Thursday, February 28, 2013

(No.232) The sensitive Globe and Mail plus some interesting numbers

"The sensitive Globe and Mail refuses correction -- 
and some interesting numbers"

by Alastair Rickard

The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Canada's self-described "national newspaper" is, in my experience, rather sensitive to letters pointing out its journalistic shortcomings. The following Feb. 21, 2013 letter I wrote to the editor of the Globe was not published. I was not surprised and the reader may be able to guess why.

"Sir: In spite of the fact that we are in an era of too much uncritical media focus on the results of unscientific polling (self-selecting, online, focus groups et al) as well as the unreliable results of supposedly scientific polling, q.v., Nate Silver's pre-election coverage of polling in the New York Times, a Globe story today injects another element: failing to qualify a manifestly inaccurate statement about specific poll results by pollster Nick Nanos ("War of 1812 extravaganza failed to excite Canadians") . 

"As in the contrived and superficial discussion of the same poll results yesterday on CBC News Network Nick Nanos wants the entire focus to be on the fact that "only about 15% [sic] of Canadians felt more patriotic as a result of the [federal government's 1812] celebrations".

"In fact: if the proportion of poll respondents who felt "somewhat more patriotic" are included then the result is actually 35+% of Canadian respondents whose feelings of patriotism were increased by the federal government's War of 1812 celebrations. A rather different picture.

"Instead of the puerile survey question presumably used for tabloid effect, the useful question might better have been along the lines of: "Do you think the federal government's efforts to mark the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 were worthwhile/justified as a celebration of a key event in Canadian history?"

"In any case the Globe article should have reported the actual Nanos poll results before allowing the proprietor to misrepresent what the poll results actually were."


A TD Bank study in 2008 indicated that 50% of adult Canadians have trouble reading. Various studies of literacy in Canada indicate that something on the order of at least 25% of Canadians are illiterate or 40+% if the semi-literate are included.

This is a reality rarely mentioned by the tech groupies who joyfully point to the proportion of Canadians who do not read a newspaper regularly or at all but derive their knowledge from the internet, a fact perhaps even less encouraging when studies reveal that 22% of university graduates have inadequate levels of literacy.

A recent survey from RBC Wealth Management concludes that 37% of Canadians with investable assets of more than $1 million do not have a will. No life insurance agent or estate planner who has spent time with clients will be surprised. Indeed the proportion of Canadians generally without wills is estimated to be at least 56% in one recent study in which a major reason given by those surveyed for having no will was that they were "still too young".

This form of self-delusion is not as unusual as it may first seem. It involves the same psychological factor that is so important to the fact that most people will not on their own initiate the purchase of individual life insurance: to do so is to undertake something which is inseparable from a contemplation of one's own mortality.


For much of the 20th century American psychologists overwhelmingly embraced the principle that environment and not heredity is the greatest factor in determining the differences beween individuals. But the results of a landmark study between 1979 and 1999 which examined 137 pairs of twins separated in early childhood and raised in different households changed alot of opinions.

After thousands of tests involving the twins separated at birth the study's authors concluded that a huge number of personality traits previously thought  to be influenced by environment and upbringing were in fact driven by genes.

For example: birth twins Jim Springer and Jim Lewis who, although they were raised forty miles apart in Ohio, had both worked in law enforcement, were both hobbyist carpenters, drove Chevrolets, took holidays on the same beach in Florida, smoked Salems and drank Miller Lite; both had been married twice, first to women named Linda and then to women named Betty, and had sons with nearly identical names (James Alen and James Allen).

This landmark study and its conclusions are the subject of "Born Together -- Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study" by Nancy Segal (2012).


Followers of international affairs will be familiar with the latest of the manifestations of the continuing and longstanding hostility between China and Japan. Many will understand why. A major source goes back to the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s and especially to the 'Rape of Nanking'. During 6 weeks or so beginning in Dec. 1937 the Imperial Japanese Army massacred what historians agree were at least 250,000 -- 300,000 Chinese civilians. This was also known as the Nanking Massacre.

In the west we know that during World War II Japan had a very bad record in its treatment of prisoners of war: 30% of Western POWs captured by Japan died due to malnutrition and its attendant diseases, overwork as slave labour, torture and wanton killings.

But by far Japan's greatest crime vis-a-vis POWs was against the Chinese. On Dec. 7,1941, after several years of war in China, Japan held approximately 340,000 Chinese POWs. At the end of the WW II 56 [sic] remained alive; not 56,000, not 5600, not 560 but 56.

A new study of POWs in WWII is Craig B. Smith's "Counting The Days: POWs, internees and stragglers of World War II in the Pacific".


Many English-Canadian parents are anxious to give their children an edge by having them spend time in French immersion language programs common now for many years in the public school systems of most provinces outside Quebec.

Speaking more than one language is indeed an accomplishment. "Hyperpolyglottery" is the term coined to refer to fluency in 6 or more languages.

Supposedly the known leader historically in this field was the Cardinal Giuseppe Messofanti of Italy (1776-1849). It has been said that he knew 72 languages but a more soundly based estimate by historians is a still amazing 39 languages.


Many of us have read about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in criminal trials. Even in death penalty cases in the U.S. such testimony has often been accepted by juries when, in terms of justice,  it should not have been. Perhaps it is partly the effect on juries of having seen too many movies and television dramas in which eyewitness identification of the accused is the key to achieving the 'right verdict'.

DNA testing has demonstrated, if any further demonstration was needed, the folly of imposing the death penalty since clearly it means the execution of too many innocent persons. Canada, in the absence of the death penalty since the government of John Diefenbaker, has a long list of innocent persons convicted of murder who would have otherwise been executed but ended up being exonerated, too often after many years of imprisonment.

Remember these ten famous Canadian 'murderers' who ended up exonerated (just a few among many)?

David Milgaard
Steven Truscott
Wilbert Coffin
Thomas Sophonow
Donald Marshall
Guy Paul Morin
Gregory Parsons
James Driskell
Robert Baltovich
William Mullins-Johnson

It is just such a list of the wrongly convicted that should convince even the most ardent defenders of the death penalty of its inherent injustice. In the U.S. the list of the wrongly convicted is much longer.

Because DNA testing makes it possible to measure the validity of eyewitness testimony in certain criminal cases a recent U.S. study of American cases is particularly interesting. Of 40 cases in which DNA evidence established the innocence of wrongly imprisoned people the study showed that 36 of them (90%) had involved mistaken eyewitness identification.




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