We Will Fight Them On The Beaches!: Why Does The Atlantic Hate Science so Damn Much Edition.

I know that I’ve been on blog hiatus for a while, and as my minions* have the troubling property of non-existence, I can’t opt for the Sully option of serving up a welter of outsourced stuff to hold down the space.

But I’m trying to dig out from under the delights of start-of-term and all that.  To do so, I’ve decided to re-enter the fray with a kind of series, or at least a loosely-agglomerated guilty-by-association stack of posts to do with a real sorrow of mine, the decline of a once-great American marketplace of ideas, The Atlantic Monthly.

I’m going to indulge in my usual blog pleasure of burying the lede, so just to flag why you might want to wade through (or jump past) what follows, here’s my claim:  no one at The Atlantic understands — or at the very least, cares to engage — science, whether as a mode of thinking or as a body of actual knowledge.

But, of course, The Atlantic as a brand is supposed to convey seriousness of thought and purpose, so they can’t actually ignore science altogether…and what has happened, as I hope to document, is that the place has become a playpen full of science-y stuff; appeals to the sound and appearance of rigor that masks business as usual…about which, details below.

To be fair-ish:  the place  still attracts good, some great writers:  James Fallows is the genuine article; Ta-Nehisi Coates is putting together a world-beating career; Corby Kummer has been a favorite for a long time.and in my own area of particular interest, science writing, two or three articles from the mag show up every year in the “Best of” collections.  I’m sure if you dig through the website long enough you’ll find plenty of other stuff that won’t make your eyeballs bleed.

But, but, but…much of the place has been turned into what aspires to be an upper-middle-brow advocate of right wing politics, and that beast uses the brand and something of the language of The Atlantic Monthly-as-was to obscure a fundamentally flawed understanding of what actually happens in the real world…because, as is well known, reality has a long-established liberal bias.

For a first example of this kind of rot, consider the Atlantic 50, a ranking of what that rag’s editors considers to be their “all stars,” (sic), “the fifty most influential commentators” in the country.

I got to this through DJ over at Balloon Juice, and he makes the necessary point that the list is bullshit — with a thumb on the scale to tilt the claim of influence towards The Atlantic’s pre-existing politics.  As he writes,

Of the first 13, there are 9 conservatives, two liberals, and two other (Tom Friedman and David Broder).

It gets worse when you dive into the weeds of the list of course.  Josh Marshall comes in at 29, which doesn’t seem hopelessly stupid…until you realize that Kathleen Parker is listed at 21, eight spots ahead…and there is simply no rational measure by which to justify ranking a middle-level member of a stable of writers at a declining venue above someone like Marshall, who is both redefining the form and the institutional structure of journalism, and has had demonstrable, potent impacts on daily political life.

Even more risible, Jonah Goldberg (thx, JRE),  whose primary venue is a hack site overtly preaching to its choir, and is besides a writer whose influence even among his co-conspirators is muted by the fact that his writing is consistently awful, whether measured on prose style or clarity (or even detectability) of thought, weighs in (sorry) at number 34.  Meanwhile, look for the ranking of, say, Markos Moulitsas….and you find it nowhere.

I mean, seriously guys.  This isn’t even laughable as an editorial judgment.

It’s pathetic.

Examining the rankings as a whole, it’s hard to avoid the sense of it as The Atlantic’s circle jerk — a celebration of those folks it likes whose influence is on each other.

Now, if The National Review, for example, were to publish a list of influential opinion leaders, one would expect it to have a bias in this direction — and no one would regard that as particularly untoward.  (Worthy of sarcasm, perhaps, but not in itself risible behavior.)

But all of that is not what excites my scorn.  The Atlantic is free to name whoever it wants as the people it wants to listen to.

What does push my snark button is the desperate plea to be taken seriously in its celebration of its own image in the mirror.  Read this description of the rigor with which this list was compiled:

…our team spent months collecting and analyzing data, tracking a group of 400 names that eventually became our 50. Our in-house methodology relies on three streams of information:

  • Influence: A survey of more than 250 Washington insiders – members of Congress, national media figures, and political insiders – in which respondents rank-ordered the commentators who most influence their own thinking
  • Reach: Comprehensive data collection and analysis to measure the total audience of each commentator
  • Web Engagement:  In partnership with PostRank, a company specializing in filtering social media data, the Wire analyzed top commentators on 16 measures of webiness, including mentions on Twitter and performance on popular social media sites like Digg and Delicious

The final list is the result of an algorithm that brings together these three factors.

There are problems with each bullet point — and I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to tease them out.

But the point of this whole long screed, rests on very last line of the self-justification quoted above.

We are supposed to trust this list, to credit it with meaning, because all these essentially subjective factors of influence have been laundered through “an algorithm.”

I am so relieved.

I know this tune.  It’s a rocker; it’s got a beat; I can dance to this fine, sexy algorhythm.

Give me a freaking break.

Bluntly:  I believe the author(s) of that sentence may not know what an alogorithm is, or if they do, they’ve deliberately misused a technical term in a semi-technical context to obscure what they are actually attempting to describe/conceal.

The concept of an algorithm as used as a term of art in technical fields resists formal definition.  But as a working notion, algorithms involve at a minimum, explicit instructions that can be carried out by a person or a machine which specify operations iterated through a sequence of steps, and produce an unambiguous correct answer (for a certain value of “correct”) within a finite time.

Algorithms in computing meet this cartoon definition.  To put it even more simply:

“In computer systems, an algorithm is basically an instance of logic written in software by software developers to be effective for the intended “target” computer(s), in order for the software on the target machines to do something.”

That’s what The Atlantic’s people appear to have done:  they wrote, or hired done, a program that took the numerical inputs – the measures of the three criteria above – calculated a single number for each candidate object (a pundit) based on a weighting scheme of The Atlantic’s editors’ devising, and then organized those numbers into a rank ordered list based on those numbers.

Smells like teen algorithm to me:  iterated calculations over a body of data yielding a definitive answer – a “correct” one in the sense that the list corresponds to the appropriate numerical sequence from high to low calculated based on the inputs supplied.

Readers attuned to the rhetoric of science, and especially of popular communication of science will have long since gotten to where I’m going with this.

The use of the word “algorithm” on its own puts some English on the ball:  it sounds authoritative, and is deployed in the same way and for the same purpose that Smartwater applies the epithet “vapor distilled/electrolytes” to justify charging a gazillion bucks for its carefully formulated dihydrogenmonoxide.

At a slightly deeper level, the fraud turns on the specific property of algorithms:  they always give an answer, one that is true within the parameters of the calculation:  if Paul Krugman’s calculation gives him a score of 1 (on a scale of 0-1) and Rush Limbaugh weighs in (sorry again) at .997, then Krugman is more influential than Limbaugh and the list will reflect that in its first and second place rankings…accurately, given the constraints, the data, selected as inputs in the first place. [Made up number alert.]

That correctness, that certainty, gives the term “algorithm” it’s fine glow.  We don’t just get answers, ma’am, they’re the right answers – and we know that this is so because we’ve poured secret algorithm sauce into every bottle.

That’s the emotional affect of the word, certainly that sought by The Atlantic in its cheerfully sophomoric defense of the methods behind its list.

The reality, obvious I’m sure, is that which left so many traders wondering what happened when all those funny investments in the mortgage markets went to sleep with the fishes, after all their wonderful proprietary algorithms had declared them safe as houses.

Any computational algorithm contains a formalization of the assumptions of its authors, their perceptions and judgments about the nature of the reality of whatever is to be analyzed.

Any algorithm can produce valid results given such own assumptions, and, yet, as here, remain utterly unconnected with what those of us who live in it laughingly call “the real world.”

In other words: The Atlantic’s list is an exercise in conventional wisdom laundered through code.  Its authors want to cloak themselves in the image of science without actually doing the work – or more accurately, without gambling that their presuppositions might not survive contact with experience.
And this is  a trivial example of the  way in which The Atlantic, and by extension a great deal of the right-web, has a problem with science — and hence, I would argue (will argue in some upcoming posts on problems more substantive than a gimmick-list of rank-ordered jaw-flappers) — prefers to treat it as a fashion accessory.

To take science  seriously would require too much work, and would be inconveniently likely to confound certainties too good to check.

*One of my favorite words, with this definition from the sixteenth century:  1501, “a favorite; a darling; a low dependant; one who pleases rather than benefits” [Johnson], from M.Fr. mignon “a favorite, darling” (n.), also “dainty, pleasing, favorite” (adj.), from O.Fr. mignot, perhaps of Celt. origin (cf. O.Ir. min “tender, soft”), or from O.H.G. minnja, minna “love, memory.” Used without disparaging overtones 16c.-17c.

Images:  Pieter Breughel the Elder, “The Tower of Babel” 1563

Scott Feldstein, Bottles, 2005

Explore posts in the same categories: bad ideas, bad science, Journalism and its discontents, MSM nonsense, words mattter

23 Comments on “We Will Fight Them On The Beaches!: Why Does The Atlantic Hate Science so Damn Much Edition.”

  1. Dr.Drang Says:

    What I like about “algorithm” is its obvious attempt to sound computer-y. In the past, the elevation of bullshit like this would have been accomplished by a “formula,” but that’s old-school science, the science of test tubes and beakers and Bunsen burners. An algorithm is shiny and technological.

    • Tom Says:

      Exactly so: everyone knows GIGO, so “algorithm” sounds like you’ve invoked some higher authority to launder your bad assumptions.

  2. To provide appropriate soundtrack, I will apply hammer to nail. The new century is off to a slow start. Who knew “Dancing with the Stars” would become the venue for reprobates to reveal their inner Gene Kelly, melting hearts with frozen smile and gamy Cha Cha? It’s unfortunate that Dick Cheney cannot refurbish his reputation through such cathartic footwork.

    By the way, I agree that The Atlantic has paled over the years.

  3. aimai Says:

    “Smells like teen algorithm to me?” I think that’s my favorite line.


  4. Steve Says:

    Mmm. Secret algorithm sauce. Mmmm.

  5. jre Says:

    If you’ll forgive my proofing, in

    Even more risible, Jonah Goldman …


    Your point that “his writing is consistently awful, whether measured on prose style or clarity (or even detectability) of thought …” is on target.
    That writing, by the way, is nowhere more hilariously parodied than here.

  6. Viz Itor Says:

    Man, I wish you’d re-size your huge images.

    • Tom Says:

      Not sure what the problem is. I resize everything down to a standardized width of 460 pixels. Are you having trouble with something I need to correct?

      • wds Says:

        You’re not actually resizing the images, you’re only telling the browser to download the original image and then resize it afterwards to a smaller size. The standard modus operandi is to physically scale the image down somehow (wordpress might be able to do this automatically, I’m not entirely sure) and link to the larger original.

        I imagine downloading the entire image might take a while on a slow connection. The liquor bottles image is 3MB for instance.

      • wds Says:

        I’ve looked it up. It seems wordpress doesn’t do image scaling by default. I’d advise saving the images locally, resizing them using whatever program seems up to the task (there’s some online photo editors like pixlr.com that work just fine), upload them into wordpress and wrap them in a link to the original.


  7. Next you’re going to tell me that college and university rankings and place-to-live rankings are also trumped up BS.

  8. Josh Says:

    So, the fact that they tried to add a veneer of credibility to a silly survey means they hate science? That seems to be a bit of a non sequitur. A more credible assertion might be that they don’t understand the proper application of math to non-quantifiable topics like “importance”.

    And for the record, since he’s one of the folks you picked, Jonah Golberg may or may not be consistently awful, but his primary venue is not National Review (at least not in terms of reach, which is what this seems to be measuring). He is also carried by the LA Times and USA Today, which have a combined circulation of 3 million, and aren’t really known for being notoriously right-wing.

    • Tom Says:

      Thanks for the comment. The “hate science” line is hyperbole, not a non sequitur. I’m writing a few posts on this theme, and I’m going over different ways in which various Atlantic writers cover themselves in the veneer of science while doing damage to the public’s understanding of what scientific work is or can in fact do. So don’t judge just how hyperbolic I am being by this one post. Read the next three or four in this occasional series and then judge how malicious I may be. ;)

      As for Goldberg: I catch him mostly in others’ references to his blog posts over at the Corner. I don’t read the Times — which has a history of right wing/corporatist ownership and editorial policy, especially if you remember the Chandler days, nor USA Today, except when I stay in the right sort of motels. I stand by my broader point, which is that his influence is, at best, that of the class clown, and his capacity to move events or opinion does not rate his ranking on this list. YMMV.

  9. Kevin Says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    On the theme of quantitative catastrophes, this story ran on the front page of the site for over a week:


    The methods used and the final result are a complete disaster (see my comments on the article).

    Even sillier the author, Richard Florida, got mixed up about the difference between stimulus spending and the financial bailout. Only after publishing the article he discovered, thanks to reader input, that the data he used related to banks and had nothing to do with stimulus money. Multiple retractions/corrections ensued but sadly this story (and Richard Florida in general) remain on the Atlantic site.

    If we could just find a way to extract James Fallows I’d never go back to the Atlantic again.

  10. aimai Says:

    The whole thing reminds me of a long ago “Hart to Hart” episode in which the heroine (“Mrs. Hart”) is supposed to be some kind of intellectual/professor/journalist type. When asked to brush up the exposition a bit and give us some intellectual backstory along the lines of “The Maltese Falcon first appeared in an Egyptian tomb in 2,500 BC…” the actress intones solemnly, with greater detail and precision than has ever before been seen:

    “It goes back into…oh…History.” Everyone nods along happilly. OK then. We’ve got that covered. That’s basically the function of the algorithm line.


  11. Thomas Says:

    I agree, but I’d phrase the misunderstanding of `algorithm’ slightly differently.

    As a statistician I try to get my scientific colleagues to distinguish between a “model”, an “estimator”, and an “algorithm”. Roughly speaking, a model describes how you are simplifying the world so you can think about it, and provides the benchmark against which you can have good or bad estimators. An estimator is a number that you are working out, which means something with respect to your model, and an algorithm is how you compute the estimator.

    For example, Google’s original PageRank had a model, which said that links were the important information about interestingness of web pages, an estimator that was the stationary distribution of a particular random walk, and an algorithm, which was how they computed the estimator.

    The Atlantic has an algorithm, and in a trivial sense they have an estimator, which is what their algorithm emits. They haven’t admitted to a model or any analysis that would tell them if the estimator was any good. The ratings are bullshit: they aren’t necessarily untrue, but their truth is irrelevant to what they are being used for.

  12. Neil B Says:

    The Atlantic Monthly has indeed become pitiful. It’s sad, you have to go to tangential sources like music-industry standard Rolling Stone (and that fab Matt Taibbi!), Vanity Fair, etc. to find good political scoop and revelation. Is Harpers still any good, functioning well enough? Their “Index” was always both an ironic over-turning of your expectations, and a sobering revelation into the failures of society and its actors.

  13. WordPress does not do image scaling and can be somewhat limited on functionality. But I still prefer it.

  14. Love the picture of the tower of Babel. I have read the story before and wondered what it could of looked like. An artist rendition of it give me a mental picture of the possibilities.

  15. Neil B Says:

    Yes, that’s a great pic. As for the “scaling comment”, maybe that relates to the fact that when I Crtl+>> many times, the picture detail keeps showing up instead of pixilating out into a low-res big picture.

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