Monday, January 25, 2010

Would I lie to you honey?

I am constantly irritated by the poor quality of journalism. Not being a journalism history buff, I can't say whether this is a new trend, or journalism has always been bad. I suspect the latter. Perhaps the internet has made it worse, since anyone can blog (yeah, I know).

"There are two sides to every argument" says the old saw. Yet, there is such a thing as Truth, and so one side must be wrong. Of course sometimes the Truth is very complex and it may be that neither side captures all the aspects of that Truth, but it should be possible to weed away that which is clearly not true. As the years go by I find myself becoming more critical of what I read. Perhaps that's why journalism seems to me to be getting worse.

Some of the bad journalism is patently obvious. Spelling errors, poor grammar, nonsensical sentences or contradictory statements, vital information left out or not given until far into the article, vague descriptions, all speak of bad journalism. But sometimes it's more subtle than that. Often the author takes a position which is presented as fact and perhaps backed up with statistics and observations that all seem compelling, but are in reality false.

Because I believe the object of reading "news" stories is to gain knowledge, and because I like my knowledge to actually be true, I have decided to write a post or two on critical reading skills. I'll pick an article or two, and then pick it apart. This post is merely an introduction to what may become a "series". I hope you enjoy it.

Roger Bacon, 13th century Franciscan Friar, who was the progenitor of the scientific method in the western world, writes to Pope Clement IV in Opus Majus that the causes of errors can be divided into four categories:
  1. following a weak or unreliable authority
  2. appealing to custom
  3. appealing to the ignorance of others
  4. concealing one's own ignorance by pretend knowledge
Clearly he wold have a field day on the internet today. Let's take a quick look at examples of each:

Following an unreliable authority
Many "pro choice" people quote to me the numbers given by NARAL of "thousands" of women dying each year from abortion before Roe v. Wade made it legal everywhere. This number was a lie concocted by NARAL's co-founder, Dr. Bernard Nathanson. Nathanson admited the organization lied about the number of women who died from illegal abortions when testifying before the Supreme Court in 1972.

"We spoke of 5,000 - 10,000 deaths a year.... I confess that I knew the figures were totally false ... it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics?" he said.

The actual number of women who died from abortion in 1972 (before Roe v. Wade) was 39. That same year 24 women died from legal abortions.

Appealing to custom
The National Abortion Federation in the page History of Abortion says: "Abortion has been performed for thousands of years, and in every society that has been studied. It was legal in the United States from the time the earliest settlers arrived."

The implication is obviously that it was legal in every society, which is not true. And even if it were it doesn't make a case for it being legal today. After all, torture has been performed for thousands of years and in every society. It was also legal in te United States from the time for earliest settlers arrived.

Appealing to the ignorance of others
Most of the lies reported today rely on the fact that most readers don't know how to check facts, reason scientifically or have knowledge about numbers or statistics. This is not to say all readers are stupid or even uneducated, but most of us have learned over the years to accept the written word as fact, and not to question statements made that have supposedly undergone review.

This article was the proverbial straw that prompted me to write this post. In "For Cave Women, Farmers had Extra Sex Appeal" the author uses the fact that genetic studies show more males from regions of agricultural development entered the gene pool than from regions where hunting was the primary food source. First off, there is very little in the article to suggest how the study was conducted, but ignoring that, there are other flaws. In an attempt to appear to be objective the author even includes a quote:
"That would be one way to interpret it," says Peter Underhill at Stanford University. But it's not necessarily just sex appeal at work, it "might be in terms of terms of not just physical appearance, but also in terms of ability to provide for offspring."
then continues to assert his interpretation of the "fact" that farming made cavemen sexy. Of course, neither the author nor Mr. Underhill consider alternative theories for more male farmers surviving than male hunters, such as farming being a safer profession than hunting.

Concealing one's own ignorance by pretend knowledge

This is another frequently used tactic to promote falsehood. make up numbers or facts to suit your point of view. An obvious case is the NARAL statistics used earlier in this post (under "unreliable authority") but there are plenty of other examples.

In TIME Magazine, February 26, 1990, the article "A Bitter Pill to Swallow" claims "The proof: about six million unwanted pregnancies occur in the U.S. each year." So let's look at the real statistics for 1990:

The CDC reports in 1990, there were 6.78 million pregnancies in the US. I am unable to find numbers for unwanted pregnancy rates for 1990, but according to this Guttmacher institute report the unintended (not unwanted) pregnancy rate in 1994 was 49%. One must assume that at least some of the women who weren't trying to get pregnant still wanted children, and so the pregnancy, though unintended, was still wanted. So TIME magazine's claim that the 1990 rate for unwanted pregnancies was almost 90% is implausible to the point of absurdity. Numbers made up to support a position.


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