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Ideology and Facts

For some time, I have been on a hiatus from the blog.  That does not mean that I was tuned off from what’s going on in the world.  Despite my temporary leave of absence, I till end up devoting non-trivial amounts of time to corresponding over emails with friends … and editors on this blog about current events.

I was just about to send another email when I realized that instead of not blogging, and just emailing, perhaps I can do some short posts (taking less than 20 minutes each, say) and share my thoughts here and there.  It’s not the way I usually blog, but maybe I can do a few of those before I get time to get back to the way I used to blog.

For today, I will share with you this link: http://www.factmonster.com/ipka/A0001779.html, a page about the “principal rivers of the world,” instead of just writing privately to the editors of this blog about it.

You’d think that a factoid page on the major rivers of the world would present information in a straightforward fashion – where it starts, where it ends, its length, etc.  But no, in the page linked above, in the source of the river section, you see how for every river, save the Nile (which is complicated in having several sources), the source location is indicated by a national designation of some sort for sources outside the U.S., and a more localized geographic location (such as a state or a lake) for those inside the U.S.  However, when the river source is located in China, things became complicated.  The source of Chang Jiang was indicated as “China,” and the Yellow River “Western China.” And for other rivers with sources in China, China gets dropped altogether – you get  “Tibetan highlands,” “Himalayas,” and “Tibet, south of Kunlun Mts.”

We have devoted a lot of time in this blog discussing about people biases and ideologies.  Many seem to think that we should just deal with facts; they gravitate to the notion that at least we can agree on facts.  But “facts” can also be just as ideological.

Often facts are picked for the presumptions they evoke.  Remember the New York times on the family wealth of Wen Jia Bao or the recent story about Chinese leaders being wealthier than Congress leaders?  Most of those facts were selective: facts cherry-picked from millions for the emotional weight and presumptions they evoke rather than any insight they might represent.  Money in the hand of the powerful evokes envy, shame, and a defensive stance that perhaps they were ill-begotten.  You evoke the fact, the presumptions stand out in everyone’s head.  But were the wealth illicitly gotten?  Nothing but innuendos.  Nothing is ever made to distinguish between wealth genuinely obtained (rags to riches) vs. wealth pilloried –  or to view things in statistical terms.  For example, can the wealth of a very few outliers individuals simply be that – which as outliers, by definition, defy explanation? No control is ever set for when wealth should be attributed to a group – be a Wen’s family or the National People’s Congress – or not?

Consider the latest story on Chinese leaders being insanely rich – at least as compared to U.S. Congress.  Upper house NPC members (where those rich dudes allegedly come from) are not politicians by any measure. They are more accurately labelled government policy formulation advisors. The lower house NPC are government officers. When the Obama administration asks someone rich like Bill Gates or perhaps George Soros to be an advisor, should they be counted as among the filthy rich leaders and counted as an indicator of American corruption?

Again, please, I am not arguing for sweeping corruption under the rug.  As someone who cares about the long-term welfare of the Chinese nation and people, I am not short-sighted.  But this latest article also seem to have taken the richest 70 out of the 2987 in the NPC in calculating the average wealth. Facts appear to have been selected and presented for their mercenary story-telling power more than anything else.

In my mind, “facts” as we see used in Western media and political discourse are just another rhetorical tool for the superficial, quick minded mass.  Problem is: once you get infected, you spout its poisons unsuspectingly, infecting still others. In factmonster, we see how even seemingly trivial, easy, innocuous facts can be subverted by that worldivew.  I wrote this to the editor on their contact us page.

On the page about the principal rivers of the world (http://www.factmonster.com/ipka/A0001779.html), in describing the source of the rivers, you in every case (except for the Nile, which has multiple sources) indicate the country of origin if the country is outside the U.S., and states (or lakes) when it is within the U.S.  However for the rivers that do start in the Himalayan plateau, in areas within China, you don’t mention China.  You indicate instead “Tibetan highlands,” “Himalayas,” “Tibet, south of Kunlun Mts.”.  There seem to be a bias against China.  Even when a river is commonly deemed to start in a geographical region, you still indicate the country of origin, as in “Peruvian Andes” for the Purus or “Black Forest, Germany” for the Danube.  Factmonster should be about facts – not politics.  I hope you can correct this.

Let’s what happens.

  1. May 4th, 2013 at 22:48 | #1

    Conversely, when there’s some manufacturing defect in toys involving lead batteries easily accessible by children by one or two factories in China, the U.S. media would project that to be a “Chinese” lead problem. Actually, a Canadian University conducted an exhaustive study of U.S. Customs data involving toy recalls, it found vast majority of the problems were due to American designs. Nevertheless, the “Chinese” lead narrative would continue to be propagated.

    This kind of behavior is actually very mean-spirited.

  2. Charles Liu
    May 6th, 2013 at 16:38 | #2

    About the wealth of NPC vs Congress story you mentioned. I had not known previousely that many memebers of US congress legally separate family wealth from their name. For example John McCain’s wife’s wealth is not considered his family wealth, and current US secretary of state John Kerry’s wife, heiress to the Heinz Ketchup fortune, is not considered his family wealth.

  3. May 7th, 2013 at 17:11 | #3

    @Charles Liu

    Thanks for that. That’s good to know. I sort of suspected that anyways. When discussing wealth of Chinese leaders, they impute a lot – including distance, very distant, family members. That’s dishonest because when discussing wealth of American leaders themselves, the wealth is calculated in a very technical and narrow fashion.

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