Archive for the ‘bad science’ category

Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Read HuffPost “Science”

December 11, 2009


I confess that I have an instant gag reflex to the work of any author who permits this kind of bio line attach to his/her name:

Robert Lanza, MD is considered one of the leading scientists in the world.”

But that’s only a symptom of the real problem here.  As are such telling but on one level superficial errors like mistaking the physical unit for energy.*  (It’s joules, not watts, as Lanza repeatedly mistakes.  Watts are units of power:  one watt equals one joule/second.)

There is a critique (demolishment) of Lanza’s “argument” for the nonexistence of death (sic!) that’s pretty easy to construct, of course.  The mush of badly garbled physics and windy speculation on the true nature of time and so on makes both a familiar and plenty broad target.  See this post and thread from PZ Myers.

Rather than recapitulate that hive-tome, (and not to anticipate any physicist with time on her/his hands who can more powerfully than I eviscerate the quantum-and-mulitverse nonsense purveyed by the handwaving Dr. Lanza) I just want to pick up on the implications of the kinds of rhetoric described above.

That is:  this is typical of one of the ways in which scientific illiteracy infects culture — not in the outright denial of obvious truths, but in the appropriation of the language of science to mask idiocy.

You see this often in blunt ways.  In Sarah Palin’s now infamous WaPo op ed. on climate change and the notorious emails, she “writes”*

What’s more, the documents show that there was no real consensus even within the CRU crowd. Some scientists had strong doubts about the accuracy of estimates of temperatures from centuries ago, estimates used to back claims that more recent temperatures are rising at an alarming rate….

…before concluding that

“Without trustworthy science and with so much at stake, Americans should be wary about what comes out of this politicized conference.”

Palin’s willed misrepresentation of the emails themselves have been well documented…see this for the latest general response to the really damaging deliberate mischaracterization of what those emails do and don’t tell you about climate change, and see this and this for specific rejoinder to Palin’s op-ed.

But the key here is “her”* choice of language.  “Consensus.”  “Accuracy of estimates.” “Trustworthy science.”  “She”* is asserting a claim of reason here, of the use of the very tools that really trustworthy scientists would employ.

It’s obvious why “she”* does so.  Anthropogenic climate change is the object of specifically scientific inquiry, and unless the claims of scientific knowledge from within that inquiry can be denied in their own frame of reference, those who wish to keep their own oxen ungored would be forced back onto the six year old’s argument:  “don’t wanna.”

It’s clever too.  As the tobacco hacks once noted, the product here is doubt — specifically doubt about what is and isn’t known, to what level of confidence.  Given the provisional nature of most scientific claims, that’s a pretty easy product to manufacture, as the tobacco companies did for decades, and as climate denialists and creationists have managed to do for the last many years.

But at least there is the possibility of correction here.  When the enemies of science argue in the language of science, they are on our turf, and, with effort, it is at least possible to demolish their claims.  In cases where time is of the essence, as in climate issues, that may be cold (hot) comfort — and certainly those of us, like my family, who have lost beloveds to RJ Reynolds (Pall Mall Reds, specifically), the decades of delay won by false claims of  uncertainty are unforgivable.  But still, we’re in with a chance when we fight on home ground.

Stuff like Lanza’s, though is more insidious, if less directly dangerous.  Here is someone asserting not the limits or errors of science, but its expansiveness.  He uses words that sound technical-ish — that “20 watt fountain of energy that is operating in the brain.”  (No, I did not make that up.)

He references grand sounding ideas:  “One well-known aspect of quantum physics is that certain observations cannot be predicted absolutely.”

He talks about specific experiments:  “Consider an experiment that was recently published in the journal Science showing that scientists could retroactively change something that had happened in the past. Particles had to decide how to behave when they hit a beam splitter.” (That this is a drastic mistatement of what’s going on in what I infer is the experiment under discussion (there is no reference) can be glimpsed in this account).

And so on.  The point isn’t that Lanza gets lots of stuff wrong — though that’s material as to why this piece is a crock — but that he weaves his woo in language designed to persuade a reasonably trusting reader that this “leading scientist” really knows stuff, that this pseudoscientific mush is actually embedded in a real and significant research program.

And the damage done there is, I think, obvious.  There is a lot of long term damage to the public’s ability to make sense of our expanding understanding of the material world that doesn’t came from people saying specific things that ain’t so — a la the divine Ms. Palin* — but from the confusion about what science is at all that comes from stuff like this.

Lanza is a man in pain. His speculation on the nonexistence of death occurs in the context of the loss of his sister not long after her marriage.  That’s a horrible tragedy to endure, and I condemn no one for seeking solace in that context.

But the truly human trope of seeking meaning in seemingly random disaster is not in itself a reliable source of general claims about the universe.  And when Lanza turs his private grief into a public and  general claims, he does so in ways that both damage his own authority as a scientist (leading or not) and — more important — he directly and significantly damages his readers’ ability to understand what science does and does not do.

The other culprit here, more culpable in my view, is Lanza’s mouthpiece, his venue.  The Huffington Post wants to be a web-center of cultural discourse.  In its ambition it seems to have decided that science can be covered like its media/gossip page.  Fun stuff is more important than real stuff.  I give Lanza, if not a pass, at least sympathy in his pursuit of some formulation that will make his loss (and perhaps his own fear of mortality) more tolerable.

The HuffPo crew?  Not so much

*I confess to some doubt as to whether the temporary governor actually writes that which is published under her name.


William Hope, “A photograph of a group gathered at a seance. ” 1920.

Benjamin West, “Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky,” ca. 1816


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

September 21, 2009

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

Quickie Must-Read Link …

August 5, 2009

This, from The New York Times. (h/t  DougJ at Balloon Juice)

In brief:  court documents reveal that big Pharma co. Wyeth paid a medical communication firm to ghostwrite 28 review articles slanted in support of hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women for seven years between 1998 and 2005.  That effort supported a boom in the sales of Wyeth’s products in that area, up to the point when this happened:

But the seeming consensus fell apart in 2002 when a huge federal study on hormone therapy was stopped after researchers found that menopausal women who took certain hormones had an increased risk of invasive breast cancer, heart disease and stroke. A later study found that hormones increased the risk of dementia in older patients.

Read the article as a whole.  It is important as a public policy issue, and it is perhaps even more so as a deep challenge to science as a civic enterprise.

A couple of thoughts there, very quickly, as this is a big area and I actually want to think and research a bit before charging in.

Mostly, I’d agree with one comment, I think from the Balloon Juice thread, that this is the science community’s answer to the steroid scandal in baseball.

It makes it almost impossible not to question any result published in even the most seemingly prestigious journal; certainly any research report and especially any review article on an area in which major financial interests are at play has to be read with a “who benefits” filter on high.

There’s no way to pretend that the myth of science as a disinterested truth community is an accurate description of the world we live in any more.  (If ever it was).  Of course, individual by individual and lab by lab — and lots of people I know personally — would not countenance the kind of deception in which Wyeth and its enablers indulged.  But science is a big country, and the amount of cash flowing through some of its provinces is enough to compel not just the ordinary skepticism that is part of the scientist’s toolkit, but that worldly reality check that tells us to follow the money.

The other thought, and its really half a thought, bears on an argument I’ve had running with Bora over at PLoS — one of the parties whose legal action brought this scandal to light — about the question of story telling and science communication.  He’s written repeatedly of his view that the construction of a story structure around a body of information distorts and even can smother the actual scientific result that should be what is being communicated.

I’ve told Bora that this is, to me, nonsense.  Information without context and data presented without some vector to carry it into the mind of its intended audience will simply disappear.

Part of our dispute lies in the very different sense of audiences we have.  Bora is concerned both with communication between researchers and the communication of research to a broader audience.  I’m interested in the former, but am really concerned with the latter.

In communication between scientists working within fields, the data really is the key.  I was speaking to a friend recently who works in a senior position at a major drug company, directing one of the major areas in which basic science and medical applications ram right into each other.  That researcher/manager told me that all that matters to the decision making process is the data.  The discussion, the interpretation, the “spin” a scientist might put on their data is secondary, or even worse, special pleading. What matters is the pure info about what was done, with what methods and instruments, to produce what measurements.

But in communicating to lay audiences — and even, as the Wyeth story suggests to somewhat more broadly constructed scientific ones — that doesn’t seem to me to be a plausible approach.  You have to tell a tale that a reader not necessarily either interested or informed about the context of the work will be able to follow, and that will hold her or his interest sufficiently to keep them reading graf to graf, until the story’s end.

But as I understand him, for Bora the problem — and it’s a real one  — is that it’s terribly easy to construct of essentially false narratives that distort the meaning of the science from the start.  See, e.g. all the writing that has floated the autism-vaccine woo for so long.  For me the issue lies with finding a way to express as narrative the key ideas to be communicated without distorting them — and thereby hangs a much longer tale than I’m going to write here.  Doing that is, in essence, what we try to teach our students at the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT, and I deeply believe that this is an essential civic-society endeavor.

That’s all by-the-by to what made my ears perk up in this story of Wyeth’s and their tame “authors” misdeeds .  Apparently, most of the astroturfed articles were review articles — summaries-and-interpretations of the state of research in hormone replacement therapy.  Review articles are, of course, a genre of  scientific literature wrapped up in storytelling.  By its nature, it demands the collation of a range of incidents — individual research reports — into a sequence logically and narratively designed to lead the reader to the interpretation of the state of the field that its author wants to advance.

There is nothing wrong with such a genre; quite the reverse.  It exists in part to provide gateways into bodies of work and ideas, and it is all the more necessary in fields in which sub specialties throw up information useful to practitioners within the field but beyond the speciality…which pretty much describes all of molecular biology, for one.

But as the Wyeth story reconfirms, the writing of review articles is prone to precisely the kind of abuse that Bora and many others have decried in popular writing about science: distortion based on constrained or disputed points of view, misinterpretation or misunderstanding (ignorance of the subtleties) of works under discussion, mis-emphasis on one point or another … and outright corruption, as above.

I’m not trying to defend popular science writing and its discontents here by saying that similar problems exist within the scientific literature.  What I am saying is that the Wyeth case is an extreme version, a morally bankrupt one, of two facts of life.

One is that money talks.  The other is that the way human beings tell each other important things contains within it real vulnerabilities.  But any response that says don’t communicate in that way doesn’t make sense; the issue is not how to stop humans from organizing their knowledge into stories; it is how to build institutional and personal bullshit detectors that sniff out the crap amongst the good stuff.

As I said — only half thoughts for now.  And rather meta at that.  The real story is, of course, that drug companies really, always, do have our best interests at heart.  Right!?  (And I won’t link to the latest Megan McArdle foolishness on this score, noting only that she has qualified another of my favorite real fitness reports for British military officers:  “Since my last report, (s)he has hit bottom and started to dig.”

Image:  Sir William Fettes Douglas, The Alchemist, before 1891

John Tierney Update: Eric Roston Rules edition

February 25, 2009

An evisceration worthy of its own post, and not just an update on this one.  Yesterday, I emailed Eric Roston, author of The Carbon Age and formerly a Time magazine science and tech correspondent, if he could do what I, now 20 years removed from my own climate book, am no longer knowledge-nimble enough to achieve quickly — which is to use real information and not just invective to skewer one of the smarmiest bits of faux journalism I’ve seen in a while (and there has been plenty of competition, to be sure).

And he did.   His post on the serial dishonesty displayed by John Tierney in his hatchet job on Stephen Chu and John Holdren is delightful — and devastating.  If Tierney’s column were a Mafia informant, Roston’s reply would have left it in pieces underneath the Turnpike.  Tierney’s keyboard, I am reliably informed, can be found somewhere inside the concrete beneath the Walt Whitman Rest Area, milepost 30.2, southbound.

(Also, see Swans on Tea for what an acute nose for nonsense will do for you.  Not to mention Joseph Romm’s impressive rage, expressed at some length.)

Image: Southbound New Jersey Turnpike under the Pulaski Skyway, 11 January 2005

Guest Post: Michelle Sipics on Air Force Woo, Military Suicide and the Importance of Thinking Straight

February 4, 2009

Please feast your eyes and minds on another very sharp post from guest blogger (and graduate of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing) Michelle Sipics.  As always Michelle suffers no fools gladly:


After an unintentional but undeniably long hiatus, I am back at Inverse Square. My thanks to Tom for not holding my incredibly sporadic guest-posting against me.

This post, like my previous two entries on IS, includes a discussion of mental health. But there’s more to the discussion than that topic alone: there’s also the issue of pseudo-science and its seemingly indefatigable ability to keep creeping into society.

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States gave great hope to those of us who love and respect science and what it can accomplish for this country and for the world, on both individual and societal levels. His appointment of Steven Chu as Energy Secretary for the new administration was a particularly poignant ray of light after eight years of growing darkness—and while we certainly can’t expect one man to immediately or completely repair the damage that has been done to scientific efforts, many of Obama’s other first steps in office have been promising.

Contrast that, then, with today’s news from the US military: the Air Force plans to train combat personnel to perform acupuncture.

Now, I write this post knowing that so-called “alternative medicine” is often a lightning rod for decidedly irrational discourse. However, I am willing to take a stab (no pun intended, I promise) at calmly explaining why this move by the Air Force sets a bad precedent for military health services, and for the country as a whole.

Just three days ago a new meta-analysis was published in the British Medical Journal, in which the authors examined a host of previous studies on the efficacy of acupuncture in treating pain. There is already a fairly thorough analysis of this paper available over at ScienceBlogs, so I’ll cut right to the chase: there is little to no evidence that the reported effectiveness of acupuncture in treating pain is due to anything more than the placebo effect.

Now, let’s not completely discount the placebo effect. The fact is, if people actually feel better after a treatment—even if the treatment itself is a complete hoax—they’ve experienced some benefit from it, which is fine. But that is hardly enough to advocate pushing something with no proven medical value into combat-stage use in the United States Military. As the chief of the acupuncture clinic at Andrews Air Force base said (yes, the Air Force has an acupuncture clinic), “The history of military medicine is rich in development, and a lot of people say that if the military is using it, then it must be good for the civilian world.”

The slippery slope is plain to see. Well gee, if the military is using it, it must be real!

This particular issue irritated me even more than it might have on its own, as it came on the heels of the Army’s announcement that a record number of suicides occurred among its soldiers last year, far surpassing the civilian suicide rate. The most recent CDC numbers for the US civilian population show about 11 suicides per 100,000 individuals in 2004, while the Army suicides from 2008 are expected to equate to a rate of 20.2 per 100,000 (adjusted to take into account the difference in demographics between enlisted Army personnel and the civilian population). And those numbers don’t include suicides that take place after a soldier finishes his or her enlistment. The Marine Corps has released similar figures.

Why is this so maddening? Well, aside from the fact that knowing that 128 or more Army soldiers killed themselves last year leaves me extremely depressed and full of sympathy for their families, we have this little quote from the Associated Press article:

“Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you,” said Army Secretary Pete Geren.

Really? You can’t tell us? That’s funny, because one of your psychiatric consultants has identified at least one major problem.

At the Pentagon on Thursday, Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatric consultant to the Army surgeon general, made a plea for more professionals to sign on to work for the military.

Finally, someone in the military has acknowledged a long-standing problem: there aren’t nearly enough psychiatric professionals. Unfortunately for them, this isn’t actually news. The same statements were made last year, when similar articles appeared about the number of military suicides reported for 2007. And I find it extremely hard to believe that the military, if it really wanted to, couldn’t find a reasonable number of trained professionals to provide psychiatric support for their soldiers—for our soldiers.

Of course, I must acknowledge that military men and women are under extraordinary stress, finding themselves in situations every day that I already know I wouldn’t be able to deal with. They’re away from their families for extended periods of time; they’re in unfamiliar environments; they’re given responsibility for other human lives, whether friendly colleagues, foreign enemies, or innocent civilians. That is an overwhelming and probably indescribable amount of pressure. Even with the best treatment in the world, it’s not likely that all military suicides can be prevented. But we have to do better than this.

Now, I don’t want to be one of those writers who says, “Why is our tax money funding acupuncture when it could be paying for more psychiatric specialists to prevent suicides?!” That’s not how things work in reality, and it’s a pointless argument. But it does concern me that we have two known problems here: physical injuries in Air Force personnel, for which the action being taken is to fund and expand the practice of pseudo-science; and suicide risk in Army (and general Military) personnel, for which the action being taken is… issuing reassuring press release statements?

Acknowledging a problem is only the first step to solving it, and acknowledging it repeatedly without taking additional action doesn’t get you any more points. Instead of hearing yet another, “Yes, we recognize that the high suicide rate of our troops is a problem” statement from the Army, how about an acknowledgement from the Air Force that they’re spending taxpayer dollars on unproven magic needle technology that stands no chance of providing actual therapeutic benefits for anyone in our military?

Image:  David Loong, “One Can Buy Snake Oil Tablets in Marrakech,” 2006.  Reproduced under a Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.o license.

Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Stupid People

December 10, 2008

Outsourced entirely to Roy Edoroso.

Image: Lucien Lefèvre, “Electricine,” 1897.

One From the Road: Why Can’t David Brooks Behave When I’m On Vacation edition

August 20, 2008

So, I’m blissfully bagging (photographically) three of the Big Five up in KwaZulu Natal, and then equally blissfully chilling in perhaps the best location in the surreal beauty of Camps Bay, almost entirely free of the Intertubes, when I finally make landfall (runway fall has the wrong sound to it) in Johannesburg. There, I innocently sign on to my sister-in-law’s wireless, (just checking my email. Honest. And the Red Sox scores. And every single poll I’d missed, and….) and got smacked by this by-now-old-news story of David Brooks trying wax deep on his newish theme of the neuroscience of politics and culture . (Thanks, sort of, to James Fallows for leading me into this swamp).

The dog-bites-man headline, of course, is that Brooks essentially made up the critical facts of the research he cited. In a column trying to draw cognitive distinctions between the thought and perception of presumed collectivist Chinese and those stalwart individualist Americans, he got just about everything salient wrong. The study he cited did not claim to attempt a random sample, interviewing instead a captive audience of college students; the test image was not of an aquarium, but an underwater scene, the distinctions in results between the two populations were not as claimed – and none of these material errors was the big enchilada:

In a column purporting to probe crucial distinctions between Chinese and American psyches, Brooks cited a study whose Asian population was…wait for it…


Now, if you want the full, devastating take down on Brooks and a very smart and just about as devastating critique on the body of research Brooks was alleging he had probed deeply enough to opine about, read this, by Penn’s and the Language Log’s Mark Liberman. I got nothing to add about the substance of Brook’s substancelessness beyond Liberman’s take down.

But what I do want to raise is the question of consequences. Brooks really screwed up here by the standards of his profession. He got several specific facts wrong, and those errors undermine the entire article. What is the appropriate response of his readers and, more important, his employers, those who provide him with one of the most significant bully pulpits in contemporary journalism.

First, please note that the observation that Brooks is an opinion-writer, not a news reporter does not buy him much mitigation. The old cliche – everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts – applies here. His interpretation of the science he cited is his own; that I think it is wrongheaded, stupid, shallow, and betrays a lack of understanding of exactly the kinds of difficulties in the research that Liberman documents is of no consequence. People are allowed to be dumb, and other people can decide whether it’s Brooks or his critics who should don the dunce cap.

But the actual specific details of what he suggests is a growing scientific consensus are a different story. Those are actual events and results in the world. Mischaracterizing them to make a half baked (or even, in different and more careful hands, a fully baked) generalization is, in journalism, a kind of fraud, a pernicious betrayal (and disdain for) the trust of your readers.

That’s why in journalism in general and in the science journalism that I and my colleagues try to teach to our grad students, it gets repeated again and again that the first job is to get the facts right.

In science journalism, at least as I learned it and try, never quite perfectly, to practice and teach it, you need to take the next step. Just transcribing accurately what someone has told you or what you have read in a book, a paper or a press release ain’t enough. Actual understanding, and informed judgment matter too. If you are going to apply your own, non-expert interpretation to a result, you need to earn it – and you do so by mastering the background to that research first.

As I said above, others have done a much better job than I could demonstrating that Brooks failed this standard on every level.

So back to the question of what should happen to someone who so baldly screws up. A junior reporter, someone not so branded and “to bit too fail” as David Brooks would, if they demonstrated as much a disregard for facts as Brooks does here would be in serious trouble; if this were a third or fourth instance (and I invite folks to go back through blog reactions, including my own, to earlier Brooks fiascos) they would stand a good chance of being fired.

Now that’s not going to happen. If it mattered that much to the Times, then William Kristol, he of four published corrections since he started at the Grey Lady– would be out of a job. Dut the fact that Brooks made stuff up, in essence, to tell the story he already knew he was going to write (OK – so I’m inferring here, but this is a blog, and I get to) should matter to someone who might still cling to the idea that they worked for the “newspaper of record.”

Here’s what I would do. I wouldn’t fire Brook. That would just create another faux martyr for the bad guys. I would suspend him – say through November 8. I’d even suspend him with pay – and here I’m assuming that under his contract with the Times he’s constrained in what else he can do. And then I’d substitute for him on the next-to-last page of the dead tree edition with an intellectually honest, determined conservative. Get someone in their who can actually fight that corner. See what that feels like.

Just thinkin’ on the road, you know. Now its off to hear Pops Muhammad – much more fun than wallowing in the follies of the Lords of Journalism.