Ethics Observations On A Case Study In Combining Bad Journalism With Bad Science

Yes, it’s the New York Times again. I use that paper for the majority of the Ethics Alarm unethical journalism posts for a few reasons. One is that the paper comes to my door every day, so I read a lot of articles that I might miss on the web.  Another is that the Times is the most successful and influential newspaper in the country,  and its work is more closely followed and more criticized than any other paper, and most news sources generally. The Times also advertises itself as the nation’s “paper of record,” placing itself on a pedestal with standards of integrity and reliability that it is obligated to meet….and does not. Finally, the paper is unacceptably biased in its political coverage and editorial product.

Today’s “Where America Didn’t Stay Home Even as the Virus Spread”  is far from then times at its worst. It is, however, unacceptable and unethical. I’m not even in disagreement with the piece’s main thesis, which is that the regions that have not imposed shelter at home restrictions on the public are at more risk of exploding Wuhan virus cases. That makes sense; that’s even obvious. However, the Times’s main tool in making a case was the map below, which it explained this way:

“Stay-at-home orders have nearly halted travel for most Americans, but people in Florida, the Southeast and other places that waited to enact such orders have continued to travel widely, potentially exposing more people as the coronavirus outbreak accelerates, according to an analysis of cellphone location data by The New York Times. The divide in travel patterns, based on anonymous cellphone data from 15 million people, suggests that Americans in wide swaths of the West, Northeast and Midwest have complied with orders from state and local officials to stay home.”

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Observations On The Times Review Of “Apropos Of Nothing”

Woody Allen in “Manhattan” with a 16-year-old Mariel Hemingway (playing a 17-year-old)

To be clear, I haven’t read Woody Allen’s autobiography, “Apropos of Nothing,” and I won’t. I found myself unable to endure anything related to Allen after he married his own quasi-daughter following a sexual affair with her while they were both living with Mia Farrow, Allen as her supposed lover and domestic partner, Sun-Yi Previn as her adopted child. While I maintain that the works of artists should be kept separate from the character flaws and misdeeds of their creators, that’s an intellectual and ethical position, not an emotional and gastrointestinal one. The latter are non-ethical considerations, but that doesn’t mean I can ignore them.

If I were a professional book reviewer, however, I would be forced to put my revulsion aside, or refuse the assignment of rendering a verdict on “Apropos of Nothing.” It is undeniable that the New York Times book reviewer, Dwight Garner, couldn’t or wouldn’t do that. To be fair, the Times no longer enforces the core journalism ethics principle that journalists shouldn’t allow personal biases to infect their reporting, but that is an explanation, not a defense. Some observations: Continue reading

#MeToo Ethics: Prosecuting To Stigmatize The Accused

It’s not just the impeachment..apparently prosecutors are beginning to adopt the Democratic Party’s theory that it is appropriate to force a trial when there is no chance at conviction just to stigmatize the accused. This is a clear breach of prosecutor ethics, but ethics schmethics, the ends justify the means, right?

The area in which this despicable strategy is surfacing is—and this should be no surprise—the realm of #Me Too. In Maine,  Natasha Irving , who is the top prosecutor for Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Waldo counties,  wants to reform how the legal system prosecutes sexual assault cases, believing all women so those who come forward know they’ll be “supported.” This means, according to  Irving, that prosecutors shouldn’t decline to prosecute a sexual assault case just because they “think it’s too hard to prove.”

“Individually, I think that response is very damaging to a survivor,” she says. “If they weren’t believed initially, they don’t have faith that they’re going to be believed if they come forward again. Or that they somehow will be put on trial for what happened instead of the perpetrator. There’s a lot of shame and blame that the victims often carry.”

Yes, that’s a problem. A greater problem is prosecutors bring cases to trial when the don’t have enough evidence to prove the defendant guilty. Then they are just counting on an incompetent jury, which isn’t that much of a longshot. The attitude Irving is endorsing is how black men end up in prison for murders they didn’t commit. Continue reading

Corrupting History To Get Trump, And Smearing A Profile In Courage To Do It

Senator Edmund G. Ross. Hero? Corrupt hero? Politician?

It all started when a thoroughly Trump-deranged friend of long-standing–a Georgetown professor!–cited with approval on Facebook a critical article at the CNN site condemning the National Archives idiotic altering of an anti-Trump photo. I discussed the issue, and the article, here, #3, noting that Perry exposes himself as an unprofessional hack by using this incident to suggest, without evidence, untold document mischief throughout the  Trump administration. Noting how completely historians have debased their profession by joining the “resistance” and engaging in partisan analysis, I promised to return to Perry’s unethical screed that day. Well, I’m late, but here it is.

Later in his article, Perry wrote,  “Just last week, Vice President Mike Pence authored a mendacious op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which touted one senator’s vote against the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson as a profile in courage, despite historians’ agreement that the senator was, in fact, likely bribed.”

I know all about Edmund G. Ross, celebrated in JFK’s “Profiles in Courage” as the Radical Republican Senator from Kansas who saved President Andrew Johnson from a political coup attempt very similar to what the Democrats are trying now to do to President Trump. Ross’s vote against impeachment conviction was the margin by which the two-thirds requirement for impeachment failed. Kennedy’s book (which he didn’t write, but that’s another ethics story) designated Ross a hero because he knew his vote would likely end his political career in Kansas, as indeed it did. Where did the alleged historical consensus that Ross was bribed come from?

The answer is nowhere. There is no such “agreement,” because there is no proof, only speculation. However, smearing Ross and denigrating his motives are essential to legitimizing  a 19th Century Republican plot to remove a President who was obnoxious, defiant, and widely regarded as  “unfit” as well as being looked down upon as too humble in his origins to be President. Doing so, you see,  makes the current soft coup appear similarly legitimate. By this new analysis, Ross isn’t a hero but a villain, thus the assault on Pence for citing Ross as a role model  Continue reading

Six Ethics Lessons As Bill James Falls Into His Own Research Trap

Baseball philosopher, iconoclast and analyst Bill James is one of my heroes for his amazing ability to look past conventional wisdom with an open mind. Beginning as essentially a self-published pamphleteer writing out of his basement, James’ counter-traditional explorations of baseball statistics eventually changed how baseball was watched, assessed, scouted and played, simply on the strength of Bill’s  ideas and his facility in explaining them.

His talents could be used in many other fields–James has recently branched out into examining famous unsolved murders—but it is also true that many of the ideas he has developed in relation to baseball have wider applications. For example, James was the source of the concept of “signature significance,” which is a staple here at Ethics Alarms.

His writing also taught me that bias makes us stupid, and about the insidious power of rationalizations.  Many of James’s observations seemed intrinsically obvious once he made and explained them, and the fact that  baseball executives, writers and players could have been so wrong about their own game for so long seemed incomprehensible. But the reasons were what they always are, in all fields. People are biased toward what they have always believed —confirmation bias–and the “It’s always been this way” variation on the most powerful rationalization of them all, “Everybody does it”  breeds blindness and  intellectual laziness. Continue reading

“Authentic Frontier Gibberish” Ethics

On Ethics Alarms, the term “Authentic Frontier Gibberish” is used to describe “intentionally (or sometimes just incompetently) incoherent double-talk used by politicians, advocates, lawyers, doctors, celebrities, scientists, academics ,con artists and wrong-doers to deceive, obfuscate, confuse, bore, or otherwise avoid transparency, admitting fault, accepting accountability or admitting uncomfortable truths. The term comes from “Blazing Saddles,” in this memorable scene.

It sometimes arises from incompetent communication skills, which are unethical for anyone in the public eye to employ. Sometimes it is more sinister than that, and occurs when someone chooses to create a vague word cloud that obscures the speaker’s or writer’s real purpose…and sometimes the fact that they are frauds. Sometimes AFG is designed to convey a feeling while avoiding sufficient substance to really explain what he or she means.

Sometimes, it feels like gaslighting.

A New York Times article was ostensibly about “Dealing with Bias in Artificial Intelligence.” This was, obviously, click-bait for me, as the topic is a developing field of ethics. The introduction stated in part, “[S]ocial bias can be reflected and amplified by artificial intelligence in dangerous ways, whether it be in deciding who gets a bank loan or who gets surveilled. The New York Times spoke with three prominent women in A.I. to hear how they approach bias in this powerful technology.” The statements of the first two women—I see no reason why only female experts on the topic were deemed qualified to comment—were useful and provocative.

Last, however, was Timnit Gebru “a research scientist at Google on the ethical A.I. team and a co-founder of Black in AI, which promotes people of color in the field, [who] talked about the foundational origins of bias and the larger challenge of changing the scientific culture.”

Here’s what she said (Imagine, the Times said this was “edited and condensed”! ). The bolding is mine.. Continue reading

Mrs. Q’s Corner: Political Mascot

 

by Frances Quaempts-Miller

Towards the end of British author Douglas Murray’s latest book The Madness of Crowds is a call to find significance beyond politics:

 “One of the ways to distance ourselves from the madness of our times is to retain an interest in politics but not to rely on it as a source of meaning.  The call should be for people to simplify their lives and not mislead themselves by devoting their lives to a theory that answers no questions, makes no predictions and is easily falsifiable.  Meaning can be found in all sorts of places.  For most individuals it is found in the love of the people and places around them: in friends, family and loved ones, in culture, place and wonder.  A sense of purpose is found in working out what is meaningful in our lives and then orienting ourselves over time as closely as possible to those centres of meaning. Using ourselves up on identity politics, social justice and intersectionality is a waste of a life.”

 Murray ends his book arguing, “To assume that sex, sexuality, and skin colour mean nothing would be ridiculous.  But to assume that they mean everything will be fatal.”

 In the last year and a half my wife and I have lost six loved ones, including two grandmothers last month, only three weeks apart.  Between us we have lost three grandparents, a cousin, an aunt, and my father. Ours has been a house of grieving that has prompted both of us to re-examine what has brought us a sense of purpose and what we need to focus our energies on in the future.  After spending not just years but decades fighting for equality, it has become clear, with so much death, that such supposed noble efforts have only rendered a more broken heart in a more broken world. 

 At the age of fourteen I went to my first protest to express concern for the United States involvement in El Salvador.  At the time, I didn’t really know what our country was doing wrong but I did know that the exhilaration of marching in the middle of the street, after the police told us through their bullhorns not to, while yelling various slogans repeatedly, was intoxicating.  All my frustration with whatever complications life had thrown my way dissolved instantly.  Suddenly I was a part of something bigger than myself while believing my actions and those of the other protesters were on “the right side of history” (see 1B. The Psychic Historian on the list of Unethical Rationalizations and Misconceptions). For a somewhat shy teenager, I was instantly transformed by that march into a powerful person.  Continue reading