Monthly Archives: August 2012

Arguments from authority: ‘Be Careful Who You Quote’

Arguments from authority in journalism can be dangerous these days.

On the surface, these people look like legitimate experts. And I think many journalists don’t necessarily look at the motivations of their sources. It’s obvious when you’re talking to a political campaign, but other than that I don’t think reporters look closely enough. You have to check the background. What can you find that legitimates their expertise?

From “Be Careful Who You Quote,” an interview with Melanie Sloan in Nieman Reports.


The Niall Ferguson affair: Beyond fact-checkers to argument-checkers

The reaction to Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek attack against Barack Obama interested me as I tried to fill in the blank: It’s important that Newsweek published a poorly argued article because ______________________.

Some writers, taking the journalistic angle, focused on the fact that Newsweek employs no fact-checkers:

In the case of the links listed above, the blank is filled: “it illustrates Newsweek’s disrespect for facts and shows how the magazine has fallen into disrepute.” The Ferguson article is so shameful because Newsweek ignored basic journalistic standards.

I read some of the web’s debunking of Ferguson:

What I read in those articles was calling out of mostly Ferguson’s conflations, irrelevant claims, and misleading transitions, but not as often factual inaccuracies. More often it was rebuttal along the lines of this, from O’Brien:

“The most recent estimate for the difference between the net present value of federal government liabilities and the net present value of future federal revenues–what economist Larry Kotlikoff calls the true ”fiscal gap“–is $222 trillion.”

That’s a lot of trillions! But if our fiscal gap is “really” this many trillions, why can we borrow for 30 years for a real rate of 0.64 percent? It’s because this number is meaningless. First of all, it seems to project many decades of growth figures and budget decisions that we simply don’t know will happen. It assumes the Bush tax cuts never ever expire and that the healthcare cost curve never ever bends. This is like projecting, in 1942, that the Empire of Japan will rule the entire Asian continent for 70 years based on a few years of battle outcomes. It’s an interesting prediction, but it’s not an empirical vision of the future.

or this, from Fallows:

He presents an ominous chart showing that, if Obama is reelected, China’s economy might become bigger than America’s around the time he leaves office … [the chart] … What this chart demonstrates is not “a nation losing ground” but the reality that China has four times as many people as America does. When its overall economy exceeds ours, its per capita output will be only one-quarter as great. A historian would presumably know that the conscious strategy of every president from Richard Nixon through Barack Obama has been to encourage rather than thwart China’s continued development, on the reasoning that a poor and festering China would be more dangerous to the United States than one that is becoming richer.

O’Brien and Fallows present rebuttals to poorly justified claims. But they do not write that Ferguson’s “$222 trillion” or “China’s economy” data are factually wrong. They write that the data are irrelevant, misleading, unconvincing, etc. That requires a certain amount of training in not just economics, but argument.

Would a “fact-checker” have noticed the same thing, or would they have been content with Ferguson’s provision of a source for the figure and the chart?

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that "a culture of fact-checking, of honesty, is as important as the actual fact-checking.

In my experience, seeing your name on the cover of a magazine will take you far in the journey toward believing your own bullshit. It is human to do so, and fact-checkers serve as a valuable check to prevent writers from lapsing into the kind of arrogant laziness which breeds plagiarism and the manufacture of facts.

But if there weren’t many “facts” out of sorts — as opposed to out-of-sorts arguments — then I don’t know how much the culture of fact-checking would have helped. What would have been more important is a culture that encourages you to have your reasons and evidence straight before opening your mouth, and I don’t know whether that’s the same thing. Maybe it is.

Then again, would a high-flying “celebrity” academic have been affected by such a culture of honesty? Might he “believe [at least some of] his own bullshit” when, as Stephen Marche noted, he takes $50,000 to $75,000 per speaking appearance?

Perhaps Ferguson’s view of himself wouldn’t matter. Suppose Newsweek had fact-checkers. Fallows supposes that they might have approached the work with a different lens than they would have Coates or some other journalist:

Scholars are supposed to be different from mere pamphleteers and journalists. We give the judgments of academics — like those of doctors, scientists, renowned jurists, etc. — extra weight because we assume that they have considered evidence, precedent, and probabilities more carefully before offering conclusions. Think: E.O. Wilson on ants and ecological patterns more broadly.

He almost — but only almost — makes the case that even fact-checkers wouldn’t have helped. Even if they had read the story, might they have made the same assumption that Fallows suggests and tread more softly around Ferguson’s work?

Finally, on the subject of intellectuals as valuable “brands,” and on the subject of a “higher standard” for scholars and academics, see Daniel W. Drezner’s post “Intellectual power and responsibility in an age of superstars”.

Thoughts about Wahl-Jorgensen’s ‘Strategic ritual of emotionality’

A few weeks ago, I sketched a post in response to Karin Wahl-Jorgensen’s article “The strategic ritual of emotionality”. But it seems I got delete-happy and erased the file.

I wanted to post about the article anyway because I found it stimulating. Here are some lightly edited notes and questions from my initial reading of the paper.

Replacing objectivity’s legal safeguard

I am less familiar with Gaye Tuchman’s work than I should be, but Wahl-Jorgensen’s article interested me in Tuchman’s work even more.

Wahl-Jorgensen summarizes Tuchman as arguing that reporters embraced traditional objectivity, with its standardized process, in part because it helped protect them from errors that could lead to expensive libel suits.

One position I recently took is that reporters who want to abandon traditional objectivity can use the principle of charity as part of a replacement ethical framework. The principle of charity, broadly stated, is that when we critize an argument we have an obligation to represent the argument in its strongest form.

If Tuchman is correct that reporters have embraced objectivity in part for its legal protections, then it seems to me fair and practical for reporters to ask whether the principle of charity would provide them similar shelter. I couldn’t answer that question today. But I have no interest in seeing a chilling effect follow from use of the principle. I’d like to research the legal literature to see whether it has addressed objectivity in the context of libel laws.

Where is the evidence?

Regina Lawrence and Matthew Schafer recently found that journalists who labeled Sarah Palin’s “death panels” claim false did so without attribution surprisingly frequently.

Similarly, Wahl-Jorgensen found evidence that journalists justfied claims, emotional or otherwise, without often rushing to use quotations as evidence, which, she says, the “objective” style might lead you to expect. Instead, reporters tended to rely on their epistemic authority: Their saying it was enough to justify it.

The two samples are not necessarily comparable. Wahl-Jorgensen studied Pulitzer-winning stories, and the other story examined general-purpose stories. Still, what is going on here?

A mislabeled assumption

In my conference paper “Argument quality in Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting,” I say the following under the heading of “Problematic descriptive assumptions”:

If readers accepted the descriptive assumption that, usually, pay for police chiefs (or any city official) should be positively correlated with a city’s population or square mileage, then the comparison gave them reason to think that Adams’s salary was overkill.

But of course, that is a prescriptive, not descriptive, assumption.

I think I know what I was trying to get at by calling the assumption descriptive. The descriptive formulation of the assumption would be something like “The best way to shape a salary is….”

But the “should” is probably more accurate. It was silly of me to not recognize my conflation of descriptive and prescriptive assumptions. I should have written the heading more generically, like “Problematic assumptions.”

Make critical thinking cool, the journalism way

Train your readers to expect a certain experience not just from your website, but from every source of news. Make sure that experience is either expensive or impossible for alternative sources to replicate. Newspapers need to make their readers expect proof of everything. People should feel uncomfortable trusting information without explicit, functional credibility.

Dan Schultz says newspapers must advance past a form of argument that results in “being a bunch of words with prose-based evidence.”

I think the point can be summarized as: If news organizations don’t make critical thinking cool, then someone else will. If someone else does, then news organizations will suffer.

Read Dan’s post: “The Value of a Super Villain.”