From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “The Siena Research Institute’s Lousy Independence Day Gift: Misleading, Biased and Incompetent Presidential Rankings”

Now and then an old post suddenly get a lot of clicks. Often this will draw my attention to an essay I had forgotten: such was the case with this post from 2010. Someone on Reddit put it up for discussion, and last week the old post had hundreds of views. I was intrigued and re-read it. Good post!

I would change a few observations—in the intervening years we have learned that Woodrow Wilson was even worse than I thought—and add some, but the post was long, and a thorough evisceration of this embarrassing survey’s results would require a book.

***

The Siena College Research Institute persuaded over 200 presidential scholars to participate in a survey designed to rank America’s forty-three Chief Executives. There is great deal to be leaned from the resulting list that the Institute proudly released on July 1; unfortunately, very few of the lessons have anything to do with the men on it.

The list shows us that:

  • A survey is only as good as its design
  • Historians who call themselves “presidential scholars,” working together, could do no better in their supposed area of expertise than to arrive at a ranking that would get most 7th Graders a C in junior high school History, raising serious questions about how history is taught in our universities, but perhaps explaining why Americans choose to be so ignorant of their nation’s past.
  • Historians are, as a group, biased toward liberal causes, against conservatives, and in favor of people who are like them.
  • They are unable to recognize their biases, even when a list like this one makes them stunningly obvious.

Lists are mostly for fun and to start arguments. When one purports to make historical judgments, however, and the individuals doing the judging are supposed to be experts, there is still a responsibility to try to do the task fairly, competently, and responsibly. Continue reading

From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “Slow Loris Ethics: Great, Now Even The Smithsonian is Hyping!”

[The latest entry in the periodic series of old Ethics Alarms posts I had completely forgotten about was dredged from my memory by a Geico commeicial featuring a sloth that a woman in the ad calls a badger. Naturally, this prompted me to think about the distinction between slow lorises and pottos, and from there to this 2013 post, which, I was surprised to discover, wasn’t really about that. My mind is a strange and terrible thing.]

If we can’t even trust the Smithsonian not to lie to us, what hope is there?

The February issue of the Smithsonian magazine arrived, full of articles about origins and evolution. I immediately gravitated to the essay about komodo dragons, whose bite, as those of you who have been bitten by one know, is poisonous. In a colorful sidebar to the main article was a smaller note about the wide range of other animals that poison their victims, titled “Pick Your Poison.”

“The komodo dragon may be the newest addition to the elite corps of predators that kill with chemistry, but the venomous world is already more diverse than people realize,” it began. The note was illustrated by photos of a duck-billed platypus (owner of a leg spur with a poison gland that gives the thing quite a kick); the tiny Pacific cone snail, which can kill a human; the black mamba, the snake that had a co-starring role as an assassin in “Kill Bill, Part 2,” and…a slow loris???

The little, big-eyed, furry, cute Asian primate is venomous? That was a surprise. The article included no details, just noting that the slow loris was the only “venomous primate.” I managed to pass along this information as fact to my wife and two friends before bedtime (it takes so little to excite me these days!), and this morning dived into the web to learn the details of the slow loris’s poison. What I discovered was even more shocking than the original note. The Smithsonian magazine was hyping, and badly at that. Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “The Good Hoax”

Becoming the first Ethics Alarms comment to achieve a Comment Of The Day on consecutive days is Ryan Harkins. Ethics Alarms has a fair number of lawyers contributing regularly, as well as teachers, doctors, a theologian, business owners, managers, ex-military, scholars, and other professionals, plus practitioners of various trades and the arts. I have been hoping for more engineers to join the discussion, and Ryan brings that perspective along with his communications skills.

Here is Ryan Harkins’ Comment of the Day on the post, The Good Hoax:

While I was a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, one of my office mates was approached by a group who offered, for a couple of thousand dollars, to do all the research for his Master’s Degree and write up the results in a guaranteed-to-pass thesis. Supposedly my office mate tracked down some of the reviews of this group and found that some had indeed managed to attain a Master’s using services like this. As a disclaimer, I didn’t personally follow up on it, or investigate to see if people were later identified for their fraudulent activity.

A year or two later, my advisor was showing me a website that generated very scientific-sounding, but utterly meaningless journals, complete with references. The abstracts this random generator produced weren’t too far off from some of the jargon-laden examples quoted above. One of the claims to fame of this website was that it had actually managed to get a couple of these randomly-generated papers approved at conferences. I think this link to SciGen will take you to the site my advisor found.

My time in academia impressed on me that journal papers are far from the infallible entity we would like them to be. There were people in my field (theoretical computer science) that had a reputation of getting three papers out of each finding they’d made: the initial paper, the correction of the initial paper, and the correction of the correction. I was always worried that, if I ever actually made any findings worth publication, I would have missed some error in my logic that would render my results invalid, and yet people for decades hence would utilize my results in their research, leading to error cascading down for generations. Continue reading

How Do We Know The Democrats Can’t Find Any Ethical Reason Not To Confirm Judge Gorsuch? Because They Searched And Searched, And The Best They Could Come Up With Was THIS [UPDATED]

Pathetic. Desperate.

Typical.

“And it’s a HAIL MARY PASS!!!!!!!”

Today headlines screamed—do mark the journalists and news organizations, for they exemplify Prof. Glenn Reynold’s jibe, “Democratic operatives with  bylines”—that Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch had committed plagiarism in four passages of his 2006 book “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia,” which was based on his 2004 Oxford dissertation, before he became a judge.

That’s a stretch, and more than that, making this a major new story now indicates bias.

In the most egregious of the passages cited, Gorsuch included a description of the famous “Infant Doe” case that tracks closely with the description in a 1984 law-review article by Abigail Lawlis Kuzma. Both versions primarily quote from the court opinion: Kuzma’s article tracks equally closely to the original opinion, a 1982 Indiana court ruling that was later sealed, a  pediatrics textbook, “Rudolph’s Pediatrics,” and a 1983 article in the Bloomington Sunday Herald. Gorsuch cited all of these, but did not cite Kuzma’s article.

He should have. That’s a citation error, but probably not plagiarism. Several the sentences in the book and the article are identical or close to it, and Gorsuch should have used quotation marks. However none of the sentences involved anything but factual  and technical descriptions. For example,the article states that “Esophageal atresia with tracheoesophageal fistula indicates that the esophageal passage from the mouth to the stomach ends in a pouch, with an abnormal connection between the trachea and the esophagus,” and Gorsuch wrote, “Esophageal atresia with tracheoesophageal fistula means that the esophageal passage from the mouth to the stomach ends in a pouch, with an abnormal connection between the trachea and the esophagus.” 

Now, if I were writing about esophageal atresia, about which I know nothing, in the course of an analysis of a larger issue, I would probably re-phrase that passage, perhaps writing, “When the esophageal passage from the mouth to the stomach ends in a pouch, with an abnormal connection between the trachea and the esophagus, this is the condition called esophageal atresia with tracheoesophageal fistula.” I haven’t added anything original, though. There are no new thoughts or content. My re-phrasing would just dodge the accusation of plagiarism. When I wrote my thesis, which involved reviewing multiple biographies of every U.S. President, it was not uncommon for me to find paragraphs in the earliest materials that were worked over and re-phrased again and again, with no quotes but citations.

The National Review, a conservative publication, so its position will be discounted as biased and partisan, tracked down Kuzma, who waved off the plagiarism charges:

“These passages are factual, not analytical in nature, framing both the technical legal and medical circumstances of the “Baby/Infant Doe” case that occurred in 1982. Given that these passages both describe the basic facts of the case, it would have been awkward and difficult for Judge Gorsuch to have used different language.”

Weeell, that’s laying it on a bit thick. Gorsuch certainly could have done a more academically acceptable job of re-stating the substance of what she wrote; it’s not THAT “awkward and difficult.”

Continue reading

Lauren Green vs Reza Aslan Aftermath: Attack Of The Spinners

spinningThe interview Lauren Green of Fox news inflicted on her guest, Reza Aslan, was bad journalism, bad television, and just plain wrong–unfair, unreasonable, and biased. In a sane U.S., nobody would defend such a dull-edged hatchet job, which appeared to be crafted, by Green or her Dark Lords at Fox, to make the network’s conservative Christian viewers happy by accusing a scholar of religious bias for simply challenging the historical accuracy of the New Testament. But this is an insane, crazily partisan U.S., where every perceived defeat in the culture wars is cause for garment rending, so such niceties as being honest when one of your allies misbehaves is considered tantamount to surrender.

Thus along comes conservative religious scholar Matthew J. Franck, who on his blog First Thoughts hands the Christian Soldiers of the Right just the ammunition they need to rehabilitate Green. (Note: Green revealed herself as a shameless hack, and doesn’t deserve to be rehabilitated.) Naturally, the strategy is to discredit Aslan, and this he tries to do with gusto in not one, but two blog posts. His accusation: Aslan misrepresented his scholarly credentials, when he was trying repeatedly to challenge Green’s idiotic contention that a Muslim isn’t qualified to write about Jesus. This means, concludes Franck, that Aslan can’t be trusted, so Green was right all along. His book should be ignored.

Ironically enough, this calls to mind another one of Bickmore’s Laws (His First Law of Being Biased was featured in the original post about Green’s interview) , Bickmore’s Second Law of Being Biased:

Nitpicking others’ arguments is not the same thing as “critical thinking.”  That involves nitpicking your own arguments.

This applies nicely to Franck’s attack on Aslan.

Aslan said, off the cuff and while being badgered by Green, Continue reading

Lauren Green, Fox News, and Bickmore’s First Law Of Being Biased

Watch this, if you dare.

I have been using the phrase “Bias makes you stupid” for many years, but only recently learned that a Utah climate-change scientist has claimed the observation as his own. In fact, Barry Bickmore has a lot of useful, perceptive observations among “Bickmore’s Laws” ( Example: Bickmore’s First Law of Being Reasonable Reasonable people understand that good arguments can sometimes lead to false conclusions, and bad arguments can sometimes lead to true conclusions ), though they all were apparently devised to help him debunk the arguments of climates change skeptics. Most of them have general applicability. and that includes his version of what I once called “Marshall’s First Law”: Bickmore’s First Law of Being Biased: Bias makes you human.  Unchecked bias makes you stupid.

Which brings us to Lauren Green, and Fox News.

I have no idea whether Ms. Green is really stupid or not. I do know she is a former beauty queen, and that Fox (other networks too, but Fox is blatant about it) clearly values pulchritude over journalistic acumen and skill when making their on-air talent decisions not involving Y chromosomes. This itself is stupid, unprofessional, sexist, insulting to women, unfair to better journalists with smaller bra cups and courser features, and I must admit, when it leads to an epic live embarrassment such as Green’s, I take some satisfaction that Roger Ailes is getting exactly what he deserves for such a cynical, reckless, ratings ploy.

If Lauren Green is not stupid, then her frantic efforts to play to the core Fox audience’s presumed bias in favor of Christianity of the literal variety and related bias against non-Christians, especially Muslims, sure caused her brain to take a holiday. Or, perhaps, her own unchecked Christian biases—she is Fox’s “religion correspondent” these days—triggered a classic display of Bickmore’s First Law of Being Biased. In either case, I think her credibility is permanently shot, even at Fox. She might want to consider a different line of work. Continue reading

Nice Of The Heritage Foundation To Confirm All Those Accusations Of Bias, Don’t You Think?

Yup. It's the Heritage Foundation, all right.

Yup. It’s the Heritage Foundation, all right.

It didn’t take long for the the leadership of an ultra-ideological ex-Senator to make the Heritage Foundation to jump the shark, did it?

News Item:

“Jason Richwine, the co-author of a controversial immigration study released this week by the Heritage Foundation, tells Post Politics that he has resigned his position with the organization….The study written by Richwine and Robert Rector argued that the immigration reform bill would cost $6.3 trillion, but it was widely panned by conservative groups pushing for immigration reform as not accounting for the economic benefits of immigrants.

“Complicating matters were a series of revelations about Richwine, including that he had written a doctoral thesis at Harvard University arguing that the United States should focus its immigration efforts on those with high IQs and that he had written for a Web site that describes itself as “nationalist.”

Here is who else needs to resign: Jim DeMint. Continue reading

Slow Loris Ethics: Great, Now Even The Smithsonian is Hyping!

Slow Loris

If we can’t even trust the Smithsonian not to lie to us, what hope is there?

The February issue of the Smithsonian magazine arrived, full of articles about origins and evolution. I immediately gravitated to the essay about komodo dragons, whose bite, as those of you who have been bitten by one know, is poisonous. In a colorful sidebar to the main article was a smaller note about the wide range of other animals that poison their victims, titled “Pick Your Poison.”

“The komodo dragon may be the newest addition to the elite corps of predators that kill with chemistry, but the venomous world is already more diverse than people realize,” it began. The note was illustrated by photos of a duck-billed platypus (owner of a leg spur with a poison gland that gives the thing quite a kick); the tiny Pacific cone snail, which can kill a human; the black mamba, the snake that had a co-starring role as an assassin in “Kill Bill, Part 2,” and…a slow loris???

The little, big-eyed, furry, cute Asian primate is venomous? That was a surprise. The article included no details, just noting that the slow loris was the only “venomous primate.” I managed to pass along this information as fact to my wife and two friends before bedtime (it takes so little to excite me these days!), and this morning dived into the web to learn the details of the slow loris’s poison. What I discovered was even more shocking than the original note. The Smithsonian magazine was hyping, and badly at that.

To begin with, there is a difference between venomous animals and poisonous ones. “Venomous” means that the creature injects toxin into its prey, through a sting, a bite, or other means. “Poisonous” means that the animal carries some kind of toxin that the prey ingests, absorbs or inhales, occasionally fatally. The Smithsonian article ignores this distinction for sensational purposes, as the title “Pick Your Poison” suggests. But the slow loris, which is definitely not venomous,. and  it isn’t really poisonous either. Continue reading

Ethics Quote of the Week: Prof. Paul Horwitz

“I can think of a number of posts about the ACA from legal scholars last week that were clearly and openly offered as advocacy and did a fine job of it. And I can think of others that were clearly not offered as advocacy at all, and said useful and interesting things about the oral arguments…But I do believe that some posts last week traded on the authority of their authors, made overconfident or disingenuous claims about the state of current law and the strength or weakness of opposing arguments, and did so for strategic reasons. I see those reasons as more inculpatory than exculpatory. I don’t see the minimal requirements for scholarly integrity that I offered as changing because of the medium, or because of the importance and currency of the case.”

Hey, Professor! We assume you're smarter than we are: don't play games with our trust!

—-University of Alabama Law Professor Paul Horwitz, writing about the confounding number of liberal law professors and scholars who wrote internet posts professing that the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate was obvious and undeniable, and that the provision’s Supreme Court approval was assured. As Ethics Alarms did regarding other commentators, Prof. Horwitz suggests that some of the commentary was designed as spin, or to use his term, to “shape the narrative.” He argues that in cases where the scholar was deliberately over-stating the case for constitutionality, this constituted a breach of integrity and honesty. Hie professor-speak for this is “inculpatory.” He means that it was unethical.

Which, of course, it was. Continue reading