Friday, February 6, 2015

If NBC uses the Dan Rather standard, it’ll force Brian Williams to resign

By Marc Jampole

If NBC follows the Dan Rather standard, it will either force Brian Williams to resign or fire him. Williams is the NBC news anchor who for years has said he rode a helicopter that underwent enemy fire during the ill-fated and disastrous Iraqi war. He has made the claim so many times that no apology or explanation can leave his reputation unstained.

Rather, most will remember, was the long-time CBS anchor who lost his job (excuse me—retired early!) because one of his producers failed to confirm a source. At the time Rather was the most well-known and well-respected television anchor in America. He fronted a report prepared by experienced and well-respected TV news producer Mary Mapes in a show called “60 Minutes Wednesday.” The topic: some memos purported to be written by a Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian that proved once and for all that Bush II shirked his National Guard duty during the Vietnam War era.

Too bad the memos were forgeries. After defending Rather and Mapes for about two weeks, CBS admitted that the news team had inadequately investigated the memos. Mapes was fired almost immediately, and Dan Rather, who was set to retire anyway, went more quickly and less elegantly than previously planned.

The contrasts with the Brian Williams case are striking: Rather did not lie, whereas Williams did. Rather’s report was accurate in the whole, which is to say, a lot of evidence points to the conclusion that George Jr. shrugged off his National Guard duties. Williams, by contrast, was trying to pretend that he was a soldier instead of avoiding being one.

Of course, NBC could follow the Fox News standard, which is much looser regarding the factual content of stories and the punishment reporters get for reporting false information, consciously or by accident. Take the Shirley Sherrod scandal, for example.  Now deceased Andrew Breitbart, an RWRBB (right-wing rich-boy blogger), edited a video copy of a speech of Sherrod, an African-American employee of the Federal Department of Agriculture, to make her sound like a “Black racist” and posted it on his website. Fox ran the clip numerous times. We soon learned that the RWRBB doctored the clip. Fox never checked the accuracy; it probably could have easily seen the edits that Breitbart made to twist Sherrod’s words. But no one was fired at Fox. Not the anchor, not the producer, not a research assistant who might be responsible for fact-checking or sourcing video. Now why is that? Is it because journalistic ethics have declined in the decade since the Rather firing or because Fox doesn’t really care about the accuracy of its stories?

We should give NBC time to assimilate and process the Williams admission of a long-time lie and the public’s reaction to it. But at the end, if it keeps Williams, it puts itself in the same league as Fox News.

Mainstream national news stations distort the political scene in many ways: they select the experts and the issues from a narrow political spectrum that is centrist looking rightward; reduce everything to personalities; truncate coverage of real news in favor of following celebrities; accept the Republican’s definition of the issues; argue by anecdote instead of presenting the facts; stud their stories with hidden messages supporting consumerism and belittling intellectual achievement; and give the wrong side of long-settled issues like vaccination and global warming equal opportunity to spread their ignorance.

But the national mainstream news media rarely tell an out-and-out lie that they know is a lie. Fox does, which makes the NBC decision to fire or not to fire Brian Williams so interesting to observe.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

“Liberal” cultural psychologist foregoes science to accept the premises of the right wing

By Marc Jampole

Several progressive friends of mine were raving about Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, which is about three years old, so I read it. In it, Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, extends a very important theory about morality in humans that is emerging among anthropologists and primatologists. But then he uses false reasoning and what looks like shoddy research to twist the theory into a wild assertion that people inherently respond more enthusiastically to rightwing arguments.

In the first part of The Righteous Mind, Haidt explores the idea that morality is hardwired into humans, a theory that has gained much ground over the past few decades. Haidt combines studies by cultural anthropologists and some primatologists to postulate that there exist five distinct foundations to morality and moral thought inherent in humans, all traceable to primates and other mammals. Haidt expresses each of the five as a dichotomy of good and bad behavior:
  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation
Haidt shows how each of these foundations of morality evolved in response to an adaptive challenge, e.g., care/harm evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for the vulnerable young; sanctity evolved as a response to the need to avoid contaminants in food and elsewhere. This first part of the book extends research conducted by Frans de Waal, Jane Goodall and others that pretty much establishes that primates have morality, which means that morality is hardwired into humans, part of our essential nature.

Unfortunately Haidt uses the second half of The Righteous Mind to explicate a bloated theory that liberals concern themselves with only two of these moral foundations, care and fairness, whereas conservatives are concerned with all five. Haidt sees this so-called difference in moral emphasis as the reason conservative arguments resonate so emotionally with the electorate.

Haidt’s premise is that Republicans speak to all five moral foundations, whereas Democrats since 1960 offer a narrow moral vision, based only on the care and fairness moral foundations. We don’t even have to question his assumption that Democrats serve as stand-ins for liberals to see how Haidt jury-rigs his argument. The premise is false, because it posits that only Republicans talk about loyalty, authority and sanctity. What Haidt is really doing is accepting the Republican’s definition of these terms. Haidt contrasts how the Democrats and Republicans talk about fairness—the Dems focus on equal opportunity while the GOP focuses on the unfairness of taking money from taxpayers and giving it to the poor.

But to construct his argument, Haidt must ignore their differences in the areas of loyalty, authority and sanctity and instead state unequivocally that Democratic candidates don’t care about these moral foundations. It’s really utter nonsense. For example, Democrats often speak of the sanctity of life as the reason to have strong social welfare programs; they evoke “law and order” themes as much as Republicans do (see Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop for the sorry details). Haidt gives no example of Republicans’ so-called appeal to the loyalty foundation. Thus, Haidt uses rightwing definitions of two of the three moral centers Democrats supposedly lack and gives no example of the third.

Haidt never considers the other factors that have led to Republican election success in recent decades: He ignores the greater preponderance of cash that Republicans tend to have at their disposal. He ignores the fact that the mainstream news media—owned as they are by the wealthy—tend to pay more attention to Republican races and define political and economic issues using Republican terms. He displays every sign of not having read the works of C. Wright Mills, William Domhoff or Frances Fox Piven/Richard Cloward on how the ruling elite exercises control over elections and the electorate. He never considers the impact of racism, which makes people consider certain groups less than human and therefore not subject to the moral considerations reserved for those considered legitimately humans. Instead, Haidt reduces all the complexity of politics to the Democrats not appealing to three of five moral foundations, as defined by the semantics that Haidt borrows from the rightwing.

Ostensibly substantiating Haidt’s political theory are surveys he and associates have administered. These surveys supposedly show that those who call themselves liberal care much more about the care and fairness foundations than about the other moral foundations, whereas conservatives care equally about all five. But the surveys are full of ambiguous questions that can derive the same answer from both liberals and conservatives.

For example, the basic moral foundations test asks the question, “When you decide whether something is right or wrong, to what extent are the following considerations relevant to your thinking?” What follows are a number of factors, each of which the respondent must rate as very important to not very important as a consideration. Here are some of the factors, with brief comments on why these answers could misguide researchers:
  • Whether or not someone violated standards of purity and decency: Liberals will think it pure and decent for marriage to sanctify gay relationships, whereas conservatives will understand “purity and decency” as standards that regulate the behavior of individuals.
  • Whether or not someone did something to betray his or her group. Whether or not someone showed a lack of loyalty: What’s true betrayal or true loyalty?—to blow the whistle on unethical behavior by group leaders or to protect the group by concealing evidence it did something that transgressed its ideology or ethics.
  • Whether or not someone was denied his or her rights: Which right? The right to be served or the right not to engage in business transactions with someone whose race or way of life you disapprove of?
  • Whether or not someone’s action showed love for his or her country: Some believe Dick Cheney loves his country most; others would say it’s Edward Snowden.
I could spend another 20 pages analyzing the flaws and logical inconsistencies in Haidt’s absurd claim that liberals care about only two of the five moral foundations he and others have identified in primates. Before his flight of fancy into political theory, however, Haidt does establish that the five major strands of moral thinking are innate to humans, which argues against revealed religion as necessary for morality to exist. Anyone who reads The Righteous Mind should stop after the first eight chapters or be prepared to wade through some of the most manipulative and misleading nonsense written in recent years.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

New Yorker & Times writers use verbal selfies to communicate myth that science & math are hard & not fun

By Marc Jampole
The epidemic of verbal selfies used to begin feature articles continues unabated. It seems as if every other feature article begins with something about the writer—personal struggles with the problem under discussion, an anecdote from childhood, a favorite professor’s lecture on the topic years ago, how the topic reminds the writer of another subject, the writer’s enthusiasm in broaching the topic, the means by which the writer travelled to meet someone in the article.
These verbal selfies are often laughable, but none more so than Alex Wilkinson’s first few sentences in “The Pursuit of Beauty” in the New Yorker. In sharing his attitude towards and experience with the subject matter, Wilkinson disqualifies himself from writing the article at the same time revealing he is a dishonorable person not to be trusted. 
The article is about a math professor who solved a math problem open for more than 150 years. To entice us to continue reading, which is the function of the first paragraph of a prose piece, Wilkinson writes:
“I don’t see what difference it can make now to reveal that I passed high-school math only because I cheated. I could add and subtract and multiply and divide, but I entered the wilderness when words became equations and x’s and y’s. On test days, I sat next to Bob Isner or Bruce Gelfand or Ted Chapman or Donny Chamberlain—smart boys whose handwriting I could read—and divided my attention between his desk and the teacher’s eyes. Having skipped me, the talent for math concentrated extravagantly in one of my nieces…”
The article is about advanced math. To write it will require the writer to understand some fairly complicated ideas, at least conceptually, and to understand them well enough to be able to translate them into journalistic English for the reader. Wilkinson disqualifies himself because he admits that he couldn’t even do simple algebra. What’s more, he admits he cheated to pass his math classes. How do we know he hasn’t fudged some of the facts in the article? How do we know his explanation of the problem the mathematician solved doesn’t smooth over with rhetorical lies those concepts Wilkinson failed to understand?
In short, Wilkinson embarrasses and disqualifies himself within the first three sentences. And an editor approved his copy!
Charles Blow tries but fails to pull the same anti-science crap in his article, “A Future Segregated by Science,” in the New York Times. He starts the article, “Let me say up front: I’m not a science guy.” But then Blow quickly admits he loves science (he just likes the arts more!) and even won a high school science fair with a research project. Blow continues his disquisition about his personal relationship with “science” with a shaggy dog story about an airline losing the winning project, preventing him from competing in an international science fair. All this personal stuff comes before a very good article on the racial and gender gap that currently exists in science and technology (STEM) careers.
At least Blow doesn’t disqualify himself from writing the article, since 1) he admits he’s actually pretty good at science and 2) the article is about analyzing statistics—his area of expertise as a writer—and not about science itself.
It’s rare for Blow to start an article with a personal anecdote, except for when the piece concerned Yale campus police stopping his son, a Yalie, without cause. He’s one of the most legitimately creative and interesting journalists with a regular column in a daily newspaper, one who rarely resorts to cheap, overused rhetorical devices.
Why then did Blow feel compelled to start the article by assuring us he’s “Not a science guy”? The article bemoans the fact that science work has become segregated and that few minorities have science and technology careers. He blames both schools for not producing enough STEM graduates and corporations for not hiring recent Hispanic and Black science graduates at the rate at which they do graduate. Blow ends his article with a call for more gender and racial equality in STEM careers.
Blow doesn’t realize that his beginning—“Let me say up front: I’m not a science guy”—is a small part of the problem. Week after week journalists interject snide asides about science and math: Science and math are hard subjects. They’re not fun. Those who like them are socially maladroit and unathletic. Science careers aren’t glamorous. Add to these articles the extensive coverage given to the truly small number of global warming deniers, those who would deny their children vaccines and opponents to evolution. No wonder so many kids don’t want to pursue science careers!
One weapon in this decades-long media war against science and math is for writers to distance themselves from the subject by saying they find it hard or they don’t like it. Some might say that the writers who express dislike or fear of STEM subjects are trying to establish rapport with their readers, who might not be adept at science or might be intimidated by it. But this hypothetical rapport is firmly based in the ideological premise that science and math are difficult and not enjoyable and thereby merely contributes to the anti-science mythology, which is part of the mass media’s larger anti-intellectualism.
Both the cheating poor student Wilkinson and the honorable good student Blow use this rhetorical device and put it at the very beginning of the article. In Wilkinson’s case, it disqualifies him from even writing the article. In Blow’s case, it merely postpones what turns out to be a fine discussion of a crisis.
The two writers are unified by their employment of the most overused rhetorical device in contemporary non-fiction to make a statement that contributes to the anti-science attitudes pervasive in the mass media. How American: narcissism in pursuit of anti-intellectualism.