraculous with a single sweep of the hand is a misbegotten one. It is an attempt to make the universe smaller and less interesting. I don't trust people who can chalk every miracle up to "somebody lied". They want to cram the universe into a little box rather than experience it in all of its wonder and complexity. And that makes me sad.  On the other hand, I don't believe that scientific inquiry robs the miraculous of its power.  Thinking isn't the enemy of faith. Thinking is a gift. Anyone who tells you that to be right or to be good or to be a member of their club you have to not think is by definition your enemy and an enemy of everyone. There will always be things that call on us to think, to understand more, and experience what we do understand more profoundly. Miracles are just a reminder that the world is bigger and more beautiful than we understand.

So, I like my shape-shifting Jesus.  I don't have to believe that the universe's laws were suspended, but neither do I have to believe that people are lying to me from 1200 years ago.  I just have to believe that the universe is really amazing, and that it is worth witnessing and understanding, and that it's never a good idea to slam my mind closed.