Sunday, February 14, 2021

Two examples of Journalists being... Wrong. One BIG one small

 Journalists sometimes get things wrong.

This is not news, but it is interesting when you KNOW they are wrong. 

1) Scott Aaronson has a GREAT example regarding an IMPORTANT story. I recommend you to read his blog post here. Most of the comments are good also, though they go off on some tangents (e.g., is the Universal Basic Income a progressive idea?)

2) I have my own example. It is far less important than the one Scott discusses; however, inspired by Scott, I will discuss it. My example also involves Scott, but that's a coincidence. 

Quanta Magazine emailed me that they wanted to talk to me about an upcoming article on The Busy Beaver Problem. Why me? Because Scott's (same Scott as above!) survey/open problems column appeared in the SIGACT News Open Problem Column that I edit. 

This sounded fine (Spoiler Alert: It was fine, the errors they made were odd, not harmful).

Here is the Quanta Article (though I do not know if it is behind paywalls- I can never tell if I am getting access because I have a UMCP account of or anyone can have access or if I am breaking copyright laws by posting the link):    here

Here is Scotts article: here

The interviewer asked me 

a) Why did I ask Scott to write the article?

ANSWER: He had a blog post on it, and I was skeptical of why these numbers are interesting, so I asked a question in the comments. He gave a great answer, so I asked him if he wanted to write a column for my open problems column. Actually I asked him if either he or perhaps a grad student would do it- I assumed he would be too busy since his `day job' is quantum  computing. However, much to my surprise and delight he said YES he would do it.

b) Is the Busy Beaver Function important?

ANSWER: In my opinion the actual numbers are not that important but its really neat that (a) we know some of them, and (b) they are far smaller than I would have thought. Also these numbers are interesting for the following reason:  there is some  n so that proving 

BB(n)=whatever it equals

 is Ind of Peano Arithmetic. When I hear that I think the number must be really large. Its not. Its 27. NEAT! And stronger theories are related to bigger numbers. This is a way to order theories. For  ZF they have something in the 700's- MUCH SMALLER than I would have thought. Scott and others can even relate BB to open problems in Math! 

There were some other questions also, but I don't recall what they were. 

SO when the article came they mentioned me once, and its... not quite wrong but odd:

William Gasarch, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland College Park,

said he's less intrigued by the prospect of pinning down the Busy Beaver numbers than by 

``the general concept that its actually uncomputable.'' He and other mathematicians are mainly interested in using the yardstick for gauging the difficulty of important open problems in mathematics--or for figuring out what is mathematically knowable at all. 

The oddest thing about the paragraph is they do not mention my connection to Scott and the article he wrote! I reread the article looking for something like `Scotts article appeared in the SIGACT News Open Problems column edited by William Gasarch' Nothing of that sort appears. 

Without that its not clear why they are soliciting my opinion. My colleague Clyde says this is GOOD:  people will ASSUME I am some sort of expert. Am I an expert? I proofread Scott's paper so... there is that...

Also I come off as more down on BB than I really am. 

Did I claim that Mathematicians are more interested in using it as a yardstick. Actually I may have said something like that. I don't know if its true. That's my bad- I should have said that I am interested in that.

After the article came out I asked the interviewer why my role was not in the article. He said it was cut by the editor. 

NOW- NONE of this is important, but even on small and easily correctable things, they get it wrong. So imagine what happens on hard issues that are harder to get right. 

MISC: One comment on Scott's blog was about the Gell-Mann amnesia effect, see this article on it:



  1. I didn't grow up in the US, but have lived in the US for a couple of decades now. I simply do not understand the respect Aaronson and many others have for the NYT. In the 20 or so years I've encountered the NYT (and I'm about Aaronson's age), its journalistic integrity has always been abysmal. I'm shocked by sentiments like “How could you possibly not want to talk? It’s the New York Times!”

    1. Is there a way to fill in the folloiwng X

      How could you not want to talk to X? They're X!


      I read/saw it on X so I know its true.

      At one time Walter Cronkite was `the most trusted man in America' I don't know if he earned that, but he was considered that.

      At a diff time it was Jon Stewart, though Jon Stewart himself syas that that shows the problem with so-called serious media (he also pointed out that his show is after a show where puppets make crank phone calls).

  2. The NY Times used to be a good newspaper. This was before the Internet and before the laws were changed to allow newspapers to be bought by large corporations.

    1. Right, and I get that. But Aaronson grew up with the Internet, which is what surprises me about his opinion ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  3. > Also I come off as more down on BB than I really am.

    They need controversy, a grudge, a fight! People getting along isn't newsworthy.