July 15, 2018

Cognitive bias and bad policing

Writing about web page https://www.npr.org/2018/07/11/627929289/video-of-man-harassing-woman-over-puerto-rican-flag-shirt-prompts-investigation

Mia Irizarry posted a video on June 14, 2018, which shows her being verbally assaulted and physically threatened by Timothy Trybus for wearing a Puerto Rico shirt. The video also shows Officer Patrick Connor standing close by and ignoring Irizarry’s requests for help.

As of July 11, Trybus had been charged with hate crimes, and Connor had resigned his position. These seem like promising first steps toward justice.

I’m drawing on this Irizarry’s video to think generally and theoretically about roles that language and cognition might play in policing.

I need to acknowledge and apologize at the outset of this writing that I am extrapolating away from Irizarry’s experience and trauma. That’s gross and unfair to her. In the real world, the most important thing that can come out of this experience is justice for Irizarry. Her video, though, reveals larger insights that may point toward ways to reduce unjust policing, and I want to pursue those insights. But ultimately, I’m pursuing something theoretical inspired by this video, and not commenting on the actual events that are shown in the video.

The specific question I want explore is—operating under the assumption that Connor was a moral, well-intentioned, professional police officer—why did Connor fail to intervene on Irizarry’s behalf?

I think issues related to language and cognition may be part of the answer to this.

On the cognition side, I suggest it’s possible that the expectations Connor brought to the situation blinded him to events that were happening immediately in front of him. Language in the video can reveal some of this cognitive blindness.

Police were called to the scene because another man (he’s wearing a black shirt in the video and appears to be Trybus’s friend) was choking a woman. I suggest that Connor understood all events in the context of solving the problem of the man in black choking the woman, and as a result failed to recognize anything that didn’t fit into that context.

This is evident in several moments:

  • At the beginning of the video, Connor has positioned himself next to the man in black in a position to control his movements.
  • At 5:30, the man in black seems to move toward someone shouting at him in the distance, and Connor shifts to block him. This shows that Connor is capable of controlling a dangerous person, when he’s motivated to do so.
  • At 9:56, Connor separates Trybus from the man in black. This move is presumably intended to segregate the Trybus from the man in black so that they can’t coordinate their stories (and not to safeguard Irizarry).
  • At 23:35, Connor tells Irizarry, "When I was called here, it was between these people."
  • At 29:59, after taking information from Irizarry about the Trybus’s attack on her, Connor returns to trying to collect information about the man in black choking a woman: “Did you see any of the stuff between these guys?”

Connor is not alone is showing this bias.

  • At 16:58, an officer interviewing Irizarry asks twice about whether it was Irizarry’s party that called the police, reflecing the need to close out the call that the police received (rather, e.g., than to help any people in need on the scene).
  • At 17:37, the officer tells Irizarry that they had been called about the man in black--"We got the call it was a male choking a female"--reflecting a continued fixation on the incident of the call.
  • At 21:43, an officer approaches Irizarry and again asks about girl who was choked by man in black.

The expectations police bring to the situation also reduce their ability to perceive Trybus as a threat.

  • At 21:43, the officer apologizes, "We know these guys."
  • At 23:44, Connor tells Irizarry that he knows Trybus and "At no time was he going to attack you."
  • Perhaps most significant of all, at 16:41, following Irizarry's account of events, the officer clarifies "But he didn't touch you? Just made you--" The officer’s question reveals a bias toward minimizing the threat posed by Trybus to Irizarry. Note the difference between her question and the more neutral, “Did he touch you?” The officer’s wording shows that she presumes Trybus only made Irizarry uncomfortable and did not actually assault her.

In short, bad policing may have happened here in part because of the expectations officers brought to the situation. Connor’s case is especially egregious, but it seems clear that there was broader potential for police cognitive bias to cause blindness to the violence being done to Irizarry.

It’s well established that people--including highly competent professionals--can fail to recognize seemingly obvious information when they are focused on complex tasks. It’s possible that Connor really did fail to see that Irizarry was being attacked just feet away from him. This could’ve happened because he was so fixated on solving one problem, that he was cognitively blind to anything that wasn’t directly part of that problem.

To be clear, I don’t mean this as a defense of Connor. But I think there are insights for policing in this observation. Bad policing probably often happens because of the way police perceive situations based on the expectations they bring to them via prior information.

In Irizarry’s video, language reveals some of these expectations. It may benefit police and society to look for ways that language might also help combat cognitive bias.

I assume, for instance, that Connor was dispatched to the park to stop the man in black from choking a woman. Of course, if a person is being attacked, that is unquestionably the most important intervention. But if Connor had also been dispatched to “help anyone else there who needs help,” would he have been less cognitively blind to the threat to Irizarry? What if “and provide any other help you can” was a standard mantra for the police department? What if officers were expected to report formally not only on how they responded to calls, but also on any other good samaritan work they did on a site. What if, once Connor radioed that the immediate crisis of the man in black chocking a woman was under control, dispatch standardly radioed back, “Does anyone else need help?”

I don’t know that the answers to these questions would really be better policing. But, if we take it for granted that Connor was a moral, well-intentioned, professional police officer, his being blinded to Trybus’s attack on Irizarry through cognitive bias the only explanation I can find for his failure to intervene. If that’s true, police departments would be well served to look for ways to reduce the effects of cognitive bias. Language may play a role in this.


July 14, 2018

Rhetorical Fallacies: Cherry Picking

Writing about web page https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/946531657229701120

“Cherry picking” is when an arguer reports evidence that is favorable to their argument, but ignores valid evidence that is disfavorable. Valid argument and, more importantly, valid reasoning demands that we take all evidence into account, even when it disagrees with our beliefs and desires. Actually, it would probably be more accurate to say that valid argument and reasoning demand that take evidence that disagrees with our beliefs and desires especially into account. Finding problems and challenges to our ideas helps us make our ideas better.

President Trump’s tweet on Dec. 29, 2017 demonstrates the fallacy of cherry picking:

Strictly speaking, “East” is problematic as a location. The “East” isn’t actually a place in the United States (i.e., some cities, like Boston and New York and definitely part of the East, but cities like Atlanta or Pittsburgh are more marginal). It was also unlikely when Trump tweeted this message that every location in “the East” would have its coldest ever recorded year (and after the fact, we know this was not the case; in Boston, e.g., it got as cold as 3 degress (F) on New Year’s Eve, failing to match the record of -8 degrees of 1917). It’s also not clear what he is referring to when he says that the U.S., but not other countries, “was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against.”

More to the point for cherry picking, though, is Trump’s implication that cold temperatures during the winter refute the reality of global warming. It was indeed very cold the day Trump tweet. According to historical data on wunderground.com, in Boston, the mean temperature on Dec. 29 was 23 degrees colder than the day’s historical average. In Washington, DC, Dec. 29, 2017 was nearly 13 degrees colder than average. But ten days earlier on Dec. 19, Boston was 9 degrees warmer than average. Boston was also 9 degrees warmer than average one month earlier on Nov. 29. Washington, DC--where Trump would be well positioned to enjoy unseasonably warm weather--was 16 degrees warmer than average on Dec. 23, 13 degrees warmer on Dec. 19, and 11 degrees warmer on both Dec. 5 and Nov. 29.

Trump can only validly claim that a single period of cold as evidence against global warming if he also admits a single period of warmth as evidence in favor of global warming. So, in Washington, DC, the week of Dec. 18-24 was unseasonably warm. If Trump were arguing fairly, he would’ve tweeted:

Global warming is making things hot for Santa. The U.S. should spend TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to fix this! #DreamingOfaWhiteChristmas

Of course, no such tweet came from @realDonaldTrump. Trump is not actually weighing all information regarding global warming, but rather selectively tweeting cherry-picked evidence that supports conclusions he seeks. His evidence is cherry-picked, so his reasoning is invalid.

For argumentation purposes, it’s crucial to understand that dismissing Trump’s tweet as cherry picking does not inform debates about the reality of global warming. That’s a matter of climate science. But to understand and interpret the findings of climate science, we need to admit evidence in a valid and honest way. We must consider evidence objectively, and not in a manner that intentionally reaches a conclusion we’ve reached beforehand.


June 17, 2018

The Dr. is in the house…but not in the news

Writing about web page https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-44496876

The BBC reported on 15 June 2018 that “the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail had proposed to change its house style to only refer to medical doctors by their titles.” On 16 June 2018, the story also said, “In BBC style, the title Dr is used for doctors of medicine, scientific doctors and church ministers who hold doctorates, when relevant.” (I only note this because, when I initially read the story on 15 June 2018, I’m sure that it said that the new Globe and Mail policy was consistent with BBC style guidelines, so I believe there’s an unacknowledged amendment to the originally published version.)

The story examined a “row” that followed a tweet by Dr. Fern Riddell, who noted that it was appropriate for media to use the title of address that she has earned rather than to arbitrarily re-title her. The BBC predictably framed the story as two-sided conflict, highlighting sexist attacks via Twitter on Dr. Riddell by men and inspiration PhDs who were women had taken from Dr. Riddell’s advocacy.

The way a story is framed affects the way we think about it (obviously). The BBC frames the Globe and Mail’s style decision and the various resultant tweets as a two-sided conflict, so we are channeled to interpret all information in the context of that two-sided conflict. Our role is to read the story and pick which side has won and then, of course, join that side. It’s very difficult to interpret information through a different frame than the one we’re given.

In the case of this story, we’re missing a fairly obvious conclusion: The Globe and Mail (and BBC) are stupid for using titles in stories at all. They should update their style guides to simply use last names. Here’s why:

1. Honorifics are unnecessary in news.

Titles like “Mr,” “Ms,” “Dr” etc. are a fairly lame form of honorifics. Some languages have really interesting honorific systems, but English hasn’t had much going on in the honorifics department since thou got eaten up by you.

All honorifics do social work. In English, these titles help us out in a space where we need to address someone by their name, but it might be impolite to address them by their first name. So we need them for formality, to bridge social distance, etc. Strictly cultural stuff that helps us be polite.

But the news is under no obligation to be polite. News isn’t normally addressed from one person to another the way conversation is. News isn’t supposed to make people feel nice. It’s supposed to be detached and objective. The news can do that better without honorifics.

2. Titles like “Mr” etc. don’t add anything to the news.

A news story uses names so that readers know who did what and/or what happened to whom. Titles don’t provide any referential help beyond what we already get from a person’s last name. Consider:

  1. Dr. Riddell received hostile emails.
  2. Ms Riddell received hostile emails.
  3. Miss Riddell received hostile emails.
  4. Riddell received hostile emails.

There’s absolutely no difference in the way that the three possibilities refer. Each one has the exact same subject, and there’s no way that a reader could interpret the referent of (4) as different from the referents of (1)-(3).

News writing is supposed to be concise. Word counts and character counts are supposedly at a premium. Here is a case where writers can cut one word out of their stories for every single time they refer to a person.

Somewhat bizarrely in the BBC story, Dr. Riddell is referred to by her first name, “Fern.” It would be interesting to know if she recommended this, or if they adopted it as a strategy on their own. If BBC did it on their own, they’d better refer to “Jeremy” in the next story they write about Labour.

3. Dropping all titles gives the media a really easy way to be progressive.

Or, at least, to appear progressive. Or just not actively regressive.

Look, we can agree that it’s stupid to give women a title on the basis of whether or not they’re hitched, and that if we were starting English today we wouldn’t do the Miss/Mrs thing. Right? And we’re 30ish years past that being an interesting thing to say? Yeah?

Ok, good. So now we can acknowledge at least that the title system we have doesn’t cover everybody. For instance, people under 18. (I dare you to post that we should call 5-year-old boys Master.) Also people who are/identify as transgender, non-gender-conforming, ungendered, cross-gender, etc.

At some point, the news must handle these. I mean, at a really banal level, there’s some copy editor somewhere wringing their hands over who to conform to the style guide in a story about a thirteen-year-old who identifies as transgender. But at a bigger level, some day some news board of directors is going to debate how to position the outlet’s position on social issues and how the readers will take their activism (or not) and how advertisers will react.

Or just quit using titles, and they never have to deal with it. So, in the interest of lazy self-interest, news media should drop all titles of address period.

4. There’s no way to apply a style guide on titles consistently.

In the case of the BBC’s stated style guide--“Dr is used for doctors of medicine, scientific doctors and church ministers who hold doctorates, when relevant”--it’s unclear how the relevance standard would be determined. I’ve been interviewed for the news a few times. In each case, I got interviewed about the stuff that my PhD is in. So my “Dr” is directly relevant. (Which is the point Dr. Riddell was making with her initial tweet.) I guess maybe if I was interviewed about baseball, they wouldn’t use “Dr”--but why on earth would I be interviewed about baseball? (I dislike the shift, btw.)

And what about titles like “Reverend” or “Lieutenant Colonel”? These are often used in American media at least, and I suspect that few news outlets would welcome the right-wing backlash that would accompany a story about the liberal media disrespecting veterans by refusing to call them by the titles they earned. But PhDs earned the title “Dr,” so “earning it” is not going to be a standard applied to all people equally.

And if you use “Dr” because the person is a medical doctor then what you’re saying is the important part of the address is really disambiguating their profession. But then why not refer to “Joiner Smith” in a story about carpentry, or “Nurse Jones” in the same medial story where you quoted Dr. Thomas?

And then suddenly you’ve painted yourself back into the corner of gendered address, since “doctor” is traditionally gendered male and “nurse” is traditionally gendered female.

In short, the Globe and Mail, BBC, and all other news outlets just dump titles.

Last names are enough, and they’re better.


June 16, 2018

gammon is a bad taste of an unsavoury strategy

For a few days in 2018, people talked about gammon.

Defined on Urban Dictionary as, “a term used to describe a particular type of Brexit-voting, middle-aged white male, whose meat-faced complexion suggests they are perilously close to a stroke,” gammon really came into focus when Belfast South MP Emma Little-Pengelly objected to the insult in a tweet. She claimed to be appalled by “a term based on skin colour & age” and objected that “stereotyping by colour or age is wrong no matter what race, age or community.”

Debate followed—particularly over whether gammon is indeed racist. Joe Sommerland summarizes the debate on the Independent. Steven Poole's Word of the Week asked, “Is ‘gammon’ racist or just stupid?” Sean Lang challenged that “the term’s real tin ear comes in its inability to understand that personal characteristics, over which we have no control, should always be kept out of political discourse, even insults.” Joe Murphy attributes the pun to Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson that conservatives must offer more than just “a choice between serrano or gammon.”

As a matter for public debate, gammon will have a short shelf life. A word that lends itself so readily to puns deserves to expire fast. But while the word gammon is not itself particularly interesting, the claim that the word is racist deserves attention. And it is not the word that matters, but the strategy behind the claim.

In short, calling gammon “racist” is intended to build ideological connections between support for Brexit and white identity. Here’s how the strategy works:

1. Recognise group-building potential of an insult.

Gammon insults by making a joke. Jokes inherently divide people into groups: People who laugh at the joke are included in one group and people who get laughed at are excluded into another. If people say gammon, they like it because it unites them and gives some power over the people they insult. If people get called gammon, they don't like it because they're isolated and disempowered. But, an out-group is still a group. And if you can make that group big, it can be powerful.

2. Highlight the right features of the insult for your purposes.

There are lots of ways for gammon to be offensive. It could be that gammon is pink and some white people get pink-faced when upset. It could be that gammon is pork and some religions restrict consumption of pork (as Sean Lang notes), this could be a particularly problematic association for Labour). It could be that only wealthy people can afford the luxury of enjoying a fancy cut of meat with some pineapple on a Sunday. It could be that gammon, as far as meats go, seems antiquated. It could be that gammon is round. Any of these associations may be transferred from the meat to particular groups of people. Highlighting race, especially, and age additionally reflects a conscious choice about shaping the way that people are insulted by the word.

3. Reframe the insult to build a group.

If you highlight the “correct” features of the insult, you can cause the “correct” people to be insulted by it. They then become part of the same group as you. You then share characteristics with them. The fact that you share characteristics reinforces the fact that you belong in a group together. You become more closely aligned to each other and, by default, more clearly aligned against the opposition. The fact that you’re working together against some other group will increase the unity of your group, and you’re likely to become more ideologically aligned.

The point of calling gammon “racist” has little to do with whether gammon is actually racist. The point of calling gammon racist is to unify support for Brexit and other nationalist politics with whiteness. The underlying logic is “attacks on Brexit supporters are attacks on white people, so white people should defend themselves by unifying in support of Brexit (etc.)”.

Labelling gammon “racist” strategically co-opts the language of racial unity in order to foster racial division for the political gain. Moreover, there is really no way to respond. As George Lakoff notes in Don’t Think of an Elephant, when we argue within a particular psychological frame, we reinforce that frame. So if someone argues that gammon is not a racist word, they simultaneously reinforce the possibility that it might be racist. (And the Alt-Right just needs to make a better case that gammon is racist, which is easy since colour is part of the insult’s frame.) And, if the Left points out that the Alt-Right complains about “political correctness gone mad” and snowflakes, then the Left simultaneously legitimates mocking political correctness and snowflakes.

So, there’s really not much to be said about gammon—or that should be said about gammon. But the identify politics that underlie objections to the word as racist matter a great deal, and opponents of Brexit and other nationalist politics would be wise to recognise the strategic implications.


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