n of 1

In a scene of the film A River Runs Through It young Norman writes an essay for his father. His father reads it, marks it up some, and then says, `Now make it half as long.’ Deflated, Norman leaves but later returns with a new essay. The father reads it, marks it again, and says, `Again, half as long.’ Through repetition, the father is honing his son’s writing skills, with the end result being something worth keeping — or made pointedly in this exercise, not.

Doing science often echoes the scene above. There is a certainly a sense of joy and excitement when you get good results from an experiment: data that is precise, well-controlled, and is straightforwardly interpretable. In the flush of that, the natural impulse is a little self-congratulation and thinking about what’s next. But the actual common response though is: okay, do it again.

Why is that? Well, one of the foundations of the scientific method is that experiments must be repeatable. You can never publish a scientific paper or give a scientific presentation where you essentially say, “We only did this once, but it looks great!” because the results of a single unrepeated experiment might be artifactual. In science jargon, the number of times you do an experiment is usually termed n. An n of 1 is a nice start, but ultimately not good enough. n = 2 is better, though an n = 3 is generally preferred. Through repetition, you create results that you have more confidence in — that you could present to anyone with little worry about being incorrect.

I guess I’ve been thinking about “n of 1” a lot over the past month, ever since the bombing at the Boston Marathon and the way both news media and social media treated the event. Think back to all the things you saw in your twitter or facebook feeds or on Reddit that were hearsay or simply made up: the guy on the roof, the “Saudi national” that was in custody, that cell phone service had been shut down in Boston to prevent any other remote detonations (that never happened), the whole set of unexploded bombs (there weren’t any), the New York Post saying 12 people had died, the terrible incorrect accusation of Sunil Tripathi. All these things were reported,  “shared”, and “re-tweeted” literally thousands and thousands of times.

Man on a Roof

Man on a Roof

In the face of actual news and tragedy, everyone seemed like they were in some sort of panicked rush to be the first to “share” information — whether they knew it to be true or not. The 48 hours after the event had to be the worst unwitting misinformation campaign in human history. I suppose that in a world where you can get to-the-second sports scores on your phone that we’ve reached the point where we expect to have instant-analysis news as well. Everything must be known immediately. How could we not know (within 10 minutes? an hour?) how many people were dead, how many injured, and whether there were any other devices? And instead of being content with gaps in our knowledge, we filled in the blanks with our best guesses (especially ones that fit our sociopolitical worldview) and who cares if they went viral? A few hours into that torrent of wrongness, I gave up. I turned off all my feeds. A couple times a day, I would read or watch an update. And you know what? I didn’t miss a thing — and I got better quality information because I wasn’t hanging on the latest “breaking news”.

What made me think about this and science is that so many people — journalists included — were essentially putting all their faith in an n of 1. It was more important to shout out something that might be correct quickly than it was to be patient and collect information, verify it, and report it.

New York Post Headline

New York Post Headline

The thing is: I like being connected. I love being able to be able to reach out to so many people that are in so many different places on the globe. But this was ugly — this thoughtless re-sharing of crap that no one bothered to check before they hit send. I know the Presidential election also had its share of falsehoods and misinformation willingly forwarded (which is also depressing), but this seemed different to me.

I guess what I’ve decided for myself is to turn things off more often — I mean, you don’t really need to know what’s trending ALL the time, do you? And that when I’m tempted to share something (especially if it’s news and super-especially if it’s politics) to remember to take a little extra time and verify the information and maybe even try and collect an “n of 2”.

I know…I know… that will take a little longer than a hair-trigger re-share, so what I post might seem a little “out of date”, but hopefully it won’t be just noise.


25 thoughts on “n of 1

  1. In 22 years of radio, I ended up “reporting” on a bunch of big stories when they happened. The ONLY one I can remember where the information was correct every time we updated was the tragic Virginia Tech Massacre in 2007. It was horrible, too, because the death toll crept higher in ones and twos, then jumped from 14 to 25 in one leap. The media did a good job on that. Otherwise, Oklahoma City was perpetrated by an Arab, and 25,000 people died in the World Trade Center bombing alone.

    • Tom — I can only imagine how much dreck you had to slog through during “the news”. The other recent thing that I thought of was that the initial reports (Fox and again the NY Post) during the Waco fertilizer plant explosion was that >100 people were killed! Of course, they had to ratchet that back down. What’s the point of that sort of inflammatory practice. I suppose it creates more views.

  2. Welcome to the trending world. Once upon a time we had no choice but to wait for our news. Now we are all our own reporter. I would have thought that what you got out of this was not to trend at all. But then you’d be out in the cold on your ownsome. Pandora’s box is loosed and there’s no cramming things back, is there?

    • marymtf — yes, I don’t think there’s any putting this genie back in the bottle, but that doesn’t mean that we have to give into it. I keep reminding myself that the internet is our tool, not the other way around.

  3. FANTASTIC post. Simply fantastic.
    Mass hysteria just became easier and faster with instant messaging. I used to have feeds to all kinds of news and discussion sites and I am out of every single one of them now because of the amount of time wasted on wrong and unimportant information. I now follow only friends, and that too a select set of friends whose words matter to me (ahem !). I am sure there are many more fantastic writers and news sites, but I don’t miss them.

    • Thanks LG! This has been percolating around in my head for a while and I think the aftermath of Boston just brought it into focus. I, too, have shed a number of sources in recent months — that all seemed like good ideas when I added them at first I’m sure. And the thing is, I haven’t really noticed their absence either.

  4. Well said. I got off the trend train a while back and I don’t think I’ve missed out on a thing. I now like my news like I like my wine…aged to (almost) perfection.

  5. You probably don’t remember and why would you care but:

    I heard there was a bombing, relatively quickly after from coworkers. I avoided radio and TV (easy for me, there) AND I didn’t read news sites. That Friday night, I decided that I’d break down and turn on Anderson Cooper to see what BS they were covering NOW (that it had been a few days). Within 2 minutes of flipping on my TV, they announced they had the living bomber (and really did).

    It was odd timing, how that worked out. I watched live for 40 minutes and turned the TV back off. I haven’t watched the news since…I *have* listened to NPR but not even everyday. It sounds weird to avoid NEWS (you wouldn’t believe even as a primary school student, I read the newspaper and I was on the school newspaper in hs — and my DEGREE is in Media; technically, I specialized in Film/Photography but you share core ‘Media’ classes). It sounds irresponsible.

    What I found some years ago (probably DURING Media studies) is how much BS it is. It’s info-tainment. News used to be funded by its parent company and did NOT ‘need’ to be interesting, entertaining enough to hold viewers to watch the commercial breaks, generating income. Once you see the little man behind the curtain, you’re not so inclined to hang on every word/ every second (UNLESS you’re so ‘in’ it, it’s competition — then, you have to stay on top of each other).

    That’s a lot of babble but the point is: regarding News? You’re best to go get it when you want it. Sure, I miss all kinds of up to the second possibilities but the upside is I MISS ALL KINDS OF SHIT :)

    • Lily — I found out about it really early on because of Twitter — it really is amazing how quickly things spread even before major news organizations have a chance to get anything posted. But after the initial “there have been blasts where the race ends” information, everything devolved into crap. And I admit it — for a while, I got sucked in. It was terrible and voyeuristic and a complete waste of my time.

      I think there is a real disservice because of 24h-“news”. They can’t have a day where they sit there and say “Nothing much happening today, you know?” — so they have to CREATE drama and entertainment, and conflict — even when it’s not there. I tell you, Walter Cronkite had it right.

      • concur. Cronkite was about the last of the greats. Don’t get me wrong: Brokaw, Rather…they are good (so is Cooper) BUT they were already infected/influenced by ‘make it sexy.’

  6. Excellent points! The credulity phenomenon is summed up by certain users claiming that Twitter has made news obsolete. That’s ridiculous. I take “news items” in my Twitter feed as interesting possibilities, and pointers to check out, but never as fact. (Sadly, the NYP seems all too glad to leave their “news” equally unverified. Not that their reputation was stellar before the crisis.)

    The same caveats go for the ludicrous claims that Reddit “solved” the Boston case. No, they made some guesses that later turned out to match actual data. There’s nothing special about a bunch of (*ahem* child pornography tolerating *ahem*) nerds sitting around upvoting what they feel is true; at worst, it’s mob justice.

    Part of the problem is with social network consumers, too. Unless stated otherwise, I assume every Twitter account has the implicit disclaimer “I’m not a reporter, and none of this is verified.” I think everyone should approach Twitter with that initial assumption (and maybe I should explicitly say it in my Twitter bio, to push things in the right direction). When I retweet something, my intention is always to say “This is interesting; look at this.” I don’t intend it as verified data, and I hope no one is reading it as such.

    I’m not necessarily against wild-ass speculation, as long as everyone agrees that’s what it is. But one problem with Twitter is its extreme terseness: there’s very little room for caveats, disclaimers, or sources.

    • Phantom — I think the really interesting thing about this event was that the news media seemed TERRIFIED that they were going to get left in the dust by social media — maybe that’s why it was different than the campaign. The blah-blah-blah of the campaign is fine for sets of talking heads, but they must have felt so behind with respect to news that’s changing rapidly. And I think they caved with respect to the need to verify over the desire to keep up.

      During the election I got wrapped in forwarding things that fit my political views and I found out that a couple of the things I forwarded were untrue (or gross misinterpretations) — and I felt guilty about that. I don’t want to be part of the noise and if I forward something because I think it’s interesting or funny or annoying, I want it to be true to the sense that I can know it.

  7. That’s a good point. It does make one’s feed more valuable if the material is verified to some degree, and not just passed along. I usually do at least a little homework—Where is the info coming from? Do I understand the source article?—but it’s not always enough. I know I retweeted the NYP headline during the Boston crisis, only to say a few minutes later, “Gee, I hope that number is wrong…”

    Interestingly, even before I read this post, I had been reevaluating why I use Twitter, and what belongs in my content. Food for thought!

  8. Excellent post. I have found myself retreating from the “news” and it has made my life feel a lot better. As Lily said, I took a couple of days after the bombing and then went back to check out what was known and what was not.
    I enjoy the internet as much as anyone, but I am keeping further away from sensationalistic news and politics. It’s easier on my brain.

    • Lauri — there’s a weird thing that just because there’s more “news” broadcast doesn’t mean there’s really all that much more actual news in the world — especially since US networks dedicate ZERO time to actual international news (unless there’s a death-count to drumbeat on). You back away, check in occasionally, and find that you really don’t miss much but the noise.

  9. An article in my local newspaper repeated the ‘news’ that cell phone service in Boston was shut down. The article right next to it was about a woman from here who was competing in the marathon. She had finished about 15-20 minutes before the explosion and was safe, and – the article said – called her family using her cell phone to tell them … then the newspaper called her – on her cell phone – to get ‘first person’ info. Something there just didn’t compute for me when I read it.

    “News” is too reactionary. The stock market is too reactionary. I’m kind of glad I never got into Twitter, and that it doesn’t bother me to not be up-to-the-minute on the latest big story.

    • GOM — that’s not the best example of content editing in your paper, but I bet stuff like that was duplicated all over the world.

      It’s a good point about everything being so instantaneously reactionary. We’ve created a world where instant information, instant gratification, instant reaction is the norm. That’s sort of nuts when you step back and think about it.

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