18 September 2013

Veracity #nlpoli

Not so long ago one of the frequent claims people in the conventional media used to make about “blogsters” was that you couldn’t trust what they wrote because it might not be true.

You don’t hear that sort of thing as much as you used to.  But  whenever the idea comes up, you have to wonder why some people believe that the Internet is uniquely vulnerable to harbouring untrue things.

After all, just this past weekend the Globe and Mail had a story by Jane Taber that was just nonsense.

Lots of people believed it.  People in the provincial government circulated it widely.

But it was false.

Now the first clue that something might be a bit fishy was the byline:  Jane Taber.   But you know people can make a mistake or six, so give the poor woman a break and read the article.

Taber claims that, while other provincial governments were cutting university funding a decade ago,  the provincial government in Newfoundland and Labrador decided to lower and freeze tuition fees at Memorial University.

While the government did that to help out the locals, the policy had an unintended consequence:

Although Newfoundland taxpayers are footing the bill, some of the students from elsewhere who came to Memorial, in part because of low tuition fees, are deciding to stay and work in the province, making it an economic tradeoff.

Scan down through the rest of the story.  You’ll see a quote from the university president about how out-of-province students make up 25% of the student population these days, compared to 5% in 2000.

There are lots of comments about how Nova Scotia post-secondary students are now looking to push the same tuition freeze policy in that province.

Notice anything yet?

There’s not a shred of evidence to prove that any of those students coming from Nova Scotia are staying in Newfoundland and Labrador once they finish their degree.  Weird, huh?  After all, if you make that kind of a statement it’s only logical that they would give you numbers.  The university has got them to show how the population of foreign students has jumped.

But on the serendipitous “economic tradeoff”?


That’s because there is no evidence to support the claim.

It gets better.

Look at the bit about the tuition drop and freeze.  Happened a decade ago.  Even university drop-outs know that a decade ago would be 2003.

Then there’s the quote from cabinet minister Joan Shea claiming credit for the policy.  That would be Joan Shea elected for the first time with the Conservatives in October 2003.

The tuition freeze came in 1999.  Brian Tobin was Premier.  Joan Shea wasn’t anywhere near politics.

The 25% reduction came in 2001.  Roger Grimes was Premier. And again Shea and her colleagues were nowhere near cabinet at the time.

The Conservatives did other things to lower education costs for students, but they had nothing to do with the tuition cut or the freeze.

The stuff in Taber’s story is just not true.

And yet it got published and thousands of Canadians believed it.

Let’s leave aside the idea that this somehow went against the national trend and actually gave the university more money, as Taber claimed right at the start of her article.

Let’s just note that the Internet had factual information (follow the links)while the Globe and Mail – primarily a printed newspaper – had a string of false information in a single story.

The Globe and Mail isn’t the only place where it is pretty easy to get someone to print false or misleading information. Back in July, local media of all sorts carried statements by a senior Nalcor executive that may well have been what he believed.  But they were not correct

It’s not the first time that has happened.  You’ll find lots of comments by government officials and others from 2009 onward about a decision by Quebec’s energy regulator that were, in a word, false.  Not true.

You are getting the picture.

Then there’s a more recent story about the Maritime Link portion of the Muskrat Falls project and a bank analyst’s view that the project might not go ahead.  This particular story was part of a spin campaign by Nalcor in the wake of a couple of stories that quite accurately questioned the future of the massive project.

Nalcor picked on a particular part of the earlier news stories that included the line that there was a “50% probability” the project would get sanction.

Tut tut, sayeth Nalcor.  The partners have already sanctioned the project.  There’s even a news release from last December that says so.

True, but it winds up being false because it only tells half of the story.  You see, under the revised agreement between Nalcor and Emera, their decision to “sanction” the project doesn’t mean everything will go ahead regardless of any other factors. 

If the Nova Scotia regulatory board doesn’t approve the project, then Nalcor and Emera have to go back and negotiate all over again.  There’s no Maritime Link project, although the parties say they will try to keep it going. Ultimately, the new agreement says the parties are free to make a decision in their own best interests.

In simplest terms, that means that the December “sanction” decision doesn’t matter if the Utility and Review Board doesn’t approve Emera’s application. It’s all right there in black and white in the December sanctioning agreement.

Now to really drive home the extent to which the Nalcor spin in the Telegram is likely not even close to true, read the actual BMO Nesbitt Burns commentary on Emera and the Maritime Link.  Note the words the analyst used were “50% probability of sanctioning.”

Now look at what Nalcor vice president Gil Bennett talks about: 

“For the purposes of (the Emera) earnings per share forecast, (BMO is) going to assume that there’s a 50 per cent probability that that contribution of earnings will show up in Emera’s share price. That’s different from saying there’s a 50 per cent probability that the project will proceed…”

He’s right.  That is a big difference.  And if the BMO analysts had meant there’s only a 50% chance of the contribution showing up in the share price, he’d have used those words.

But he didn’t.

He wrote “50% probability of sanctioning.”  He wrote it not once but twice.  Not only is Bennett’s claim not logical based on a plain English reading of the original comment, there’s no place in the document where the analyst says anything like what Bennett claimed. 

While the Telegram story didn’t get the BMO analyst to comment, a CTV Maritimes report includes words from the horse’s mouth. 

Analyst Ben Pham told CTV News in an email that “there remains outstanding headwinds/risks to removing those conditions [set by the UARB].”

That fits with the CTV interpretation and the plain English of the words:  the BMO guy thinks there’s a 50% probability of the project getting sanction based on the UARB conditions. 

Now you can get Bennett’s version to fit, but in order to do it you have to play with words like an ambulance chasing lawyer.  If you have to start playing around with the meaning of words like that,  odds are very good you are wandering around in the murky world of untruths, half-truths, and outright deception. That ain’t good.

Truth is you can get incorrect information in all sorts of places.  Lots of times we think one thing and then change our minds based on new or more accurate information.

As for false information – stuff that is obviously, knowably untrue from the outset – well you can get that in lots of places too. The only way you can protect yourself against that is to toss aside any prejudices against one source or another based on superficialities like whether it is in the news or on a blog. Pay attention instead to information itself.

As you can see, when you judge the information on its own merits, you would be shocked to find out how much bad information turns up in the best places.