Cost-Benefit Analysis for Journalists and Fact Checking

I’ve read so many rebuttals of journalists which say things like “<journalist> did not take the effort to speak with experts/check their facts/verify the evidence…. in the future they should…”

I’m pretty sure the guilty journalists in these cases *usually* know this, they just don’t care.

I can imagine a journalist being on top of a great story, a story full of controversy, of revelation and exposé…. and the last thing they want to happen is tofind some inconvenient bloody fact which undermines the whole damn story!

If that happened they would have to start all over again on a completely new story which will definitely be far less exciting and interesting. It is much easier, and far more rewarding to publish the (potentially inaccurate) scoop that they have and get crap loads of exciting traffic and create a buzz and a hive of activity and “conversation”, than it is to ‘go speak to the experts’.

This doesn’t seem like a good system for the consumers.

I haven’t thought of a solution to fixing it yet. Anyone got any ideas?

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Surviving as an entrepreneur

It only occurred to me recently just how difficult it is for most people to pursue entrepreneurial activities.

The stats of success for small businesses are notoriously bad. The stats for successful startups is significantly worse. Tiny fractions of a percent actually make it to being profitable, and the road to going from new novel idea to successful business is incredibly difficult. It is uncertain and a process which evolves as you make it happen. You start with nothing, and work for nothing to build something of value, never knowing if you will even make revenue let alone turn a profit until you reach that point…and sometimes that point is months or even years after you start working.

How many people can work for years without making money?

Pretty close to 0% I would guess. It is a very privileged minority who can work on a project for years without needing to make money while they do it. Just think about how much this amplifies the difficulty of making a startup you are working on successful. If a startup is already an incredibly challenging proposition – something which is necessarily an unknown proposition, which unfolds as you manually force it all to happen by virtue of your own relentless will, held back by endless setbacks, disappointments, distractions, mistakes and common human flaws – then multiple all of that difficulty by the factor of “Must also work part time to fund this endeavour”, then you now have a situation where you have an incredibly difficult thing to do and only some of your spare time to do it in.

It is amazing anyone ever succeeds.

Of course, the standard solution to this is to pitch early. Get seed funding. Then get series A funding. Get a few million dollars of someone else’s money behind the project, and finally you can just get to work. Money is no longer an issue; not survival money anyway, business money is always going to be an issue but at least you can focus on working for a while without worry about being able to feed yourself, pay rent or catch a bus.

But pitching to investors really isn’t a perfect solution. Pitching doesn’t just automatically lead to instant money. First of all, investors want to see that you have already demonstrated that your product is viable, or is going to work because it has some early traction. So you must have already put in crap loads of work (for free) making something which proves you’re worthy of their money. Then you will need stop working on your project and instead start working on pitching full time (also without pay) so that you can find the right investor(s) who understand your vision.

It is very rare to get investment from the first investor you talk to. I’ve heard numbers where people have to meet with 50-100 investors before they finally get funding, spending 3 to 6 months, or even longer, to secure funding. That is 6 months taken away from working on the project! And again, you’re somehow meant to survive through that whole process… Either you are already independently wealthy, or you’re only pitching part time while you work to survive…or you are lucky enough to have a family or partner successful/generous enough to support you while you work.

When you consider all of the factors against success, and then think about them being constantly reapplied over time; difficulties, rejections, changes in strategy happening every week, every month for many months… the psychological toll is significant. My suspicion is that most startup failures are actually a result of attrition. That is, they would keep pushing and trying if they had the resources to do so, but the constant set backs and rejections are all happening under the shadow of “How much longer can I keep this up for before I lose my house/can’t afford food/disappoint my family for the last time?”

My suspicion is that if this ever-present shadow of ultimate-failure was removed from the picture, there would be a lot more interesting and progressive startups out there…

The Luxury of Being Able to be an Entrepreneur

My life as an entrepreneur has been incredibly lucky. I stumbled into my first business straight out of University and made a fantastic low-effort easily monetised website which then paid me a small income for many years after that. That small income – never quite enough to thrive on, but always enough to get by – gave me the freedom to explore several business ideas over the last 5 years.

At the beginning of 2012 I started working on rbutr, and it became my whole focus. I had actually already stopped paying adequate attention to my first business, and 3 or so years after starting to neglect it, it’s income has now dwindled down to a trickle. With that now the case, I am made doubly aware of just how much support I have from my awesome family. My parents and my partner both are incredibly supportive and explicitly provide the security in my life which ensures that I have the freedom to continue working on a project which has no promise of making money any time soon.

What a luxury I have…

rbutr is one of those projects which is going to change the world. But if I didn’t have the freedom to pursue it relentlessly on account of a bit of early luck, and an awesome understanding and supportive family (who are by no means wealthy, btw, just very generous and understanding), then rbutr could easily become just another footnote in the history of failed efforts to make a difference.

I know that no one else sees the importance of rbutr as much as I do. I know that no one else will make this happen if I don’t. I also know that when it happens, everyone will look back and point out how obvious it was, and how they ‘had the same idea’ and “I could have made that!” But no one else will, because it is bloody hard to do.

I have had great luck. I have incredible support. I got so lucky when I found my partner, Craig, who is an incredible developer that just made the MVP happen within a month. I am lucky that we have been able to build a small group of true fans that keep pushing this project forward. I am lucky we have had other friends start helping out, volunteering their time to work on this project… We have had so much go right for us. And we’re still a million light years away from ‘success’. We could disappear tomorrow and a tiny fraction of a percent of the world population would even remember that we tried.

This shit is hard!

But I have the vision so strongly planted in my mind now that I cannot unsee it. I know where this is going, and it is amazing. I am just lucky that I don’t have to walk away. Not just yet anyway. I am running out of time…I have that shadow hanging over me (in my case, it is a baby due soon combined with the end of savings and a guilt of being so dependent on family)… but that is my issue which I need to solve before I hit that wall.

The point I am trying to make here, is that even with incredible luck in the form of an early success, an incredibly supportive family and girlfriend, and a startup idea that is truly revolutionary, which has some strong traction and powerful allies, I’m still in a position where there is a chance that I can fail just out of attrition. If we don’t get funding within the next few months, or start bringing in a revenue, then I will be forced to get a job. And that kinda sucks….

The Value of a Successful Startup

This leads me to the second part of this post: successful startups are a big deal.

When someone makes a Google or a Facebook, they take an idea, and they turn that little bit of nothingness into a great big money making machine. And I don’t just mean for themselves, I mean a machine which makes money for thousands of employees, for all of the businesses that they do business with, and most importantly, tax revenue which ultimately is intended to benefit everyone in society.

When you look at the fact that the large tech companies of the USA (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc), those companies have the same amount of revenue as Australia’s largest companies (mining, banks and grocery giants). That is, tech companies which (largely) sell non tangible substances (software, copyright, advertising) to a global audience bring in as much revenue (and much more profit) as companies which have to either extract limited resources from the ground, or sell real goods to consumers, or take a cut of transaction costs of Australians. Clearly non-tangible products sold to a global market is of a far greater value to the Australian population than companies who take a cut out of our own resources?

Getting a Google equivalent company in Australia would have such a huge impact on our economic position that it would be worth investing a lot of money into it, right? When you can take an idea from nothing, to 60+ billion dollars in revenue (again, from people all over the world) each year… that must produce a phenomenal return to the Australian economy in the form of jobs and tax revenue.

Surely this outcome is something worth fighting for?

Giving Entrepreneurs a Fighting Chance

What can we do to help improve our chances of finding Australia’s Google or Microsoft? How about removing that ‘shadow’ that hangs over all entrepreneurs? How about making it so that people feel free to work on projects which don’t make money, and aren’t even certain what the final product will look like, without fear of starving or losing their lives and family?

There are a couple of ways to do this. One option is to make a startup focused system, similar to what the Startup Chile program did, but focus it on Australian startups (instead of global), evaluate a pool of applicants and provide generous grants to a certain number of companies each year, giving them all the oxygen they need to keep pushing their idea uphill. This is one narrow method of solving this problem – though it still suffers some of the same limitations experienced by normal pitching (you need to prove your business worthy and spend time perfecting your pitch before you are likely to get the money).

A better solution is to embrace the concept of a Universal Basic Income.

If everyone had access to a guaranteed income which would be sufficient to ensure food and rent, then you would empower innumerable people to take the risks necessary to chase their startup dreams, and push forward on them relentlessly until they succeeded, or at least exhausted their own confidence. You would empower the exploration of ideas which may seem crazy, but also might just change the world.

The finding of another Google, Facebook, Microsoft or Apple would offset the cost of funding these dreamers many times over. It may not cover the costs of providing a Basic Income to everyone, but that is a wider question already well covered elsewhere. I just wanted to point out that it is generally acknowledged that funding many startups is the best approach to finding ‘the one’ which makes so much money that all of the other ‘losers’ are so insignificant in their costs as to not even be noticeable (<- this is a big link because you really should read this to understand how significant this point is!).

Giving everyone a Basic Income won’t make them all Elon Musks, but it does give them the security to try to be, and thereby the opportunity to prove themselves, or not. The ones who fail get to try again, or return to normal employment, or whatever else they wish without ever facing the specter of ultimate failure (abject poverty). While those who succeed – even if it is just 1 or 2 or 3 of them in total – will earn their way off the basic income into the lands of the ultra-wealthy. Where their business will more than pay for itself and all of its fallen brothers, and where the entrepreneur who made it will also hopefully be happy to pay the high taxes appropriate to their absurdly large income, at peace with the fact that they are only in that position because of the tax-sacrifices of those who came before them, not naively holding on to the easily-disproved notion that they made it ‘all on their own’.

No human has ever made it all on their own. We are a social species, and we depend on each other for everything. Let’s accept that fact and empower as many people as possible, and make the world a better place for everyone.

 

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Correcting the Internet – The difficulties, and a new approach

I just published a new article reviewing an academic paper on the rbutr blog:

 

Review of The Promise and Peril of Real-Time Corrections to Political Misperceptions by Garret and Weeks

by SHANE on APRIL 17, 2013

Research published in the Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) Journal shows that apps which highlight incorrect information and provide real time corrections may actually be less effective at changing the minds of people who have a pre-disposition to agree with the incorrect information, than time-delayed correction techniques are.

Here I will review the paper, and then reflect on its findings from the perspective of our efforts (rbutr) to create an alternative system of ‘error correction’ in the form of a semantic linkage between claim-rebuttal webpage pairs.

 

Read the rest on the rbutr blog.

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Thailand and Random Thoughts

Just a quick update from Ao Nang, Krabi, Thailand. We’re 4 days in to our 2 weeks stay here, which is just a stop over on our way back to Australia where I can get back to work with Craig on rbutr. Really excited about getting back to work on that because it has been so long since we have been able to really get any work done on it, and we have had some really good statistics lately in spite of the lack of work and efforts to get publicity. Specifically, last week saw twice as many people as usual adding rebuttals, and we got an article in the Fox News website directly reference rbutr. Oh, and I am also quite excited about having made a contact with a professor who specifically researches computation and programs designed to refute erroneos information online. So there is lots happening there. Can’t wait to see where it all goes.

But for now, it is chill out time in Thailand. Cheap beautiful food, amazing activities, warmth, swimming, massages, rock climbing and kayaking. And probably a few big nights.

Not sure I really have a point for this post. Just thought I would write something while I had a chance. I should be uploading my photos to facebook instead I guess :p

 

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HomeopathyPlus! and Curing Autism with Homeopathy – a rebuttal

The website HomeopathyPlus – the winner of the 2012 Australian Skeptic’s Bent Spoon award – has a page which lists a number of letters which it claims were written by mothers of children who were cured of their autism by Homeopathic practitioners. A request for a rebuttal has come through on rbutr, and being unable to find a direct rebuttal myself, I went to the Reddit group Debunk This to see if they could help out. They provided some valuable points, but no articles either, so I have decided to write my own Direct Rebuttal to this page, summarising the points made in the Reddit post.

  1. There is no evidence or way to verify that any of these people are real.
    All of the letters only refer to the children by their first name, and provide no name or contact details for the mothers who wrote the letters. It is possible that these letters are complete fabrications for all we know. It is important to note this fact, because we are dealing with anecdotes here. There is no clinical trial, no records, no evidence of any measurable kind to assess. Simply anecdotes by unknown people who may or may not exist.
    Side note: All of the pictures associated with the stories are stock photos.
  2. The Homeopathic Cure may be no different than the outcome of standard development and hard work
    Autistic children learn how to cope with their autism, and natural development changes them. All of these stories don’t really reveal anything happening here which could not happen spontaneously without homeopathic interference. Without real information on the severity of the autism, and with no knowledge of who actually diagnosed the children, these stories provide very little insight.
  3. Homeopathy fails on all scientific front to be a feasible treatment
    This is the ultimate point which should give everyone a reason to suspect that there is false attribution going on here (ie: The ‘remission’ of symptons happened spontaneously or through development or some other treatment rather than homeopathy). Homeopathy ultimately relies on the claim that water can ‘remember’ particles which have previously passed through it, and then use this information in some productive way. After significant amounts of time and money spent trying to demonstrate this or find evidence for it, it never has been. And there is endless amounts of scientific research and applied technology which contradicts it.

    Homeopathy is unscientific. Clinical trials of it are no different to statistical variations on a placebo. To claim that homeopathy can cure autism, you need a lot more than 6 anecdotes from unidentified people.

If you found this rebuttal through rbutr, share it with everyone! And look

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Public Beta and Annoying Hackers

So mid way through last week Ben Goldacre kindly tweeted about rbutr, and our traffic exploded. In response, we decided to quickly open up our beta testing and allow people to start registering and downloading the app freely. So now we’re basically live! People are registering often and new links are being added all the time.

In the meantime, some annoying wordpress exploit seems to have been hit by an automated system and our blog has been compromised. Nothing serious has happened to it, they have just altered our .htaccess file so that everything redirects to their website. Basically, they broke our blog and we haven’t figured out how to fix it yet. We’re looking in to moving to another server which will hopefully fix the exploit (my host hasn’t even replied to the four or so emails I have sent them. Very disappointed with that.)

Also, the first rbutr members email is about to be sent out. Just to let everyone know what is happening, and who has been doing good rbutr work 🙂

 

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rbutr Beta Testing Starts Soon

We’re just making the final adjustments now, and running some quick tests to make sure things work before we send out the emails to all of our Beta tester registrants. If you have not entered your email address for the beta testing, then you will not be able to participate in this first round, but we will be accepting more registrations in preparation for a larger second wave of testers.

http://rbutr.com is where you can register for participation! You should 🙂

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Promoting Specific Agendas With rbutr

Reposted from the rbutr blog:

I have been contacting people about rbutr over the past few weeks in an attempt to guage community interest in the app and to see if anyone will actually use it (probably just about the most important thing when building a new application…) and this concern has already been brought to my attention at least once, and I saw it again in the comments to a New Scientist article on one of our predecessors – Dispute Finder (Think Link): http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17339-dispute-finder-web-tool-gives-two-sides-of-a-story.html

Reader ‘Jon’ commented:

This is potentially a dangerous tool. All the climate change deniers will flag all the scientific pages, and point to their blogs. Then an unknowing citizen searches climate change and thinks there is a real debate. That’s just frightening.

So it is worth addressing these concerns before I hear them much more. Anyone who is so uncertain about their own position on a subject that they are afraid of people hearing an alternative perspective, really ought to be looking in to their own beliefs a lot more. Or to put it another way, let me quote one of my favourite quotes of all time:

“John Stuart Mill… argued that silencing an opinion is ‘a peculiar evill.’ If the opinion is right, we are robbed of the ‘opportunity of exchanging error for truth’; and if it’s wrong, we are deprived of a deeper understanding of the truth in ‘it’s collision with error.’ If we know only our own side of the argument, we hardly even know that; it becomes stale, soon learned by rote, untested, a pallid and lifeless truth.”
-Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World

I believe this quote captures a philosophical sentiment which is so important, that the fear of ‘abuse’ at the hands of “the enemy” is made completely irrelevent. Particularly when that fear is raised in relation to an app like Dispute Finder, or rbutr. Remember, rbutr is not Fox News – it won’t pretend to be Fair and Balanced while constantly spinning each story a particular way. rbutr is just a tool – it has no bias, only it’s users do. And if you see someone exhibiting a bias, you have just as much power to counteract it as they have to enact it.

Websites with bias already exist. Social media and search engines already allow people to share and search for these biased websites. What rbutr is going to change about this equation, is that your ‘filter bubble‘ will have a permanent hole in it – a nice little rbutr sized hole, where you can choose to step out in to the big wide world of ‘someone else’s opinion’ any time you want.

And that is pretty cool.

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The Ultimate Objective of rbutr

Repost from the rbutr blog, titled: The Ultimate Objective of rbutr

The ultimate objective of rbutr, is to help bring online discussions to the best possible conclusion available with the known information.

The method used to achieve this could be called “Forced Principle of Charity” whereby the Principle of Charity is manufactured by finding and presenting the best possible rebuttal to a claim rather than needing to ‘assume it’ or ‘fill in the blanks’ on behalf of the claim.

Through iteration of this action, the discussion is necessarily forced towards some sort of a conclusion.

I see it working this way: There are thousands of different entry points to an argument, but most of the time when having one of these discussions, you inevitably wind your way through all of these random peripheral claims and positions and inevitably find yourself at one of the (or several of the) core principles/claims/beliefs which underlie the main difference of opinion.  Ideally, how rbutr will work, is that through a combination of direct rebuttals, and general rebuttals, all of these peripheral arguments will eventually be step-wise redirected towards ‘the best rebuttal possible for the core tenants of disagreement’. Once this mythical article is written and voted up by the community to take its place as the hub point of all of the online discussions on this particular subject, then the real discussion can continue.

With ‘the best possible rebuttal to the core points of disagreement’ in place then there should be an active ongoing competition between people who disagree with that rebuttal to write ‘the best possible rebuttal’ to it. The community will vote, filter and select their way through the rebuttals until they find it, and then we have rebuttal number 2 of the conversation. And so on, down a path of direct rebuttals until the most reasonable conclusion is reached.

I need to find an animator to work with on this, because I think we could make an incredibly effective visual representation of this process.

Problems (obviously)

So yeah, obviously the description above is set in an ideal world, with sufficient users all motivated by the search for the truth – which is rarely representative of the human population. Although, that being said, we don’t need to worry about ‘the human population’ too much. We just need to worry about the culture of our users, and do our best to make sure all of our users are motivated by the quest for the truth. That will go a long way towards ensuring our results are as close as possible to this ideal world view.

 

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