Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for March 27th, 2007

UK officials believed, but still denied, the Iraq bodycount

Posted by metaphorical on 27 March 2007

The BBC reported yesterday that despite publicly rejecting the findings of the so-called Iraq study group, British officials had privately accepted them.

LONDON: British government officials backed the methodology used by scientists who concluded that more than 600,000 Iraqis have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported Monday.

The government publicly rejected the findings, published in The Lancet medical journal in October. But the BBC said documents obtained under freedom of information legislation showed advisers concluded that the much-criticized study had used sound methods.

I’m quoting from an AP account, which appeared in the International Tribune and elsewhere yesterday.

The conclusion, based on interviews of households and not a body count, was disputed by some experts, and rejected by the U.S. and British governments.

U.S. President George W. Bush said he did not consider it “a credible report,” and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s official spokesman said the study had extrapolated from an unrepresentative sample of the population.

However, the chief scientific adviser to the Defense Ministry, Roy Anderson, described the methods used in the study as “robust” and “close to best practice.”

A memo from Anderson’s office to senior officials, obtained by the BBC World Service, said the chief scientist “recommends caution in publicly criticizing the study.”

In another document, a government official — whose name has been blanked out — said “the survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones.”

The “more than 600,000” figure is 655,000, which itself is a midpoint between the high and low figures in the study.

The researchers, reflecting the inherent uncertainties in such extrapolations, said they were 95 percent certain that the real number lay somewhere between 392,979 and 942,636 deaths.

I wrote about the body-count deniers earlier this month. That post didn’t discuss the deniers in the UK, about which a column by Richard Horton in today’s Guardian Unlimited offers some more detail:

Immediately after publication, the prime minister’s official spokesman said that The Lancet’s study “was not one we believe to be anywhere near accurate”. The foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, said that the Lancet figures were “extrapolated” and a “leap”. President Bush said: “I don’t consider it a credible report”.

Scientists at the UK’s Department for International Development thought differently. They concluded that the study’s methods were “tried and tested”. Indeed, the Hopkins approach would likely lead to an “underestimation of mortality”.

The Ministry of Defence’s chief scientific advisor said the research was “robust”, close to “best practice”, and “balanced”. He recommended “caution in publicly criticising the study”.

When these recommendations went to the prime minister’s advisers, they were horrified. One person briefing Tony Blair wrote: “are we really sure that the report is likely to be right? That is certainly what the brief implies?” A Foreign Office official was forced to conclude that the government “should not be rubbishing The Lancet”.

The prime minister’s adviser finally gave in. He wrote: “the survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones”.

When government officials, in the UK or the U.S., know and accept scientific facts and still deny them, they undermine the scientific enterprise. When the subject at hand is the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings, their denials are unconscionable. When the denials are used to twist public policy toward sordid, deadly ends, it ought to be criminal.

Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, politics, technology | 2 Comments »

Call of the beguiled

Posted by metaphorical on 27 March 2007

I had always known that overhearing a cellphone call, say on an train, is more distracting than hearing two people talk, and it made sense. What I didn’t know until today was that there was some science to back it up—a 2004 paper makes the case that cellphones are at least as annoying to bystanders as very loud talking and perhaps more so.


Sixty four members of the public were exposed to the same staged conversation either while waiting in a bus station or travelling on a train. Half of the conversations were by mobile phone, so that only one end of the conversation was heard, and half were co present face-to-face conversations. The volume of the conversations was controlled at one of two levels: the actors’ usual speech level and exaggeratedly loud. Following exposure to the conversation participants were approached and asked to give verbal ratings on six scales. Analysis of variance showed that mobile phone conversations were significantly more noticeable and annoying than face-to-face conversations at the same volume when the content of the conversation is controlled. Indeed this effect of medium was as large as the effect of loudness. Various explanations of this effect are explored, with their practical implications.

The article, “Why are mobile phones annoying?”, is here. You have to buy it, but Jakob Nielsen, usability expert, blogged about it, showing some of the data and saying this about it:

Unfortunately, Monk and his colleagues don’t provide the final answer; more research is called for. But the problem seems to be that people pay more attention when they hear only half a conversation. It’s apparently easier to tune out the continuous drone of a complete conversation, in which two people take turns speaking, than it is to ignore a person speaking and falling silent in turns.

My guess is, that’s just because we’re less used to it. As we become accustomed to the still-novel rhythm of the cellphone call, it will be less distracting.

Meanwhile, we’re learning more and more about cellphones and how they affect ourselves as well as others. The NY Times had a good article Sunday on multitasking in general, which of course has some consequences for things like cellphone reaction times.

The more we know, the better. Speaking for myself, I use my phone quite a bit either when driving long distances on highways, or short trips I know by rote. I know, again, speaking for myself, that I’m not as safe a driver when I’m engaged in a phone conversation. The question is, how much less safe?

I’m going to quote a little bit more of the article than I need to, because I just like Steve Lohr’s writing here:

March 25, 2007
“Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic,”

Confident multitaskers of the world, could I have your attention?

Think you can juggle phone calls, e-mail, instant messages and computer work to get more done in a time-starved world? Read on, preferably shutting out the cacophony of digital devices for a while.

Several research reports, both recently published and not yet published, provide evidence of the limits of multitasking. The findings, according to neuroscientists, psychologists and management professors, suggest that many people would be wise to curb their multitasking behavior when working in an office, studying or driving a car.

The human brain, with its hundred billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections, is a cognitive powerhouse in many ways. “But a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once,” said René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University.

They did MRI studies “to pinpoint the bottleneck in the brain and to measure how much efficiency is lost when trying to handle two tasks at once.”

The researchers said that they did not see a delay if the participants were given the tasks one at a time. But the researchers found that response to the second task was delayed by up to a second when the study participants were given the two tasks at about the same time.

Here’s the consequence for using a cellphone while driving:

In many daily tasks, of course, a lost second is unimportant. But one implication of the Vanderbilt research, Mr. Marois said, is that talking on a cellphone while driving a car is dangerous. A one-second delay in response time at 60 miles an hour could be fatal, he noted.

Again, just a guess on my part, but some of that may change as we become more accustomed to talking in public. In particular, there’s a way in which the conversation is drawn into the phone call that isn’t so much a consequence of phone calls as an artifact of how we’re used to conducting them.

I noticed when my step-daughter was growing up and starting to use the phone that her manner was completely different from mine. When I would come into the room while she was on the phone, instead of telling the person to hold on, then, cupping the phone, give me her attention, she did the opposite. She would engage me directly, expecting the person on the phone to hear me and, in effect, be part of a three-way conversation, just as if the friend were there in person.

Juliane’s way of being on the phone, in other words, was a way of being in the world in a way that mine is not. And that—not being in the world when you’re on the phone—is, I suspect, the biggest difference between being on the phone and, say, fiddling with the radio or CD player to find a song you like.

Speaking of the younger generation, Lohr cited another interesting study that looked at age and multitasking, one that suggests we may never get good enough at talking on the phone to make it completely safe while driving. After all, “according to conventional wisdom,” Lohr says, the young “are the most adept multitaskers.”

The younger group did 10 percent better when not interrupted. But when both groups were interrupted by a phone call, a cellphone short-text message or an instant message, the older group matched the younger group in speed and accuracy.

One of the researchers offered a theory about why:

“The older people think more slowly, but they have a faster fluid intelligence, so they are better able to block out interruptions and choose what to focus on.”

but my guess is, the effect is just a consequence of a true bottleneck in cognitive function. A Porsche 911 can’t go any faster than a Ford Focus when they’re both stuck in traffic at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, one of the few situations in which it’s perfectly safe to use a phone in a car.

Posted in technology | 9 Comments »