Tag Archives: confirmation bias

Unethical Quote Of The Week: NYT Columnist David Brooks [UPDATED}

“Biographies describe a man intent on making his fortune and not afraid of skating near the edge to do so. At one point, according to Politico, federal investigators found that Frederick used various accounting measures to collect an extra $15 million in rent (in today’s dollars) from a government housing program, on top of paying himself a large “architect’s fee.” He was hauled before investigating committees on at least two occasions, apparently was arrested at a K.K.K. rally in Queens (though it’s not clear he was a member), got involved in a slush fund scandal with Robert Wagner and faced discrimination allegations.”

—New York Times columnist David Brooks arguing that Donald Trump, Jr.’s conduct in holding the controversial meeting  with some Russians and Russian-Americans to acquire useful negative information about Hillary Clinton for his father’s campaign came about because his family is just no damn good, as shown by the conduct of Fred Trump, the President’s storied father.

Unlike some commentators, I have no ethical problem with Brooks’ basic thesis. Culture molds ethics, children are influenced by the conduct and values modeled by their parents, and I have pointed out too many times to  count that Donald Trump doesn’t know ethics from a merry-go-round, and appears to have no  conventionally functioning ethics alarms at all. It makes perfect sense that Donald Jr. would grow up similarly handicapped.

However, Brooks’ evidence that Trump family patriarch Fred Trump was corrupt and without scruples is all innuendo and supposition, and thus dishonest, incompetent, and unfair. Let’s examine the components of Brooks’ attack:

  • “federal investigators found that Frederick used various accounting measures to collect an extra $15 million in rent (in today’s dollars) from a government housing program, “

Were the accounting measures illegal? Apparently not. Was the  “architect’s fee”? I guess not: Fred wasn’t indicted or prosecuted. Being investigated by the feds does not prove or indicate wrongdoing. Maybe Fred was cheating; I wouldn’t be surprised. But Brooks has no facts to support that assumption, just a pejorative characterizations.

  • “He was hauled before investigating committees on at least two occasions…”

I love the “hauled.” Being asked to testify isn’t evidence of wrongdoing either. Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up: 7/13/17

Good Morning!

1. I owe Robin Meade an apology. The astoundingly bright-eyed, bushy-tailed HLN morning host has been used here as an an example of the sexism of broadcast news media producers, and it is true that she is uncommonly attractive even by “news babe” standards. However, I have come to realize that she is also a unique talent, and more than just a pretty face and figure. Meade has natural presence and charisma, projects genuine optimism and and an up-beat nature, and most unusual of all, doesn’t spin the news or tilt her delivery to signal her own opinion. She’s really good at what she does. I’m sorry Robin; I was biased against you because you are attractive, which is just as wrong as being biased for you. You’re a pro, through and through.

2. Constitutional law expert Eugene Volokh (who is also my favorite candidate for a Supreme Court post if one opens up) published what I consider to be a definitive refutation of the claim that receiving opposition research, as in “damaging information about Hillary Clinton,” is a crime under current law. He also makes a case that it couldn’t be criminalized under future law:

“It would raise obvious First Amendment problems: First, noncitizens, and likely even non-permanent-residents, in the United States have broad First Amendment rights. See Bridges v. Wixon, 326 U.S. 135 (1945) (“freedom of speech and of press is accorded aliens residing in this country”); Underwager v. Channel 9 Australia, 69 F.3d 361 (9th Cir. 1995) (“We conclude that the speech protections of the First Amendment at a minimum apply to all persons legally within our borders,” including ones who are not permanent residents).

Second, Americans have the right to receive information even from speakers who are entirely abroad. See Lamont v. Postmaster General, 381 U.S. 301 (1965). Can Americans — whether political candidates or anyone else — really be barred from asking questions of foreigners, just because the answers might be especially important to voters?”

The professor concludes not. I hadn’t even considered the First Amendment issue in determining that the election law prohibition against receiving “anything of value” benefiting a candidate from a foreign nation or individual was not intended to preclude mere information, but Volokh’s argument seems air tight. Continue reading

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Incompetent Polling + Confirmation Bias + Lazy Analysis= Fake News

Seven percent of all American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, according to a nationally representative online survey commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy, reports the Washington Post. The writer then goes on to explain why this “surprising result” occurred. The main thesis: Americans are now so far removed from farm and food production that ignorance is epidemic.

I have no doubt that too many kids aren’t properly informed by the adults in their lives about basic facts of food and agriculture., just as I know that the average American has trouble placing the Civil War and World War I on a timeline, can’t name more than ten Presidents, and thinks JFK was “great.” I also have no doubt that 7% of the American public is dumber than a box of whoopie cushions.  Taking a poll result like this one at face values, however, shows why the news media was so sure Hillary Clinton would win.

Ann Althouse nailed it in a brief post she calls : “There’s nothing dumber than forgetting that other people might have a sense of humor and are screwing with you.”:

“When you’re studying something among people you look upon as commoners, you’d better stop and wonder: Am I the Margaret Mead?”

(If you are unfamiliar with the Mead reference, this will help.) Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up: 6/14/17

1.  I am wrestling myself to the ground to avoid making any assumptions about the shooting this morning (about three miles from my home in Alexandria, Virginia) of two Republican Congressmen and an aide while the GOP baseball team was practicing for tomorrow’s annual Congressional baseball game for charity. When Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot (and a judge killed, among others) in Tucson, Arizona, the news media, pundits and Democrats leaped to blame Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh for so-called “eliminationist rhetoric,” defined in Palin’s case as using cross-hairs on an electoral map to indicate which Democrats could be defeated in 2012—you know, as in “he’s in my cross-hairs.” This was a transparent effort to stifle political speech. In 1995, when a Federal building in Oklahoma City was blown up in a domestic terrorist attack, “violent anti-government” rhetoric from the Right was also blamed, though there was no evidence that Timothy McVeigh would not have done exactly the same thing if political discourse had been all John Lennon and rainbows.

The Giffords explanation was cynical and contrived; the Oklahoma City response a bit less so, but in neither of those cases were violent imagery and hateful language (no party officials and member of Congress used “fuck” back then, late night TV hosts were largely apolitical and couldn’t call Presidents “cockholsters” without being fired, the “resistance” in 1995 consisted of fringe militia groups, not recent unsuccessful Presidential candidates with a large following, and nobody was giving standing ovations to Central Park theatrical productions showing a doppleganger of the President of the United States being assassinated. In other words, if Rush Limbaugh had held up a prop bloody head of Barack Obama prior to Giffords’ shooting, I would not have derided the critics who argued that irresponsible partisan rhetoric was at least part of the cause. But he didn’t. Nobody did. Nobody would have thought of doing so. Then.

So when my wife told me, the second I woke up, about the shooting this morning, my immediate thought was, “I wonder who the shooter is, an illegal immigrant, a Muslim, or a member of “the resistance?”  This was unfair, and I knew it. The shooter might have been, as it was in Tucson, a wacko. It might have been moral luck that it was the Republican baseball team that was attacked and not the Democrats, just as it was moral luck that nobody was killed. Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up: 6/9/17

1. News Item: “More than 130 imams and Muslim religious leaders in the United Kingdom have said they will refuse to perform funeral prayers for the Manchester and London terrorists as a rebuke to the “dastardly cowardice” of the “vile murderers.” Notes Ethics Alarms issue scout Fred, “This time it’s religious institutions refusing [to provide a service based on religious/political beliefs and conduct], and it’s based on the actions of the people they’re refusing to pray for or bury. On the other hand, anyone born in Scotland is entitled to the government’s services even if he’s No True Scotsman. By analogy, is it right for them to deny funerals to Muslims, even the most egregiously sinful?

I’d have to do more research on Islam than I have time for right now to address that question, but it’s an interesting one.

2.  As a follow-up to New Orleans’ lamentable decision to remove statues honoring Confederate figures (discussed on Ethics Alarms here), The Atlantic published an exhaustive brief against the “myth” that Robert E. Lee was worthy of his reputation as a noble human being who fought for Virginia out of loyalty to his “country,” but who deplored slavery. I have criticized the hero-worship of Lee as well, but much of what is in Adam Serwer’s article was completely unknown to me. If accurate, it is horrifying. Just one example:

“Lee’s cruelty as a slavemaster was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”

3. I’ll discuss the Comey testimony in detail later, but I came close to writing about the unseemly and self-indicting display of gleeful anticipation by much of the news media (and “the resistance,” of course) over what they were just certain would be the smoking gun to get President Trump impeached. CNN had a countdown, second by second, on-screen the whole previous day, like Christmas was coming. Ann Althouse nicely summed up how foolish and ugly this was: Continue reading

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Conundrum: Is CNN’s Dylan Byers An Ethics Dunce, Or An Ethics Hero?

Midnight  Friday morning,  CNN was analyzing the GOP’s perplexing win in Montana’s special election for the House of Representatives—perplexing to Ethics Alarms because the winner, Gianforte, is a dishonest thug, but perplexing to CNN because their reporters were desperately hoping for a sign that voters were turning on President Trump, something their network has been working on for many months.  CNN’s Media reporter Dylan Byers then blurted out this remarkable statement:

“There’s this conversation that’s happening among people following the news industry, which is how can we bridge the sort of gap between all of those conservatives who don’t trust the media, and get them to start knowing that, you know, we’re acting in good faith, with good intentions? Maybe you can’t, because they’re not even listening. From the second, it’s not as though they’re reading the article and considering it, or listening the audio and considering it. They’re just not paying attention to it, because  they don’t trust us.

And this, by the way, you look at the tapes of Trump there. Two things have happened. One, over the course of several decades, the conservatives have done a masterful job at capitalizing the waning trust in media and using it to their advantage. But a second thing has happened, too, which is, on occasion, more than the media would like to admit, we have not told the story of conservative Americans, disenfranchised Americans, who believe that they are losing their country. The story we have largely been telling is a story that is more or less in step with the arc of history as defined by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It does not mean we favor them to win. It just means that sort of vision of a progressive future, a global future, and that is not one that resonates with so many conservative American voters.”

“The story we have largely been telling is a story that is more or less in step with the arc of history as defined by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.”

It is notable that none of the three journalists on the panel with Byers challenged this damning characterization. Continue reading

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The Attorney General’s “Island In The Pacific” Gaffe

I guess we’re going to have to get used to this sequence over the next 4-8 years (yes, 8: at the rate the Democrats are disgracing themselves, President Trump may stick around):

1) President Trump and/or one of his surrogates, spokespersons or appointees make a carelessly worded statement

2) Democrats, activists and the news media intentionally, wilfully and maliciously interpret it in the worst way possible under the convetions of the English language

3) They widely represent the statement to the public as expressing malign thoughts intent and principles

4) The Trump-related speaker, being rhetorically-challenged to begin with, fails to clarify the confusion and makes himself or herself look worse the more he tries.

5) Nobody, almost literally nobody, bothers to examine the statement from an objective point of view.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last week, referring to the Hawaii -chambered federal judge Derrick K. Watson, who last month blocked Trump’s revised temporary halt on travel from sslected terrorist-rich Muslim countries just before it was to go into effect,

“I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.”

It was an off-hand remark on conservative talk show host Mark Levin’s radio program, but it immediately provoked ridicule and attack. Sessions didn’t know Hawaii was a state. Sessions doesn’t respect Hawaii.  President Trump doesn’t like Hawaii. Just a few minutes ago, I watched ABC’s George Stephanopoulos confront Sessions about the remark. Sessions’ humina humina reply: “Nobody has a sense of humor any more.”

I understood the meaning of Sessions’ statement to Levin the minute I heard it, because I thought the same thing at the time of the judge’s ruling: Hawaii is the weirdest place for Trump’s order to be litigated, since the state  is uniquely insulated from the illegal immigration problems facing the other 49 states, has never had anything close to a terrorism attack, and has a negligible Muslim population. The particular problems that the President’s order purports to address is an abstract one for Hawaiians, more than any other state. Sessions’ comment was rueful, intended as irony (to a friendly interviewer), and none of the vile things it was subsequently accused of being. Continue reading

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