Is Maggie Haberman worth it?

January 20, 2020 • 12:59 pm

by Greg Mayer

As early as a few years ago, Jerry began worrying about the editorial drift of the New York Times. At the time, I wasn’t concerned. The questionable pieces were op-ed articles—opinion pieces not by the Times or its reporters. Although you could question the choice of writer, it wasn’t the Times‘ writers. But then it was the Times‘ own opinion writers and editorial board members (remember Sarah Jeong?), and then even the news division. I wrote this last fall:

I originally thought that the Times “wokeness” was just a series of bad hires for the opinion pages, but such bad hires have gone both ways– who, other than his close friends and family, could care at all what Ross Douthat thinks about anything? Jerry sounded the warning early, and, sadly, it is now clear that he was  right, and that “wokeness” has infected much of the paper’s news coverage.

The trend has continued, and I’ve now found myself asking whether I should cancel my subscription—maybe subscribe to the Washington Post.

But, the Times isn’t all bad. In fact large parts of it are great. They have loads of terrific reporters. I mention Maggie Haberman in the title mostly because she’s also the daughter of one of my other favorite Times journalists, the now mostly retired Clyde Haberman (I especially liked his “NYC” column). But there are many others: Peter Baker on politics, Adam Liptak on legal matters, James Gorman and Carl Zimmer on science, and Tyler Kepner on sports, to name a few.

Here’s some of the recent bad stuff out of the Times. It’s in all the sections now: News, Style, Arts, Opinion. It’s both wokeness and woo—perhaps we can call it ‘wookeness’. The most salient example is the disaster of the 1619 Project, which Jerry has noted before. Interestingly, much of the pushback against the Times advocacy of shoddy history has come from leftist sources, most notably (to me) the World Socialist Web Site of the Socialist Equality Party. Why would leftists oppose the 1619 Project? Eric London summarizes it this way:

The “1619 Project” is a politically motivated attack on historical truth. Through this initiative, the Democratic Party seeks to present race, and not class, as the essential dividing line in American and world society.

and the article initiating the WSWS coverage says this:

Despite the pretense of establishing the United States’ “true” foundation, the 1619 Project is a politically motivated falsification of history. Its aim is to create a historical narrative that legitimizes the effort of the Democratic Party to construct an electoral coalition based on the prioritizing of personal “identities”—i.e., gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, and, above all, race.

The WSWS site has posted interviews with a number of respected historians (some leftist, some not; some American, some not) which are very critical of the 1619 Project: James McPherson, Clayborne Carson, Richard Carwardine, Gordon Wood, Dolores Janieweski, Victoria Bynum, James Oakes, and Adolph Reed (a political scientist). There’s more on the Project at the WSWS website. (I learned of the WSWS material from Brian Leiter’s website.) The most recent item on the WSWS site claims that Google is manipulating search results so as to downrank WSWS pages. WSWS notes that the first page of Google results gets 92% of the traffic, so the fact that WSWS’s substantive critiques of the 1619 Project show up on page two or three means that not very many people will be led to it. The WSWS has posted quite a lot on the Project, but I’m not sure I can judge the ‘appropriateness’ of Google’s results, or if the WSWS’s low rank indicates “suppression”. I could imagine that Google has a generalized bias against WSWS (and sites like it); I’d need more evidence to convince me that Google is acting specifically against WSWS’s coverage of the 1619 Project. Regardless, visit and link to the WSWS pages to raise their pagerank.

JAC note: The 1619 project has been constructed to be convertible to a school curriculum, and in fact it’s been adopted by public schools in several cities, including Buffalo, New York. This is the first case I’ve heard about of a newspaper attempting to indoctrinate schoolchildren with a particular ideological view. I consider this a dangerous precedent.

To round off the wokeness with some woo, from the Style section we have yet another embrace of astrology by the Times:

. . . and then this bizarre piece in the Opinion section, in which Jessica Stern, who is a professor at Boston University, wrestles with her conscience about engaging in “energy healing” with a war criminal:

Karazdic performs some “energy healing” by waving his hands around her head, and she “felt a kind of electricity heating up my head, making me slightly dizzy. But soon I began to calm down, at least a little.” Then, she has the sensation of trees growing out of the palms of her hands, which she attributes to Karadzic. She goes on, “I don’t know how this energy works; all I know is that it does.” Yikes!

As Beth Mole, a science journalist at Ars Technica, succinctly puts it, “energy healing” is

. . . a load of pseudoscientific garbage.

(She was writing about Gwyneth Paltrow, but the point still holds.)

So that’s my dilemma– is it worth putting up with, and financially supporting, the foregoing, in order to get Maggie Haberman?

The perils of “balanced” reporting

May 2, 2013 • 7:06 pm

by Greg Mayer

Curtis Brainard, editor of The Observatory, the Columbia Journalism Review‘s online science journalism section, has a nice article up tracing the role of the news media in encouraging and spreading anti-vaccination pseudoscience, including the role of the disgraced British physician Andrew Wakefield, and the fear mongering of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (The latter once wrote a piece for Salon, which Salon later deleted, in doing so decrying the fraud tainted “science” of those propagating ” the debunked, and dangerous, autism-vaccine link.”) He discusses the differing reactions and developments in the UK and the US, including how  anti-vaccine pseudoscience developed later in the US, and how some journalists built their careers around promoting pseudoscience.

One thing he notes is that “balanced” reporting seems to have helped encourage the spread of the bogus claims:

[T]he study [of journalistic coverage] raises the problem of “objectivity” in stories for which a preponderance of evidence is on one side of a “debate.” In such cases, “balanced” coverage can be irresponsible, because it suggests a controversy where none really exists. (Think climate change, and how such he-said-she-said coverage helped sustain the illusion of a genuine debate within the science community.)

Although Brainard did not mention it, I’m sure that WEIT readers will immediately see the parallels to coverage of creationism and “teach the controversy” campaigns. I once parodied such he said-she said coverage here at WEIT:

You’ve all read the kind of story that will have a line like, “Dr. Smith, a paleontologist at the natural history museum, said Triceratops had been extinct for more than 60 million years before the origin of man, while Dr. Jones from the institute said Triceratops had been ridden by men like horses until the recent worldwide flood drowned them all”.

I’m glad to see that media critics like Brainard are critiquing this type of reporting, and that many journalists are becoming aware of the dangers of “balance” when one side has nothing at all. Other previous posts on vaccines at WEIT here and here. For regular coverage of medical pseudoscience, see Orac’s Respectful Insolence, and Ben Goldacres’s Bad Science.

h/t Andrew Sullivan

Robert L. Park on Templeton

November 10, 2011 • 11:46 am

by Greg Mayer

Robert L. Park is a physicist, fellow of CSICOP, and former head of the American Physical Society‘s Washington office who has long been active in the skeptical community. His first book, Voodoo Science (Oxford, 2000), is one that I have used in preparing my undergraduate non-majors course on “Science & Pseudoscience”. Until yesterday, I had overlooked his second book, Superstition (Princeton, 2008). I’ve only had a chance to skim through it, but, apropos of Jerry’s post about Massimo Pigliucci’s take on the Templeton Foundation, Park takes a rather dim view of the  foundation and its goals as well. A sample of what he has to say:

Not everyone was happy about the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) selling its soul to Templeton. Why had the most important scientific organization in America, perhaps in the world, allowed the voice of antiscience to assume the guise of a dialog between science and religion?

Park also mentions Francis Collins and other religious scientists. As I said, I’ve only skimmed it, but the book seems worth a read.

Snake oil in the New York Times

June 21, 2011 • 8:03 am

by Greg Mayer

Perhaps just by coincidence, today’s New York Times features two articles concerning snake oil: one about an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art of posters promoting dubious remedies, and the other about the relationship between Senator Snake Oil, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and the “nutritional supplement” industry.

William H. Helfand Collection/Philadelphia Museum of Art

The exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art features a selection of striking and colorful posters from the William H. Helfand Collection that advertise a variety of patent medicines and mostly questionable nostrums (a number of them are shown on the Times and Museum websites). Sen. Hatch is infamous as the primary sponsor of the “Snake Oil Salesman’s Relief Act of 1994”, which exempted “nutritional supplements” from the requirements of safety and efficacy of the pure food and drug laws. As the Times‘ story details, he has been well remunerated by the industry for his continuing support. Supplement manufacturers are not supposed to claim that supplements cure disease, but they try to skate the line (and sometimes cross over it, as shown in the article) by making vague claims of improving function or energy, and adding very small print disclaimers that say the FDA has not checked any of their claims. Orac at Respectful Insolence follows the supplement industry’s shenanigans fairly regularly.

Cryptozoology

February 5, 2010 • 4:58 pm

by Greg Mayer

The spotted lion is a favorite topic within cryptozoology. Bernard Heuvelmans, the late Belgian zoologist known as the “father of cryptozoology”, defined cryptozoology as

The scientific study of hidden animals, i.e., of still unknown animal forms about which only testimonial and circumstantial evidence is available, or material evidence considered insufficient by some!

Although, not mentioned in the brief definition, Heuvelmans also included the study of known, but supposedly extinct, animals, that might still be extant, based on testimonial or circumstantial evidence. Animals that are of interest to cyptozoologists are known as cryptids.

The roster of cryptids includes such beasties as the Loch Ness monster, the abominable snowman, and bigfoot. This might suggest to some that cryptozoology is pretty out there, a pseudoscience. But, in fact, the question of what cryptozoology is turns out to be more interesting, as the spotted lion story itself indicates.

Many zoologists (especially systematic zoologists), like cryptozoologists, are interested in discovering and describing previously unknown species of animals (with my friend and colleague Skip Lazell, I’ve described one myself). For many zoologists, in fact, its their full time occupation. There are millions of undescribed species of animals awaiting scientific investigation.

So if cryptozoologists are looking for undescribed species, and zoologists are looking for undescribed species, what’s the difference? Well, one minor difference is that cryptozoologists tend to be interested in fairly large undiscovered species. Most newly described species are small (most are insects), although a few pretty big ones have been discovered in the recent past (e.g., giant muntjac, sao la, megamouth shark, and Chacoan peccary).

But size isn’t the key difference. The key difference is what sort of evidence is taken to be compelling evidence of the existence of an animal. For a zoologist, testimonial evidence, such as stories about spotted lions, might be a good reason to go looking for something, but you don’t have any real evidence until you actually get one of the animals. Having an actual specimen is the standard of evidence in systematic zoology. In cryptozoology, there is a wide range of practice in what kind of evidence is considered compelling. Heuvelmans himself leaned pretty strongly toward accepting testimony as fairly compelling (while strongly rejecting, however, attempts to make cryptozoology a form of mysticism or paranormal exploration, as was done in, for example, John Keel’s Strange Creatures From Time and Space). Other cryptozoologists, however, explicitly adopt the zoological standard of evidence. In their Cryptozoology A to Z, Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark write about some cryptids in the following way

Unfortunately, without a specimen, this can only be conjecture. [referring to the possible identity of a supposed giant bear of Kamchatka]

and

And it is from the Dani [a New Guinea tribe] that [Tim] Flannery received his first real evidence of the bondegezou, in the form of skins and associated trophies. [referring to a newly discovered species of tree kangaroo known as the bondegezou; emphases added in both quotes]

And, in writing about what cryptids are, they state

It is often impossible to tell which category an unknown animal actually inhabits until you catch it. [emphasis added]

In stressing the importance of obtaining a specimen(s) in figuring out what cryptids are, Coleman and Clark are doing just what a systematic zoologist would do. There is no difference in their standards of evidence, only in what catches their attention as being worthy of inquiry. The latter is a matter of personal interest and taste, not scientific method, so the Coleman & Clark practice of cryptozoology is not pseudoscience at all. (There are also a lot of crack pots and frauds out there too.)

Coleman, in addition to his own website, contributes to the website Cryptomundo. But my favorite website dealing with cryptozoology is Darren Naish’s Tetrapod Zoology. He’s a dinosaur paleontologist, and most of his posts are on more orthodox aspects of tetrapod zoology, but he posts occasionally on cryptozoological topics, often analyzing evidence, and sometimes resolving the issue. Here, for example, are his insightful explications of the Montauk Monster, a cryptid from my home island, which turned out to be a raccoon that had expired and gone to meet ‘is maker. Go to his site and look around for more fun posts like these.

Pseudoscientist reprimanded, pseudoscience retracted

February 4, 2010 • 1:20 pm

by Greg Mayer

Following up on a comment by Glen Davidson to my latest dowsing post, in which he noted that the UK’s General Medical Council had ruled against anti-vaccination activist Dr. Andrew Wakefield, finding him callous, unethical and dishonest, I note that The Lancet (registration required) has retracted Wakefield and coauthors’ 1998 paper that set off the autism/vaccination controversy. The editors of The Lancet now accept that not only should the paper not have been published, but that its conclusions are false.

The NY Times also covered the story, in a manner I found refreshing. Too often, perhaps due to some distorted sense of objectivity, news reporting consists of a “he said, she said” style, in which opposing viewpoints are given equal status, regardless of the plausibility or support for the claims made.  You’ve all read the kind of story that will have a line like, “Dr. Smith, a paleontologist at the natural history museum, said Triceratops had been extinct for more than 60 million years before the origin of man, while Dr. Jones from the institute said Triceratops had been ridden by men like horses until the recent worldwide flood drowned them all”. The Times reporter, Gardiner Harris, however is familiar with the evidence.

After Dr. Wakefield’s study, vaccination rates plunged in Britain and the number of measles cases soared.

In the United States, anti-vaccine groups have advanced other theories since then to explain why they think vaccines cause autism. For years, they blamed thimerosal, a vaccine preservative containing mercury. Because of concerns over the preservative, vaccine makers in 2001 largely eliminated thimerosal from routinely administered childhood vaccines.

But this change has had no apparent impact on childhood autism rates. Anti-vaccine groups now suggest that a significant number of children have a cellular disorder whose effects are set off by vaccinations.

With each new theory, parents’ groups have called for research to explore possible links between vaccination and autism. Study after study has failed to show any link, and prominent scientific agencies have concluded that scarce research dollars should be spent investigating other possible causes of autism.

(I’ll add parenthetically that I find the notion of “retracting” a paper silly.  Once it’s published, it can’t be unpublished. But it is proper for editors and/or authors to later publish to say that a paper’s data or conclusions were flawed, unwarranted, or false.)

The NY Times on the Iraqi dowsing rods

February 1, 2010 • 8:36 pm

by Greg Mayer

The totally bogus dowsing rods sold to Iraqi security forces by an unscrupulous (and now arrested) British manufacturer (noted at WEIT here, here, and recently here) were the subject of an editorial, “Shock, Awe and Abracadabra“, in today’s New York Times. Money quote:

The junk science should have been obvious: the slender wand is topped by what looks like a radio antenna on a swivel that the manufacturer guaranteed to point to weapons or bombs hidden up to a half-mile away, underwater or in planes three miles high. “We are working on a new model that has flashing lights,” the manufacturer told The Times of London last year, when first challenged about ADE 651.

Any satisfaction that United States forces avoided this particular sting should be tempered by the fact that American blood and treasure have underpinned the Iraq government across the war’s many expensive follies.

The reason I post occasionally here on these high-profile pseudoscience cases is that being alert to the tactics and activities of pseudoscientists of all stripes is useful, even if particular schools of pseudoscience are an area of focus. I teach a popular general education course at my university entitled “Science and Pseudoscience”, in which we discuss things such as Velikovskianism, UFOs, alien abductions, astrology, palm reading, and many, many other things; and of course, creationism. There is an old saying that a language is a dialect with an army. Creationism is pseudoscience with a powerful political lobby.

Update (Feb. 5): Here’s Randi’s take on the recent developments.

Pseudoscience– banned in Britain

January 22, 2010 • 3:24 pm

by Greg Mayer

A while back, I posted on the shocking use of high priced, English-made dowsing rods by Iraqi security services to detect explosives, dowsing rods being a notorious and well-debunked form of pseudoscience. Use of these devices not only wastes tens of millions of dollars, but costs lives (see the original NY Times article). Well, I’m happy to report that the BBC has reported that the UK government is banning the export of these devices.

Sidney Alford, a leading explosives expert who advises all branches of the military, told Newsnight the sale of the ADE-651 [what the company calls the dowsing rod] was “absolutely immoral”.

“It could result in people being killed in the dozens, if not hundreds,” he said. [Sadly, it already has.]

The BBC went on to report not only the the government action (spurred in part by recent successful bombings in Iraq), but also some analyses of the devices.

Claims of such almost magical technical abilities would almost be comic, if the potential consequences were not so serious.

Newsnight obtained a set of cards [the part alleged by the manufacturer to be sensitive to various substances] for the ADE-651 and took them to Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory where Dr Markus Kuhn dissected a card supposed to detect TNT.

It contained nothing but the type of anti-theft tag used to prevent stealing in high street stores.

Dr Kuhn said it was “impossible” that it could detect anything at all and that the card had “absolutely nothing to do with the detection of TNT”.

Do go to the BBC site to see the video of Dr. Kuhn analyzing the card.