NO STATISTICS NEED APPLY: The New York Times can’t handle stats!

MONDAY, MARCH 30, 2015

Part 1—A fiery professor’s response:
Last Sunday, March 22, the New York Times ran a somewhat snarky opinion piece about These Kids Today—more specifically, about their attitude toward “safe spaces.”

The piece was written by Judith Shulevitz. Last Thursday, we discussed the part of the essay which concerned a debate at Brown about sexual assault on college campuses.

Yesterday, that same New York Times published seven letters about the Shulevitz piece. One of the letters came from a professor at Wisconsin’s Madison campus.

For us, that letter capped a week in which we puzzled about the New York Times’ puzzling use of statistics, and about our nation’s highly tribalized pseudo-debates.

A range of reactions and views were expressed in yesterday’s letters. This afternoon, we’ll look at one letter which actually came from one of These Kids Today!

On balance, we thought that student’s approach was unwise—but then, he’s still a college student! The other six letters pretty much broke down as follows:

Two of the letters scolded These Kids Today. More specifically, students were scolded for their alleged desire to be shielded from unwelcome ideas.

The other four letters came from college professors. As a general matter, they defended the practices Shulevitz had criticized.

Students with therapeutic issues deserve to be treated with care, these professors said—and yes, we’re paraphrasing.

As we noted last week, we agree with that position as a general matter. But then too, there was the fiery letter from the Wisconsin professor.

We thought that letter deserved review. As we read it, we pictured the way such letters might serve the political interests of Wisconsin’s Governor Walker, who wants to cut state funding to the state’s university system.

We also puzzled about the letter’s one statistical claim. It called to mind our puzzling, ongoing non-debate about the rate of sexual assault on the nation’s campuses:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (3/29/15): I am dismayed by Judith Shulevitz’s belittling response to student trauma. I teach an undergraduate class on “Sexualities and Race.” We discuss challenging issues like campus rape, human trafficking, pornography and sex work. “Scary ideas” certainly. Tragically, for some students these ideas are also scary realities. My students engage these issues with intellectual rigor and great courage. Yes, I give trigger warnings, and try to make my class a safe space.

Five students in my class were recently raped. One sits at the back so she has walls behind her, close to the door in case panic overwhelms her. I wonder how Ms. Shulevitz would deal with a student triggered into a major panic attack. Or a student whose friend was murdered by a cop. Making cheap jibes at a safe room with “cookies” and “Play-Doh” infantilizes the real-life traumas these students face too young, and belittles their right to face these intellectual and personal challenges in safe ways.

ANNE McCLINTOCK
Madison, Wis.

The writer is a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
We agree with some of the things Professor McClintock said.

Whatever one thinks of the term itself, there’s no reason why a professor shouldn’t try to make her class a “safe place” for students. Professorial discretion may help create classrooms in which students with therapeutic issues can play fuller roles.

But wait—there’s more agreement! Like the professor, we thought Shulevitz may have laid it on a bit thick concerning the Play-Doh and the cookies in the “safe spaces” which were created at Brown. (And the videotape of the puppies!)

This doesn’t mean that the therapeutic/”safe space” approach can’t be overdone in particular instances. Obviously, this approach can be poorly executed, just like everything else.

This brings us to the professor’s statement about a class she’s currently teaching. It calls to mind our nation’s ongoing pseudo-discussion of sexual assault on campus.

In the highlighted passage, the professor states that five students in her “Sexualities and Race” class “were recently raped.” She also asks how a professor should deal with “a student whose friend was murdered by a cop,” although she doesn’t claim that she currently faces this problem.

Let’s start with that second possible circumstance.

We were struck by the heroic language affected by this professor. Beyond that, we thought we may have heard cheering from Walker’s political staff.

The professor asks how she should deal with “a student whose friend was murdered by a cop.” For starters, we would suggest that she make sure that the “murder” has been reported. But we’d also suggest that she give some thought to her fiery language.

Professor McClintock plays the hero with this fiery language. On a political basis, she also plays into conservative hands.

How many students at Wisconsin have had a friend “murdered by a cop?” We have no idea. But we’ll guess the number is small.

That said, our fiery professors have been heroically tossing that language around in the past several years. On campus, their daring behavior may turn them into heroes.

In the wider political world, this language has sometimes blown up in our tribe’s face—although our most heroic professors will rarely acknowledge such facts.

Pols like Walker thanks the gods for such exciting language. It makes it easy to tell a state’s voters that Our Kids Today are in the hands of These Professors Today—that the state’s exciting professors are pushing “agendas” on campus.

Heroic professors of this type may serve as a curse on progressive interests. This brings us the professor’s factual claim—the statement that five of her students “were recently raped.”

Needless to say, we have no way of knowing if this statement is accurate. We aren’t sure how the professor herself could know that this statement is true, although everything is possible.

That said, university postings seem to show that the class in question contains only 36 students. This calls to mind one of our nation’s puzzling non-debates and the statistical claims which fuel it.

Is a “rape crisis” occurring on college campuses? Over here in the liberal world, we keep saying yes.

Last year, Rolling Stone decided to offer the perfect example. Its astounding non-journalistic behavior quickly blew up in its face.

That said, dueling statistics are floating around about the rate of sexual assault on our college campuses. Here’s the problem:

These dueling statistics seem to paint wildly divergent portraits of the basic facts. And uh-oh! To all appearances, major newspapers like the New York Times simply aren’t up to the task of dealing with such statistics.

Last week, the Times floundered badly in several important high-profile areas:

On Wednesday, Catherine Saint Louis (and her editor) did a miserable job with some new statistics about the gender wage gap. Many commenters noted the problems with this news report.

On Tuesday, Matt Apuzzo presented some fascinating new statistics about police shootings in Philadelphia. At one point, though, he offered a rather strange assessment of one of those new statistics—and he failed to note the way his new statistics connect to recent high-profile discussions about police behavior in Ferguson.

Last Sunday, Martin and Haberman made a standard ridiculous claim about school closings in Chicago. Yesterday, Fareed Zakaria adopted a standard statistical ploy about the state of the nation’s schools, in a typically underfed piece for the Washington Post.

We were especially struck by the Times’ reports about the gender wage gap and about police shootings. We were also struck by Professor McClintock’s one statistical claim.

That said:

In one area after another, the nation’s Potemkin public discourse is riddled with puzzling statistical claims—about arrests and shootings by police; about sexual assault on campus; about achievement in public schools; about the gender wage gap.

In other high-profile debates, the most fundamental statistics are constantly going AWOL.

In all these areas, the assessment of basic statistical claims seem to be well beyond the skill level of our most famous newspapers. In part as a result, the nation’s different tribal groups just keep advancing their favorite tribal claims.

All too often, in recent years, the tribal group has been us!

Why can’t the New York Times do a better job with basic statistical claims? To what extent does the Times simply defer to preferred story lines?

To what extent do our fiery professors make themselves heroes while helping politicians like Walker? Is this anything like the gigantic fail by the Stone?

We’ll be asking these questions all week! By the end of the week, we’ll even look at the dueling claims about the rate of assault on campus—and about the large percentage of students who don’t even know they’ve been raped!

Our craziest claims used to come from the right. At this point, is there any chance that The Crazy is coming from us? And when The Crazy comes from us, do we undermine liberal interests?

Later today: The student’s letter


Supplemental: Mount O’Donnell’s greatest eruptions!

SATURDAY, MARCH 28, 2015

When Dorchester street toughs explode:
In recent months, Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly have been called on the carpet for past misstatements.

Bill’s wild claims tend to be standard-issue self-promotional bluster. Brian’s claims, which have sometimes been quite a bit weirder, tend to bring the air of suffering and martyrdom in.

Did Lawrence O’Donnell get his due as those claims were being examined? It seems to us that Lawrence’s claim to have grown us as a Dorchester street tough put him right up there in the Bill-and-Brian class.

This thought came to mind when the analysts completed a recent research assignment. “List Mount O’Donnell’s greatest eruptions,” the assiduous youngsters were told.

The youngsters showed us three eruptions from their volcano files. In perhaps his craziest eruption, Lawrence challenged one of Mitt Romney’s sons to a fight—and he delivered his lengthy challenge in Dorchester accent and argot!

We’ll save that strange eruption for last. Below, we give you videotape of three of the greatest eruptions:

Lawrence swims after the Swift Boats: Lawrence’s most famous eruption occurred in late October 2004. Sadly, many liberals praised him for it.

This 11-minute eruption spewed lava all over John O’Neill, head of the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” group which had been attacking Candidate Kerry. Howard Kurtz described some of the action in the Washington Post:
KURTZ (11/1/04): When Swift Boat Veterans author John O'Neill appeared on "Scarborough Country" two weeks ago, MSNBC commentator Lawrence O'Donnell ripped into him and his "disgusting, lying book."

O'Donnell, a Democrat and "West Wing" writer, repeatedly interrupted O'Neill with his literary critique: "That's a lie, John O'Neill. Keep lying. It's all you do." And: "That's a lie. It's another lie. That's a lie." And: "You lie in that book endlessly." And: "You're just lying about it." And: "You're totally afraid of the truth."

Undeterred when O'Neill accused him of lying, O'Donnell kept firing: "You have no standards, John O'Neill, as an author. And you know it. It's a pack of lies. You are unfit to publish." And: "He just spews out lies." Not to mention: "I just hate the lies of John O'Neill." Oh, and there was: "He's been a liar for 35 years."
Pat Buchanan was guest host in Scarborough Country that night. Midway through this famous eruption, he took a commercial break, hoping that cable firefighters could possibly put Lawrence out.

No such luck! After the break, Mount O’Donnell erupted again, producing a predictable outcome:
KURTZ (continuing directly): MSNBC said in a statement that O'Donnell "crossed a line. MSNBC believes he was disrespectful to you, the viewer, and that his insults did nothing to forward the debate or the understanding of a very critical issue. We have spoken to Lawrence O'Donnell, and he agrees."

Except that O'Donnell, who didn't know the statement was coming, doesn't agree. He was "too loud," he admits, in what was "an uncontrollable outburst on my part," and "my manner was everything I hate about cable TV shouting matches." But, O'Donnell says, "I don't apologize for a single word that I said...People have been coming out of the woodwork to tell me how great they thought it was. There's a big 'mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore' contingent out there on this subject that feels I was giving voice to their position.”
Thoughtfully, Lawrence acknowledged that he had engaged in “an uncontrollable outburst,” but he stood by the things he had said. Liberals had been “coming out of the woodwork,” he insultingly said, to tell him how great he had been.

Had Lawrence O’Donnell really been great in his uncontrollable outburst? Actually, no, he had not. His outburst occurred on October 22, long after clarification of any claims was likely to do much good.

Beyond that, uncontrollable outbursts tend to have perverse effects. To the undecided voter, they tend to make the uncontrollable party look like the crazy guy in the room.

Lawrence made O’Neill a victim. After that, he was disappeared from MSNBC for the next several months.

In fairness, the outburst did produce great tape. To get the flavor of this eruption, you can just click here.

You can smell the lava and feel the ash as the smoldering mountain explodes. That said, we were saddened when liberals praised Lawrence for his great eruption. Here’s why:

Here at THE HOWLER, we had spent a lot of time on the 35-year-old incidents at issue in the Swift Boat attacks. We’re going to guess that Lawrence pretty much hadn’t.

Because of his standing, Lawrence could have had an article published about these damaging attacks. It’s possible that a high-profile analysis piece of that type could have helped Candidate Kerry.

There was one problem with that approach—it would have required work on Lawrence’s part. Perhaps for that reason, Lawrence waited until late October, then exploded on the air.

Lawrence pursues the Mormons: At various times, Lawrence has had to apologize for his eruptions concerning the Mormon faith. In this tape from the McLaughlin Group in 2007, you’ll see Lawrence making Pat Buchanan look like the sensible one again.

For videotape of the fuller segment, click here.

In 2012, Lawrence erupted about the Mormons again, this time on his own MSNBC program. Eight days later, he apologized on the air, acknowledging that he had made inaccurate statements about Mormon history.

We won’t even try to explain what was wrong with these eruptions, which often included factual misstatements. In our opinion, neighborhood types like O’Donnell and Dowd performed good imitations of religious bigots during the two Romney runs.

Boston street tough seeks fight: For our money, the greatest eruption occurred in 2012, when Lawrence challenged Taggart Romney to a fight. The greatness lay in Lawrence’s use of a Dorchester accent during his choreographed invitation.

By way of background, “Dorchester chic” has gained a substantial toehold in Hollywood, thanks to such films as Good Will Hunting. For unknown reasons, Lawrence seems to think that he emerged from that roughhouse Boston subculture.

Did Lawrence grow up as a street tough? As best we can tell, his persistent insinuation to this effect ranks with the greatest crazy misstatements of O’Reilly and Williams. And yet, he rarely seems to get credit for being as nutty as they are!

To watch Lawrence go all Dorchester on us, just click here, then move ahead to 9:25. And yes, that’s a Dorchester accent he intermittently brandishes.

The lunacy starts as shown below. Soon, Lawrence walks out from behind his desk, gesturing at the hated Taggart, who had made an ever-so-slightly dumb offhand remark:
O’DONNELL (10/18/12): OK, Taggart, let’s have a little talk, just you and me, yoooou—

[angrily draws out the word]

When I hear you talk about taking a swing and taking punches, why do I get the feeling that you’ve never actually taken a punch? Or thrown a punch?

I didn’t have that luxury in the part of Boston that I grew up in.
But in your rich, suburban Boston life, with your father filling a $100 million trust fund for ya, I don’t know. I just get the feeling that things were kind of different for you.

Now, I know you’ve got a lot, a lot to be pissed off at these days, starting with the name “Taggart,” which you got every right to be wicked pissed off at for every day of the 42 years of your life. So let me help you try to deal with all this aggression you’re feelin’ right now...
The invitation to fight follows as Lawrence walks out from behind his desk. Truly, this ridiculous person seems to out of his mind.

Warning! Wealth and fame will often attract the wrong types of people to “journalism.” In our view, the world would be much better served if Lawrence returned to his greatest love, the writing of fatuous Hollywood scripts.

For the record, Lawrence’s most appalling performance occurred in Campaign 2000, when he kept calling Candidate Gore a liar right through a dismaying performance on the McLaughlin Group in October 2000. He was a leading dead-ender in the war designed to punish Gore for his connection to the loathed Clinton, who had received those ten blow jobs.

The Iraq war came after that.

Right to the end, Lawrence worked to send George Bush to the White House. Our Dorchester street tough achieved this goal by making up “lies,” lies no one had told.

Wealth and fame may attract the word crowd into the journalism racket! Our own street tough from St. Sebastian’s and Harvard may be the ultimate proof.

Supplemental: A memorable piece of reporting from Mosul!

FRIDAY, MARCH 27, 2015

What hating the others can do:
We saw several pieces of weak reporting in the New York Times this week.

We expect to review a few of those efforts tomorrow. Today, consider some memorable reporting by the Times’ Rod Nordland.

Nordland described some recent events in Mosul. This is the way he began:
NORDLAND (3/25/15): Islamic State militants in Iraq on Tuesday publicly stoned a man and woman to death on charges of adultery, parading the victims in a public square in the northern city of Mosul, according to witnesses and an Iraqi military official.

Later in the day, the militants publicly beheaded three young men on a street in central Mosul, accusing them of being the nephews of a political opponent of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

They were the latest in a series of public executions of people accused of social offenses in the city, which the militants wrested from Iraqi control last June.

The stoning victims, who were not identified, were in their 20s, witnesses said. The woman was described as being married. It was not known whether they had been given a trial, but none was held in public.
Accused of being nephews! Meanwhile, let’s not forget to parade our victims in the square. Hatred of the others can be a very powerful force.

Empathy may be less powerful, at least in the moment. We were struck by this account from an eyewitness who described himself as helpless:
NORDLAND: Another witness said he had tried to record video of the execution on his cellphone but was ordered by the militants not to do so.

“I was moved by the crying of this woman, who started bleeding and then died from the stoning,” said the witness, Saad, who gave only his first name out of concern for his safety. “I was standing there helpless. The government has left us as captives in the hands of ISIS, who make all kinds of crimes in the city. The more I see their crimes, the more I hate them and realize they have come to carry out a paid agenda to destroy the city and its history and civilization and to defame the image of Islam.”
He was moved by the crying, but helpless.

We humans! We’re strongly inclined to hate the others. We thought this remarkable bit of reporting deserved a second look.

OUR CONVERSATIONS TO NOWHERE: Fox takes our latest moment worldwide!

FRIDAY, MARCH 27, 2015

Part 4—Our endless agreement to lose:
Over at Slate, Jamelle Bouie had a message for Hillary Clinton.

Candidate Clinton, he seemed to say. Please don’t bring us together!

To some small extent, we jest. And in fairness, Bouie was offering advice which is now thoroughly standard within the liberal world:

Below, you see the headlines from Bouie’s piece at Slate. This is now thoroughly standard advice within the liberal world:
What Scott Walker Can Teach Hillary Clinton
Forget all this talk about uniting America. It’s a fool’s errand.
We’re not even saying that outlook is “wrong.” We’re here to say that we were struck by the way that standard advice interacts with an early chunk of Bouie’s piece.

Below, you see the way Bouie began.
Given the advice those headlines announced, we were struck by his second paragraph:
BOUIE (3/24/15): Hillary Clinton has been polarizing her entire political career. But now, ahead of a second presidential run, she wants to be a uniter, not a divider. People should “get out of the kind of very unproductive discussion that we’ve had for too long, where people are just in their ideological bunkers, having arguments instead of trying to reach across those divides and have some solutions,” she said, speaking to labor leaders and policy wonks during a Monday event at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that doubles as the Clinton administration-in-waiting.

Elsewhere in Washington, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities—another left-leaning think tank—released its analysis of the new Republican budgets. “Each budget plan,” notes the CBPP, “derives more than two-thirds of its [approximately $5 trillion] budget cuts from programs for people with low or modest incomes even though these programs constitute less than one-quarter of federal program costs.” This includes billions in cuts to tax credits for working families as well as trillions in cuts to health care for low-income people. At the same time, House Republicans are mulling huge tax relief for the wealthiest Americans; later this week the House Ways and Means Committee will consider a bill to repeal the federal estate tax.

Clinton hasn’t announced a full agenda for 2016, much less a campaign for president. But when she does, it will stand on the opposite bank of anything offered by Republicans, with a vast distance between the two. She will give a plan for growing the welfare state. They will offer a plan for gutting it.
We always gag when liberal writers refer to “the welfare state.” We also balk when writers refer to people like Clinton as “polarizing.”

This suggests that she created the polarization, rather than the Republican propagandists who have been seeking to drive us apart, in the dumbest possible ways, for more than two decades now.

Those are relatively minor points. We were most struck by Bouie’s accurate portrait of those Republican budget plans.

Those plans would eliminate programs for families with modest incomes. At the same time, they would generate giant savings for the lucky duckies who are so rich that they might have to pay federal estate taxes.

Very few Republican voters will ever pay a cent of federal estate tax. On the other hand, tens of millions of Republican voters are people with modest incomes.

In short, millions of Republican voters would be harmed by those GOP budget plans. But in this same piece, Bouie ends up advising against trying to “bring us together”—against trying to cross the red/blue divide in search of votes.

Once again, we aren’t trying to single Bouie out. The advice he gives in this piece is now thoroughly standard.

In the narrowest sense, we’re not even necessarily saying he’s wrong.

That said, his account of those new budget plans understates the extent to which red and blue voters are being jointly looted by current policies—by the ludicrous costs of American health care, by federal tax policies.

Good God! Why shouldn’t progressive figures try to “bring us together?” In a wide array of ways, average voters, red and blue, are being looted together! Why shouldn’t progressive figures actively point that out?

Conservative voters are getting ripped off in the same ways liberal voters are. But when have you seen progressive figures even try to create that conversation about the real shape of our world?

That conversation is rarely even attempted. Very few progressive orgs have ever tried to create a discussion about the massive joint looting.

What do we tend to do instead? Consider the latest ludicrous moment, which went worldwide on Fox.

This ludicrous moment occurred Wednesday afternoon. It occurred on MSNBC’s Now with Alex Wagner, where very few people saw it.

Wednesday evening, the folk at Fox took this latest moment worldwide. We’ll let the Washington Post’s Eric Wemple describe this latest moment.

Warning! Based on the videotape Wemple provides, his account is unfair to Michael Steele. The rest of his account is sadly accurate.

Jamilah Lemieux, who authored this latest moment, is a senior editor at Ebony:
WEMPLE (3/25/15): Freshly announced presidential candidate Ted Cruz has made news with his claim that he became a fan of country music after rock-and-roll music disappointed him with its response to the Sept. 11 attacks. The MSNBC afternoon program “Now with Alex Wagner” used Cruz’s music comments as the jumping-off point for a discussion among guest host Ari Melber, Joan Walsh, Michael Steele and Jamilah Lemieux.

“Nothing says ‘Let’s go kill some Muslims’ like country music,” said Lemieux in kicking off the festivities. The comment came off as something packaged, premeditated. While Walsh and Steele giggled, Melber remained stone-faced, vouching for the pluralism of the genre. “Well, but I mean, there’s plenty of country music that doesn’t have that message,” he said.

Moments later, Melber returned to the matter, telling viewers: “We have a programming note. A few minutes ago on this program, a guest made a comment about country music that was not appropriate, and we want to be clear this network does not condone it.”
On the videotape, we see no evidence of Steele’s reaction to this latest brilliant remark. Wemple gets the rest of it right:

Walsh chuckles appreciatively at Lemieux’s masterful wit—but then, Walsh would feel she had to. Guest host Melber never smiles, then comes back to apologize.

(In one way, Wemple is kind to Lemieux. He omits her second witticism, in which she notes that Cruz’s remarks were made—where else?—in Lynchburg!)

Very few people saw this latest moment live. Five hours later, it went worldwide on Fox.

Millions of people got to see us liberals at our dumbest. When the tribal divide is enabled this way, the plutocrats happily win.

In recent years, we liberals have kept creating conversations to nowhere. We’ve reviewed a few examples this week.

Sometimes, these absurd conversations come from our corporate moguls, like the very strange Howard Schultz.

Sometimes, these conversations come from famous liberal publications like Rolling Stone.

Sometimes, they come from the millionaire hosts who minister on corporate cable, people like Lawrence O’Donnell.

Increasingly, these conversations start when we liberals go around inventing facts which create perfect victims of perfect incidents—perfect incidents which just keep falling apart.

Sometimes, these conversations to nowhere come from our college presidents. And from their assistant professors, who are willing to march into lecture halls and tell the children this:
HARRIS (11/19/14): Research on assault characteristics has revealed that about half of reported incidents involve alcohol, Orchowski said. Many sexual assault perpetrators are repeat offenders...

Orchowski said only about 20 percent of sexual assault victims correctly labeled their assaults as “rape,” often reporting them as results of miscommunication or bad dates.
In fairness, the highlighted statement is a paraphrase written by a student journalist.

That said, does anyone doubt that our liberal assistant professors are willing to make such wonderfully peculiar statements? That we modern liberals are routinely unable to see that such statements are even peculiar at all?

The wide range of voters, red and blue, are being jointly looted. But you will rarely hear that problem described on The One True Liberal Channel.

You will rarely see any attempt to explain this fact to red voters.

What are you going to see instead? On MSNBC this week, Chris Hayes—who started with a lot of promise—was declaiming in astounding detail about Tucker Carlson’s emails.

Also about the emails of Buckley Carlson, Tucker’s brother, who was said to have a weird name. To watch the segment, click here.

It isn’t that Hayes’ statements were wrong. The problem with that segment is different:

Hayes, who started with so much promise, was staging the latest conversation to nowhere. All next week, we’ll be discussing the million ways we liberals now practice to lose.