Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Kristof’

No Editors? Oh Noes!

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

I don’t know what it is about Nicholas Kristof these days, but it seems he can’t write a column without a rudimentary logical fallacy or a laughable “look at me” premise these days. His latest is nothing more than a rehashing of the old “we tell you what’s important” meme:

When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about.

Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me. And if that’s the trend, God save us from ourselves.

That’s because there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.

In other words, left to our own devices, we’ll seek out information on issues that are important to us, which in the aggregate will define the political issues of the day. This is bad because it upsets the delicate balance of traditional media by which people like Nicholas Kristof decide what issues are important, and spend their time trying to convince us that we ought to care about the President getting a blow job Very Serious Issues. Pardon me while I guffaw heartily.

What’s rather odd is that Kristol then goes on to take this conclusion to yet again misrepresent pieces of evidence to support his argument in abjectly silly ways.

The effect of The Daily Me would be to insulate us further in our own hermetically sealed political chambers. One of last year’s more fascinating books was Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” He argues that Americans increasingly are segregating themselves into communities, clubs and churches where they are surrounded by people who think the way they do.

Almost half of Americans now live in counties that vote in landslides either for Democrats or for Republicans, he said. In the 1960s and 1970s, in similarly competitive national elections, only about one-third lived in landslide counties.

On a more general note, this is probably the single most annoying characteristic of Kristof’s writing. He simply takes a coupld of observations that are true indepently and casually puts them together in a way that supports his argument, but is manifestly absurd at the same time. To wit, yes, America, and American political parties are more homogenized now then they were in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and there’s actually a pretty widely accepted theory for why this is; the 1960’s and 1970’s were a uniquely odd period in American history. Crudely speaking, the multitude of cultural issues, most notably civil rights and Vietnam, that dominated this era largely demolished the old New Deal era political coalitions. The Civil Rights Act, for example, was passed with mostly liberal-progressive Democrats and Northeastern, socially moderate/liberal Republicans supporting it and traditional Southern Democrats and right-wing Goldwater Republicans opposing it. And while this might be nirvana for David Broder, most political observers would agree that you can’t really sustain political coalitions with such stark disagreements on major issues, and we didn’t. The next 20-30 years were largely marked by the reshuffling of our political coalitions which, broadly, saw the Southern Dixiecrats move to the Republican Party and the old Northeastern Republicans join the Democratic coalition. The results were, in fact, much more homogenous opinions within the parties, but that’s sort of what you would expect a political coalition to look like. Kristof’s mistake is to assume, out of hand, that these shifts in partisan identification indicate an actual ideological hardening. And, of course, not being familiar with a very common interpretation of this in the political science field.

If only he had a highly paid professional editor to keep him from making such a basic mistake.

Kristof: Still Outraged, Still Sloppy

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

When Nicholas Kristof put out his coulmn this week trying to draw a link between an outbreak of MRSA bascteria and a hog farm in one small Indiana town, I took umbrage with the New York Times publishing a piece full of sloppy reportage and logical fallacies. Well, apparently no one on the editorial board listens to me, because Kristof is back with another column on the same topic today, that’s arguably even worse. The key takeaway is that we’re over medicating hogs in this country, and that’s creating antibiotic resistant bacteria. And I suppose there’s a fair debate to be had in that, but Kristof’s column is riddled with the absolute sloppiest arguments you could make. For one thing, his specific doesn’t match his general. In the argument Kristof has constructed, the general problem is supposed to be overuse of antibiotics creating super germs, and the specific example is supposed to be MRSA. But the place you’re most likely to encounter MRSA, as Kristof himself points out, is in a hospital. I don’t know about you, but I can’t seem to recall the last time I saw a pig at a hospital. And Kristof himself acknowledges in the column that there are no known cases of someone contracting MRSA from eating pork, in no small part because proper food preperation kills the bacteria. And this is where Kristof’s entire case falls apart. Believe it or not, meat is actually pretty nasty stuff. There’s a lot of bacteria in it, because the animals it came from probably ingested a lot of bacteria when they were licking rocks and barn doors and rolling in their own excrement. In fact, you know who else carries around a lot of bacteria? Humans. Your hands are like giant cesspools for all sorts of germs, which is why we make a point to encourage good hygiene like washing your hands. Similarly, the way to deal with bacteria in food is to educate people about it and encourage proper food preperation.

As I said in my earlier post, I don’t necessarily blame Kristof for these things. I think every writer has a problem with a personal opinion clouding their professional work from time to time. But I do fault the Times editors, who should be pointing these things out, and declining to print these shoddy columns. But that’s not how our maor Op-Ed pages work. Instead certain people are given contractual access to those column inches and are allowed to run whatever factual inaccuracies or logical fallacies they want. Tell me why I’m supposed to be upset these institutions are going out of business again?

Better Editing Please

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

I don’t really understand the logic of Op-Ed pages. Apparently they seek out people who are so wise that their writing must never be edited, even though it’s going to reflect on the paper publishing it. Any attempt to maintain some sort of quality standards would amount to “stifling viewpoints,” or something like that. And, ultimately, I think it’s this attitude as much as anything else that’s led to the post-modernism of our political discourse. The Washington Post’s refusal to correct a glaring factual error in a George Will column is a now-classic example of this tendency, as is the various misinformation that percolated through the nation’s Op-Ed pages in the run up to the Iraq war. And even though it’s likely to be met much more approvingly by progressives, today’s Nicholas Kristof column is another, quite egregious, example of the lax standards of editing our “elite” Op-Ed pages. The takeaway:

MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) sometimes arouses terrifying headlines as a “superbug” or “flesh-eating bacteria.” The best-known strain is found in hospitals, where it has been seen regularly since the 1990s, but more recently different strains also have been passed among high school and college athletes. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that by 2005, MRSA was killing more than 18,000 Americans a year, more than AIDS.

Dr. Anderson at first couldn’t figure out why he was seeing patient after patient with MRSA in a small Indiana town. And then he began to wonder about all the hog farms outside of town. Could the pigs be incubating and spreading the disease?

That’s an obvious conjecture to make, I suppose, if you’re a writer who has long been writing columns taking a dim view of American swine production, but the basic structure of the column would flunk any high school logic class. The problem with the progression of the column is that at no point does Kristol ever actually present an evidentiary case that the MSRA outbreak is linked to the hog farms. Yes there have been some studies suggesting hogs can carry the MSRA bacteria, but that doesn’t really explain why it seems to be isolated to this town. It’s not as if there are onlya dozen or so hog farms around the country and so there isn’t a large body of evidence to go on. There are literally thousands upon thousands of similar farms all over the country, many undoubtedly larger than the operation in question. Are there MSRA outbreaks in towns neighboring any other hog farm in the country? Did Kristol look for any before he wrote this column? Did Kristol pursue any other possible causes of the MSRA outbreak in this town before jumping to the conclusion that hog farms cause widespread cases of MSRA infections based on what appears to be a clear outlying case? Or did Kristol let the conclusion dictate the facts? It’s pretty clear that that seems to be what happened.

I’m not necessarily faulting Kristol for this. After all, we all have issues we have deep seated beliefs about, and for many of us that causes us to do sloppy work at times when writing about those issues. The real question, then, is why the New York Times would run such a shoddy piece of writing. Why is their no editing process to reject a piece so clearly lacking in both evidence and logical argument building? Why isn’t there anyone to point out that Kristof is letting his desired conclusion affect how he is presenting the evidence, or lack thereof? It may seem like a small matter, because the topic doesn’t seem all that important in this case, but this is how misinformation regarding truly monumental issues makes its way into the public discourse. This is how newspapers can allow the claim that there is no scientific consensus on global climate change to be published under their banner. This is how major newspapers wind up publishing claims that Saddam Hussein was allied with al Qaeda prior to our invasion of Iraq. It’s the idea that, certain people at least, are above the editing process, and much be allowed to publish more or less anything they submit, no matter how poor of quality, lest “the media” put their thumb on the scale of the “debate.”

And it’s one reason I don’t count myself among the crowd lamenting the inevitable downfall of major national newspapers.