Tag Archives: new york times

Breaking: Matt Richtel book homepage bogus statistic removed

For at least three years, the website for New York Times reporter Matt Richtel’s book, A Deadly Wandering, about the dangers of texting and driving, has prominently featured a bogus internet meme statistic claiming that 11 teens per die from texting and driving accidents every day. I first debunked it in 2014, by simply pointing out that not even 11 teens die per day from all auto accidents regardless of cause.

I wrote about it again here. I also complained that Richtel had a financial interest in hyping teen texting deaths, and that it was unreasonable to say traffic fatalities were “soaring at a rate not seen in 50 years,” when in fact fatalities were almost at a 50-year low (down more than 60% from 1966, on a per capita basis, and still below the pre-recession levels).

I emailed Richtel, as well as the publisher. I tweeted. All to no avail — until sometime between last September (the last archived copy at the Wayback Machine) and today, when I saw they had finally removed the bogus statistic. Here’s the change:

richtel fixed

The footnote stayed the same, which is funny because it’s not a “statistic” anymore (it never was on the IIHSFF site).

Anyway, because I complained so much it’s important to acknowledge the change.

Meanwhile, while Richtel and his publisher were taking three years to do 10 minutes work to correct an egregious factual error, the meme was still going around. I happened to see it today as I was reading an editorial in the Moscow-Pullman (Idaho) Daily News, in support of our lawsuit against Trump (long story), when I saw this letter:

Letter: Texting while driving is more lethal than school shootings
May 29, 2018

Kudos to the Daily News Editorial Board for having the courage to state (“Our View: Gun reform alone can’t prevent mass killings,” May 23) “it is not the guns killing people, it is the people pulling the trigger …” It sounds like something the NRA would say. And the real problem facing us is ” how to prevent weapons from getting into the wrong hands ” As a longtime NRA member I support all rational steps taken to do exactly that.

Blaming the NRA or gun manufacturers for school shooting deaths is akin to blaming Facebook and/or Apple iPhones and/or Ford Motor Company for teen texting-while-driving deaths, which some reports say cause an average of 11 teen deaths in America every day. It’s not Facebook or the cellphone or the automobile maker that runs that car through the red light or up a tree. It’s the distracted person behind the wheel. Let’s see what kind of reaction we get when we try to separate those young people from their cellphones for their own safety and that of those in the car with them. Mom and dad, have at it.

Texting while driving is vastly more lethal to our teens than school shootings.

Bill Tozer, Moscow

Bogus statistical memes have consequences.

See all the texting posts under this tag.

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Abortion is not a holocaust, and feminism is not about convenience

a photo of a cute pig next to a 16-cell human embryo .

Pig (left) and human.

Quick, disorganized comment on abortion.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who opposes abortion rights, recently wrote in defense of the Kevin Williamson, fired from the Atlantic, for saying this, before he was hired:

Someone challenged me about my views on abortion, saying, “If you really thought it was a crime you would support things like life in prison, no parole, for treating it as a homicide.” And I do support that. In fact, as I wrote, what I have in mind is hanging.

Douthat thinks feminists are just as extreme as this, but even worse because they’re on the wrong side (the side in favor of the baby holocaust).

Douthat is concerned that abortion is “justified with the hazy theology of individualism.” When he says that what he’s insulting is feminism. He’s mocking us for being stupid (hazy) atheists who don’t realize secularism is just another theology (like Chris Smith does). And “individualism” refers to the idea that women have rights. Privilege is congratulating yourself for exposing oppressed people’s struggle for liberation as actually being about their individual self-gratification.

In claiming to make a moral argument, he pits this claim to women’s individualistic convenience against the holocaust:

the distinctive and sometimes awful burdens that pregnancy imposes on women have become an excuse to build a grotesque legal regime in which the most vulnerable human beings can be vacuumed out or dismembered, killed for reasons of eugenics or convenience or any reason at all.

There are no men, no patriarchy, in this telling, and that’s telling. It is important to say, which Douthat won’t, that abortion rights are women’s rights, that women’s rights are not about some decadent “individual” rights but about systemic group oppression perpetrated over millennia, especially by religion (especially by Douthat’s religion, Catholicism).

Douthat wants to take the abortion debate to the moral plane of “the killing of millions of innocents” (his phrase) versus feminist selfish self-indulgence. He is egging on his fellow anti-feminists, pushing them to take this extremist position while decrying the extremism of feminists. Organized anti-feminism doesn’t want to say abortion is really really murder because then women will turn against them, because women aren’t idiots. The mainstream abortion rights movement doesn’t want to say fetuses are human because it makes abortion seem worse, plus for early-term pregnancies it’s really not true. Still, we should argue about abortion as if it’s a decision that matters, not only as if it’s the restriction of the right to make that decision that matters. Unfortunately, Roe v. Wade was not decided on the principle that women can take a fetal life when it’s inside their own body, but on the principle of respecting women’s privacy rights to make personal decisions. This makes it harder to have the real feminist argument. I’m with Douthat that we should have a real moral argument, which he in his sneering at “individualism” actually refuses to engage.

Only religion can say all fetuses are instantly human; any scientific understanding exposes this incontrovertibly as just crazy talk. But abortion rights don’t depend on fetuses not being human at all. If you want to take the argument off the religious turf, you have to acknowledge that there is no moral instant when a fetus becomes human — science can’t locate that transformation more precisely than sometime between conception and birth. For that matter, there is no moral bright line between human and animal as far as suffering and death, that separates a human from a chimpanzee from a pig from a dog. (Many of us are, after all, not fully human ourselves, but part homo neanderthalensis.) There is moralizing, but not morality, in approving the grotesquely cruel slaughter of billions of sentient animals for “convenience or any reason at all,” while labeling women who abort sixteen-cell fetuses as murderers.

Ending life is a serious moral decision, of the kind Douthat and others are comfortable letting men take in many ways, in wars, and corporate decisions, and state policies, and slaughterhouses. Abortion rights mean women deserve that responsibility, too. Abortion rights don’t rest on the inconsequentialness of the decision but on the humanity of women. There is no reason to shy away from that. Catharine MacKinnon, who is aging well on this, wrote in 1983:

My stance is that the abortion choice must be legally available and must be women’s, but not because the fetus is not a form of life. In the usual argument, the abortion decision is made contingent on whether the fetus is a form of life. I cannot follow that. Why should women not make life or death decisions?

That’s my attempt to defend abortion rights without relying on euphemism and evasion or the hazy theology of individualism.

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More bad reporting on texting and driving, and new data

The New York Times‘ problem of misrepresenting the relationship between phones and traffic fatalities, which seems to have begun with Matt Richtel, has just gotten worse.

Richtel sells books on the fear of texting and driving (which, of course, is dangerous), and the website for his book still — despite my repeated entreaties, public and private — leads with the bad, false, unsourced Internet meme, that “the texting-while-driving epidemic continues to claim 11 teen lives per day.” (As a reporter, how could you sleep one night with that BS up under your name? Mind boggling.)

Anyway, the new entrant is David Leohnardt. At the heavy risk of jeopardizing future opportunities to publish on the Times op-ed page, I tweeted that his recent column included “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read in the NYTimes.” Washington Post WonkBlog writer Jeff Guo pointed out Leonardt’s column, which claimed that, with regard to the recent spike in traffic deaths, “The only plausible cause is the texting, calling, watching, and posting that people now do while operating a large piece of machinery.” The column contained not a piece of evidence to support that claim (though there were some awful anecdotes), which is why I said it was dumb.

Which is too bad. But even though the spike in traffic deaths is concerning, reporting should not be wrong.

Early estimates from the National Safety Council (which uses a different method than the Federal NHTSA) show a 6% increase in traffic fatalities for 2016. Leonhardt, working really hard to make that absolutely as alarming as possible, produced this graph, showing percent change in fatalities over successive two year periods going back to 1980:

C6aFWA5U4AEzK8I

Because it’s hard to add up the pluses and minuses in your head, It would be really easy — really really easy — to look at Leonhardt’s chart and think fatalities are higher now than they were in 1980. But rather than pointing out that fatalities per person have fallen by half since 1980, he instead writes, “It’s the first significant rise in a half century,” which would be true except for the significant rise in every single decade of the last half century.

This is a lot like when Richtel described the 2015 rise as, “soaring at a rate not seen in 50 years.” Not that the rate was not seen in 50 years, of course, just that the soaring of the rate hadn’t been (or so the NYT Science Desk told me when I complained).

Adding 6% to the NHTSA numbers for 2015, I get the follow graph, showing the trends in deaths per person in the population, and deaths per mile traveled, as changes since 1970. (The deaths per mile haven’t been released for the whole year yet; click to enlarge.)

PercentWhite

That is a troubling spike, which takes us all the way back to 2009 fatality rates. We should make the roads safer, by using them less and using them more safely. But come on, NYTimes.

Read the whole, completely aggravating series, under the texting tag.

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Is the New York Times trapped in an economics echo chamber?

Ask a stupid question.

When Justin Wolfers wrote about the dominance of economists in the pages of the New York Times, he concluded, “our popularity reflects the discerning tastes of our audience in the marketplace of ideas.” I discussed the evidence for that in this post, which focused on the particular organizational features of the NYT. At the time it didn’t occur to me that his data — relying on uses of “economist” in the paper — would be corrupted by false attributions. So this is a small data story and a larger point.

The small data story comes from a personal reflection by Dionne Searcey, who wrote about work-family conflict in her new post as West Africa Bureau Chief for the NYT. It was a perfectly reasonable piece, except for one thing:

Much has been written about work-life balance, about women getting ahead in their careers and trying to have it all. I often find that if you scratch beneath the surface of many successful working moms, they have husbands who work from home or have flexible schedules and possibly a trust fund. Or in many cases, you find a mom who does more than her fair share at home — or at least feels as if she does. Economists have a name for it, “the second shift.”

Wait, “economists”? The Second Shift is a classic work of sociology by Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung first published in 1989 and revised twice. Why “economists”? The (very good) article that Searcey linked to was called, “The Second Shift: Men Do More at Home, but Not as Much as They Think,” written by journalist Claire Cain Miller, focusing principally on the research of several sociologists, led by Jill Yavorsky (a sociology PhD candidate at Ohio State with whom I have collaborated). There are no economists cited or quoted in the story.

The small data story is that this mention of economists will go into Wolfers’ count of the influence of economists in the marketplace of ideas, but it’s a false positive — it’s the influence of sociologists being falsely attributed to economists.

But why would Searcey say “economists”? The answer lies in the organizational culture of the NYT. Here’s why.

Here are my two tweets on the piece:

Considerately, Searcey replied:

How odd. When I pointed out again that the story she linked to was about sociologists talking about the second shift, she didn’t reply.

I recently wrote that economists don’t cite sociologists’ work as much as sociologists cite economists even when the two groups are working on the same questions with obvious implications for both. What about the second shift? A JSTOR search reveals 473 cases of “second shift” and “housework” in journals identified as sociology by the database. The same search in the realm of economics produces just 35 mentions (no fewer than 6 of which were written by sociologists).

So, why did Searcey think she “was referring to how economists talk about the second shift”? My only explanation is that it’s because the piece was published in the NYT section The Upshot. As I wrote in my Contexts post, Upshot

is edited by David Leonhardt, who was an economics columnist before he was promoted to Washington bureau chief in 2011. That promotion was a dramatic move, elevating an economics writer who hadn’t been a Washington political reporter. Upshot is a “data journalism” hub, which often (but not always) implies an economic focus. (On the opinion pages, economist Paul Krugman writes a column twice a week, and Joseph Stiglitz moderated a long series on inequality.) This can’t be the whole story, but in broad strokes it’s fair to say the paper as an organization moved in the direction of business and economics.

Upshot is, of course, where Wolfers was writing in praise of the idea-market power of economists. Is this just the free market of ideas allowing the most persuasive to rise to the top? Searcey’s errors suggests that it is not. Rather, the organizational status of economics has corrupted her perceptions so that if something appears there she simply believes it reflects economics (and no editor notices).

Incidentally David Leonhardt (whom I’ve written about several times) has been promoted to Op-Ed page columnist and associate editorial page editor.

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NYT magazine infographic: not just dumb and annoying

This graphic from the New York Times magazine is bad data presented poorly (and reproduced poorly, by my camera phone):

nytspank

It’s presented poorly because those blood stains are impossible to compare since you can’t discern their edges, and it appears they don’t taper toward the edges at the same rate. Maybe they simply resized one of them to get the relative size, which would be wrong. Anyway, if they cared about communicating the data they probably would have used real data in the first place. (You could also complain that a red speckle-cloud is unfriendly to some color-blind people.)

It’s bad data because it’s an online NYT reader survey, which — although it’s from the “research and analytics” department (and no, I’m not going to add “analytics” to my Windows dictionary) — represents unknown sample selection effects on an undefined population. In other words, who cares what they think?

A survey like that would be a start if it was the only way you had to answer an important or hard-to-measure issue, and if you clearly stated that it was likely unreliable. But in this case there is good, nationally-representative data on this very question. So if NYT Magazine wanted to inform its readers of something, they could have used this.

Here’s the good data — from the General Social Survey — in a graph that is at least a lot better: this is good data in a chart that’s easier to read accurately, includes a breakout by strength of opinion, and uses more accessible colors (click to enlarge).

gss spank 2014.xlsx

I think the NYT Magazine graphics violations are not just dumb and annoying — here’s another post all about them — I think they harm the public good. Graphics like this spread ignorance and contribute to the perception that statistics – especially graphic statistics – are just an arbitrary way of manipulating people rather than a set of tools for exploring data and attempting to answer real questions. (If you want awesome real graphics, check out Healy and Moody’s Annual Review of Sociology paper.)

P.S., I wrote more about spanking here.

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