Posted tagged ‘journalism’

Yeah — Ross Douthat Is Still Bluffing

February 9, 2014

The Grey Lady has a problem.

It needs, or thinks it does, a clear, articulate, analytically sophisticated conservative voice on its op-ed team.  David Brooks is tasked with handling most of that load, with the results we’ve discussed here many times, but Ross Douthat was the right-wing wunderkind poached from The Atlantic who was supposed to be the conservative model of the new generation of precocious opinion journalists that bubbled up during those halcyon days of the early to mid-2000s blogging boom.


It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Consider today’s column.  I’m not going to do go full metal fisk on the piece.  Douthat tries to persuade his audience that the CBO report — the one that showed that the ACA works as intended,  liberating workers from jobs they perform only to hang onto health benefits — is actually testimony to how liberal government denies the dignity of work.  You can read the thing for yucks if you like that kind of up-is-down talk.

Here, I want to get to is the basic dishonesty not just of one argument in one column, but of Douthat’s method as deployed here.

The test was to click on each link in the piece, and see if Douthat’s claimed sources actually supported whatever he invoked them for.  Spoiler alert:  almost to a one, they did not.

Link number 1 is actually OK.  Douthat invokes a Keynes essay, and that essay appears at the end of the intertube he lays down, making the prediction Douthat says it does.

What comes next, though, ain’t so pretty:

…well-educated professionals — inspired by rising pay and status-obsessed competition — often work longer hours than they did a few decades ago…

This link takes you not to an original study but to a summary of others’ work posted at the National Bureau of Economic Research.  If Douthat had checked behind that summary he would have found that the picture of socially climbing workers taking on ever more hours over time isn’t exactly right:

these figures show that (a) the incidence of long work hours fell in the recessions of 1983, 1992 and 2002; and (b) that long work hours rose sharply in the 1980s, more slowly in the 1990s, and –as in the Census data– declined somewhat between 2000 and 2006.

That messier, hence less convenient picture is just the appetizer for the real misinterpretations to come.  Douthat claims that money and status drive folks to work long hours.  But the NBER summary at his link asserts,

Studies suggest that perceived job insecurity has risen substantially among highly educated workers.

Aha! Not virtue but necessity keeps people on the job nights and weekends.  From the underlying paper:

We find that two group characteristics — a rising level of within-group earnings inequality (at fixed hours) and a falling (or more slowly growing) level of mean earnings at ‘standard’ (40) hours– are associated with increases in the share of workers usually supplying 50 or more hours per week.
IOW, even for better educated/salaried workers, long hours are a response to a decline in or threat to earning power at normal so much  a status thing, and not exactly a rising pay story either.
It gets worse when Douthat finishes his sentence with an implied indictment of lower-paid labor.  He writes:

…while poorer Americans, especially poorer men, are increasingly disconnected from the labor force entirely.


Once again, the linked piece doesn’t say quite what Douthat claims.  It does have a political tinge — its author cites Charles Murray admiringly, which is always a tell — but the analysis is plain enough:

…a big factor is that – partly due to globalization and technology – the wages of less-skilled, less-educated men have been falling. Simply put, that makes them less willing to get off the couch, particularly if finding a job demands running a gauntlet of on-line applications or requires a move or a long commute or surrendering government benefits.  The surest way to put the most employable of these men back to work would be a stronger economy in which jobs were more plentiful and employers couldn’t be so picky about filling openings. [emphasis added]

So it turns out that Douthat’s disaffected workers aren’t merely and passively disconnected.  They’re barred by actual conditions in the real world from finding work.  A better economy would lower that bar and see re-entry into the labor force.  To be fair, Douthat does note that rising inequality has an explanatory role to play in what he claims are two trends. But the links he provide to support his attempt at social analysis confirm essentially nothing of his interpretation.


Next up, Douthat engages the CBO report itself:

The Congressional Budget Office had always predicted that the new health care law’s mix of direct benefits and indirect incentives would encourage some people to cut their hours or leave their jobs outright. But its latest report revised the estimate substantially upward, predicting that by 2021, the equivalent of 2.3 million full-time workers — most of them low-wage — could disappear from the American economy.

Yet again, Douthat links not to the report itself, but to a Washington Post article summarizing and in part spinning that document.  And it turns out that Douthat’s “full time workers” disappearing number is not quite right.  Here’s what the CBO actually reported, (p. 127)

Because some people will reduce the amount of hours they work rather than stopping work altogether, the number who will choose to leave employment because of the ACA in 2024 is likely to be substantially less than 2.5 million. At the same time, more than 2.5 million people are likely to reduce the amount of labor they choose to supply to some degree because of the ACA, even though many of them will not leave the labor force entirely.
I’ll admit that’s a relatively minor error on Douthat’s part (though the rhetorical torque he applies with the word “disappeared” puts it into the realm of bad faith to me).   But more important, note that Douthat didn’t delve into the actual CBO report itself, at least not enough to grasp any nuance — relying instead on the Post article’s own flawed account.
IOW:  sometimes the little mistakes are the most revealing.  You can’t argue with folks who don’t know what they’re talking about.  Those of us trying to understand health care in America by reading the country’s newspaper of record should have the confidence that what they find there is based on best attempts to identify actual facts.  Douthat does not encourage such confidence.
Please proceed, columnist!
Next, we have Douthat’s attempt to claim that there really is a better, conservative alternative to Obamacare.
the design of Obamacare … makes the work disincentive much more substantial than it would be under, say, a conservative alternative that offers everyone a flat credit to buy a catastrophic plan.
I think he’s trying to say that giving everyone health insurance that almost never insures would trap more people in the jobs they’d need to mitigate the risk of everyday mishaps, but that’s for another argument. I could also  take issue with the notion that the document he links is an actual alternative, and not some cobbled together bit of hand-waving and familiar right wing talking points on health care.  But there’s no doubt that at the point we’re still  the territory of op-ed privilege.
But here’s the real problem — and it’s one Douthat could very well have slid past all but the most careful of editors.  In the next paragraph he writes:
One of the studies used to model the consequences of Obamacare, for instance, found a strong work disincentive while looking at a population of childless, able-bodied, mostly working-class adults

That sounds like a good serious pundit doing his homework and digging into the academic research on his topic.  But if you click that link, it won’t take you to any study — not even a Heritage parody of social science.  Instead, it returns you right to the doorstop of the “alternative” proposal Douthat invoked in the prior graf.  There’s nothing else there at all, and certainly nothing any neutral observer would recognize as actual inquiry.  This is just a lie-by-citation.

Believe it or not, the beat goes on.  Douthat bloviates on his own dime for a few paragraphs before coming up with this :

On the left, there’s a growing tendency toward both pessimism and utopianism — with doubts about the compatibility of capitalism and democracy, and skepticism about the possibility for true equality of opportunity, feeding a renewed interest in 1970s-era ideas like a universal basic income.

There are two classic blunders: The most famous is  never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well known is never, ever, trust Ross Douthat when he tells you what “the left” is thinking.

The first link takes you not to a critique of capitalism by, say, Joe Biden or even the House Progressive caucus, but to a lengthy and fascinating New York Times account of a book by a French economist that has yet to appear in English.  It’s an important piece of work, I hear, but hardly evidence of a growing American political tendency.

The second brings you to an interview with the author of another book yet to be released —  by Gregory Clark, an economic historian at Davis who has been arguing for some years for a biologically heritable account of economic outcomes.

There’s lots of people who argue with Clark’s work.  But for this discussion the question isn’t whether his brand of biological economics is bonkers or worse.  For this argument it is, does Clark speak from or for anything that could remotely be called the left?

The answer is no: he is one economist controversial within his own field, whose views, if they have any political stamp, have been much more eagerly received by latter day eugenicists than by any recognizable wing of, say, the Democratic Party.

Again: Douthat is a pundit.  He gets to be stupid on the Times’ dime.

But he shouldn’t get to claim authority he doesn’t have — the intellectual buttresses of knowledge he hasn’t actually worked to acquire or analytical effort he hasn’t put in.  Every single link in this piece but the one that just takes to Keynes is flawed, often deeply so, in the sense of supporting the superstructure Douthat wants to erect on top of his claims of erudition.  At best, he’s bibliography-padding, attempting to baffle his readers (and, I think, his editors) with the appearance of someone who does the hard work of thinking.  At worst, he’s misappropriating others’ labor to his own ends.

Echoing Gandhi’s apocryphal jibe:  were I asked what I think about right wing public intellection, I’d reply, “I think it would be a good idea.”

Images: Jean Clouet, Portrait of Guillaume Budé, c. 1536.

Adriaen van Ostade, Carousing peasants in a tavern, c. 1635


For Good Times In Cambridge: Fallows/Kummer and Merry White Distant Early Warning

December 2, 2013

Good stuff coming up this Thursday, Dec. 5.

First off:  I’ll be introducing The Atlantic’s James Fallows and Corby Kummer at the last MIT Communications Forum event of the year.  It’ll run from 5-7 in MIT building 66, room 110. (Map at the link.)

Fallows you all know, I think.  He’s been national correspondent at The Atlantic since forever, with a stint at Jimmy Carter’s head speechwriter thrown in.  He’s covered an enormous range of stories from a great range of places — Washington, Shanghai, Beijing,  and any civil aviation landing strip he can find.  Politics, flight, international relations, China-watching, beer and much more.  He’s a National Magazine Award and American Book Award winner.  Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he has shepherded many of its signature pieces from wisp in a writer’s eye to publication.  (He’s also one of America’s leading food writers, winner of 5 James Beard Journalism awards including one my previous post would suggest I find most impressive, the M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

Here’s what the two of them will talk about: “Long Form Journalism: Inside The Atlantic.”


The session will focus on two questions: what goes into the making of a major piece of journalism.  First: what’s required to conceive, report, develop, refine, fix, verify, and then, finally, produce a long piece of writing that can both demonstrate the proposition and persuade its readers of its truth and importance.  Second: why such journalism matters (and, perhaps, some commentary on the curious fact that despite the internet’s supposed slaughter of attention, long form non-fiction seems it be entering something of a golden age.)

This will be videotaped, and I’ll post the clip and/or links to same when it goes live (and I  know that I’ve still got to get the promised Coates-Hertzberg video ready to roll…)  But if you’re in town on Thursday, this should be a good one.  We’ll probably be focusing on a single, maybe a couple of signature Fallows articles that went under Kummer’s watchful eye, and as I find out the texts, I’ll post those links in my next reminder.

The other event that Greater-Cambridge folks might want to check out is a truly happy book event for one of my oldest and dearest friends, Merry “Corky” White, (my college tutor, as it happens), whose classic Cooking for Crowds (illustrated by Koren!) is being re-iussed in a 40th anniversary edition.


She’ll be talking the book at Harvard Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Thursday — and I’ll be dashing as fast as I can from 02139 to 02138 to cheer her on.  If you can, you should too.  (No media for this one, alas.)

BTW: here’s the Amazon link to Corky’s book — but in the spirit of time, place and season, get it at Harvard Books if that’s near you, or from and the independent bookstore you normally use if you’re one of the lucky ones to still possess such a community treasure.

Images: Mary Cassat, Woman Reading in a Gardenbefore 1926

Jan Steen, Feast of the Rhetoricians Near a Town Gate, before 1679

Better Press Corps (Time edition)/Odds and Ends.

October 3, 2012

A couple of things.

As Zander points out, Ta-Nehisi Coates has already gutted  Tucker Carlson.  In my view, the prematurely bow-tied young fogey has finally and irrevocably crossed the SchwarzDrudgechild boundary.  He has descended into a region where the ordinary laws of space and time break down.  He will experience nothing but an infinite loop of right-wing fantasy world affirmation, while those of us safely beyond the event horizon will enjoy the blessed tranquility of something approximating real life.

Not going to bother with FdB either, who (a) never claimed to be a journalist and hence doesn’t belong in this post and (b) whose latest effort to troll this and other blogs seems to me simply sad.  Mistermix deals with that last and oddly jumbled cry for help more gently than I would, and I think it best just to leave it lie, but for this:  in the past, I’ve achieved world-competitive pinnacles of high dudgeon when right wing folks assert as facts claims like : “Bloggers are insecure, as a species. I find that if you scratch at the perfectly calculated pose of preemptive superiority, you find people who are unable to look you in the face while they tell you you’re wrong.”  This is McArdle-worthy — akin to her habit  of saying her (unnamed) liberal friends are all (x).  Freddy is better than that by far, usually.  Here’s hoping he finds a better analytical groove soon.

Nope, the reason I’m chiming up when I should be doing almost anything else is to deal with the latest bit of truthiness from Time’s website, a Michael Scherer bit of wisdom on lying in politics telling us…wait for it…that both sides do it.

Most of the article is a rehash of stuff a lot of folks have already been covering about the role of party affiliation (and leader-influence) on whether or not mere factual argument penetrates somebody’s body of assumptions and agreed narratives.  Nothing wrong with that, for the most part, other than it’s old enough to grow whiskers.

But as he attempts to find equivalence Scherer surrenders to his default village instinct (an example of the pathology he goes on to describe, perhaps?)  He offers one notable Romney lie — the claim regularly repeated that Obama’s administration has gutted welfare-to-work rules, and he says, almost bluntly enough to satisfy even partisan me, that “The ad was unmistakably deceptive.” (It was false, and not merely misleading, but still, this is a pretty clear evaluation.”

But then he goes on to put forward two alleged Obama falsehoods.  Here’s the first:

“Nobody accused Mr. Romney of being a felon,” he said. In fact, one of the President’s senior strategists, Stephanie Cutter, told reporters a month earlier that Romney was misrepresenting himself either to the American people or to securities regulators—“which is a felony,” she said.  Cutter’s was a conditional accusation but an accusation nonetheless.

So, on the one hand you have a piece of information publicly and widely disseminated that is false (the welfare/work stuff) and on the other you have someone saying that if Romney did (x) that’s a felony, and thus Obama lied when he said that his folks hadn’t called Romney a felon.  I’m not going into the weeds of parsing how what Obama said is in fact accurate (if politically clever in the mode of the great and vicious LBJ).  But if you can’t see the consequential difference in the two statements you’re in the wrong line of work.

But the really egregious statement comes a little later:

One of the most galling Obama deceptions, embedded in two television ads, asserts that Romney backed a bill outlawing “all abortion even in cases of rape and incest.” This is not true. Romney has consistently maintained, since becoming a pro-life politician in 2005, that he supports exceptions for rape and incest and to protect the life of the mother.

“This is not true.”

Sure you want to pick that hill to die on Michael?


In March of 2012, Romney explained to radio host Tommy Tucker that his current positions were the same as “the last time.” He offered the same to Sean Hannity in a November 2011 interview: “I have the same positions today I had four years ago where you know I’m a conservative guy.”

…From an Aug. 8, 2007 ABC News article:

Appearing Monday on “Good Morning America,” Romney was asked by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos if he supports the Republican Party’s 2004 platform on abortion rights, which states, “We support a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution and we endorse legislation to make it clear that the 14th Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”
Romney replied, “You know, I do support the Republican platform, and I support that being part of the Republican platform and I’m pro-life.”

…Here’s a post from Peter J. Smith at LifeSiteNews:

Romney made the choice to abandon his earlier rejection of the human life amendment as he poured money and energy into winning the Ames caucus in Iowa, where Republican voters run strongly social conservative.
“I do support the Republican platform and I do support that big part of the Republican platform, and I am pro-life,” Romney said during an August 6 Republican debate, when asked whether he affirmed the human life amendment, a key part of the 2004 Republican pro-life platform that was written by his pro-life advisor James Bopp,Jr..

The human life amendment intends to change the US Constitution by expanding 14th Amendment protections – such as due process and equal protection clauses – to include unborn children. Such an amendment would ban abortions nationwide and repeal the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

I have a suggestion.   Michael?  Anytime you feel tempted to use the words “consistent” and “Romney” in the same sentence, lie down until the feeling passes.

In that vein, I should note that Jason Linkins, the HuffPo writer who assembled the record quoted just above also dug up this bit of High Romneyism:

However the Associated Press reports that Romney later qualified his support for a human life amendment. According to the AP, Romney said his advisor Bopp had told him “there are a wide range of possible human life amendments” ranging from a total ban on abortion to an amendment that let states make the decision. On top of that, getting both houses of Congress and 38 out of 50 states to support a constitutional amendment, Bopp told him, “is just not realistic.”

What does Romney really think about abortion?  Who the f**k knows.  If I were to guess I’d say his deepest wish is that talk of abortion would go away — he’s running for office for Pete’s sake.  But Romney’s waffle doesn’t get Scherer off the hook:  He claimed the Obama campaign lied because Romney has since 2005 maintained a single and clearly articulated position on an issue — but that statement is easily and clearly shown to be that which drops from the south end of a north facing horse.

To steal the phrase from Brad DeLong, why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?

Image:  Giovanni Bellini, Four Allegories: Falsehood (or Wisdom), c. 1490.

The New York Times Owes Me A Bottle Of Aspirin

September 3, 2012

…to cover all the analgesics I’ve had to consume after reading Hannah Rosin’s piece“Who Wears the Pants in This Economy?” that made the cover of yesterday’s magazine.

I’m not going to do a full fisking; life is too short, mine and yours.  But sacro semolina, FSM! did my head hit the desk more than once.

The overarching complaint I have is the relentless anecdotage which Rosin and her editors permit themselves.  Rosin’s stated thesis is actually a familiar fear-trope in certain circles:  women are taking over, and their men are left more or less unmanly as a result.

Rosin defends this claim by profiling three couples (and one of their children)  in a small southern town, Alexander City, Alabama, in which the loss of the paternalistic (i.e., anti-union) manufacturing company left the men in her story in need not just of a job, but a “manly” one.

The women in the three couples do better, and in each case have become the lead earners for the household.

That’s the slender trail Rosin walks to stake this claim:

As the usual path to the middle class disappears, what’s emerging in its place is a nascent middle-class matriarchy, in which women like Patsy pay the mortgage and the cable bills while the men try to find their place.

As I say, I’m not going to parse all five magazine pages devoted to this upteenth example of the Times Magazine diving into the drained shallow end of the pop-sociology pool, but just to give you a small share of my pain, let’s look at a couple of things.  First, consider Rosin’s conclusion:

As the economy fails to fully recover, it’s unclear what will happen to traditionally male or female jobs generally. Some sectors seem undeniably strong: health care, for example, and technology, although there aren’t many tech jobs in places like Alexander City. Manufacturing survives mainly in new and highly specialized forms. Local government jobs, especially ones in low-tax states like Alabama, have gone through severe cuts in the last decade and are unlikely to be cut much further. Jobs like Patsy’s, which rely on federal financing, could be vulnerable given the current political fixation on budget cuts. An important quality for anyone trying to survive in this economy is one that Reuben, in his own limited way, is trying to embody — the one that seems to come more easily to his wife — the capacity to “remake myself again, find my new niche.”

In other words:  “Move along.  Nothing to see here.”

Seriously. We wade through several thousand words of achingly conventional writing* only to find out nothing that’s been said for the last several pages generalizes to that emerging “middle class matriarchy” bravado with which we began?

Onwards.  One thing that I hate that turns up in a lot of contemporary journalism, especially in pieces reaching for some big-think conclusion, is the mishandling of claims of academic knowledge and authority.  And here I am duly pissed off: in a brief passage Rosin notes that the loss of manufacturing jobs over the last decade, points to stronger employment numbers for sectors in which women predominate, and then quotes MIT economist Michael Greenstone asserting that the alleged capacity of women to better adjust to a changing economy is “a first-order mystery” for social scientists.  Greenstone, Rosin tells us, is not merely a professor, but also “director of the Hamilton Project, which has done some of the most significant research on men and unemployment.”

Well, maybe. I don’t want to slag an MIT colleague, (or anyone with a stray quote in someone else’s piece), the more so as I have no idea what the context of that quote may be.  But I do want to point out that whatever Greenstone said or meant, Rosin’s straining her bargain withe reader on two grounds here.  First, Greenstone does not self-identify as an employment economist, nor a student of gender issues from an economics perspective.  Here’s an abridgement of his self description:

His research is focused on estimating the costs and benefits of environmental quality…Greenstone is also interested in the consequences of government regulation, more generally.

His bibliography confirms the direction of his research — essentially nothing on the issues Rosin’s raising.  But still, how about the Brookings Institute’s Hamilton Project, allegedly a hub for the study of gender and employment.  Really? This place:

The Hamilton Project offers a strategic vision and produces innovative policy proposals on how to create a growing economy that benefits more Americans. The Project’s strategy reflects a judgment that long-term prosperity is best achieved by fostering economic growth and broad participation in that growth, by enhancing individual economic security, and by embracing a role for effective government in making needed public investments.

You look what actually comes from that talking shop —  its policy analysis and/or thought pieces — and you do indeed see some on employment (including a recent one co-authored by Greenstone on the impact of public sector job losses).  You do not find what Rosin asserts, a strong thematic engagement with men and unemployment.  So when Rosin asserts as fact that “women are generally more willing [than men]” to display the kind of flexibility required of the modern labor market, ready for “going to college or getting some job retraining.,” I answer, “maybe.”  I don’t know.  I really don’t.  And I still don’t after reading this article, if I want more than Rosin’s say so.

And that leads me to my other 30,000′ problem with this piece.  I don’t believe its premise, that there is indeed a major shift in employment and income moving from a male advantage to a female one.  Her argument has two components:  one that the long decline in manufacturing employment is producing a fundamental shift away from “male” jobs to female ones, with social consequences; and that this recession has exacerbated that shift.  The implications drawn from the experience of the recession is simply wrong, or at least vastly more complicated than this article implies.  Here’s the Wall St. Journal on the question of whether or not this is a woman’s or a man’s recession:

Looked at another way, since the recession began, the number of male workers has fallen 4.6% while the number of female workers has declined 2.7%. Since Mr. Obama took office, both figures are down by 1% or less.

So — at the start of the recession men took a greater hit than women, and now the labor situation for both has recovered to a roughly equal (and not good enough) level.

Where’s the great trouser trade there?  Major changes in the American workplace are indeed going on; they are and will have all kinds of effects on people’s lives, plans, relationships and all the rest.  Maybe there really is some fundamental specifically gender-based shift going on that isn’t simply down to the long pressure to put women’s opportunities and pay on equal footing with that of men.  But a piece — a cover! — at one of America’s handful of top venues that reduces all this down to unsupported forebodings about the enveloping advance of matriarchy doesn’t add anything useful to the conversation.

Enough already.  (I seem to write that in almost every piece, don’t I?) Just one more thought:  Rosin seems to me to have taken the easy way out through this entire piece.  The profiles themselves aren’t bad, and as a look at what happens when hard times hit in certain families, among folks of a certain age, in certain places, they’re fine.  She fails in her reach for grander significance, for a general statement about the way we live now.  She stopped before she was done…and to make matters worse, there are hints even within her piece that had she dug more deeply, she’d have found that the story that wanted to be told wasn’t what she set out to write.

At the same time, if Rosin is at fault for not thinking hard enough, then her editors are at least equal partners in folly here.  This was a freaking cover piece, and they should have realized something wrong when the last character to enter Rosin’s piece, the daughter of one of the women ascending to this alleged matriarchy, implicitly snorted at its entire premise.  The question was what it means when women take the economic lead in families.  This young woman, 19 years old, just laughed.  Of her step-father’s view of appropriate gender roles, she said, “that’s so cute, it’s gross.”


*This post isn’t about Rosin’s skill as a word slinger.  But still, sometimes style does reveal substantive flaws.  For example: “Being a self-sufficiency coordinator involved a maternal touch, like encouraging single mothers to continue their education, obtain prenatal care and find reliable child care.”  Uh, huh? “a maternal touch” is about as cliched (and condescending) a way you can describe a women in a service or caring job.  And look at how we are supposed to recognize that quality in this woman: her ability or obligation to advise her clients to do all that stuff only a mother would think of — like stay in school or to get their check ups.  No mere father, nor unchilded person of either gender could ever master that.  Right?

Images:  J. M. W. Turner, Dido Building Carthage, 1815.

Kazimir Malevich, Unemployed Girl, 1904.

The Higgs Boson is a Liberal Conspiracy To Get The Government More Involved In Mass*

June 24, 2012

We await news of the Higgs boson, with a major announcement in the offing** (perhaps as early as July 4).  Some rumors have already started to percolate, suggesting that the hints of a Standard Model Higgs appearing at a particular energy level compatible with established theory may be approaching confirmation.

If the rumors are true, and the near-confirmation does get announced next month, and if that result then holds to the point where everyone competent to have a view concurs that the Higgs has actually been identified, then that’s a very big deal, though in some ways a disappointing one.  It’s a big deal because it will mean the attempt to understand one of the fundamental phenomena of the universe, the existence of the Higgs field, will be able to proceed with actual data.

It would also confirm (again) that the basic theoretical ideas that have governed particle physics for some time are still on the job.

That, in a way, is the bad news.  Divergence from the standard model would require new physics, and suggest that there are new intellectual continents to discover.  One more chip on the stack of winnings the SM has already racked up?  Impressive, but not as much fun as the kind of intellectual adventure that would result if the field had to accommodate something other than the simplest answer to the question of how the cosmos manages to confer mass on its stuff like quarks and electrons (the “job” of the Higgs field.)

Still — for those of you interested in the leading edge of the now c. 8 decades of high energy physics inquiry into basic properties of nature, we’ll know something exciting, one way or the other, in a few weeks.

In the above, I’ve linked a couple of times to blog posts by my friend, Matt Strassler.  He’s a very good guide on these kind of things, writing from a theoretician’s point of view.  But while I agree with Matt on lots of stuff, and have learned much more than that from him, there’s one aspect of this latest story on which he and I disagree.  Or perhaps more accurately, on which our perspectives differ

That would be the view he takes that early speculation on the results of the two experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider amounts to subversion of the scientific process.  Jon Butterworth, a researcher on one of those experiments, strongly agrees.

In the comment thread Matt tangles with Peter Woit, proprietor of the blog Not Even Wrong, who in this post noted that  “reliable rumors”  suggest “the experiments are seeing much the same thing as last year in this year’s new data: strong hints of a Higgs around 125 GeV. ” –i.e. the step toward confirmation described above.

Matt’s and Butterworth’s argument is simple:  it is crucial for Higgs data analysis that those assessing the data from each experiment not know what the folks doing the same on the other experiment are seeing — or might be glimpsing, or think they might be getting to see.  Each group needs to be blind to the other to avoid the risk of contaminating the validation process with any expectation of what they “ought” to find, given what they know (or think they do) about the other folks’ results.  Publishing rumors — even reliable ones, from folks who shouldn’t be discussing preliminary data, but do anyway — damages the ability of those on the front line to do their work in a pristine intellectual environment, and that’s bad.

That’s an entirely valid view.  But the question is whether or not people who are not engaged in that work should publish what they learn.  And here, as a science writer and not a scientist, this is the thing:  science is an enterprise to be covered; it is not simply a cultural value to be defended and advanced (though science writers do so, in a number of implicit and explicit ways).

The Higgs is news.  It is so for several reasons, both intellectual and instrumental.  The intellectual — perhaps the aesthetic — ones are those hinted at above:  whatever form the understanding of Higgs processes may take, it will form an essential part of the picture we have of the nature of reality.  The instrumental ones are the same as those which led to the heinous labeling of the Higgs boson as “the God Particle.”  Cultivation of excitement around the Higgs is part of the case for supporting large and expensive social commitments to all the apparatus needed to do high-energy physics.  As Chad Orzel points out,

Dude, this means you’ve won.”

I mean, it’s not an accident that there’s a lot of excitement about the maybe-sorta-kinda discovery of the Higgs. This is the product of years of relentless hype from the particle physics community. They’ve been talking about this goddamn particle for longer than I’ve been running this blog, and it’s finally percolated out into the general public consciousness enough that buzz about it can trend on Twitter. Complaining that your persistent effort to get people to care about particle physics esoterica has led to people being excited about particle physics esoterica seems more than a little churlish.

More than churlish, in fact:  self defeating.  Either science is enough of a vital part of being a citizen and a thoughtful person that what happens as it unfolds is part of our common culture; or it is an esoteric pursuit, and hence more on the fringe than any scientist I know (and me!) would accept.  If science does take that central  a role, then properly reported stories from within experiments are fair game.  It’s not the writer’s fault if the scientists involved are troubled by (accurate, contextually-rich, honest…) coverage.  The fault, if any, is not with Peter Woit; it is with whoever leaked rumors.

Put this another way:  imagine the story is one of an investigation of fraud at a major experiment.  Would it seem right to enjoin a science writer from writing about that fraud investigation before it was complete?  Even if it impeded the investigation?  It seems to me that the answer is, mostly, “no.”  (I say mostly, because I can imagine being told that publication right now might kill some specific vital step in the inquiry. But even there, the constraint would have to be, from where I see it, narrowly constructed and limited:  I wouldn’t hold off publishing what I know for long.)

That is:  science journalists deal in accounts of what they have found out that are of interest to them and to their readers.  They have real obligations: their stories must be accurate, must hold validity within the larger context of work in which particular incidents take place, must not violate any agreements the writer may have entered into with her or his sources, and so on.  But in my view, the writer does not have the duty of policing the process of science itself.  She or he is rather engaged in a conversation with the audience — whose interests, like those of the writer, overlap with but are not necessarily identical to those of the scientists themselves.

And thus this sermon endeth.  May your day be highly energetic.

*Tweet by old friend @drskyskull (who blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

**Link to TPM, ‘coz that’s where first I saw what has become widely discussed.  But could we please lay off the “God Particle” nonsense?  Leon Lederman has long since done whatever penance he ought for that bit of nonsense.

Images:  Alfred Bierstadt, Buffalo Head,c. 1879.

Alfred Bierstadt, Trapped, before 1902.

Did Anyone Actually See David Broder’s Body?

May 4, 2011

[This is a cross post from Balloon Juice, where it prompted quite a discussion and, this morning, this response from mistermix.  I’m going to tag back later in the day, (promises, promises) but for now, here’s where all this started.  (P.S.  Sorry for not getting this up here at the same time as over at BJ, as is my usual custom.  As happenes, work intervened.]

David Broder is dead, or so they say.

I’m telling you he’s undead, and like the Jack the Ripper figure in that Star Trek episode, seems to be infecting the previously sane.

Exhibit A:


Here’s Josh Marshall, Josh Freaking Marshall, earlier today:

As a more general matter it’s important to recognize that torture could easily have produced the key information. It just seems not to have in this case. You can be doctrinaire in opposing torture without being doctrinaire in assuming that it can’t produce any good intelligence, which would be foolish.

Here’s Senator Feinstein, speaking to the particular, as reported in Josh’s own Talking Points Memo:

“To the best of our knowledge, based on a look, none of it came as a result of harsh interrogation practices,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee in a wide-ranging press conference.


Moreover, Feinstein added, nothing about the sequence of events that culminated in Sunday’s raid vindicates the Bush-era techniques, nor their use of black sites — secret prisons, operated by the CIA.

“Absolutely not, I do not,” Feinstein said. “I happen to know a good deal about how those interrogations were conducted, and in my view nothing justifies the kind of procedures that were used.”

And as for the general claim, that “torture could easily have produced the key information,” here’s the lede to that very story, written by Brian Beutler:

More and more evidence suggests a key piece of intelligence — the first link in the chain of information that led U.S. intelligence officials to Osama bin Laden — wasn’t tortured out of its source. And, indeed, that torture actually failed to produce it.

If Marshall wants to argue that torture is a valuable tool for intelligence gather, let him make the case.  I don’t actually think he does, of course.  But his bland suggestion that it might be so reeks of both-sides-now-ism.


Combine that with the hippy-bashing use of the word “doctrinaire” — as in hide-bound, close-minded, and inflexible — to describe the properties of opposition to torture, and you have a bit of even handed applause for the right’s conventional wisdom that Mr. Broder himself would have admired.

Marshall is better than this bit of overly fast punditry…but in some sense that’s the point.  It shows how easy it is to slip into Broderism, into the habits of sloppy thinking, or simple refusal to think, even for people who’ve made a career of bullshit detection.

Eternal vigilance, peeps.

Image:  Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime, 1808

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong: On So Many Axes It’s Hard To No Where To Start/Outsourced Edition.

September 17, 2010

Yes, this will be largely outsourced, but just to get everyone in the mood let me quote from the introduction to Andrew Bacevich’s important new book Washington Rules (about which I’ve been blogging a bit this week).

That introduction channels (and explicitly cites) Henry Adams on the subject of education, which in both men’s tellings tends to begin only when one discovers the capacity to break free of the fetters forged through years of imbibing truths too obvious to be examined.

As Bacevich quotes Adams, “Nothing is so astonishing in education as the amount of ignorance accumulates in the form of inert facts.”

That revelation prompted this next reflection.  I want to emphasize that the identification of it with Megan McArdle is all mine — Bacevich bears no responsibility for that specific connection.  But as I read his couple of sentences describing those who attempt to get ahead within the Washington establishment by showing existing powers how perfectly you can recite your lessons, it seemed to me to describe McArdle to a tee.

Bacevich writes that:

Adopting fashionable attitudes to demonstrate one’s trustworthiness — the world of politics is flush with such people hoping thereby to qualify for inclusion in some inner circle — is akin to engaging in prostitution in exchange for promissory notes.  It’s not only demeaning but downright foolhardy.

Bacevich is a better man than I am: he writes to warn, to educate.

I don’t, at least not here.

I think Megan McArdle is past instruction.  She has made her petty-Faustian deal with the the little Lucifers of DC, and it is my bet that when the bill comes due, it will be far too late for any education to have effect.

Which leads me to today’s update in the Always Wrong™ chronicles.  This one belongs almost entirely to Susan of Texas, the stalwart at The Hunting of the Snark who has more stamina than I will ever have in documenting the case study in the death of American journalism that is the Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic (sic!). (h/t TBogg).

Basically, McArdle links to a post citing an anonymous source accusing HHS Secretary Sebelius and the Obama administration of silencing a critic — a health insurance company — through the threat of regulatory retaliation.

Astute readers would (and did in McArdle’s comment thread) smell the obvious rat.  McArdle has long since demonstrated that she will say anything, no matter how risible, to defend her required position that the health care bill is an abomination (i.e. required by her overlords. See “promissary notes,” above).

So it comes as no surprise that she would leap at the attempt to advance the radical right-meme that government regulation = government jackboots at the door of innocent corporate citizens.  But given the convenience with which this post supports the pre-existing narrative, those who are familiar with her work know that one’s must needs check each claim.

Which her commenters do, admirably, and which Susan O’T meticulously chronicles. Go read Susan’s work — it’s fun.  Here I’ll just give you the short form, and one thought (all I got left on a busy Friday morning.)

Shorter:  McArdle takes another writer’s claims based on a “vetted” anonymous tip that a health insurance company has been silenced by a “gag order” issued by the  government.  Turns out (a) the “threat” was a widely publicized letter Secretary Sebelius sent to the head of the health insurance lobbying organization saying, in effect, that as the law requires, that insurers will be subject to regulatory review of potentially unjustified premium increases, and if that review returns confirmation, sanctions will follow.  To which she added the warning that falsely claiming that the new health care law drove the increases would not turn an unjustified increase into a justified one.

Now, you might not like it when a regulator in your business says the regulations apply to you, but McArdle had a great deal of difficulty explaining to her comment thread how this was a gag order — and in particular how this bore, at all, on her imputation that the administration was trying to suppress political speech (“dissent” in her grubby appropriation of a word whose associations with the to-her foreign concept of courage she seeks to steal).  Basically, she just made that bit up.

Actually, McArdle more or less told her readers right up front that she was doing so.  Susan noted that McArdle’s discussion of the so-called gag order began with this phrase:  “Whatever the facts….”

My FSM!  She might as well have taken out an ad in Variety to shout that this was all bullsh*t.

I’m sure no one reading this will be surprised to learn that the facts aren’t with her.

The health insurer in question, when finally contacted by the initial poster denied the existence of the gag order.  That blogger excused his error by saying that it seemed likely to him that the adminstration might threaten someone, and that if they had, and succeeded, the gag order would have prevented the company from telling him so. Sic.

McArdle ultimately updated her post to reflect this fact, after being contacted directly by the company in question.  She added this remark:

I shouldn’t have linked the HCSC situation to Sebelius’ letter, which I’ve been meaning to write about for days; I took the words “gag order” to mean something they didn’t, for which I apologize.

Uhhh…”I took the words “gag order” to mean something they didn’t?”

Is is it just me or is she telling us here that she is functionally illiterate?

How many other things can those words mean than the one we all assumed she was talking about: that someone with power uttered a command to someone else to shut up?

Of course, this is really just word salad, the one dish I know that McArdle knows how to whip up.

Her problem was that she committed a fundamental journalistic sin in a journalistic setting.  She got something big wrong, and even admits, within the body of the piece, that she didn’t even try to get it right.

Remember: McArdle accused the Obama administration of doing something very bad that it did not do.   She used words like “creepy” and  “thuggish” to describe this alleged exercise of totalitarian power.  There is nothing here that turns on a misunderstanding of the phrase “gag order.”

Instead what you see McArdle doing is to mask this great sin with a lessor one: I’m sorry, dude, but I just didn’t understand the vocabulary.  And the dog ate my homework.  And I was kinda right anyway.

To put it another way:  honest folk don’t have to make such excuses.

Last (hell of a shorter–ed.):  Whatever else happens, remember that Megan McArdle is not a journalist.  She is a shill.  A journalist would, affirmatively, actually report on claims before publishing them.

They’d ask. They would, at a minimum, read something as brief as a letter with some attention and care.

(Again, I’m just gobsmacked by that “I took the words…to mean” line.  Bluntly — if you can’t read declarative sentences in plain English with reasonable comprehension, then journalism is the wrong trade for you.)

Negatively, of course, “journalists” who routinely get basic facts in their stories wrong get fired.

If The Atlantic were even vaguely serious about its own reputation as an elite journal, it would react to the damage that McArdle daily does to the reputation of that publication and all who publish there, even those who are truly excellent writers and thinkers (thinking of you, James Fallows and TNC).

Again, there’s a simpler way to put it:  someone who can write — and not quail at pressing the upload button — the phrase, “whatever the facts”…

…is unworthy of your trust.

Image:  “Chiron instructs young Achilles,” fresco from Herculaneum.

All you need to know about the modern press, (The Push Cart War Edition)…

November 7, 2009

…you can find in my kid’s fourth grade reading assignment, that classic, Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War.

In Chapter IX, “The Secret Campaign Against the Pushcarts,” Merrill describes the truckers’ skillful use of captive media.  An anonymous columnist in a weekly owned by one of the truck companies wrote again and again about “The Pushcart Menance.”  This was the latest in a series of reports that purported to document threats to wholesome living in New York, all of which happen to be, just by coincidence matters of concern to trucks trying to ease their way through the streets.

Trees, it seems were “unsanitary” — the leaves, ya’ know — and that anonymous “people” wanted to banish them from sidewalks in order to widen roadways. Sidewalks themselves — and other obstacles to wider streets, like houses and churches and small candy stores, were “unsound and unsanitary” and hence ripe for removal in support of easing traffic flow.

But trees and shops and sidewalks were as nothing in that last few months and weeks before the war, compared to the overt threat to civic order posed by the five hundred or so pushcarts licensed to do business on the byways of New York.  So, in that spring, Merrill reports, the “Community Reporter” produced a flurry of stories “that made it sound as if pushcarts were even more unsound and unsanitary than trees, houses, schools, churches and candy stores.”

Now that would not have mattered much, for the captive rag in which these columns appeared was such transparently crap that Merrill notes, “some grocers had trouble giving it away, as most of their customers did not mind a few leaves falling off trees.”  But, cannily, the paper was also sent, gratis, to the influential:  “members of the City Council and other important people.”

You can guess what comes next.  Some free shopper makes a noise and…

Let Merill tell you how it worked — and still does:

Enough people did see the Community Reporter’s column for one of the more respectable papers to announce a series entitled:  “Pushcarts — Are They a Menace to Our Streets?”

When in doubt, don’t question the assertion, report the controversy.

And, even better (or more true to life), the respectable — that is to say, for “respectable,” read “serious” — series,  the MSM reporter interviewed not the pushcart peddlars, but Big Moe Mammoth, legendary head of Mammoth Moving, famed for its Baby Mammoths, Mama Mammoths, and the very Mighty Mammoth truck whose assault on Morris the Florist triggered open warfare on the streets of New York City.

In case you were wondering, Merrill published her prophetic tale in 1964.  You couldn’t call it fiction today.

Image:   George Benjamin Luks, “Houston Street,” 1917

What I Meant When I Meant What I Said: Checking and Blogging and Writing about Science edition

October 19, 2009

James Kwak over at Baseline Scenario paid me the compliment today of taking something I wrote recently quite seriously.  In the last section of my tome of a screed about Megan McArdle’s misleading use of sources to defend a dubious position on health care reform, I went all Mrs. Grundy on the obligations of science journalists, the need to be meticulous in checking the literature and handling sources.

But then Kwak used what I had written about McArdle to query his own blog practices — and while I certainly don’t mind introspection by any writer — his worries made me realize that I hadn’t been quite clear about how my plaints about science journalism dovetailed with my complaint about McArdle’s blog writing.

There is, I think, a difference obvious to everyone not hopelessly invested in alter kocher journalism, between blogs and other forms — features, books and so on. That there are huge variations, even genres in blog writing is obvious too, but I’m not going there.  Here I just want to talk about issue or subject focused blogging with pieces that mostly follow the text-and-exegesis form familiar to anyone who’s listened to a sermon (however skillfully buried the text might be).

There, the reader understands that what s/he’s getting is interpretation.  The essential bargain to be made with the reader is that whatever the text may be has been accurately represented.  In our journalism instruction at MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, this is where we emphasize the need (especially for investigative pieces) of making sure you present your source’s argument as well as they would if they could.

But what I was trying to point out is that McArdle routinely performs a sleight of hand.  She asserts journalism, research specific to the posts at hand.  She makes claims of fact, of having reported some story or part of a story — and then uses that claimed authority to assert her opinion as fact — or perhaps better, as logically necessary.  In the post I attempted to eviscerate, she claimed that her reading of the academic literature proved that we have to pay whatever Big Pharma wants, for the alternative had been shown to be the death of grandma.

Which is bullsh*t, as I attempted to demonstrate in the series linked above.

That is:  I think it’s reasonable to demand that folks making claims that are essentially classically journalistic do what journalists should do (though that obligation is certainly often enough honored in the breach) — they can’t just run on their gut; they have to report, check, verify.

Kwak’s response to that was (a) to question whether he does what he should in his own blogging and (b) whether, as the current controversy over Leavitt and Dubner’s Superfreakonomics suggests this is a general problem with any attempt to run a discourse, online or off.

I leave (a) aside:  again, I think that as long as blogging is honest about its own ambitions, the charges I levy at McArdle don’t apply.  As for (b), I agree with Kwak that this is an issue to which there aren’t obvious solutions — and certainly there does seem to be a Gresham’s law of argument: bad flashy stuff drives out good as often as not.

That is:  the miracle of McArdle and others like her is that such a sustained run of shoddy work hasn’t made her an embarrassment too great to bear even for those who are in sympathy with her rhetorical goals.  But, really,  it comes as no surprise that our journalistic society mirrors society at large, in which identity — membership in an in-group, an institution, The Atlantic! — counts for much more than action, the actual quality of one’s deeds or work.  Same goes for Leavitt and Dubner, the real subject of Kwak’s post, and many more besides.

But I do not think, and I didn’t want to imply in my rather waspish remarks that seem to have troubled Kwak, that the relative lack of internal checks in online writing is the chief problem.  It’s not the errors that occur (though they are damned embarrassing when you have to admit them).  Rather, the question is whether or not criticism of bad work can catch up to the impact of the shoddy stuff in our society.

And my answer is a hearty maybe.  We get the norms we enforce as a society.  In the blogosphere, we have more tools of enforcement now:  more voice.

I’m not Dr. Pangloss. The McArdles of the world, the Douthats and the Kristols and all their herd, paid and happy to comfort the comfortable, are always going to have big megaphones, perhaps the biggest.  And certainly the right-blogosphere shows that there are plenty of rank and file out there to amplify voices that should be ridiculed into silence.

But the fact that what would quite recently have been allowed to echo through the discourse essentially unchallenged is now almost immediately entangled in argument is what gives me hope.

Compare this health care debate with that of 1992.   Betsy McCaughey’s nonsense, propelled into national prominence by Andrew Sullivan in TNR, managed to contribute a great deal to the dismantling of health care reform then; this time, it has not, though some damage has been done.  One big difference is that despite dismal coverage by most of the MSM, a lot of online writers have hammered the death panel crap and all the rest, to real effect.

It’s a wearying prospect, having to jump up and down again and again on knowing deceit and simple willed not-knowing.  And the sheer repetition of the same zombie stories induces incredulity:  surely no one can believe this or that idiocy; shurely we need not go down this path again.

But in essence, that’s the job — or rather, that’s the tool we have now:  the ability to create and nurture the counter argument.  It’s deeply imperfect, but it is I think demonstrably better than the situation as recently as the late nineties, when the media seemed literally about to collapse to no more than five or six huge organizations.

Or so it seems at this hour past the acceptable time for blogging.

Good night, all.

Image:  cartoon of Czech painter Soběslav Pinkas (left) and reporter P. V. (right), before 1872