Friday, January 16, 2009

Media Misattribution

Two things in the media have been rather horribly wrong, although the second one was only today but two things was one too many.

The NY Post, which is very trashy and revels in being so, had the big front page splash (pun intended) about the airplane landing safely in the Hudson. The call it the "Miracle on the Hudson." Sorry, no, that assumes that the pilots didn't know what they were doing, and that they were doomed to crash and many people were going to die, except that some unknown, invisible force (which had just moments before thrown some birds in the engines, so nice!), intervened. ("Engines Missing" is the headline, well yes, they do tend to get ripped off the plane in the event of a water landing, so, no surprise that they're not attached -- but they're not missing, they're just at the bottom of the river.)

The pilots on American commercial jetliners are heavily trained in dealing with emergencies and are highly qualified to do so. No miracle, just good training, and the good foresight to train pilots in case of emergency. Luckily there was enough open space on the Hudson, which is fairly large, but it is also full of boats. Hitting a boat is probably worse than hitting a bird.

But, the Post is trash. It's like the Boston Herald. Waste of paper.

The second, also annoying, is how in the many Bush reviews now that he is finally leaving, too many commentators are unproblematically saying that Bush has had, over his eight years, both record high and low approval ratings, with the low being current (and for a while), and the high being right after 9/11.

Except, his high approval rating after 9/11 wasn't an approval rating for him at all.

That's why we have training (like pilots!) in survey methodology. Just because you ask a question that looks simple and straightforward doesn't mean that it is. Human psychology is way too complex for it to be that easy. Of course, Bush didn't do anything after 9/11 except make some speeches, so there wasn't much to approve of. What people were responding to was showing faith in their country and patriotism. The President is, among other things, a figurehead, a human representation of the country. Expressing faith in the president is, in some cases, equivalent to expressing faith in the nation. Given that Al Qaeda had just shown us that we shouldn't have had much faith in our nation's ability to defend itself from terrorism (did you forget the first time they tried to destroy the WTC in 1993? You did? Shame on you! Didn't think they'd try again, huh? Complacency!), many people felt it was an important time to express faith in their nation. (The horribly sad story of the complete failure of the communications on that day is so depressing -- given how good the republicans are on security, you think they would have done something about that ahead of time -- oh, they didn't did they? They didn't defend us from the worst (so far) terrorist attack on US soil -- how good at security are they, you have to wonder. If they were any good, 9/11 wouldn't have happened.)

Here it is right here in the NYT today.

In surveys that began with Gallup polling in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mr. Bush has the distinction of being the president with both the highest and lowest approval ratings. The highest, 90 percent, was recorded shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

So, it is disturbing to see media talking-heads repeat this statistic which is completely incorrect. They don't understand surveys, and not even the survey people are apparently pointing this out. Lies, damned lies, and statistics indeed.