Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

April 9, 2018

Why general audience news will only get more ideologically polarized: propaganda pays the bills

Filed under: Media — Razib Khan @ 12:59 am

During a casual conversation with a friend about the state of the “news media” and its openness ideological diversity I expressed my rather cynical view that the future of the mass-market journalism is toward one of polarization. The reason for this isn’t really due to the nature of journalism in any specific way, but the reliance of journalistic outfits on very distinct markets. Publications are now focused on gaining subscribers, and to gain subscribers you have to provide product people want.

People read news for various reasons. Titillation and curiosity obviously. But also for self-affirmation and confirmation. This is rather clear for cable news, but the same dynamics apply to print and internet. News is a consumption good. People aren’t going to want to hear it or read it if it doesn’t flatter their own self-image. So when push comes to shove on sensitive issues the media will provide its customers what they want.

To give a concrete example, in 2009 a genetics paper provided strong evidence that Indian populations were stratified in ancestry as a function of caste and region, and that one component of South Asian ancestry is intrusive from the West. To my surprise, Indian publications put forth stories like this: Aryan-Dravidian divide a myth: Study. Basically, the media were transmitting the opposite of the most plausible interpretation of the results.

At the time I mocked the Indian press for being propaganda and the Indian public for wanting to see what they wanted to see. To be entirely honest I wouldn’t do such a thing today because when in glass houses one shouldn’t throw stones. My views of my country and its elite classes of various professions have changed quite a bit in the past 10 years.

The American media is quite willing to provide propaganda if that’s what its paying public wants. To give a concrete and now non-partisan example: the American media allowed itself to launder misinformation in the lead-up to the second Iraq War.

And like Indian journalists and scientists, American journalists and scientists also have some preferences about what they want to be true, so it’s not as if they are kicked and dragging in the direction of their most congenial results.

The “best” thing about the game that the Indian media played, and the game that the American media plays, is that the people believe that the propaganda is actually fair and balanced! Even the journalists themselves may believe the propaganda because many of them lack specialized knowledge to know when the people they interview are lying to them or misleading them (the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect is really disturbing).

Finally, if you are one of those people who strangely prefer the truth, there is a way you can get it: become wealthy and buy the truth. If you are running a hedge-fund or some such other thing, information is not just a passive consumption good. Information is input into the production of more wealth and power. People in this sort of results-driven financial sector mine informants for truth in a very conscious manner to maximize returns for themselves and their clients. And of course, there exists a market for what is basically “reality-based journalism”. It’s just a market that is invisible to us plebs unless we find ourselves having access to nuggets of truth which no one wants to hear, but which global capital wants to profit from….

The “media” that you see and hear about. The media with the big budgets and large news organizations are actually just a simulacrum of objective data-gathering and transmission institution. In reality, they are tribal newsletters. On the narrow scale, they often reinforce particular tribal narratives and ignore countervailing ones. But on a broader national scale, they collectively flatter our self-image as a people in a sometimes ludicrous fashion.

The real objective data-gathering and transmission institutions are hidden from view. And they are the ones laundering the “truth” to those with power so that they may have more power in the future.

Welcome to the future!

January 31, 2018

Facebook AMA with Spencer Wells & myself

Filed under: AMA,Media,Podcast — Razib Khan @ 8:02 pm

Spencer and I are doing a Facebook live AMA at 2 PM EDT/1 PM CDT/12 PM MDT/11 AM PDT on the 1st of February (tomorrow as of when I’m writing this). People will ask us questions, and the questions will be relayed to us, and we’ll answer live on video.

In other ‘media’ news our podcast with Joe Pickrell of Gencove, Ancestry Deconvoluted, is now live.

Finally, there has been some talk about me doing a Reddit AMA. Thoughts?

June 1, 2017

Romanticizing the regressive

Filed under: Film,Media,Meet the Patels,Ravi Patel — Razib Khan @ 4:47 pm

A few months ago I happened to watch the film Meet the Patels. Though you do meet all the “Patels”, the film centers around the love life, or lack thereof, of the actor Ravi PatelM.

Filmed by his sister, the documentary predates Patel’s current modest fame by many years (he has a small recurring role in Aziz Ansari’s Master of None). His life has changed in many ways, and perhaps his views and outlook have too. The comments I’m making in this post are not about Ravi Patel, but rather about the views he expressed many years ago in this documentary at a particular point in his life, and how it reflects a thread of South Asian American nostalgia and romanticism of our cultural roots.

Like many young Indian Americans Patel and his sister grew up between worlds. Their parents arrived in the United States among the very first wave of Indian immigrants, which today makes them somewhat unique, as there has been a huge migration since the 1990s from India due to the H1-B visa program. At one point the matriarch of the small American Patel clan bemoans how Americanized her children are compared to many other Indian Americans, who arrived later, when various South Asian American communities were more mature.

But Ravi and his sister are not entirely Americanized. Or they weren’t. Both avoided the conventional dating rituals of American life deep into their 20s, and as of filming Meet the Patels Ravi had had only one girlfriend, Audrey. Attractive, and depicted as level-headed and kind, on paper Audrey seems to have been the perfect girlfriend. But there was a major problem with her biodata: Audrey is a white American.

Eventually Ravi broke up with Audrey because of his confusions as to what he wanted in his life. Did he want what all his friends had? The American dream of love and marriage. Or, did he want what his parents had? An Indian arranged marriage.

But there is more to the Patels than just an Indian arranged marriage. Ravi Patel’s parents want him to marry someone from the same subcaste of Patels from the region of Gujarat that they come from. This is entirely typical of India culture. But it is rather peculiar in an American context. Though in some ways Ravi finds this all strange, some part of him also moots the idea that his parents have a comfort, a cultural identity, which he envies. At one point he goes back to Gujarat to a celebration of his people, his subcaste of Patels, and he looks around at wonderment at the safety and security of being among his people, his kith and kin.

As far back as Herodotus Indian society seems to have been characterized by caste. Genetically the castes, and more precisely jatis, are very distinct. And their persistence on the Indian scene suggest some level of functional utility.

Realistically Ravi could never recreate what he felt in Gujarat in the United States because such a community does not truly exist. Yes, there is kinship among Patels, as recounted by stories about Ravi and his family on the road, staying at Indian owned motels. But in the United States the Patels are a Diaspora, an archipelago of families scattered across the 50 states.

The romantic notions that Ravi airs in Meet the Patels about group solidarity, and cultural affinity of the sort his parents have, would seem creepy and disturbing if you posited in the context of an upper middle class WASP from New England. But the strong group cohesion evident among the Patels of Gujarat, and many Indian communities, also generates as a byproduct the sort of exclusion illustrated in the 1970 film Love Story.

And the exclusionary tendencies of middle class Gujaratis is reflected in part on the social-political nature of the state of Gujarat. It is in this state that the current prime minister, a tribune of lower middle class Hindu nationalism, grew up, and came to power. In it is in this state in the early 2000s that communal riots occurred, and accusations of organized genocide have been leveled.

The connections between liberal Democratic Indian Americans and right-wing Hindu nationalism in India have been extensively discussed. Meet the Patels is not a political film, it is a personal one. There is no reason that Ravi should address political topics in the documentary, and much of what I am saying here would be implicit to any South Asian watching Meet the Patels. But to many Americans these darker realities would not be visible or implied in the cultural practices which Ravi admires.

The attitudes expressed in Meet the Patels is no different from pining for the “good old days.” The reality is that the old days were often not so good. Or they weren’t how you remembered them. And just as some people pine for the days of yore, others romanticize the “homeland”, where everyone was your uncle and the aunties took care of you when your mother was a way. But this world is in many ways fundamentally regressive and constrained, and the benefits of communal responsibility are often correlated with inter-communal tension and conflict.

Again, there is no reason that Meet the Patels should have gone into this. But I wanted to put into the record what was unsaid so that those who see in it purely a charming inter-cultural story other dilemmas.

Related: Ravi’s AMA.

July 21, 2012

The nature of the media beast

Filed under: Blog,Media — Razib Khan @ 4:26 pm

Interesting discussion on the nature of media today, and the tendency toward driving traffic via the information equivalent of Twinkies. Below are my top 10 posts since moving to Discover Magazine measured by visits. The numbers to the right is the ratio of visits of the post over the past 2 years to the rough number of visits in an average day on this weblog.


1 People of class drink alcohol  41.8 2 Verbal intelligence by demographic 18.6 3 1 in 200 men direct descendants of Genghis Khan 14.8 4 Verbal vs. mathematical aptitude in academics 11.0 5 Atheism as mental deviance 7.8 6 Genetics & the Jews  7.7 7 How Ashkenazi Jewish are you? 6.2 8 Why Tibetans breathe so easy up high 5.7 9 No Romans needed to explain Chinese blondes 5.0 10 Facebook finally plateaus in 2011! 4.6

March 30, 2011

The New York Times “pay wall”

Filed under: Blog,Media,The New York Times — Razib Khan @ 11:09 pm

So what do readers of this blog think? Pay or no pay? It’s useful, and The New York Times is pretty massive in scope, if sometimes lacking in breadth. I love their data-oriented stuff, but I ignore their columnists and a lot of their “analysis,” which is frankly substandard if I know anything about the topic (which suggests to me if I don’t know about the topic, they barely do too). There are certain areas where blogs have a comparative advantage, and I don’t see why an organization with other strengths would even make an attempt.

January 10, 2011

Print vs. web in science

Filed under: Media,science — Razib Khan @ 10:26 am

I have some Google Alerts set up relating to human evolution and such, and a few days ago I noticed a spike in articles about the evolution of clothing and lice. Like this: We were all naked until 170,000 years ago. Since I blogged this in September, The naked years, I was confused. Here’s the explanation in USA Today:

The study, in this month’s print edition of Molecular Biology and Evolution, finds that the one louse species began to diverge into two about 170,000 years ago, 70,000 years before humans started migrating to colder climates, which began about 100,000 years ago.

The paper was on the website in early September, but didn’t make it into the print edition until 2011. I have no idea how this sort of stuff works; contrary to perceptions of many I’m not a science writer. Perhaps they blasted a new wave of press releases? Whatever they did, it worked. A huge plume of articles has been welling up over the weekend on the topic.

But it does make me wonder as to the possibility of getting new publicity for “old” science. There are certain papers which are going to make a big splash, no matter what. This is a case where there is a “hook,” but it isn’t a sure thing. And the core of the research on the evolution of lice morphs is a somewhat abstruse statistical method.

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