Disconnection from Reality 3

Few British institutions are as respected as the country’s health care provider, the National Health Service, and a pledge to divert money to it helped convince Britons to vote for withdrawal from the European Union.

But that claim was long ago debunked.... ...
That [popular support for the NHS] explains the potency of the pledge, made by Brexit supporters in a 2016 referendum, to divert 350 million pounds — $465 million — a week from Britain’s annual payments to the European Union to the health service. The figure (which was based on gross, rather than net, contributions to the organization) was later described by Britain’s statistics agency as “a clear misuse” of official data. ...
Paul Johnson, director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, a highly regarded research institute, noted that the government had already accepted an analysis suggesting that Brexit would weaken public finances by about $20 billion a year. ...
“The Brexit dividend tosh was expected,” wrote Sarah Wollaston, who chairs the health and social care parliamentary select committee, on Twitter, “but treats the public as fools.”
- Stephen Castle, ‘Brexit Dividend’ for N.H.S.? British Leader Revives a Pledge, NYT, June 18, 2018

Simon Adler takes us down a technological rabbit hole of strangely contorted faces and words made out of thin air. And a wonderland full of computer scientists, journalists, and digital detectives forces us to rethink even the things we see with our very own eyes.
- Simon Adler, Breaking News, Radiolab, July 27, 2017

Adobe is in the early stages of developing its own program, called Adobe VoCo, which would be able to mimic someone's speech based on text. The company pitched it as Photoshop for audio. ...
"I don't think it's an overstatement to say that it is a potential threat to democracy," said Hany Farid, the chair of computer science at Dartmouth College.
- Tim Mak, Can You Believe Your Own Ears? With New 'Fake News' Tech, Not Necessarily, NPR, April 4, 2018

Using a tool like FakeApp (an app that uses deep learning to make face-swap videos), pretty much anyone can gather images and make a video without a lot of computational skill. Very swiftly we have moved from the crude superimposing of faces in movies and video games, to sophisticated AI tools that give the average citizen means for doctoring visual content, and limited help in discerning this doctored material.
In a world of fake news, anyone can write a story that seems reliable; soon generating fake videos will become as commonplace. ...
These technologies will become increasingly sophisticated over a very short period of time, making it more and more difficult for average consumers to be able to recognize deceptive tactics.

Nazism made things better for the people Mayer interviewed, not (as many think) because it restored some lost national pride but because it improved daily life. Germans had jobs and better housing. ... The blessings of the New Order, as it was called, seemed to be enjoyed by “everybody.”
Even in retrospect Mayer’s subjects liked and admired Hitler. They saw him as someone who had “a feeling for masses of people” and spoke directly in opposition to the Versailles Treaty, to unemployment—to all aspects of the existing order. They applauded Hitler for his rejection of “the whole pack”—“all the parliamentary politicians and all the parliamentary parties”—and for his “cleanup of moral degenerates.” The bank clerk described Hitler as “a spellbinder, a natural orator. I think he was carried away from truth, even from truth, by his passion. Even so, he always believed what he said.” ...
The killing of six million Jews? Fake news. Four of Mayer’s subjects insisted that the only Jews taken to concentration camps were traitors to Germany, and that the rest were permitted to leave with their property or its fair market value. The bill collector agreed that the killing of the Jews “was wrong, unless they committed treason in wartime. And of course they did.” He added that “some say it happened and some say it didn’t,” and that you “can show me pictures of skulls…but that doesn’t prove it.” In any case, “Hitler had nothing to do with it.” The tailor spoke similarly: “If it happened, it was wrong. But I don’t believe it happened.”
With evident fatigue, the baker reported, “One had no time to think. There was so much going on.” His account was similar to that of one of Mayer’s colleagues, a German philologist in the country at the time, who emphasized the devastatingly incremental nature of the descent into tyranny and said that “we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.” The philologist pointed to a regime bent on diverting its people through endless dramas (often involving real or imagined enemies), and “the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise.” In his account, “each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’” that people could no more see it “developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”
- Cass R. Sunstein, It Can Happen Here, New York Review of Books, JUNE 28, 2018

Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!
- Donald Trump, quoted in Michael D. Shear and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Trump Derides Border Security, but Calls Plan to Add Immigration Judges ‘Crazy’, NYT, June 19, 2018

In March, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a study showing that misinformation is endemic to Twitter. Falsehoods on the service “diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” they wrote.
- Farhad Manjoo, Employee Uprisings Sweep Many Tech Companies. Not Twitter., NYT, July 4, 2018

Yet the more I spoke to experts, the more convinced I became that propaganda bots on Twitter might be a growing and terrifying scourge on democracy. Research suggests that bots are ubiquitous on Twitter. Emilio Ferrara and Alessandro Bessi, researchers at the University of Southern California, found that about a fifth of the election-related conversation on Twitter last year was generated by bots. Most users were blind to them; they treated the bots the same way they treated other users. ...

Because they operate unseen, bots catalyze the news: They speed up the process of discovery and dissemination of particular stories, turning an unknown hashtag into the next big thing. A trending hashtag creates a trap for journalists who cover the internet: Even if they cover a conspiracy theory only to debunk it, they’re most likely playing into what the propagandists’ want.

Finally, in a more pernicious way, bots give us an easy way to doubt everything we see online. In the same way that the rise of “fake news” gives the president cover to label everything “fake news,” the rise of bots might soon allow us to dismiss any online enthusiasm as driven by automation. Anyone you don’t like could be a bot; any highly retweeted post could be puffed up by bots.
- Farhad Manjoo, How Twitter Is Being Gamed to Feed Misinformation, NYT, May 31, 2017

Britain is in this mess principally because the Brexiteers — led largely by Mr. Johnson — sold the country a series of lies in the lead up to the June 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union. ...
Because Mr. Johnson and Mr. Gove were confident that the Leave campaign was a hopeless cause, they were free to make ridiculous claims that they had no expectation of ever having to fulfill. They said that Brexit would make Britain both richer and more independent, with more money for the National Health Service, much greater control of immigration and continued friction-free trade with Europe.
Every earnest warning from the other side — about how any Brexit would damage trade, business and jobs — was dismissed airily by the Brexiteers. There were no costs or downsides in this vision of the future.
This casual dishonesty has had devastating consequences.

In the two years since the Leave campaign unexpectedly won, nobody, from the prime minister to Mr. Johnson to the Labour Party, has been able to come up with a plan for exiting the European Union that can satisfy both a majority in Parliament and the expectant public. Why? Because fulfilling the false promises peddled by Mr. Johnson during the campaign is impossible. ...
It is petrifying that the deliberate deceptions and wild ego of one man can so mislead a nation. (Americans know all about that.)
- Jenni Russell, Boris Johnson Has Ruined Britain, NYT, July 10, 2018

Mr. Obama seemed to take direct aim at Mr. Trump over his administration’s policies and his propensity for exaggerations and falsehoods. He said he was stunned how the notion of objective truth was now up for debate and how politicians make up facts and stand by baseless claims even after they are proved wrong. ...
But the financial collapse of 2008, Mr. Obama said, ushered in severe economic hardship, lost wages and unemployment that led many people to question how drastically the world had changed with globalization and technology. They became wary of immigration and denounced powerful elites in both politics and places like financial institutions, he said. ...
“Within the United States and within the European Union, challenges to globalization first came from the left but then came more forcibly from the right,” Mr. Obama said. “These movements tapped the unease that was felt by many people who lived outside the urban cores, fears that economic security was slipping away, that their social status and privileges were eroding, that their cultural identities were being threatened by outsiders, somebody who didn’t look like them or sound like them or pray as they did.”
- Matthew Haag, Obama Warns of ‘Strongman Politics’ After Trump’s Meeting With Putin, NYT, July 17, 2018

“Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Mo.

And then: '“What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
- Donald Trump, quoted in Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman, Spotting CNN on a TV Aboard Air Force One, Trump Rages Against Reality, NYT, July 24, 2018

Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower. This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics....
- Donald Trump, tweet, August 5, 2018

President Trump said on Sunday that a Trump Tower meeting between top campaign aides and a Kremlin-connected lawyer was designed to “get information on an opponent” — the starkest acknowledgment yet that a statement he dictated last year about the encounter was misleading. ...
But the tweet also served as an admission that the Trump team had not been forthright when Donald Trump Jr. issued a statement in July 2017 saying that the meeting had been primarily about the adoption of Russian children. ...
It is illegal for a campaign to accept help from a foreign individual or government. The president and his son have maintained that the campaign did not ultimately receive any damaging materials about Mrs. Clinton as a result of the meeting. But some legal experts contend that by simply sitting for the meeting, Donald Trump Jr. broke the law. ...
After the meeting was revealed, Mr. Trump posted a tweet similar to the one he wrote on Sunday morning: “Most politicians would have gone to a meeting like the one Don jr attended in order to get info on an opponent. That’s politics!” But his administration at the time was sticking to the adoption story line, with his press secretary, Sean Spicer, saying later that day that there was no evidence that anything but that topic had been discussed during the meeting.
Numerous White House aides and lawyers for the president aggressively denied at the time that the president had been involved in drafting the misleading statement. Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s lawyers, said in 2017 that “the president was not involved in the drafting of that statement.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the current press secretary, insisted that the president “certainly didn’t dictate” the statement.
But The Post reported in July 2017 that Mr. Trump had in fact done so. And earlier this year, Mr. Trump’s lawyers acknowledged in a memo to Mr. Mueller that the president had dictated the statement.
- Michael D. Shear and Michael S. Schmidt, President Admits Focus of Trump Tower Meeting Was Getting Dirt on Clinton, NYT, Aug. 5, 2018

And the public seems apathetic. On the phone with Serreze, the veteran journalist Seth Borenstein lamented, “How many times can a journalist report on what is happening in the Arctic before it becomes so repetitive that people lose interest?”
The great Dutch writer and historian Geert Mak once told me that in 1933 the Dutch newspapers were full of stories of the threat of Nazism, yet by 1938 those same papers were all but silent on the subject. Sometimes, it seems, threats to our future become so great that we opt to ignore them. Yet if we fail to act with the utmost urgency to slow climate change, we will invite catastrophe on all humanity.
- Tim Flannery, The Big Melt, New York Review of Books, AUGUST 16, 2018

“Not only will this tax plan pay for itself, but it will pay down debt,” Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said. This statement was absurd when Mr. Mnuchin made it, but it looks even more ridiculous now. The deficit and the federal debt are growing — and at a stunning pace. In the current fiscal year, the federal government will spend $912 billion more than it collects in revenue, an increase of 39 percent from the 2017 fiscal year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
- The Editorial Board, You Know Who the Tax Cuts Helped? Rich People, NYT, 8/12/2018

Economists say that Turkey’s economic crisis has been caused primarily by Mr. Erdogan’s mismanagement — unsustainable borrowing, cronyism and huge public works projects with little economic return.... Mr. Erdogan may not have solutions for his nation’s troubles, but so far he has deflected blame, relying on nationalism, resentment of the West, his firm grip on the country’s news media and his own formidable popularity and political skills. ...
Abdullatif Sener, a former deputy prime minister to Mr. Erdogan who is now an opposition member of Parliament, said, “the entire Turkish public now thinks that the cause of the economic crisis is Trump’s attack on Turkey, and this is strengthening Erdogan.”
- Carlotta Gall, Erdogan to Turkey: The West Is Waging ‘Economic War’, NYT, Aug. 17, 2018

- David Leonhardt, We’re Measuring the Economy All Wrong, NYT, Sept. 14, 2018

“I actually think it is one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about,” Mr. Trump said of the federal government’s response. He also falsely stated that the island’s electric grid and generating plant “was dead” before Hurricane Irma and then Hurricane Maria struck within weeks of one another.

The grid was poorly maintained and in terrible condition, but it is not the case that “it was largely closed,” or that “when the storm hit, they had no electricity, essentially, before the storm,” as the president stated.

Electricity was not restored to every customer on the island until a few weeks ago. The director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said that about a quarter of the $3 billion in repairs, which were paid for by the federal government, would probably have to be redone.
- Frances Robles, Trump Calls Storm Response in Puerto Rico, Where 3,000 Died, ‘One of the Best’, NYT, Sept. 11, 2018

While delivering forceful messages of warning and reassurance, Mr. Trump has also been busy awarding himself good grades for past hurricanes and even accusing opponents of inventing a death toll “to make me look as bad as possible.” ...
Angry at criticism of his response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year, he denied on Thursday that nearly 3,000 people had died, falsely calling it a made-up number by Democrats out to get him.

[Fact Check: Democrats had nothing to do with the increase in the death toll in Puerto Rico.]

His defiant rejection of the widely accepted count infuriated the island’s leadership and even some Republican leaders in Congress. But it was hardly the first time Mr. Trump has dismissed consensus facts that do not fit his narrative.
- Peter Baker, As a New Hurricane Roars In, Trump Quarrels Over the Last One, NYT, Sept. 13, 2018

We had become aware that academic researchers were receiving large payments from drug companies and that it was distorting their work. For example, I once phoned the senior author of a paper submitted to us to ask why he had neglected to mention the side effects of a potent new drug he was testing. Without any apparent embarrassment, he said that the sponsor wouldn’t let him. We didn’t publish the paper, but another journal did. ...
Second, there’s good evidence that drug company involvement biases research in ways that are not always obvious, often by suppressing negative results. A review of 74 clinical trials of antidepressants, for example, found that 37 of 38 positive studies — that is, studies that showed that a drug was effective — were published. But 33 of 36 negative studies were either not published or published in a form that conveyed a positive outcome.
- Marcia Angell, Transparency Hasn’t Stopped Drug Companies From Corrupting Medical Research, NYT, Sept. 14, 2018

But foreigners rolling their eyes and dismissing the men’s account as patently implausible may be missing the point. For Russia, the yardstick of success for the interview was not credibility.

“It is a slap in the face of the West,” said Peter Pomerantsev, a fellow at the London School of Economics and author of “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” an account of his time as a television producer in Moscow. Russia, said Mr. Pomerantsev, “gave up a long time ago on trying to convince anybody that it is telling the truth.”

But the Kremlin works hard to confuse and distract, and to convince everyone, whether inside Russia or beyond, that President Vladimir V. Putin is so strong he can set his own truth, no matter how hard it may be to believe.
- Andrew Higgins, Tragedy? Farce? Confusion? The Method Behind That Russian Poisoning Interview, NYT, Sept. 18, 2018

According to the New York Times, North Carolina's 9.7 million pigs produce 10 billion gallons of manure per year:

North Carolina has 9.7 million pigs that produce 10 billion gallons of manure annually, mostly on large-scale farms and primarily in low-lying Sampson and Duplin counties.
- Kendra Pierre-Louis, Lagoons of Pig Waste Are Overflowing After Florence. Yes, That’s as Nasty as It Sounds., NYT, Sept. 19, 2018

That amounts to about 1,000 gallons per pig per year, or about 3 gallons per pig per day (more precisely, 10,000 / 9.7 / 365 = 2.82 gallons per pig per day), which seems implausibly high. A quick look at available data suggests it is more than double the actual amount of a bit over 1 gallon per day:

Some colleagues and I recently had a project were we collected manure samples from swine manure deep-pits at right around 60 farms for a little over a year. As part of this study every month we measured the depth of manure in the storage pit, which allowed us to calculate manure accumulation (or production since we were catching all the manure) rates. ...
So for a grow-finish operation finishing at 285 lbs my average manure production number is right around 1.1 gallons per head per day, at 300 lbs it is right around 1.15 gallons per head per day. At this time I still use 1.2 gallons per head per day. For a wean finish operation I'd bring that number down to about 1.0 gallons per head per day.
- The Manure Scoop, Daniel Andersen [aka Dr. Manure], Bigger Pigs: More Manure and Impact on Facility Design, Thursday, April 23, 2015

Despite its claimed concern for accuracy, the Times failed here to avoid or correct a fairly obvious factual error. Much the same mistake appears in other Times articles:

Eastern North Carolina rivers like the Cape Fear now serve less as the commercial lifeblood than they did in decades past. Instead, Dr. Riggs said, they are “our sewage and drainage systems.” Nowhere is that more evident than in the hundreds of pig farms in counties upstream along the Cape Fear and its tributaries. The state has 9.7 million pigs that produce nearly 10 billion gallons of manure every year.
- David Zucchino, ‘Nastiest I’ve Ever Seen It’: Residents Along Cape Fear River Brace for Record Floods, NYT, Sept. 18, 2018

North Carolina has 9.7 million pigs, producing almost 10 billion gallons of manure annually.
“It’s 500 times the waste produced by the entire population of Washington D.C.,” said Alexis Andiman, an associate attorney with EarthJustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm that has sued the state over its handling of animal waste.
- KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS, NADJA POPOVICH and HIROKO TABUCHI, Florence Floodwaters Breach Coal Ash Pond and Imperil Other Toxic Sites, NYT, Sept. 13, 2018, UPDATED Sept. 17, 2018

The claim that the pig manure produced is 500 times the waste produced by the population of D.C. is also implausible. The population of D.C. is about 700,000 (in 2018), so we are invited to believe 9.7 million pigs produce as much waste as would be produced by 500 x 700,000 = 350 million people, meaning that on average a pig produces 350 / 9.7 = 36 times as much poop as a person. At around 300 pounds or somewhat less, a full grown pig weighs about twice as much as a full grown human. So a pig might be expected to produce around twice as much waste as a human; it is hard to believe it produces over 35 times as much.

The origin of the inaccuracy regarding pig manure production is unclear. One source of confusion may lie in the fact that pig manure volumes are typically discussed in the context of considering the size of "lagoon" needed for anaerobic pig waste treatment. Typically the excretions drop through a grate and are then flushed into the lagoon. What is flushed to the lagoon includes manure plus "wasted water" ("water wastage and washdown" --- "wasted water from waterers and building washdown can increase the manure volume by 10 to 30%") plus the water used for flushing. Most flush tanks release 250 to 500 gallons per flush, and manure is flushed 4 to 12 times per day. If the building being flushed contains 880 hogs, and 500 gallons are used 8 times per day, the flushing adds 4000 / 880 = 4.5 gallons per hog per day. The effluent entering the anaerobic lagoon may be referred to as manure, but such "manure" is very different from the ordinary understanding of manure as dung. For details, see:

Swine Manure Production and Nutrient Content (Ch. 3 of CAMM Swine Training Manual),
Management of Lagoons and Storage Structuresfor Swine Manure (Ch. 4 of CAMM Swine Training Manual),
Manure Volume and Weights in Typical North Carolina Animal Production Systems, Table 4-15 in FERTILIZER USE, Chapter IV of the 2018 North Carolina Agricultural Chemicals Manual.

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