The anti-police propaganda spreading the lie that most police are racist and brutal and therefore a greater threat to society than a benefit has become like the nine-headed Hydra of Greek mythology: nearly impossible to kill. Prime among the villains in this development are the news media, which has enthusiastically spread misinformation while refusing to do its job of clarifying facts rather than distorting them, and researchers and academics, who have become so cowed by the abusive hyper-ideological environment in which they work that they won’t even stand behind their own studies. As discussed here, after a peer-reviewed study showing that the race of the officer or the civilian could not predict fatal police shootings was used by defenders of police and critics of Black Lives Matte, the researchers were pressured into retracting their paper because it was being, they said, misused.
I know I’m sounding uncharacteristically frustrated this weekend, but I really don’t know how society fights deliberate disinformation in support of a destructive narrative when both the journalism sector and the academic establishment are in on the fix.
Here is a representative example from The New Yorker. The current edition includes a 5,000 word essay by Jill Lepore, who should be trustworthy: she is a professor of American history at Harvard as well as frequent writer at The New Yorker and for other presumably legitimate publications. Her topic is the history of policing in the United States, linking the early role of police in suppressing slave rebellions to police killings of blacks today. At one point she writes,
One study suggests that two-thirds of Americans between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four who were treated in emergency rooms suffered from injuries inflicted by police and security guards, about as many people as the number of pedestrians injured by motor vehicles.
Unless you are biased, ignorant, or desperately eager to prove that police are monsters, that statement can only spark one reaction. The statistic is absurd. It is either made up, or an embarrassing mistake. But…but..she’s a Harvard professor! Yeah, there’s another reason to be skeptical, but you don’t even need to get to that problem.
I would not typically read Lepore’s article; I decided long, long ago that apart from Roger Angell’s wonderful essays on baseball, The New Yorker was insufferable, and beginning about ten years ago, also unreliable. Writer Louise Perry, however, who describes herself as a fan of both the magazine and Prof. Lapore, did read it, and because she is not deranged or illiterate, immediately thought, “Two-thirds of Americans between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four who were treated in emergency rooms suffered from injuries inflicted by police and security guards? That can’t possibly be right!”
So she checked, unlike Lapore and the New Yorker editors. And, sure enough, it wasn’t:
I sought out the study she was referring to, and found it: a 2016 paper, whose lead author, Justin Feldman, was a doctoral student at Harvard at the time. Soon after publication, the findings were described in a Harvard press release…
And it turns out I was right — the ‘two-thirds’ claim is not true. Not even close.
Lepore is right to draw a comparison between the rate of ‘legal intervention injuries’ (to use Feldman’s phrase) and the rate of pedestrians injured by motor vehicles, although this only applied to men aged 15-34.
But it’s not clear where Lepore got the ‘two-thirds’ figure from. Possibly she misunderstood a line from from the paper itself, which includes the finding that 61.1% of people injured by police fell into the 15-34 age bracket….
But I’m sorry to say that Lepore’s claim is straightforwardly false, as Feldman himself replied when asked by another twitter user: ‘Oh weird, the rate being the same as car accidents is true, but the other part is definitely not.’
I did my best to work out a rough estimate of the true proportion of 15-34 year olds visiting the ER who had suffered legal intervention injuries, and arrived at a figure of 0.2% (you can follow my working in this thread). So I believe Lepore’s claim to be off by a factor of several hundred.
Yet so many people want to believe that police brutality is as widespread as Lepore’s fake research would indicate, so they accept a statement as true that even casual thought would immediately suggest can’t possibly be. This includes, apparently, the professor. Perry concludes,
[This] tells us something about the political climate in a publication like the New Yorker, which was once famous for its rigorous fact checking. We know that political bias warps cognition, sometimes catastrophically, and this is, I think, an example of that in action. Lepore read Feldman’s research and she misunderstood part of it, despite being an exceptionally intelligent person. Like many other Left-leaning Democrats, she is convinced that police brutality is a huge, under-acknowledged problem in the United States, and she therefore jumped to the conclusion that this wildly inflated ‘two-thirds’ figure was plausible.
The staff at the New Yorker who read her piece also, we must assume, considered it to be plausible. The sentence was printed and, as of the time of writing, has not been corrected….
Of course, there is no way to counter the poison of an outright falsehood like this. It just adds to bias, hate and misunderstanding, fuels the “de-fund police” madness, and seeps into the consciousness of the unthinking, poorly educated, paranoid and fearful—oh, and woke!— via social media and peer group chatter.