Scientific American continues to push ideology alongside science

November 2, 2022 • 12:15 pm

There’s no longer any doubt that one of the main missions of Scientific American involves not the dissemination of science, but pushing a “progressive” Democratic ideology on its readers. What this has to do with science is beyond me. In fact, it has nothing to do with science; it has to do with the editor, Laura Helmuth, publishing op-ed after op-ed that agrees with her own political views, as evidenced by her tweet below.  My own offer to write an op-ed arguing against the infusion of ideology into science was rejected by Helmuth, so there’s no pretense that the magazine welcomes a diversity of opinion.

Here’s one tweet, which points to the op-ed below it:

This is the article, which you can read by clicking on it (you may have to sign in, but it’s free). While I agree that we need some form of affirmative action (but dither in my mind about the nature of that action), I disagree that venues like Scientific American should be taking stands like this, as well as refusing to consider arguments at odds with their own op-eds. After all, many who push against affirmative action (John McWhorter is one example) do NOT use “race science” (aka “scientific racism”) to justify their stand:

This article immediately brings up white supremacy as a prime mover of opposition to affirmative action, despite the fact that a majority of all ethnic groups asked (white, black, Hispanic, and Asian) say that race should not be a factor in college admissions. Are these minority opponents also white supremacists? A quote from the piece:

Scientists play a crucial role in assuring equitable access to colleges and universities. Education is fundamentally an issue of human rights, and affirmative action in admissions is one tool in a larger strategy to address social injustices and shape the future of scientific research. Yet white supremacy, whether systemic or interpersonal, is still deeply ingrained in society, leading to financial and social disadvantages for nonwhite students. As scientists, we must fiercely defend affirmative action, if we wish for equity in science and in U.S. society.

The piece also makes the dubious argument that “systemic racism” is baked into science itself. Anyone actually in science knows that this is untrue. Scientists are desperate to hire minority faculty and accept minority graduate students.

As scientists, we need to improve the public’s understanding of systemic racism as an unjust social, political and legal power structure, as well as that there are no innate “deficiencies” in nonwhite people. Clearly, we will need more than 25 years to achieve such a goal.

The piece goes on to rehash arguments about why scientists like E. O. Wilson were racists because they associated with racists, and winds up calling for “centering Black and Brown students in educational law and policy.”

Affirmative action is rooted in the Civil Rights Movement, and its advocates intended to rectify overt and systemic injustices toward Black and brown students. However, leaders of primarily white institutions have altered race-conscious admissions to emphasize the importance of maintaining “critical masses” to promote “diversity” within a primarily white student population. Campus and admissions policies tailored to white students reinforce racial hierarchies and maintain the supremacist ideology that initially prevented Black and brown students from participating in higher education programs in significant numbers. We must center Black and brown students in educational law and policy to maintain and strengthen the original tenets of affirmative action, in addition to upholding it as status quo.

There is no discussion, of course, of course, of lack of equal opportunity as a cause of “inequity”. At the end, the authors (quoting geneticist Joseph Graves) suggest massive reparations in education if affirmative action is overturned. I don’t disagree entirely with their solution below, but, as some readers have suggested, the solution involves far more than throwing money at education, which hasn’t proven that efficacious:

“Should the SCOTUS overturn Grutter v. Bollinger, thus essentially ending affirmative action at historically white institutions of higher education, they must simultaneously order that all states who violated the 1879 Plessy v. Ferguson decision by siphoning funds away from black education to support white education must immediately pay those pilfered funds into black public-school districts and HBCUs. Furthermore, they must order that going forward, a moon-shot level investment in the infrastructure of HBCU/HSI/MSI and Tribal Colleges must be put in place to meet the need for equitable education for non-whites in the United States.”

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In this new article below, the author argues that the Court’s ruling in the Dobbs case upholds white supremacy because people of color suffer more from restrictions on abortion than do whites. I disagree with the Dobbs decision, of course, and am more “pro-choice” than most Americans:  don’t think that 6 months of gestation should be the upper limit for allowing abortion. What I disagree with is that that opinion belongs in a science magazine, which also refuses to publish contrary opinions. (Shouldn’t a science magazine, if it does intend to engage in politics, entertain diverse and conflicting points of view?)

Black and Latinx communities proportionally have higher rates of abortion than white people, a consequence of structural and systemic barriers in health care and society more broadly. People of color are making decisions about the future of their families without equitable access to living wages, jobs, and reliable food and housing. Their families face the living legacy of redlining and housing segregation, along with inequities in education access, all of which limit their movement and upward mobility. Mass incarceration and our flawed justice system disrupt families, their participation in the workforce and their contributions to society and voting. Widespread police violence destroys families, and Black parents fear police brutality before their children are even born.

Communities of color deal with barriers to health care and insurance and face racism and discrimination when they seek care, including narratives that blame people for social conditions that were created by the system. Worse yet, Black pregnant people face alarmingly high rates of pregnancy-related deaths in the hands of our health care system. Voter suppression and widespread attempts to disenfranchise communities prevent them from having a voice in transforming these structures that unjustly constrain them. This will beget further laws and restrictions that limit their rights and freedom—a modern manifestation of the separate-but-not-equal ideology of the Jim Crow era.

With these structures in mind—structures that primarily work to perpetuate barriers and poor outcomes for people of color—one thing about the Dobbs decision and the antiabortion movement becomes quite clear: this orchestrated attack on abortion rights sits within the grand plan that this country was built upon—the violent and oppressive maintenance of white supremacy.

I wouldn’t doubt that minorities suffer more from restricted abortion than do white people, but I question whether the Dobbs decision itself, and the people who support, it are motivated largely by white supremacy.  There is, after all, the view, motivated largely by religion, that abortion is murder. I disagree with that line of argument, but how can the author psychologize the motivations for abortion opponents and argue for a conspiracy against people of color—a “grand plan based on maintaining white supremacy”—when antiabortion bills prohibit abortion for everyone?

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Finally, should you be in doubt about how to vote next week, Scientific American is here to help you! Click on the screenshot to read:

Their message, in short, is “Vote Democratic”! Again, I agree with many of the authors’ stands, save this claim:

The science on transgender care in youth shows such care is safe and affirming, and that withholding it can seriously harm trans children’s mental health—including increasing their risk of depression and suicide.

The science on transgender health care shows no such thing. We don’t know if puberty blockers are safe (they’ve been relegated to clinical-trial status in some European countries), the science says nothing about the value of “affirmative” rather than more empathic and objective care, and there is no convincing data showing withholding affirmative care (as opposed to giving other inds of care) harms the mental health of children with gender dysphoria (the data that do exist are full of flaws).

Here’s Lee Jussim’s response to editor Helmuth’s tweet about this article.

In my view, Scientific American has become pretty much of a joke. Yes, it still publishes science pieces, and some of them are even decent, but it’s taken upon itself the job of pushing “progressive” Democratic politics. Give me a good reason why magazines that are supposed to popularize modern science shouldn’t remain viewpoint neutral on issues of politics, morals, and ideology.  They are not, after all, newspapers.

How do readers let it get away with that? Truly, if you still subscribe to this magazine, shame on you.

Online newspapers coddle their readers by giving them “reading times” for articles

October 11, 2022 • 9:15 am

Although this might have been going on for a long time, I just noticed it yesterday.  Two of the three “MSM” news paper sites to which I subscribe—the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—are providing “reading times” for most of their articles. See below; I’ve put arrows by the times:

The Wall Street Journal does it, too (for long pieces they just note “long read”):

These times presumably allow a reader to judge whether he or she wants to or has time to read a piece. I guess if the time is too long, you don’t read it.

Of course this raises a number of questions. First, how do they estimate the reading time? Presumably it’s based on the number of words in the piece, divided by a “standard” reading time of words/minute.

I consider myself a fairly fast reader (not always a good thing when I’m reading prose that needs to be savored), so I took one article from the NYT to test the reading time for me. It’s this one (click to read), estimated at 6 minutes reading time.

Excluding the ancillary material at the end, which are notices about other unrelated articles, it took me 2 minutes and 23 seconds.  Although I am a fast reader, I am not that fast, and so the timings must be directed at those who read fairly slowly.

The second question is also obvious: Why are the newspapers doing this?

I will try not to be curmudgeonly here (and will fail), but it seems to me that you should choose which pieces to read based on whether their title interests you. If the article engages you, you read on to the end. If it doesn’t, of you have other pressing issues to attend to, you stop reading and move on.

It appears, in an age when there are a gazillion online sites competing for your time, that this is the way some news sites have chosen to help harried readers decide what to read—a way based solely on the title and the reading time. Perhaps that’s better than the alternative of using only the title, but it may be worse than the alternative of reading based on the title and reading the whole article because it’s interesting and informative, or giving up if you’re bored.

But if you’re going to use these times to decide what to read, you have to know your reading speed. How many readers have matched the estimated reading time with their own reading time?  Would you choose what to read based on estimated reading times?

NYT and other media fall for a hoax because it matched their ideology

September 16, 2022 • 9:20 am

I read about this incident (or rather, non-incident) the other day, but Jesse Singal, in a post on Bari Weiss’s site, tells the whole story in detail. The lesson is that when a story appeals to the ideological bias of a newspaper, even if it doesn’t check out, they sometimes print it as if were true, or at least don’t check it out especially thoroughly.  It’s especially galling when America’s premier newspaper, The New York Times, falls prey to this confirmation bias, as it did in this story.

Click to read; it’s free and short (but do subscribe if you read often):

The story is one indicting Brigham Young University (BYU) students as racists, supposedly evinced during a volleyball game against Duke University on August 26:

Last month, Rachel Richardson—the only black starter on the women’s volleyball team at Duke University—leveled a shocking accusation. She said that during her team’s August 26 match against Brigham Young University, fans inside the BYU arena in Provo, Utah inundated her with racist abuse and threats.

After the match, 19-year-old Richardson told her godmother, Lesa Pamplin, about the incident. Pamplin is a criminal defense attorney running for a county judgeship in Texas, and was not at the game—but the next day, she published a tweet that rocketed the story to national attention: “My Goddaughter is the only black starter for Dukes [sic] volleyball team. While playing yesterday, she was called a [n-word] every time she served. She was threatened by a white male that told her to watch her back going to the team bus. A police officer had to be put by their bench.”

The tweet is no longer available, but it racked up 185,000 likes before it was archived. LeBron James himself responded: “you tell your Goddaughter to stand tall, be proud and continue to be BLACK!!! We are a brotherhood and sisterhood!  We have her back. This is not sports.”

The story was reported widely, most prominently by the New York Times in this story by Vima Patel (click to read):

One student, said to have led the racist insults, was banned from all University athletic venues. The story then spread widely:

The national response to this heinous allegation was swift and righteous. Utah’s governor, Spencer Cox, issued a statement on Twitter (now deleted) expressing his shock and disappointment. “I’m disgusted that this behavior is happening and deeply saddened if others didn’t step up to stop it,” he wrote. “As a society we have to do more to create an atmosphere where racist a**holes like this never feel comfortable attacking others.” For its part, BYU quickly acknowledged that something horrible had happened in the fieldhouse. The day after the game, it published an apologetic statement, saying that the fan deemed responsible for shouting the epithets—who was not a BYU student—had been banned from all university athletic venues.

Unsurprisingly, major media outlets were all over this story. The Times’ coverage set the tone, with the Washington Post and CNN and Sports Illustrated and NPR all publishing similar articles, alongside the predictable think pieces. The incident also had consequences for BYU sports more generally. The head coach of women’s basketball at the University of South Carolina canceled its home opener against BYU. A match between Duke and Rider University’s women’s volleyball teams—scheduled to be played at the BYU arena—was moved to a nearby high school gym in order to provide both teams “the safest atmosphere,” according to Duke’s Director of Athletics, Nina King.

For millions of people watching this story unfold, this was yet another example of the ineradicable stain of American racism, of just how little progress we’ve really made.

Singal, whose reporting I like quite a bit, then adds the four-word kicker.

Except it didn’t happen.

Yes, this was all made up. Completely made up. There is no evidence that any slurs were emitted, that the n-word was used when Rachel Richardson was serving, that there was a cop assigned to sit by the Duke bench, and so on. And it’s not as if there weren’t potential witnesses, either: there were cameras recording the game, cellphones doing the same, and thousands of witnesses. Not a single bit of film documented the assertions, and no witnesses came forward, even with requests to do so by the cops and the newspapers.

It was either a hoax or a massive lie, however you want to characterize it. How was it discovered, then?

Not by any major paper. The Salt Lake Tribune did question whether the right student had been banned, but the whole truth came out via—you guessed it—”a conservative campus newspaper at BYU”, the Cougar Chronicle  (BYU is a Mormon school, quite conservative, and has few black students.)  Here’s their attempt to get at the truth, done the old-fashioned way: using the phone and shoe leather.

Click to read:

 

BYU then did its own investigation, and on September 9 issued this statement (click to read):

An except:

From our extensive review, we have not found any evidence to corroborate the allegation that fans engaged in racial heckling or uttered racial slurs at the event. As we stated earlier, we would not tolerate any conduct that would make a student-athlete feel unsafe. That is the reason for our immediate response and our thorough investigation.

As a result of our investigation, we have lifted the ban on the fan who was identified as having uttered racial slurs during the match. We have not found any evidence that that individual engaged in such an activity. BYU sincerely apologizes to that fan for any hardship the ban has caused.

Yet, as often happens during these hoaxes, institutions who were deceived nevertheless must say something that affirms their virtue, so the statement adds this:

Despite being unable to find supporting evidence of racial slurs in the many recordings and interviews, we hope that all those involved will understand our sincere efforts to ensure that all student-athletes competing at BYU feel safe. As stated by Athletics Director Tom Holmoe, BYU and BYU Athletics are committed to zero-tolerance of racism, and we strive to provide a positive experience for everyone who attends our athletic events, including student-athletes, coaches and fans, where they are valued and respected.

This is typical of what happens when a campus “hate crime” is revealed as a hoax—as a substantial proportion of them are. I suggest having a look at Wilfred Reilly’s book, Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War. (Reilly, by the way, is black.) I’ve read it, and the stories he tells are dire. I can’t remember the proportion of campus hate crimes or hate “incidents” that turn out to be fake (usually perpetuated by a member of the minority group that was a victim of the fabricated “hate”), but it’s substantial.

What’s telling is what these incidents have in common after they’re revealed as hoaxes. The perpetrators are often not punished, even when they’re caught; the fact that the hate crime or incident was a hoax is not revealed to the college community (this is bad, because it perpetrates the idea that racism is prevalent on campus); these hoaxes happen everywhere, and, after the “crime” is revealed as a hoax, the schools nevertheless continue to insist that it could have been real because racism is everywhere. Finally, the colleges even put in place new antiracist initiatives—simply to show that they’re doing something, even in the face of a hoax. These colleges, like the newspapers, have a substantial ideological investment in perpetrating the idea that racism is ubiquitous.

At any rate, the New York Times also responded with a retraction (below), but also some tut-tutting about the prevalence of racism at BYU. Here’s the retraction:

And Singal’s take on the NYT’s most recent story, which still maintains that the “hate” against the black player happened as described.

By this point, between the original New York Times story and a tepid followup, a combined five reporters and researchers had been pantsed by a small student paper. If all this provoked any soul-searching on the part of the Times, it was unclear from its report on BYU’s findings.

Remarkably, their most recent story treated the events as unresolved: “B.Y.U. did not directly address why its findings contradicted the account by Richardson, and the statements by both universities left questions unanswered.” It also included a statement from Duke’s athletic director saying the university stood by the volleyball team. The story ends with a reminder that at the overwhelmingly Mormon school, less than 1 percent of students are black, and that a recent report highlighted the university’s diversity issues. It’s unclear exactly why this is relevant; the point seems to be for the Times to advertise that it understands racism is a serious problem at BYU, and that even if the school were not guilty of it this time, everyone knows the university’s soul is not entirely spotless.

The lessons are several. People were all too willing to believe a story that comported with their ideological views, especially the view racism is everywhere and “systemic”. But the press bought into it too, abjuring their traditional role in news stories to state the facts and omit anything that isn’t supported by the facts. Further, this shoddy reporting damages people, as well as the public, who are misled by biases. Singal mentions, as examples of similar hoaxes taken seriously by the public and the media without proper vetting, the Covington Catholic High School issue (three media settled with the supposedly “smirking racist” for a substantial amount of money), and the Jussie Smollett case, immediately believed as an incident of racism though Smollett’s claims were ridiculous.  And of course the fact that a “hate crime” or a “hate incident” was a hoax is never publicized as widely as the original “transgression” itself, so the public never learns the truth.

Here’s Singal’s conclusion:

. . . there’s an established pattern of journalists being far too credulous when these incidents first burst onto the scene.

It won’t take some radical revolution for journalists to better cover fast-developing, controversial incidents involving race and other hot-button issues. All they have to do is rediscover norms that are already there, embedded in journalistic tradition. The best, oldest-school newspaper editors—a truly dying breed—constantly pester cub reporters to make that one extra call, ask that one extra question, follow that one extra unlikely lead. They do this all in the service of making sure their organization prints the best, most accurate version of the news (and doesn’t get sued). They can adhere to these norms without becoming a shill for the powerful. It’s simply a matter of approaching a story with curiosity and skepticism, of not believing they are the advocate for one side in a conflict—no matter how righteous and obvious the battle lines may seem at first glance.

It’s getting so that one has to turn to Substack instead of the “MSM” to get the real news!

The lesson, then, is one that scientists have long had drilled into them. If a result tends to jibe with your innate biases—with what you want to be true—then that is the time you have to exercise the most doubt and give the results the highest scrutiny.

PBS touts tarot

August 25, 2022 • 10:45 am

The nextavenue site is actually an arm of the Public Broadcasting Service, 15% (or more) of which is funded by the taxpayers via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It’s targeted to older adults. As its site says:

Next Avenue is a nonprofit, digital journalism publication produced by Twin Cities PBS (TPT). As public media’s first and only national publication for older adults, we are dedicated to covering the issues that matter most as we age.

And this logo is at the bottom of today’s article, which is about something that doesn’t matter more when we age:

This part-government sponsorship means that taxpayers like me are funding what nextavenue puts out. And what it has put out is a piece promoting the virtues of tarot cards (National Public Radio has done the same thing.) The free article is below; click the screenshot to read.

Of course PBS can’t just say that tarot cards flat-out can predict the future, for its listeners and readers are more sophisticated than that. Still, the article says that prediction is part of what tarot can do—but there’s so much more!

As it turns out, tarot is not just for prediction but to stimulate your mind and explore possibilities you haven’t realized. In other words, as all these articles about tarot in the liberal press maintain, it can be a device for getting you to think about your life and ponder future behaviors. It’s psychology, Jake! I wonder why more psychologists haven’t hit on tarot cards as a professional aid!

I’ll be brief and just quote some of the article’s waffling. This part is straight-out prediction:

People can read tarot cards for themselves or work with an experienced tarot reader. Beginning by focusing on a question is a good idea, even something simple like “What will this week be like?” Then draw a single card and see what it might tell you.

Remember, you have to pay tarot card readers, sometimes a lot, and often they want you to come back. If these people are not trained in therapy, and tell you what they’re doing, then they’re clearly taking money under false pretenses. But that’s the American way! Here’s one reader:

Nancy Antenucci is a St. Paul, Minnesota-based tarot reader in her sixties, founder of the Twin Cities Tarot Collective and the author of two books, “Psychic Tarot” and “Tarot Rituals.” She sees tarot cards as being a language of imagery.

Sonia Choquette said that we should call intuition ‘pattern recognition,'” Antenucci says. “I totally agree with that. When you’re seeing the cards, all those pictures together, it opens up different patterns. What you’re doing is recognizing the patterns of something.”

While decks usually come with guidebooks to help users understand the potential meanings of each card, Antenucci encourages people to go with their instincts when they pull specific cards. “Every picture is going to strike every person differently, so there’s a lot that can happen across a whole spectrum of personalities,” she says.

That could be called “confirmation bias.” You read things the way you want them to be. But I digress. . . .

Imagine a deck focused on weather conditions across the four seasons. One person might pull a snowstorm card and be delighted — they love winter and snowstorms. But someone who hates winter is going to have a decidedly different visceral reaction. Neither is wrong; each reflects the person drawing the card.

“The biggest misconception is that tarot is only used for prediction,” Antenucci says. “It’s also used for brainstorming, or storytelling, or writing or prompts.”

Here we see the usual excuse: it can be used for prediction, but the cards can also prompt you to tell stories or call up other ideas.  But if is to do that, shouldn’t we stop using the traditional decks used for prediction and make new decks with drawings and words inspired by modern psychology? What about Rorshach cards?

Here are Sonia Chouette’s fees, by the way. As far as I know, no therapist charges $1200 an hour.

Further on in the piece, an artist weighs in saying that the cards “can help people see things differently,” and that her drawing students get suggestions inspired by the teacher’s own part-time vocation as a tarot reader.

I won’t go on further. In short, what we see is a taxpayer-funded venue touting the supernatural, but partly hiding it under a bushel labeled “psychology.”

When I read stuff like this, I do wonder whether people attracted by tarot, crystals, and other things have a deep need for the supernatural, one that in other people is satisfied by religion. I often hear people with “belief in belief” argue that religion isn’t vanishing in America, but is simply being diverted into religion-like endeavors, like reading tarot cards. Or being woke.  While some of that may be true, I still think that the data show America becoming increasingly secular over time, so that one fine day, when my atoms have become clay, the U.S. will have the religiosity of Scandinavia—hardly any at all.

But grifters gotta grift, so we’ll always have tarot, psychics, and other scammers.

h/t: Ginger K.

Poor international reportage in New Zealand

August 24, 2022 • 10:15 am

This article by Graham Adams comes from The Platform, a fairly recent site that claims to hold all sides to account but is also “anti-woke.” I can’t vouch for Adams’ claims about the poor coverage of important New Zealand events by the country’s media, but other Kiwis can chime in below. I do know that many New Zealanders are cowed at expressing opposition to wokeness, as I’ve heard from people fearful of ostracism or even of losing their jobs.

Note that the American media, too, is sometimes accused of not just parochialism in coverage of different countries, but also of neglecting stories that are politically unpalatable to particular media. (You won’t often read anti-woke stuff in places like the New York Times or the Washington Post unless the story has gotten pretty big, as with the coverage of the fracas at The Evergreen State College.)

Click on the screenshot to read.

Adams takes the media to task for its thin coverage of three issues of national import.

1.) The debate about indigenous ways of knowing versus modern science. There is some coverage in New Zealand about this, but since there’s a hands-off policy of criticizing the Māori—New Zealand’s indigenous people—local media and scientists are simply afraid of criticizing some of the more outrageous claims of Mātauranga Māori (MM), the indigenous “way of knowing”.  I know this because I’ve gotten many emails from Kiwis who agree with my own criticisms of MM and the government’s initiative to teach it as coequal to modern science, but are afraid to put their heads over the parapet. At the risk of being self-aggrandizing, I’ll quote Adams on the main source of news:

One of the most depressing features of journalism in New Zealand is that if you want to follow simmering debates of national interest you often have to look somewhere else than the mainstream media.

If you want to follow the mātauranga Māori debate closely, for instance, the most consistent coverage has been provided by Jerry Coyne, an emeritus professor of ecology and evolution from the University of Chicago, who has written at least a dozen lengthy posts on the topic over the past year on his blog Why Evolution Is True.

Professor Coyne has covered all facets of that debate in depth — from the Listener letter signed by seven eminent professors a year ago to the plans to insert mātauranga Māori throughout our science and research sector proposed in a government Green Paper.

In New Zealand, there have been critical articles on the topic published by the Free Speech Union and The Platform, but coverage of both sides of the debate has been sparse to the point of non-existence in the mainstream media.

2.) Accusations of nepotism by Nanaia Mahuta, the Māori Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Labour government headed by Jacinda Ardern.  There’s no mention of accusations of nepotism in her Wikipedia article, but Adams mentions them below, and you can read a bit about them here and here.  Mahuta has been accused of using her position to get perks and positions for members of her family.

Similarly, if you want to follow the barrage of Written Questions lodged in Parliament concerning accusations of nepotism made against Nanaia Mahuta, you need to follow the pseudonymous Thomas Cranmer on Twitter.

Over the past four months, Cranmer has analysed the relevant documents and collated the questions and answers put to government ministers by MPs — including David Seymour, Simon Court, Paul Goldsmith and Simeon Brown — to build a detailed picture of family contracts.

Despite Cranmer having set out all the details with accompanying documents, mainstream journalists have almost totally ignored the evidence and the serious questions raised by them. The couple of times Mahuta has been asked timidly about the accusations of nepotism by mainstream journalists, she has simply brushed them aside.

But there was an article by Kate MacNamara about these accusations. I’ve found it, but, as Adams notes, it’s paywalled.

A leak in the dam appeared on Tuesday with a detailed article by Kate MacNamara in the NZ Herald about a contract (worth $72,299 including GST) that was awarded by the Crown housing agency to a company co-owned by Gannin Ormsby, Mahuta’s husband, in a period when she had associate ministerial responsibility for housing.

MacNamara’s story was behind a paywall. It’s yet to be seen whether Mahuta — or Ardern, who is ultimately responsible for managing her ministers’ conflicts of interest — will come under the sort of pressure from other journalists that the allegations appear to warrant.

3.) The shutdown on Britain’s Tavistock Clinic and reevaluation of “affirmative care”.  Adams is especially concerned with the paucity of news about the closure of the Tavistock Clinic, an issue I’ve written a lot about, for there are implications for “affirmative care” in New Zealand as well. Adams:

However, the avoidance behaviour of local journalists has been most evident recently in the wake of the decision to close London’s Tavistock Clinic — the UK’s only gender-identity clinic for children and young people.

Worldwide, discussion around the contentious issue of puberty blockers prescribed for gender-transitioning children and whether they and other young people are being rushed into drug treatment without adequate assessment and counselling has been intense.

But if you want to read about the debate in detail, you’ll either have to go to niche gender-critical websites or to the Times of London, or The Australian, or the Guardian, or the New York Times… just about anywhere except the mainstream media in New Zealand.

The problem with outsourcing such news to international commentators, of course, is that no matter how many overseas news sites cover the developments, none is going to provide detailed information about New Zealand’s situation.

Adams notes that New Zealand public health policy researcher, Dr Sarah Donovan, did write a piece merely asking why there was no coverage of the report on Tavistock by Hilary Cass—the report that led to Tavistock’s closure—but Donovan was immediately subject to a social media onslaught.  This despite the fact that New Zealand’s position on puberty blockers is now at odds with that of Britain’s National Health Service:

Yet Dr Donovan did nothing more dramatic than mention that it is extremely difficult to find media coverage for questions such as why New Zealand’s Ministry of Health has a statement on its website at odds with the guidance on Britain’s NHS page.

The MOH asserts: “Blockers are a safe and fully reversible medicine that may be used from early puberty through to later adolescence to help ease distress and allow time to fully explore gender health options.”

In contrast, the NHS guidance says: “Little is known about the long-term side effects of hormone or puberty blockers in children with gender dysphoria. Although the Gender Identity Development Service advises this is a physically reversible treatment if stopped, it is not known what the psychological effects may be. It’s also not known whether hormone blockers affect the development of the teenage brain or children’s bones.”

If this is indeed the case, then New Zealanders do deserve fuller reporting on the rising controversy about “affirmative care” and hormone and surgical treatment of adolescents who feel that they’re of the wrong sex. After all, that issue arises in NZ.

What all three issues have in common is that questioning them is perceived as anti-woke and thus socially unacceptable. You can’t criticize anything Māori; the government and its Māori minister are off limits (perhaps in part because of Mahuta’s ancestry; and of course even discussing potential problems with “affirmative care”, including medical intervention, is seen as transphobic.  Many Kiwis are indeed afraid to buck the government:

The obvious question arises: why are our journalists and editors — with the notable exception of Newsroom’s editors Tim Murphy and Mark Jennings — so much more cautious than many of their peers in nations such as Australia, England and the US, among others?

Of course, open discussion of trans issues in many countries has been heavily restricted by a long-term strategy — dubbed “No Debate” — that pillories anyone who even raises the topic as a bigot, a transphobe or, worse, accuses them of helping to push trans people towards suicide.

Those who are even slightly critical are in danger of being de-platformed and perhaps losing their jobs and careers.

Is Boris Johnson on the way out?

July 6, 2022 • 10:50 am

This morning I received two emails from British friends suggesting that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is circling the drain. Of course he’s been circling it for a long time, but now he appears to be on the drain’s event horizon. I asked for details but didn’t get them. Eventually another British friend wrote me this:

Two senior cabinet ministers and bunch of junior ones have resigned after revelations that [Johnson] lied about his knowledge of sexual misconduct by an MP he appointed to a post.

Well that was enough to get make me look at the news.

The BBC article below provides what I think is the answer (click to read):

Here’s the summary; the accused appears to be Christ Pincher

Boris Johnson is battling to stay in office, amid a growing wave of resignations from his government in protest at his leadership.

New chancellor Nadhim Zahawi has urged unity after his predecessor, the health secretary, and several junior ministers walked out.

But the prime minister has been hit by six further resignations, taking the total to 16 in the past day.

It comes as he prepares for PMQs later and a grilling by senior MPs.

Mr Johnson’s premiership has been plunged into crisis following the dramatic resignations of Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

They quit within minutes of each other on Tuesday following a row over Mr Johnson’s decision to appoint Chris Pincher deputy chief whip earlier this year.

Their departures triggered a wave of resignations from more junior roles that has continued on Wednesday.

In six further departures ahead of PMQs, education ministers Will Quince and Robin Walker, Justice Minister Victoria Atkins, Treasury minister John Glen, and ministerial aides Laura Trott and Felicity Buchan have all walked out.

Mr Johnson has admitted it was a “bad mistake” to appoint Mr Pincher, despite being aware of misconduct allegations against him.

It followed days of changing responses from No 10 over what exactly the PM knew about Mr Pincher’s past conduct when he gave him the job.

Now this would not lead to the removal of a U.S. President: remember how Bill Clinton lied about his own involvement with Monica Lewinsky, and was impeached—but survived?

But it’s interesting to compare the BBC coverage in this article with what would be reported if a U.S. President lied in the same way. The U.S. news would give Pincher’s alleged misconduct in great detail, as we love scandal.

The BBC is more puritanical, putting the emphasis on politics and what could happen to Boris. However, there’s already a Wikipedia article on the row, “Chris Pincher scandal”, which goes back to 2017 when Pincher was accused of inappropriate conduct towards a woman. Then he was accused of groping two men. And here’s what got Johnson into hot water: accusations of covering up this (from the Wikipedia article).

On 3 July 2022 six new allegations against Pincher emerged, involving behaviour over a decade. Three complaints are that Pincher made unwanted advances against other male MPs, one in a bar at the House of Commons and one in Pincher’s parliamentary office. One complainant reportedly gave Downing Street details in February and expressed concerns over Pincher becoming a whip in charge of other MP’s welfare. Pincher maintained he had no intention of resigning as an MP.

Johnson allegedly referred to Pincher as “handsy” and Dominic Cummings said Johnson joked about him being “Pincher by name, pincher by nature” in 2020. There are calls for Johnson to explain how much he knew about Pincher’s behaviour. Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds said: “I think we’ve got to acknowledge what the consistent problem is and it is a Conservative party that repeatedly chooses to do what is politically expedient over what is right. It’s clear from what we know this morning that Chris Pincher should never have been put back into the whips’ office.”

Ministers initially said that Johnson was unaware of any specific complaints against Pincher when he was appointed as deputy chief whip. Later, Downing Street said Johnson was aware at the time of media reports and allegations that were “either resolved or did not progress to a formal complaint”. The BBC then reported, however, that an official complaint and subsequent investigation into Pincher, while he was at the Foreign Office (July 2019 to February 2020), had confirmed his misconduct, and that Johnson had been made aware of the matter at that time. Sir Simon McDonald, former Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, later confirmed that the prime minister had been briefed “in person” about Pincher. McDonald said that in the summer of 2019, a group of officials had “complained to me about Mr Pincher’s behaviour. In substance, the allegations were similar to those made about his behaviour at the Carlton Club.”

Will Boris go? Should he go for not proceeding to act against Pincher for making advances?

We’ll have a poll, but first here are the BBC’s scenarios of how he could go down the drain as PM:

How could Boris Johnson go?

  • If party bosses change the one-year rule on leadership challenges, rebel Tory MPs could try again to oust him later this summer, or in the autumn
  • If Mr Johnson lost a vote of no confidence in Parliament, he would have to resign or call an election
  • Otherwise, he would have to resign himself – possibly in the face of cabinet pressure, like Margaret Thatcher – or after a fresh wave of ministerial resignations

I know squat about what would happen if Boris went, and will depend on Brits to inform me in the comments. If he resigns, who would replace him? If there’s an election to replace him, would the Tories still win?

And our poll about Boris’s fate. Please give your best prognostication; I’m always disappointed in how few people give an opinion. It’s just for fun—a survey of reader sentiment.

Will this scandal lead to Boris Johnson's removal as Prime Minister?

View Results

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Fracas at Washington Post leads to firing of reporter

June 10, 2022 • 9:15 am

Three days ago I reported that Washington Post journalist David Weigel was suspended by the paper for a month for retweeting this dubious and offensive joke:

Even if he returns, I suspect his life at the paper will be forever hard. But since Wiegel apologized for this and deleted the tweet, my view was that a stiff talking-to but his editors and a warning that this must never be repeated would suffice for his punishment. (Surprisingly, in my old age I’m getting less punitive. Maybe it’s my belief in the absence of free will!) But readers disagreed with me, saying Weigel should have been fired, and so be it.

Now, however, the controversy has blossomed further, this time resulting in the outright firing of another Post reporter, Felicia Sonmez. Sonmez not only attacked Weigel, but did worse: she repeatedly attacked The Washington Post despite other reporters asking her to stop. The summary is in this NY Times article (click to read), but you can also read about it on CNN.

 

Here’s what happened to her:

Felicia Sonmez, a reporter for The Washington Post who in recent days has been at the center of a debate over the organization’s social media policies and the culture of the newsroom, was fired on Thursday, according to three people with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.

Ms. Sonmez was fired over email on Thursday afternoon, according to one of the people. In an emailed termination letter, which was viewed by The New York Times, Ms. Sonmez was told that The Post was ending her employment, effective immediately, “for misconduct that includes insubordination, maligning your co-workers online and violating The Post’s standards on workplace collegiality and inclusivity.”

The email, from Wayne Connell, the Post’s chief human resources officer, also said Ms. Sonmez’s “public attempts to question the motives of your co-journalists” undermined The Post’s reputation.

“We cannot allow you to continue to work as a journalist representing The Washington Post,” the letter said.

That’s pretty harsh! What did she do? Bari Weiss summarized it a few days ago this way:

His colleague, Felicia Sonmez, had seized on the tweet, starting a public shaming of Weigel as a sexist. She’s spent the past few days reposting others calling her a heroslamming one colleague who was silly enough to defend Weigel; posting about that colleague and tagging the bosses. Oh, and throwing editors under the bus (repeatedly).

But Sonmez has a history with the Post, and persisted with criticisms of Weigel and the paper even after Weigel was suspended.  This is from her Wikipedia bio:

While a national political reporter for The Washington Post in January 2020, Sonmez was placed on administrative leave after tweeting about the sexual assault charge against Kobe Bryant shortly after his death. The Post ultimately decided she did not violate its social media policy.

Sonmez again drew attention in July 2021 for suing The Washington Post, alleging that the paper had discriminated against her by blocking her from covering sexual assault after she came forward as a survivor. The suit was dismissed.

An explanation at the NYT:

Ms. Sonmez, a national political reporter, sued the paper and several top editors last year, saying they had discriminated against her by barring her from covering stories about sexual assault after she had publicly identified herself as a victim of assault. The case was dismissed in March, with the judge noting that The Post had attributed the coverage bans not to her being a victim of sexual assault but to concerns that her public statements had created an appearance of bias. Ms. Sonmez’s lawyer at the time said she planned to appeal.

And Sonmez persisted attacking the paper after l’affaire Weigel (she was the first to put up Weigel’s retweet on both Twitter and her paper’s internal communication.) Ms. Sonmez then got into a Twitter disagreement with Jose A. Del Real, a reporter who acknowledged Mr. Weigel’s tweet was “unacceptable” but admonished Ms. Sonmez for “rallying the internet to attack” Mr. Weigel. Mr. Del Real later sent several tweets regarding an “unrelenting series of attacks” against him, and Ms. Sonmez questioned why The Post had not done anything to reprimand him for his tweets about her, including one that said she had engaged in “repeated and targeted public harassment of a colleague.”

In the following days, Ms. Sonmez wrote numerous posts on Twitter about the newsroom culture at The Post and what she said was the uneven way its social media policy was applied to different reporters. At times she jousted with fellow journalists at The Post on Twitter.

Many in the newsroom supported Ms. Sonmez throughout her lawsuit and were grateful to her for her advocacy for sexual abuse victims, according to two current Post employees, but the sentiment began to shift this week as she continued to tweet about The Post.

Some felt Ms. Sonmez was hurting the institution and disagreed with her use of public forums to criticize co-workers, the people said.

Here are the (mostly) liberal women of the view criticizing Sonmez:

Clearly the paper agreed with the latter, and couldn’t let one of its journalists malign the paper and her fellow reporters repeatedly. They won’t comment on the firing, and neither will Sonmez, but if you want examples of what Sonmez said, Nellie Bowles gives some links:

The week wore on, and more Post reporters were getting involved, sending complaints on social media and in staff-wide email blasts. As the instigator—a woman named Felicia Sonmez—started fresh rants each day, it began to get sad. One Post staffer (a Felicia ally) scrolled to see who “liked” the Tweet of another staffer (a Felicia critic)—he scanned nearly 5,000 names to find four Post reporters who liked the critic’s Tweet. That’s just sad. Even the women of The View turned on Felicia Sonmez and her cause.

CNN gives more details about the persistence of Sonmez:

In her public comments Sonmez had been highly critical of The Post’s leadership, including Executive Editor Sally Buzbee, along with many of her colleagues.

At times, some of her colleagues went on Twitter to plead with Sonmez to stop attacking The Post on social media.

Jose A. Del Real, a reporter at The Post, responded on Twitter Saturday to Sonmez’s initial tweet. Del Real said Weigel’s tweet was “terrible and unacceptable.”

“But,” he added, “rallying the internet to attack him for a mistake he made doesn’t actually solve anything. We all mess up in some way or another. There is such a thing as challenging with compassion.”

Sonmez responded, saying that “calling out sexism isn’t ‘cruelty,'” but something that is “absolutely necessary.”

Buzbee tried twice to quell the public infighting through statements, including a stern memo issued to employees on Tuesday. In that memo, Buzbee, “in the strongest of terms,” outlined rules that all staffers are expected to follow.

“We do not tolerate colleagues attacking colleagues either face to face or online,” Buzbee wrote. “Respect for others is critical to any civil society, including our newsroom.”

But that memo failed to put an end to the affair.

Just hours after Buzbee issued her memo, Sonmez tweeted a screen grab showing she was still blocked on Twitter by Del Real. And she retweeted another user mocking some of her colleagues who had joined together to send tweets expressing pride about working at The Post.

Reporter Lisa Rein tweeted at Sonmez that night, writing, “Please stop.”

Sonmez replied and asked, “Do you have any idea of the torrent of abuse I’m facing right now?”

As recent as Thursday, Sonmez was still tweeting lengthy threads critical of The Post.

In her Thursday thread, Sonmez argued that the colleagues of hers who publicly defended The Post this week are white and among the most highly paid in the newsroom.

“It is a great workplace *for them*,” she wrote.

Sonmez questioned in the thread whether The Post’s institutional framework was working for “everyone else.”

On top of attacking her fellow reporters on social media, then, Sonmez accused the paper of bigotry, saying that those who defended the paper just happened to be white (I guess she identifies herself as “Latine”), though only a few reporters defended her. Sonmez’s behavior seems a bit unhinged, and by going public against her paper, Sonmez left the Post little choice. Even I, a free-speech defender who would argue that Sonmez has the right to say what she wants on public media, cannot argue that the paper must keep her on whatever she says, including accusing it of being racist. This is one of the consequences of public speech: you are not free of disapprobation by your employer (though if it’s a university or the government that may be illegal, an is often unwarranted).

But what about Weigel? Is there hypocrisy here in merely suspending him but firing Sonmez? I don’t think so. There’s a world of difference between retweeting a bad-taste joke that singles out no person or institution on one hand and repeatedly attacking your employer on the other.  I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Sonmez, and, of course, she never apologized for going after her colleagues, or accusing them of racism merely for criticizing her.

Perhaps the main entry for Sonmez on Wikipedia explains her downfall:

Felicia Sonmez is an American journalist. A political reporter, she is known for her social media activity.

If you’re a reporter, you want to be known for your reporting, not for your social media activity. If I were a reporter, I would either not have a Twitter account or restrict my tweets to highlighting my reporting. Sure, Sonmez could give personal opinion, with the caveat that those opinions were hers and not the Post‘s. But repeated criticism of your employer on Twitter, while no violation of free speech, does carry the risk that your employer will take umbrage. Fortunately, the University of Chicago has a strict policy against reprisal, and I don’t engage in Twitter battles anyway.

Were Hitchens alive, perhaps he’d pronounce that “social media poisons everything.”

Sonmez (from CNN)

WaPo journalist suspended for retweeting a joke, even after an apology

June 7, 2022 • 8:30 am

What would you do if you were editor of the Washington Post and one of your reporters, David Weigel, retweeted this tweet.

This, along with another WaPo story, is the subject of Bari Weiss’s latest column in the WaPo. It involves the hypocrisy of a paper that would severely punish a journalist for the retweet above but do nothing about another one who lied. Click to read, but if you read Weis often, you should subscribe (I do):

Now I admit the retweet above, while a bit humorous, is also in terrible taste, and were I editor I would have called in Weigel, told him that he has a public presence on Twitter, asked him to apologize, and tell him never to do that again.  But of course after the predictable social-media reaction, they did more than that.

Weiss:

It began with a joke. Actually, it was a retweet of a joke. The Washington Post’s politics reporter David Weigel retweeted the following joke this past Friday: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.” I know what you’re thinking: Call the police on this man immediately.

I smirked when I read it. Not a full laugh, but a chuckle. Weigel apologized for the “offensive joke” later the same day: “I apologize and did not mean to cause any harm,” he said.

But it was already too late.

His colleague, Felicia Sonmez, had seized on the tweet, starting a public shaming of Weigel as a sexist. She’s spent the past few days reposting others calling her a heroslamming one colleague who was silly enough to defend Weigel; posting about that colleague and tagging the bosses. Oh, and throwing editors under the bus (repeatedly).

Never mind collegiality or handling minor disputes privately. Never mind that Weigel quickly took down the post and apologized for the poor taste. Never mind that they were friends and he had signed onto a petition in support of her as she geared up to sue the paper for discrimination (that suit was dismissed with prejudice by a D.C. judge in March). It was David Weigel’s time to be punished.

“I have long considered Dave a good friend,” Sonmez wrote. “It’s painful and confusing when friends say and do things that are wrong, and makes it all the more uncomfortable to call them out—even though it’s necessary to do so.”

The Post’s response on Monday was not to chide Sonmez for indiscretion, or to suggest a Twitter time-out, but to suspend David Weigel for a month without pay.

This, as Weiss suspects, may be the beginning of a permanent separation between Weigel and the Post.  Even if the punishment is temporary, what happened to Weiss may happen to Weigel: he won’t be formally fired, but his colleagues will create such a toxic atmosphere for him that he’ll leave.  To my mind, suspension without pay is far too severe an offense for this retweet.

But wait—there’s more! Another Post reporter committed what I think is a worse offense: probable lying and lazy reporting.

Amazingly, this story competed with another Post drama from the weekend: The paper issued three corrections to a story by the technology columnist Taylor Lorenz, which still contains at least one obvious falsehood. The paper claims that Lorenz reached out to a source for comment, which the source says she didn’t do, and Lorenz later admitted she didn’t do (but the story still contains the lie). Even a CNN media reporter said it was “weird WaPo can’t get this basic detail straight.” Lorenz freaked out about CNN noting the correction debacle and said that doing so was “irresponsible & dangerous.” Yes: Dangerous!

So let’s get this straight: at the paper that cracked wide open the biggest presidential scandal in history, the paper that has long defined great political reporting, the paper of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee and David Broder, journalists lie and publicly attack their colleagues and remain comfortably in their positions. And a reporter is suspended without pay for a retweet.

Lorenz’s story is here and just below is the Post’s correction:

Below is the tweet from CNN reporter Oliver Darcy with part of the correction. Note that Lorenz blames the error on an editor, but the Post denies that.  What the Post did do was remove the false statement without acknowledging it: a journalist no-no.

The paper was supposed to improve under the new editor, but there’s not much sign of that to date.

It sure looks as if Lorenz had a part in this issue; after all, she could have told the Post to issue a correction, and I don’t believe her when she blames the errors on the editors. But she’s suffered no opprobrium from the Internet, and hasn’t yet incurred a suspension.  The criticism of Lorenz comes from other journalistic outlets.

If Lorenz did this, she deserves a talking-to and then a requirement to issue an apology. I doubt this will happen.

The rest of Weiss’s piece is largely about how liberating she’s found publishing on Substack to be, and why. But she also hurls a few zingers at the “mainstream media”:

To finally leave old media required me to confront some realities. Among them: The Washington Post is not the same place that broke Watergate, and The New York Times isn’t the same place that got the Pentagon Papers.

It’s not that the excellent, old-school reporters aren’t there. They are. They just don’t—or can’t—control the culture.

Partly that’s because of weakness and cowardice at the top of the masthead. Partly it’s because you can pretty much guarantee the kind of worldview you’re going to get when you hire journalists pedigreed by Harvard and Brown and Yale. They tend to think almost exactly the same way about almost every situation—and Twitter only reinforces the groupthink.

As Andrew Sullivan said, “We’re all on campus now.”  But re Weigel: a retweet is not a violation of journalistic ethics, it’s in bad taste. But it’s also not a suspending offense. That it proved to be is explained by Weiss above: the nastiness of social media and the groupthink of liberal newspaper reporters. What is again missing is a bit of empathy.

The Nation calls for a reformation of the New York Times

May 15, 2022 • 11:45 am

When reader Linda sent me this link from the respected magazine The Nation (free read; click on screenshot below), I was delighted, thinking that writer Dan Froomkin was going to call out the NYT for its one-sided ultraprogressive Leftism that has begun seeping into its news coverage as well as having led to the newsroom’s dominance by social-media loudmouths.

I was out of luck. If anything, Froomkin is chastising the magazine and its previous editor, Dean Baquet, for being too easy on the Right! Click screenshot to read:

Froomkin thinks that the papers’ “both-side-ism” and its failure to call out Republican lies as the lies they are is going to hurt the Democrats during the midterm. His summary:

Under Baquet, the Times has treated the upcoming midterms like any other. Reporters have glibly asserted that Republicans are in great shape to sweep, and win back a majority in one or both houses of Congress. They have unquestioningly adopted the conventional political wisdom that midterms are a referendum on the president, and since Biden is underwater, it doesn’t matter what the Republicans stand for.

But that’s not what these midterms will actually be about. They won’t be about Joe Biden, or putting a “check” on his agenda. They won’t be a “protest vote”.

It’s not just that the GOP has become an insurrectionist party that traffics in hate-filled conspiracy theories and lies. Now the Supreme Court has evidently decided to repeal Roe v. Wade, and Republicans are planning to force pregnant women to term against their will.

For decades, the history of America has been of expanding human and constitutional rights. At this moment, however, we appear to be headed the other way—unless a supermajority says no at the ballot box. Starting in November.

That’s the real story of the midterms.

The goal of a responsible news organization is not to get people to vote a specific way. But it is to make sure that everyone understands what’s at stake.

[JAC: what Froomkin means is “that everyone agrees with me’]

This potential tipping point is what New York Times journalists should be reporting the hell out of. Even more importantly, they need to be putting every daily political story squarely in that context.

Maybe I’ve missed something, but it seems to me that the NYT journalists have been doing that. They would regularly enumerate and point out Trump’s lies, and except for their few token conservative columnists, most oop-eds were precisely about the dangers of the Republican Party and platform.

Apparently not. Froomkin wants every political story to be slanted towards the perfidy of the Right. But is that objective journalism?  Here’s a list of how Froomkin says the Times has failed in its reporting (his quotes) and what the new editor, Joe Kahn, must fix lest our Republic dissolve in acrimony:

  • False equivalence or both-sidesing (“lawmakers from the two parties could not even agree on a basic set of facts”)
  • Focusing on what works instead of whether it’s true or false (“Republicans are using fears of critical race theory to drive school board recalls and energize conservatives”)
  • Attributing the most obviously true characterizations to “critics” or Democrats (“Rufo…has become, to some on the left, an agitator of intolerance”)
  • Spectacular understatement (“in a move that has raised eyebrows among diplomats, investors and ethics watchdogs, Mr. Kushner is trying to raise money from the Persian Gulf states”)
  • Pox on both your houses (“Democrats, without much to brag about, accuse Republicans of being afraid of competitive elections”)
  • Giving both parties credit for solving problems entirely created by Republicans (“Senate Democrats and Republicans neared agreement…to temporarily pull the nation from the brink of a debt default”)
  • Denial and gaslighting (Republicans “have been intent on rehabilitating themselves in the eyes of voters after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol last year”)

And more of his solution:

It doesn’t mean more “fact-checks” (which are insufficient, euphemistic, and skewed). It means rigorous lie-outing in the main news stories, and more stories about the motives behind the lies.

. . . The Times also needs to report aggressively and plainly on the racism, misogyny, and Christian nationalism that fuels the right, rather than covering it up with euphemisms.

Real independence manifests itself in exposing racial injustice and the civilian toll of US air strikes. It manifests itself in holding accountable institutions like the Supreme Court, the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers of Disease Control, major corporations, and, yes, both political parties—without fear or favor.

What he means by “both political parties” is apparently “one political party”—Republicans. God knows they ar the major danger to our democracy, but the solution to a Democratic victory cannot lie in slanting a paper whose news reporting is biased to the progressive Left towards the even farther left. Or in calling those who vote for Republicns racists, misogynists, or Christian nationalists. For THAT is disinformation!

For one thing, most Americans who vote for Republicans don’t read the New York Times. It would seem a far better for the Democrats to beef up their message to the people on immigration, the economy, and other issues that people care about than for one guy to hector the new editor of the NYT. Face it—we’re near the usual midterm downswing anyway, and it doesn’t help that the Democrats are fractured and Biden often appears senescent, with an all-time low approval rating.

But Froomkin’s solution to the wokeness of the New York Times appears to be for it to become more woke.

Shades of Nostradamus: the NYT touts precognition

May 11, 2022 • 1:15 pm

The tweet below from Steve PInker, which is spot on, brought this NYT book review to my attention. Once again, the paper dilates on the supernatural without any warning to the reader that there’s no evidence for the efficacy of “precognition”—being able to see into the future, a form of extra-sensory perception (ESP). Yet the book review implies that there might be something to it.

Here’s the tweet:

The NYT piece reviews this book (note the title). The account may be true, but the “death foretold”? Fuggedabout it.  (Click to go to Amazon link):

The author of this big of clickbait is W. M. Akers, whose bona fides, as given by the NYT, are “W.M. Akers is the author of “Westside,” “Deadball: Baseball With Dice” and the newsletter “Strange Times.” His most recent novel is “Westside Lights.”

The review (click to read):

Knight’s book tells the story of a British psychiatrist named John Baker, who was drawn to the supernatural and especially to precognition. He thought that if he could suss out credible instances of people foreseeing disasters, he might be able to prevent those disasters (think of a non-crime version of precogs in “Minority Report”). Here’s one instance of precognition that got Baker’s juices flowing:

n Oct. 21, 1966, Lorna Middleton woke up choking. The sensation passed, leaving behind melancholy and a sense of impending doom. After a lifetime of experiencing premonitions of misery and death, Middleton, a North London piano teacher, recognized the signs. Something hideous was on the way.

A few hours later, workers on a heap of coal waste in South Wales watched with horror as the 111-foot tower of “spoil” collapsed and cascaded down the mountain toward the village of Aberfan — thousands of tons of slurry and rock bearing down on the primary school. It was just past 10 in the morning and the classrooms were full of students doing spelling exercises, singing songs, learning math. When a 30-foot wave of refuse slammed into the building, they were buried alive. One hundred and forty-four people died that day. One hundred and sixteen were children, most between 7 and 10 years old. It was the sort of horror that makes people demand meaning — the sort for which meaning is rarely found.

Now that’s not a very precise example of precognition, is it? In fact, thousands of people probably had bad dreams that night, and where is the coal spoil in Middleton’s nonspecific dream? This seems like nothing more than pure coincidence. And how could precognition work, anyway? This doesn’t appear to be a subject of much interest to Knight—or Akers.

But in fact coincidence is what Baker was trawling for, looking for cases in which real “precogs” could be used in a practical way. If only the exact nature of the disaster could be predicted! Baker got to work, teaming up with Alan Hencher, a postal employee whose migraine headaches were supposed to predict disasters (but of what sort?) and Lorna Middleton, who had the bad dream that was followed by the coal-spoil avalanche::

Barker used his connections at The Evening Standard to solicit premonitions of the disaster. He found 22 he believed credible, including Middleton’s — he believed any vision accompanied by physical symptoms to be particularly strong. On the back of this research, The Standard recruited Barker to create a standing “Premonitions Bureau” that could catalog predictions and check to see how many came true. The Standard brass saw it as an offbeat way to sell papers. Barker considered it his chance to save the world.

“He wanted an instrument that was sensitive enough to capture intimations that were otherwise impossible to detect,” writes Knight. “He envisaged the fully fledged Premonitions Bureau as a ‘central clearinghouse to which the public could always write or telephone should they experience any premonitions, particularly those which they felt were related to future catastrophes.’ Over time, the Premonitions Bureau would become a databank for the nation’s dreams and visions — ‘mass premonitions,’ Barker later called them — and issue alerts based on the visions it received.”

So were any disasters averted? Nope, of course not. What we got is what we expected: there were dozens of premonitions, and  some of them roughly matched something that happened, but most (more than 97%) did not. And even when they didn’t, they stretched the premonitions so they’d be sort-of true:

In the first week of 1967, Barker and the Standard staff began sorting predictions into categories like “Royalty,” “Racing,” Fire” and “Non-specified disasters.” (The science correspondent Peter Fairley often drew on the racing file for betting tips.) Once categorized, they would wait to see what happened, and attempt to connect the tragedies on the news page with the prophecies in their files.

Along with Alan Hencher, a postal employee whose migraines seemed to anticipate disaster, Middleton became Barker’s best source. He greeted her successful predictions with glee. When the death of the astronaut Vladimir Komarov bore out her warning of peril in space, Barker wrote to say, “You were spot on. Well done!” When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated after months of her warning that his life was in danger, Barker called it her best work yet.

But what about Middleton’s unsuccessful predictions—her “worst work”? The review says nothing, except that they fudged the unsuccessful guesses to make them seem more accurate:

If they sometimes had to stretch to make the news fit what Middleton and her fellows dreamed up — letting tornadoes in the Midwest satisfy a prediction of catastrophic weather in California, for instance — Barker saw no problem. He was overjoyed with the success of his star psychics and hoped to scour the country to find more like them. He believed second sight was as common as left-handedness. It didn’t matter that the premonitions were rarely specific enough to be useful, warning simply of a train to derail somewhere, an airliner to crash at some point. Barker believed he was onto something cosmic.

Rarely specific enough to be useful? Why don’t they give us one instance in which a predication was useful, and evidence that the predictions that proved accurate were more common than could be accounted for by coincidence (e.g., was there one person whose precognitions were almost invariably accurate?) If this worked, that person would have won a million bucks from James Randi (nobody ever did). Even according to the author’s count, only 3% of the predictions “came true” (mostly from MIddleton and Hetcher). And that, I’m sure, is stretching it.

The text here gives one no assurance that anything other than coincidence was involved. To make a scientific and definitive statement about the efficacy of precognition, you’d need a rigorous and accurate set of tests, tests incorporating fraud-detectors like James Randi. There are no such tests that have proved successful. The NYT does not mention this.

But wait! There was one “successful” prediction: Middleton and Hencher predicted that Barker would soon die (they give no date) and a year and a half after the “predictions bureau” was founded, Barker had a cerebral hemorrhage and croaked. Is that uncanny, or just coincidence?

The review concludes that the precog experiment was indeed “worth a shot”:

Barker’s psychics’ predictions had proved accurate, but they did not help him avoid his fate. He had hoped to use the Bureau to change the future. It had not even come close. By Knight’s count, only 3 percent of the Bureau’s predictions came true — nearly all of the successes from Middleton and Hencher. It found no useful data and prevented no tragedies. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth a shot.

“We confer meaning as a way to control our existence,” writes Knight. “It makes life livable. The alternative is frightening.”

Three percent is better than nothing. Even false meaning is preferable to fear.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but that conclusion is bullshit.  If “false meaning is preferable to fear”, then we should all become religious. And, anyway, what kind of fear does 3% of coincidental matches dispel? What is the frightening abyss into which we must gaze if none of the predictions were even remotely true? The last two paragraphs are pure New Yorker-style prose: they sound good, but they say nothing.

Some of the evidence for precognition that people found convincing came from Daryl Bem. This evidence has not held up (see also here).  Doesn’t the NYT or its authors owe us that information, or the fact that there is no conceivable way that the laws of physics could even allow precognition?  No, because the paper is are wedded to cosseting our “spiritual” side.