Tag Archives: New York Times

Out of Context

Charles MurrayIn the Grey Matter section of the Sunday Review in the New York Times, Cornell Professors Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci published an article entitled “Charles Murray’s ‘Provocative’ Talk.” In it, they described a small ad hoc study that they conducted to test whether the words of Charles Murray are objectively offensive and thus deserving of the level of resistance to his lecture at Middlebury College (see here).

In their study, the authors took a transcript of Murray’s actual talk and sent it without attribution to 70 college professors with a request to rate the words on a 9 point scale from very conservative to very liberal. They found that although “American college professors are overwhelmingly liberal,” those surveyed found Murray’s words to be “middle of the road” with an average score of about 5. Williams and Ceci interpret this finding as indicating that the protest over Murray’s invitation to speak was objectively ill-informed and unjustified.

This argument is deeply and fundamentally flawed. We often see similar tricks played when someone reads an excerpt from the Constitution or Mein Kampf and asks for an opinion about it – before the gotcha reveal when they identify the authorship.

One major study flaw is the premise that words stand alone. Context matters and the meaning and intent of words can only be fully assessed with due consideration of the person making the statement. Authorship is an essential part of that greater context. If PT Barnum claimed he had a Yeti in his house, I would have received it with tremendous skepticism. If Carl Sagan made the exact same claim, I would have been very excited about the potential of an important new anthropological discovery.

The reality is that Charles Murray has a long history of promoting what many consider to be highly destructive public policy research and analysis that has undermined valuable social programs and has attacked and divided us along gender and racial differences. For example, his statement that “We believe that human happiness requires freedom and that freedom requires limited government,” may sound perfectly reasonable to 70 of our professional contacts if unattributed. Coming from a known liberal speaker, this could be meant to affirm that we should not be forced to live in an overly-policed state. However, coming from Charles Murray it is clear that his intent is to promote the dismantling of social assistance programs. The same statement might mean something even more extreme if David Duke had said it.

Based on the work of Williams and Ceci one might argue that we should remove all bias in approving speakers by using a blinded, unidentified process in which presenters are approved or rejected based solely on the text of their planned presentation. That would be extremely foolish. The reality is that the larger views and history of any speaker plays an essential role in how we should interpret their statements. Reasonable but isolated statements can conceal a larger and very different agenda that is only apparent if we know the source.

I have no doubt that the authors would respond by saying that intellectually unbiased people should be willing to hear any reasonable speaker and make this assessment for themselves, without forced censorship. However, surely they would also agree that there is some limit beyond which a speaker would not be acceptable even to them. But reasonable people can reasonably disagree about where this fuzzy boundary should lie – and that boundary must consider not only the message but the messenger as well.

Clearly a determinative number of alumni, faculty, and students at Middlebury judged that the lifetime body of work by Charles Murray, as well as his very clear lifelong mission, crossed that fuzzy line for them. Williams and Ceci may disagree on their placement of this line and that is legitimate and fair debate. But it is not legitimate and fair to conduct what amounts to a gotcha stunt under the guise of objective science to prove that these people’s determination in this instance is illegitimate and irrational.

All that Williams and Ceci may have actually shown is that, without attribution, college professors don’t assume the worst or the best. They may merely fill the void with their own middle-of-the-road interpretation of unattributed quotations.

Leaving Men Behind

I recently read an interesting article in the New York Times called “The Men Feminists Left Behind” by Jill Filipovic (see here). You should read it in entirety, but here is a synopsis:

Women have evolved, men have not. While women have soared, men have remained stuck in the past. Donald Trump is representative of far too many men, and they are a threat to our country. Women cannot reach their full potential unless men change. If men feel left behind, disrespected, and ignored, they need to follow the example of women and move forward into a new and more flexible gender role.

womanvsmanA lot of what is says is well-taken tough love, but it does generalize too much. It paints all men as Dodo Birds, and all women by implication as enlightened beings. Certainly there are far too many men, largely Trump voters, who absolutely need to go extinct as quickly as possible for the good of all humanity. But huge numbers of men vehemently reject Trump and all he stands for.

Conversely, the author seems blind to the fact that far, far too many women support Trump the candidate and the hateful rhetoric he spews. Kellyanne Conway, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin and his army of female surrogates are not anomalies, but are examples of a disturbingly large number of female Trump supporters. These are hardly luminous beings of exemplary wisdom. Their support is particularly inexplicable and disturbing given how much of his rhetoric ought to be especially horrifying to women.

Here’s another thing. The author is correct that men do need to adjust. We had been driving in our station wagon together as families for many generations. The man driving, the woman knitting while occasionally checking the map for directions. Recently, the woman has demanded to drive and the man has had to relinquish the steering wheel. But he loved driving, doesn’t know how to knit, and is constitutionally and philosophically opposed to maps. So what does he do now? Maybe he sits in his passenger seat and reminisces about the good old days when he got to drive as he drinks lots of beer.

Back when I was in the Peace Corps, I used to walk by construction sites in my village. Each one was “manned” exclusively by female construction workers doing heavy labor. I knew full well that the corner bar was filled with men sitting around drinking. I was infuriated by this. It offended my sensibilities in every possible way. What was the matter with these lazy, good-for-nothing men? Unfortunately, my ire couldn’t have been more myopic. It turned out that, in a well-intentioned effort to encourage equal opportunity, the government provided generous incentives for these companies to hire women. Almost over night, that put men out of work with absolutely nothing to do, no prospects, no opportunities, and no self-respect.

I tell you this story to suggest to you that situations are seldom simple. Yes, women have made great strides and that is good. In fact, to the extent it is a competition, they have clearly won. Jill’s article could only be written by someone that has internalized the fact that women have won. They are on top now, if not in every measure, in every measure that portends future trends and prospects. She knows women are driving the train moving forward, and feels confident enough to warn men that they need to get on-board or get left behind.

Let’s be clear, there has been a strong element of competition here for a largely fixed pie. Women flocked into previously male jobs and these well-paying jobs have not doubled over this period, rather the number of these jobs has shrunk dramatically over this same period. So you do the math. To tell men in America that they simply need to “get with the program” is as naïve as my thinking that those African men simply need to “get out there and work.” It is as short-sighted and callous and indifferent as it is when we tell impoverished Blacks to simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or immigrants to stop just complaining and get to work, or displaced coal workers to just evolve.

These social upheavals, while good and necessary, do cause real pain. Major social transitions to create greater equity do cause localized inequity and in this case men have been the losers. When feminists like Jill ignore this and chide men into “just get over it,” they ignore the systemic and emotional challenges involved. It is not that simple or easy. Necessary, yes of course. Easy? No way. Men are not Neanderthals. They are actual people with feelings who are trying their best to adjust to real loss and change. Sometimes part of that adjustment includes clinging to the past or getting belligerent. But these things are normal stages of adjustment. Women have had generations to adapt and grow. Men need and deserve some time.

Despite the fact that men have been hit hard, they have adjusted a great deal. You seldom hear sexist language in most workplaces. Many men find that they are suddenly a minority in largely female workplaces and many report to women. Lots of men are thriving house-moms today.

So women, you deserve to celebrate but try not to gloat. Refrain from telling men they are Neanderthals or treating them that way. Try not to discount the unprecedented social barriers and challenges that men have been adapting to. Maybe try to give them some support and encouragement rather than getting impatient with them, demeaning them, and issuing Conservative-sounding “get on the train or get left behind” ultimatums.

And as you give your men the time and understanding they need to adjust, maybe you can work on evolving the many women who have adopted all the worst traits associated with the old school males you deride as Neanderthals. I, as do many males, desperately want to see female compassion and sensibilities provide real leadership to help to save this planet, not merely share equally with men in exploiting and plundering it.

The Last Gasp of God

One book that I frequently recommend is “The Merchants of Doubt” (see here). It was even made into a documentary film. The authors document the decades-long campaign of misinformation orchestrated largely by a small group of “reputable” scientists with the goal of discrediting any legitimate arguments against DDT and other hazardous pollutants, ozone-destroying CFC propellants and refrigerants, acid rain caused by coal burning, tobacco and its links to lung cancer, and most recently man-made climate change.

These scientists employed well-refined tactics to delay any meaningful reform in these areas. Essentially, their strategy was to create doubt about these dangers. As long as they could manufacture even the thinnest illusion of doubt, they could delay any efforts to restrict those industries. They succeeded for a long time – and still succeed with climate change – but only with the complicity of mainstream media organizations that publish their made-up arguments over and over again because they create bankable controversy and bolster the impression that their media coverage is fair-mined and impartial.

The New York Times has consistently been, unwittingly or not, one of the most influential misinformation machines for these merchants of doubt. And they are still helping them out. The other day they published an opinion called “God Is a Question, Not an Answer” (see here). In it, author William Irwin, a Professor of Philosophy at King’s College, puts forth ridiculous arguments in an attempt to discredit atheism. Or, more specifically, to create doubts about the fundamental intellectual validity of atheism.

Irwin claims that any reasonable, intellectually honest atheist must admit some possibility that god might actually exist. This is the exact same manipulation that pro-tobacco advocates put forth for years – surely any scientist with integrity must admit that he has some doubt that tobacco causes lung cancer. Similarly, Irwin attempts to shame us at least into a position of agnosticism that legitimizes religious belief. He says:

“Any honest atheist must admit that he has his doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong, that there could be a God after all …”

“People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe and those who don’t believe. They do not really listen to the other side of conversations, and they are too ready to impose their views on others. It is impossible to be certain about God.”

These are false and totally ridiculous assertions. The only people that actually worry me are those that express any doubt whatsoever. As to the first claim, it is simply as silly as if one said:

“Any honest atheist must admit that he has his doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong, that there could be an Easter Bunny after all …”

This is a totally fair substitution since God has not one iota more factual credibility than the Easter Bunny. And again – just as with DDT, and tobacco, and CFC’s – the New York Times is complicit in helping to propagate and maintain this illusion of legitimate doubt by publishing this article.

I don’t condemn the New York Times for printing a viewpoint that doesn’t agree with me; I don’t condemn them for publishing a wide range of ideas; and it isn’t my goal to muzzle free-speech; but it is fair to criticize the New York Times for publishing harmful factual nonsense – just as they did in all those other areas so well documented in the Merchants of Doubt. And facts aside, this particular article is not even theoretically sound as an intellectual debate or legitimately valid discussion.

Make no mistake, belief in god is harmful factual nonsense. And this campaign to create intellectual doubt has been working. Even the vast majority of my atheist friends have been at least partially influenced by this argument and shamed by articles like this one, published by respected organizations like the New York Times, into a false position of agnostic intellectual “honesty.” But in my opinion, the only intellectually honest and courageous position is that there simply can be, is no god.

I would have come away dispirited and disappointed by this article, but happily the New York Times readers are far more intelligent and less gullible than New York Times contributors and reviewers. When I scanned the more than 750 comments, I found that essentially all of them see right through this nonsense for exactly what it is. The vast majority were clear-eyed and astute in calling bullshit on this transparent manipulation.

DyingCandleThat makes me VERY encouraged. When merchants of doubt like William Irwin have to resort to manufacturing doubt, it is an admission that they know they cannot win on the merits of their position. It is their last gasp to cling to religion and delay the widespread outright rejection of god. That the dying candle of religion should finally burn out is inevitable because facts inevitably win in the end. Tobacco does cause cancer whether you admit it or not. Man-made climate change threatens our planet whether you choose to believe it or not. And there is no god to come and save us no matter how much you would like there to be. It’s all up to us and only us.

The public is obviously figuring that out. Too bad it is taking so long for the New York Times, once again, to stand for facts rather than propagating manufactured illusions of doubt on factual matters. I thank all the New York Times readers who posted their comments to this article and thereby reminding me that just because some professor of philosophy publishes some nonsense, even if it is published in the New York Times, many, many of us are simply not buying the doubt they’re selling any longer.

Let’s hope that desperate articles like this one are nothing more than the last gasps of a dying god.