Why you really can’t trust the media: Claire Cain Miller and Farhad Manjoo get things wrong in the New York Times

In “The Next Mark Zuckerberg Is Not Who You Might Think,” the New York Times‘s Claire Cain Miller repeats an unfortunate quote that is a joke but was taken out of context: “‘I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,’ Paul Graham, co-founder of the seed investor Y Combinator, once said.”* But Graham has already publicly observed that this is a joke. As the link shows he’s publicly stated as much. Thousands of people have already read the column, but yesterday morning I thought that it’s not too late to correct it for those yet to come. So I wrote to both Miller and to the corrections email address with a variant of this paragraph.

In response I got this:

Thanks for your email. I’m confident that most readers will understand that the line was tongue in cheek, however. The idea that a co-founder of Y Combinator could be persuaded to part with seed funding simply by dint of the solicitor’s wearing a hooded sweatshirt is, of course, preposterous. At any rate, there is nothing to “correct,” so to speak, as Mr. Graham did in fact say those words.

Best regards,

Louis Lucero II
Assistant to the Senior Editor for Standards
The New York Times

But that’s not real satisfying either: nothing in the original article to indicate that Miller meant the line tongue-in-cheek. Based on the surrounding material, it seems like she took it seriously. Here is the full paragraph:

Yet if someone like that came to a top venture capitalist’s office, he or she could very well be turned away. Start-up investors often accept pitches only from people they know, and rely heavily on gut feelings, intuition and what’s worked before. “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” Paul Graham, co-founder of the seed investor Y Combinator, once said.

I wrote back:

Thanks for your response, but it’s pernicious because Graham, as he explains at the link, does not actually think he can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg, and his statement is part of the reason why he can’t, and why he doesn’t necessarily expect the next tech titan to look like Zuckerberg. One of the epistemological roles of humor is to say something but mean the opposite: have your read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? In addition to being a fantastic book, many sections deal with precisely this aspect of humor, and the role it plays in human discourse.

There’s actually a Wikipedia article on quoting out of context that’s both relevant here and helps explain why some reasonably famous people are becoming more cagey about speaking in public, in uncontrolled circumstances, or to the press.

To say that anyone even slightly familiar with Graham’s thought or writing—which is available publicly, for free, to anyone with an Internet connection (as most New York Times reporters have) will understand that the quote is absurd. Graham has probably done more to promote women in technology than anyone else. He wrote an entire essay, “Female Founders,” on this subject, which arose in part because he was “accused recently of believing things I don’t believe about women as programmers and startup founders. So I thought I’d explain what I actually do believe.” Miller didn’t bother reading that. She got it wrong, and it goes uncorrected. So this bogus quote that says the opposite of what Graham means is still going around.

Meanwhile, Farhad Manjoo wrote “As More Tech Start-Ups Stay Private, So Does the Money,” in which he cites various reasons why startups may stay private (“rooted in part in Wall Street’s skepticism of new tech stocks”) but misses a big one: Sarbanes-Oxley.** It’s almost impossible to read anything about the IPO market for tech companies without seeing a discussion of the costs of compliance (millions of dollars a year) and the other burdens with it.

I tweeted as much to him and he replied, “@seligerj a whole article about a complex issue and no mention of my pet interest that is just of many factors in the discussion!!!!??” Except it’s not a pet interest. It’s a major issue. Manjoo could have spent 30 seconds searching Google Scholar and an hour reading, and he’d conclude that SBO is really bad for the IPO market (and it encourages companies to go private). But why bother when a snarky Tweet will do? A snarky Tweet takes 10 seconds and real knowledge takes many hours. General problems with it are well-known. Not surprisingly, Paul Graham has written about those too. So has Peter Thiel in Zero to One. Ignoring it is not a minor issue: it’s like ignoring the role of hydrogen in water.

Manjoo’s article is at least a little better because his is a misleading oversight instead of an overt misquotation. But it’s still amazing not just for missing a vital issue in the first place but the response to having that issue pointed out.

If the articles were posted to random blogs or splogs I’d of course just ignore them, because the standards to which random blogs are held are quite low. But they were posted to the New York Times, which is actually much better than the rest of the media. That two writers could get so much so wrong in so short a space is distressing because of what that says not only about the Times but the rest of the media. I’m not even a domain expert here: I don’t work in the area and primarily find it a matter of intellectual curiosity.

This post is important because the Times is a huge megaphone. Policymakers who don’t know a lot about specific issues related to tech read and (mostly) trust it. While sophisticated readers or people who have been reading Graham for years might know the truth, most people don’t. A huge megaphone should be wielded carefully. Too often it isn’t.

Oddly, one of my earliest posts was about another howler in the New York Times. I’ve seen some since but yesterday’s batch was particularly notable. There are many good accounts of why you can’t trust the media—James Fallows gives one in Breaking the News and Ryan Holiday another in Trust Me, I’m Lying—but I’ve rarely seen two back-to-back examples as good as these. So good, in fact, that I want to post about them publicly both to inform others and for archive purposes: next time someone says, “What do you mean, you can’t trust even the New York Times?”, I’ll have examples of why ready to go.

* I’m not linking to the article because it’s terrible for many reasons, and I’d like to focus solely on the one cited, which is provably wrong.

** I’m not linking directly to this article either; The Hacker News thread about it is more informative than the article itself.

Paul Graham and the artist

Paul Graham’s new essay “Before the Startup” is as always fascinating, but Graham also says several things that apply to artists:

The way to come up with good startup ideas is to take a step back. Instead of making a conscious effort to think of startup ideas, turn your mind into the type that startup ideas form in without any conscious effort. In fact, so unconsciously that you don’t even realize at first that they’re startup ideas.

The same is true of ideas for novels, which often come from minute observations or moments or studies of character. They often don’t feel like novels at first: they feel like a situation (“What if a guy did this…”) and the full novel comes later. Artists often work at the margins.

He also writes in a footnote:

I did manage to think of a heuristic for detecting whether you have a taste for interesting ideas: whether you find known boring ideas intolerable. Could you endure studying literary theory, or working in middle management at a large company?

This may be why I and perhaps many other grad students find grad school worse as time goes on, and why MFA programs have been growing. Too many critics have ceased focusing not on how “to be an expert on your users and the problem you’re solving for them”—or, in this example, “readers” instead of “users”—and instead focus on straight forward careerism, which rarely seems to overlap with what people want to read.Paul Graham and the artist

Comment when you have something to say

By now it’s well-known that most Internet forums devolve over time, even when the people running the forum take concrete steps to avoid devolution. But the main problem is not necessarily the trolls who deliberately attempt to degrade the quality of the conversation. It’s low-quality comments that aren’t necessarily malicious or even mean-spirited but do reflect shallow knowledge. Not only that, but such comments are often designed to appeal to groupish belief or to raise the status of the commenter, rather than sharing information and asking genuine questions.

Kens offered this insightful observation on HN:

My theory (based on many years of Usenet) is that there are three basic types of online participants: “cocktail party”, “scientific conference”, and “debate team”. In “cocktail party”, the participants are having an entertaining conversation and sharing anecdotes. In “scientific conference”, the participants are trying to increase knowledge and solve problems. In “debate team”, the participants are trying to prove their point is right.

Unfortunately, the people in scientific conference mode attract the cocktail people, but the latter don’t tend to attract the former. Debate team-types tend to be attracted to both—they’re the people exhibiting groupish and status-based behavior. In HN land, I’m probably closer to cocktail mode people than the scientific conference mode people, though I want to act more like a conference person.

Still, it’s worth looking more carefully at what the scientific conference-mode means. I don’t think scientific conference means a literal presentation of new results, but I think it does mean that the people commenting are deeply informed, deeply curious, reasonably respectful, and work to speak from a position of knowledge, rather than ignorance, about a subject. In this sense I fit the scientific conference mode when I discuss a small but real number of issues related to teaching, urban planning / development, and grant writing / government practices. The second one relates least to my day-to-day life but is a personal interest about which I’ve read a fair amount. Towards this end, I suspect a lot of people could improve the quality of the conversation simply by not commenting.

I distill this general idea to a simple behavior heuristic that might be valuable to others: don’t comment unless you have a special, unusual, or well-informed viewpoint. Many of my comments link to books and/or articles I’ve read that elaborate on whatever point I’m making or trying to make (here’s one example, linking to Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and here’s another, citing Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City; in response to the second, someone even said, “I got these books simply because of this recommendation,” which makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside). Some of the ideas contained in the books or articles I cite might be wrong or badly argued, but at least I’m basing my comments on something specific rather than some general philosophical point. Too many people argue based on first principles or unsourced speculation. The latter isn’t always bad; for example, someone might work in a field and know something deep and important about it without having a link to a specific discussion of the idea being discussed.

Many of my comments that don’t link to books or articles still deal with specific issues in which I have above average expertise, knowledge, or experience. This comment discusses how I deal with a student who asks a question relating solely to his or her individual issue in a large group without sounding like a jerk (I think, anyway), this comment is about a specific product I’ve used (the Unicomp Customizer), and this comment is about specificity in writing and thinking. Again, I might be wrong, but in each case I’m writing based on experience.

You can find some exceptions to the principles I’ve discussed above. You should ask logical or reasonable follow-up questions, especially if you’d like more information (here’s one sample; here’s another.) Succinct is often beautiful. Focus on genuine questions, rather than challenging people because their beliefs don’t match yours.

You don’t always have to follow these rules—I don’t—but if you’re debating about whether you should post a comment, you should probably err on the side of silence and not intruding on other people’s time. Unfortunately, the kind of people who most need such internal self-restraint are probably also the ones least likely to use it, and I doubt anything can be done to solve this problem, which seems like a variant of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Despite all this, I don’t see a solution to the fundamental problems, at least beyond the person at the margin who might read this and change his or her behavior slightly.

In other words, one can appeal to community rules and norms, or resort to meta-posts (like this one).* Such an appeal shouldn’t be done too often, or a community will spend more time discussing its own rules and norms than it does discussing and reading the material that should be the purpose of its existence (I last wrote a post like this in January; that January post still seems relevant, but I feel like enough time has passed and that I’ve observed enough behavior to make this post relevant too). But perhaps the occasional reminder will, as I said, help at the margins.

Oh, and the other rule for commenting? When you’re done with substantive content, stop.

* Granted, these kinds of posts and comments can make a community deteriorate. For example, there are a set of overly long comments by jsprink_banned and josteink that fail to distinguish between an argument and how the argument is presented: I suspect they’re unhappy with the mod functions mostly because they haven’t focused on how an argument is delivered. Civility counts for a lot, at all levels of debate; see, for example, Tyler Cowen’s comments on civility and Paul Krugman (and his comments on the limits of binary, good versus evil thinking in general).

There are also comments like this, in which the poster argues from nothing, attempts to activate an anti-corporate ideology, and ignores the obvious, abundant evidence of the continued importance of firms. Alex-C, fortunately, did reply: “I almost can’t tell if this comment came from some sort of Markov text generator.” HN used to have many fewer of those kinds of comments, and when it did get those kinds of comments, they were much less likely to rise. It takes more effort than it should for me not to respond to them directly. Incidentally, the comment Alex-C was replying to meant to say something like this.

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