The Times sets its mental age at 16!

TUESDAY, JULY 31, 2012

Part 2—What would sophisticates think: What would “sophisticated readers” think of the New York Times?

We ask for a reason. On Sunday, Arthur Brisbane, the Times’ public editor, reported an interview with the newspaper’s politics editor (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/30/12). In the following passage, he recorded part of what Richard Stevenson said about the way the New York Times should cover this White House campaign:
BRISBANE (7/29/12): I asked Mr. Stevenson, the political editor, to provide his perspective on the choices The Times faces in covering the election.

''I don't have a problem with high-frequency” coverage, he told me. ''I guess the question is: Is it worth it in terms of news value? I think we ought to be guided, especially in coverage of politics, by: Are you really adding value for a sophisticated New York Times reader?''
In context, “high-frequency coverage” means the silly day-to-day drivel which has dominated the current campaign.

As the interview continued, Stevenson said it was OK for the Times to be “insidery,” but he said the great newspaper must do more. According to Stevenson, the New York Times has to “add value” for its “sophisticated readers.”

Question: How many readers of the Times are even dimly like that?

Routinely, the New York Times panders to its readers’ belief that they are savvy sophisticates. That said, what would a truly “sophisticated reader” think of the modern-day Times?

Such readers would spill with scorn for this dumbest, most elite newspaper. For starters, consider this news report from Sunday’s Times—a report about a possible problem with testing in Texas schools.

As he started, reporter Morgan Smith described the alleged problem. The story started in 2006 when a professor was puzzled by some test results:
SMITH (7/29/12): In 2006, a math pilot program for middle school students in a Dallas-area district returned surprising results.

The students' improved grasp of mathematical concepts stunned Walter Stroup, the University of Texas at Austin professor behind the program. But at the end of the year, students' scores had increased only marginally on state standardized TAKS tests, unlike what Mr. Stroup had seen in the classroom.

A similar dynamic showed up in a comparison of the students' scores on midyear benchmark tests and what they received on their end-of-year exams. Standardized test scores the previous year were better predictors of their scores the next year than the benchmark test they had taken a few months earlier.
Professor Stroup believed that these students were better than their TAKS scores suggested. It’s possible that he was right, of course. But it’s also possible that he was wrong.

Question: Could it be that those “benchmark tests” were poorly designed? Could that explain why scores on the benchmark tests weren’t matched when kids took the TAKS?

If the benchmark tests weren’t all that good, that could mean that the TAKS results were accurate after all. But this possibility didn't seem to occur to reporter Smith. He simply moved to the following passage—a passage which would have sophisticated readers gnashing their teeth and cursing the great New York Times:
SMITH (continuing directly): Now, in studies that threaten to shake the foundation of high-stakes test-based accountability, Mr. Stroup and two other researchers said they believe they have found the reason: a glitch embedded in the DNA of the state exams that, as a result of a statistical method used to assemble them, suggests they are virtually useless at measuring the effects of classroom instruction.

Pearson, which has a five-year, $468 million contract to create the state's tests through 2015, uses ''item response theory'' to devise standardized exams, as other testing companies do. Using I.R.T., developers select questions based on a model that correlates students' ability with the probability that they will get a question right.

That produces a test that Mr. Stroup said is more sensitive to how it ranks students than to measuring what they have learned. That design flaw also explains why Richardson students' scores on the previous year's TAKS test were a better predictor of performance on the next year's TAKS test than the benchmark exams were, he said. The benchmark exams were developed by the district, the TAKS by the testing company.
Professor Stroup may be right, of course. It may be that the TAKS tests are a poor measure of students’ math proficiency.

But how about the New York Times’ journalistic proficiency? We’ve worked on testing issues for decades—but we have very little idea what that highlighted sentence means.

In constructing the TAKS, test developers “select questions based on a model that correlates students' ability with the probability that they will get a question right?” This statement lies at the heart of the alleged problem—and we have little idea what it means. But then again, neither did Smith—or the editor who simply waved that word jumble into print.

A sophisticated reader might have been struck by that key jumble of words. But then, such readers would hardly be surprised by incoherence and basic incompetence in the New York Times. Through several decades of creeping Dowdism, the Times has become a pseudo-newspaper—a paper designed to tickle the fancies of a self-impressed, not especially intelligent, imagined elite.

Consider the work Times readers found on Monday’s op-ed page.

Bill Keller is a major player at the New York Times. For more than eight years, he was the paper’s executive editor. In 1989, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the breakup of the Soviet Union.

One other note: Bill Keller’s father, the late George M. Keller, retired as chairman and CEO of Chevron, a fact that is rarely mentioned but may be relevant here.

By all accounts, the late George Keller was a good decent person. By all accounts, so is Bill Keller, with whom we happen to share the old hometown, same-era tie. But Keller hails from society’s upper end. This fact may have been showing in this long op-ed piece, in which he blithely suggested significant changes in the American social contract.

From its horrible headline on down, Keller engaged in the unsophisticated thinking that defines the modern-day Times. His work may be completely sincere—but sophisticated readers will gnash their teeth when faced with such underfed musings.

At great length, Keller engages in the silly thinking which tries to decide which generation is better or best. Having primed the pump in this unhelpful fashion, he turns to questions of the social compact—and his work goes right in the dumpster.

How should we the people deal with the financial challenges facing Social Security and Medicare? When the rubber hits the road, Keller offers the kind of work which would make sophisticated readers wail and tear their hair:
KELLER (7/30/12): At least the Republicans have a plan. The Democrats generally recoil from the subject of entitlements. Centrists like those at Third Way and the bipartisan authors of the Simpson-Bowles report endorse a menu of incremental cuts and reforms that would bring down costs without hitting the needy or snatching away the security blanket from those nearing retirement. They include gradually raising the retirement age to compensate for the fact that we now live, on average, 14 years longer than when F.D.R. signed Social Security into law. They include obliging those of us who can really afford it to pay a larger share. They also include technical fixes like aligning the automatic cost-of-living formula with reality. To curtail the raging inflation of health costs, the government could better use its market clout to hasten electronic record-keeping, replace the fee-for-service model, reform medical malpractice laws and promote living wills. (A quarter of health care spending comes in the last year of life.) But you won’t hear much of that on the campaign trail.
Gack! In his piece, Keller conflates the different challenges facing Medicare and Social Security. In the passage we have posted, he repeats a misleading fact about life expectancy—a fact which has been challenged, debunked and clarified about ten million times by now. (Ezra Klein: “Since Social Security’s inception, life expectancy at age 65 has risen about five years.”)

He recommends a significant cut in Social Security payments, tossing this proposal off as a mere “technical fix.” Sophisticated readers will notice this move. Most Times readers will not.

(Responding to the Keller piece, Dean Baker refers to "our broken health system." As Baker has often noted, all future budget problems disappear if we reduce our health care spending to the levels of our developed nations. But you will never read such a fact in New York Times news reporting. For one thing, such facts are too hard; silly pretensions to the side, the Times panders to high-interest topics. For another thing, “fixing the health care system would likely mean lower payments to insurers, hospitals, drug companies and doctors,” Baker notes—and the Times fawns to such interests.)

The New York Times sells itself as a paper for a brainy elite. In this way, highly unsophisticated, self-impressed readers get drawn into an unimpressive club.

In fact, the work of the Times is relentlessly low-IQ. Just consider the pitiful effort in today’s letters column.

On Sunday, the Times did a rare and good thing. It featured this opinion piece by Andrew Hacker.

Hacker’s piece bore the headline, “Is Algebra Necessary?” “My question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus,” Hacker wrote.

Hacker had done an unusual thing. He had spoken to some people who might even know what they’re talking about. Are current math requirements needlessly swelling our dropout rates? That’s what Hacker suggested:
HACKER (7/29/12): This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.

The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.

Shirley Bagwell, a longtime Tennessee teacher, warns that “to expect all students to master algebra will cause more students to drop out.” For those who stay in school, there are often “exit exams,” almost all of which contain an algebra component. In Oklahoma, 33 percent failed to pass last year, as did 35 percent in West Virginia.

Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white.
Hacker wrote a challenging piece. In response, the Times has now published six letters from readers.

How pitiful is the New York Times? How silly is its basic intellectual functioning? Four of the letters dispute Hacker’s thesis—and three of the four are written by high school students! In fairness, one of the three is “looking to study mathematical biology at an Ivy League university.”

These students show no sign of understanding the problems Hacker is addressing. There is no reason why people so young should be aware of these societal problems—but these teen-agers aren't. These problems afflict kids who won’t be attending Ivy League colleges, who won’t be the kinds of “modern global citizens” one of the youngsters speaks of.

But leave it to the New York Times to respond to Hacker’s piece this way! Printing those letters, the Times plays it cute—and it sets the mental age of its readers squarely at 16 years.

Sophisticated readers would quit on this Dowdian paper a long time ago. And yet, the career liberal world won’t speak about the dumbness of this societal whale.

What has made these very bright people stay so remarkably silent? The silence of the liberal world feeds the dumbness of the Times, which just keeps conning its readers.

Tomorrow: The New York Times covers the race


  1. The Anonymous IdiotJuly 31, 2012 at 10:47 AM

    If the Times is so awful, why do you keep mentioning it, huh? Got you there!

  2. Only the goofy could debate rankings based on the "probability" of a student getting the answer right when you have the actual fact of whether it was answered correctly right in front of you.

    1. If you construct a question poorly, it is possible that the more you know, the less likely you will be to answer it correctly. A well-constructed question is one that well-prepared students get right and poorly prepared students miss.

      For example, a student might be asked a question about Mark Twain. The average student might know his name. A better student might know that Mark Twain is a pen name. If a question asks whether the name "Mark Twain" will live in history, the better student might wonder whether his real name might be more likely to be preserved in place of his pen name. That can lead to a wrong answer because of too much knowledge, not too little.

      Item response theory provides a quantitative measure of how well test items select better students. If a question is answered correctly by most of the top students in the class and is missed by most of the bottom students, it is a good question. If it is answered correctly by all students, it is a useless question. If it is answered correctly by the worst students and missed by the top ones, it is a bad question. To figure out how well the questions are doing the job, you need a measure of the performance of the students. You can calculate that using the overall performance of a student on the test as a whole, then see how the individual items (questions) do in identifying the top students and the bottom ones. There is a sophisticated mathematics behind this.

    2. Informed comment -- Thank you!

  3. Ezra Klein made a wrong deduction about SS. Klein wrote:

    Since Social Security’s inception, life expectancy at age 65 has risen about five years and the retirement age has increased by two years, so beneficiaries are getting three more years of Social Security now than they were then.

    Klein says that the 5 year figure is more significant than the 14-year increase in overall life expectancy.
    However, the average lifetime benefit per person depends not only on how long someone lives after starting benefits, but also on the percentage of people who live long enough to start benefits.

    Klein's mistake was overlooking the second item. Because of the 14-year increase in life expectancy, a higher percentage of people live long enough to receive benefits than in FDR's day.

    Klein compounds his error by sneering at Alan Simpson. Of course, Simpson's committee had the benefit of actuarial consultants. Evidently, Klein did not, or he wouldn't have made such a basic error.

    1. "However, the average lifetime benefit per person depends... on the percentage of people who live long enough to start benefits."

      How, exactly?

    2. Here's a simplified example:

      Suppose that in 1935, 1 person in 10 lived to age 65 and suppose that those who lived to reach age 65 then lived another 20 years on average. Suppose that today 3 people in ten live to age 65 and the average person of age 65 lives another 20 years.

      Klein would say that there's no change in the average life span of someone who reaches age 65, so the cost of SS is the same. That ignores the fact that more people are now living to age 65. Here's how to take both factors into account:

      In 1935 the average person paying into SS would receive 2 years worth of benefits (20 * 1/10). Today, the average person paying into SS would receive 6 years worth of benefits. (20 * 3/10).

    3. And if, on average people are living longer before reaching SS...

      Then that means not only that on average more benefit is being collected from the system, as is so important for DavidinCal to point out (as though it represents a fundamental problem with the system)...

      BUT ALSO it means that on average more is being paid into the system. Apparently this countervailing factor is not as important to the misinformers of SS doom, so, like DavidinCal they don't mention it.

    4. In other words, The Howler is correct: life expectancy facts are being used in a misleading way.

      Klein was working to correct the misleading.

      Bill Keller is either stupid or intentionally misleading.

      And DavidinCA? Well, you make the call, folks.

    5. DinC, is the effect you describe of a similar magnitude, in actuality, to that of the change in life expectancy of those who reach 65? Is Ezra wrong when he claims his "5 year figure is more significant than the 14-year increase in overall life expectancy"? I'm sure no one argues your effect is nonexistent, merely relatively immaterial.

    6. Anon: 2:15 -- Yes, Ezra is wrong when he claims the 5-year figure is significant. The effect I pointed out is hardly immaterial. Far more people live to age 65 today than was the case in 1935.

      The real SS and Medicare calculations don't use averages. The computation is done with separate cohorts for people of each posible age. Neither the 5 year figure nor the 14 year figure is directly used in the actuarial calculations.

      However, as an actuary, I don't object to Klein using a simplified model to get an intutive idea of magnitude. However, Klein's simplified model was just wrong.

      Anon 1:05 -- You are correct that on average more is being paid into the system. However, that's not as big a factor as the percentage people living to age 65. And, that's not what Klein said. BTW, the real actuarial calcuations take that into account.

    7. No, I would like to see some numbers on that. Because, generally when a longer lifespan is touted, it is usually about infants.

      For example, life expectancy at birth was 59.7 in 1930. Well, one huge factor bringing that average down was - infant mortality. In 1950 (alas, I cannot readily find data going back to 1930) the mortality rate was 20.5 per 1,000 births living less than 28 days and 17.8 per 1,000 living less than 7 days. By 2003, those rates were down to 4.6 and 3.7.

      The same effect on the average comes from the increased percentage of kids who live past the age of 1,2,3,4, and 5.

      The 14 years is not as relevant as the percentage, which you mention, of people who live past age 65. The 14 year difference is not really a measure of that percentage - more of a "wow" number used to hype things.

    8. David in Cal says:

      >>>>>Here's a simplified example:

      Suppose that in 1935, 1 person in 10 lived to age 65 and suppose that those who lived to reach age 65 then lived another 20 years on average. Suppose that today 3 people in ten live to age 65 and the average person of age 65 lives another 20 years.

      The SSA seems to say, albeit unimaginatively:

      >>>>>Here are simplified figures.

      539 out 1000 males and 606 out 1000 females born in 1875 who lived to reach age 21 in 1896 were alive at age 65 in 1940 at which time those males had a remaining life expectancy of 12.7 years and those females a remaining life expectancy of 14.7 years.

      723 out of 1000 males and 836 out of 1000 females born in 1925 who lived to reach age 21 in 1946 were alive at age 65 in 1990 at which time those males had a remaining life expectancy of 15.3 years and those females a remaining life expectancy of 19.6 years.<<<<<

      Social Security actuaries have been remarkably prescient over the years in anticipating changes in the out years for life expectancy since the 1930s. Alan Simpson doesn't seem capable of comprehending that the Social Security Administration in the 1930s and the Greenspan Commission in the early 1980s had actuaries working for them.

      >>>>>Simpson’s forceful ["rude"] gesture came after an extended diatribe against Social Security, which he said is a "Ponzi" scheme, "not a retirement program.”

      Simpson argued that Social Security was originally intended more as a welfare program.

      "It was never intended as a retirement program. It was set up in ‘37 and ‘38 to take care of people who were in distress -- ditch diggers, wage earners -- it was to give them 43 percent of the replacement rate of their wages. The [life expectancy] was 63. That’s why they set retirement age at 65” for Social Security, he said....

      HuffPost suggested to Simpson during a telephone interview that his claim about life expectancy was misleading because his data include people who died in childhood of diseases that are now largely preventable. Incorporating such early deaths skews the average life expectancy number downward, making it appear as if people live dramatically longer today than they did half a century ago. According to the Social Security Administration's actuaries, women who lived to 65 in 1940 had a life expectancy of 79.7 years and men were expected to live 77.7 years.

      "If that is the case -- and I don’t think it is -- then that means they put in peanuts," said Simpson.

      Simpson speculated that the data presented to him by HuffPost had been furnished by "the Catfood Commission people" -- a reference to progressive critics of the deficit commission who gave the president's panel that label.

      Told that the data came directly from the Social Security Administration, Simpson continued to insist it was inaccurate, while misstating the nature of a statistical average: "If you’re telling me that a guy who got to be 65 in 1940 -- that all of them lived to be 77 -- that is just not correct. Just because a guy gets to be 65, he’s gonna live to be 77? Hell, that’s my genre. That’s not true," said Simpson, who will turn 80 in September....

      [continued below...]

    9. [...continued from above]

      "The statistics right now show a totally unsustainable program that cannot possibly function when 10,000 a day are coming into the Social Security system at 65," Simpson explained to HuffPost. "Was that ever planned [for]? That 10,000 a day would suddenly coming into the system?"

      In fact, it was planned for: The Social Security Administration tracks births every year and knew by 1947 that 1946 had been a boom year. When the system was reformed in 1983 by the Greenspan Commission, the Baby Boom was specifically taken into account.

      "The fundamental ratio of beneficiaries to workers was fully taken into account in the 1983 financing provisions and, as a matter of fact, was known and taken into account well before that," Social Security's actuaries noted in 1994.<<<<<

    10. You hit the nail on the head why all of DavidinCal pontifications are silly: The Social Security actuaries have for many, many, many years been taking all of these matters into consideration. Their annual report tells us exactly what the projected situation is as of the particular moment. The area of uncertainty is not population and life expectancy issues, but economic growth. There is zero likelihood that David has a better grasp of the population and life expectancy issues than those whose job is to maintain the system.

    11. It's a similar dynamic to the one that drives "debates" over anthropogenic warming among blog commenters. The weird presumption that expert professionals have not considered the most elementary alternatives. It's surreal.

    12. urban legend, I fully agree that the annual report of the SS Actaries is the best source. Although I'm also an actuary, SS is not my areas of specialty.

      I had a conversation some years back with then Chief SS Actuary Haeworth Robertson. He told me that in his opinion SS actuaries were underestimating their liabilities because they were too optimisitic on their economic growth assumptions.

      I believe that SS uses mortality tables that are based on some averaging of past mortality. Most actuaries do this. However, mortality has been stedily increasing for many years. If mortality continues to improve, people living today will live longer than the SS actuaries' tables say. So, mortality is also be a source of uncertainty.

      Working population is another source of uncertainty. SS got a huge boost when women entered the workforce in large numbers. Working women added a lot of income to SS. But, their outgo wasn't as large, because married women who didn't work were already eligible for SS benefits.

      We can see that the SS assumptions have been too optimistic, because the amount of time until the Trust Fund goes to zero keeps moving earlier.

    13. A recent MSNBC article illustrates my point that SS actuaries have been too optimistic:

      The trustees of the Social Security system said Monday the fund that helps sustain retiree and survivors’ benefits will become exhausted in 2033, three years sooner than they projected last year.

      At that point, payroll taxes and taxation of Social Security benefits will provide only enough income to pay about 75 percent of the benefits that Congress has promised to retirees and survivors.

      In practical terms, this means that a 40-year-old worker who is eligible to collect retirement benefits in 2039, would see his or her expected retirement benefit cut by about 25 percent, unless Congress took action to change the program’s funding or its benefit structure.

      BTW MSNBC's explanation "in practical terms" is only partially correct. What this projection actually means is that all SS reciptients would see their retirement benefits cut 25% and with the possibility of further subsequent cuts.

    14. "unless Congress took action to change the program’s funding or its benefit structure"

      And the ONLY question that matters:

      How big relative to GDP does that change have to be?

      And the answer: real freaking small.

      SS is simply not a huge problem.

      The people who pretend it is are the ones who are going to destroy it.

  4. Because it's commonly regarded as our paper of record, best paper we've got? If so, that the Times is as bad as Bob says it is important/ dangerous.

  5. According to my puny efforts, this is what I think I know: IRT is a whole bunch of mathematical hocus-pocus that predicts how students taking that exam will do on each question. Tests are then put together with a mix of questions, from easy to difficult, so that the test will yield a bell-curve result. That’s why education Pooh-Bahs do back flips over tiny variations in test results.

    That’s also why Stroup’s thesis intrigues me. He appears to be saying that all standardized tests are norm-referenced (curved), even when test writers claim they are not. If the TAKS is curved and the benchmark is not, that would explain their differences, too.

    If my crude understanding is accurate, NCLB and RttT essentially call for ALL students to “pass” a curved test, which is impossible. That makes the “standards and accountability” movement a humongous fraud perpetuated against schools and kids.

    But alas, I am just a lowly school teacher, and even though my job will now depend on these test results, finding out exactly how they work is almost impossible. I can only guess that the bubble in portion of the test is as bell-curve-obsessed as the essay part. IRT seems to confirm this.

    I would love to see some real reporting on Stroup’s paper, so "plain folk" could understand these things. I know, I know! When you-know-where freezes over.

    1. You are confusing a grading curve with a normal distribution or frequency distribution of scores. To my knowledge there is no law that says teachers cannot take a class in basic statistics so that they can understand how they and their students are being evaluated. Further, I find it far from reasssuring that teachers are devising tests for their students without understanding the basics of test construction. What do they teach in college-level Education Programs?

    2. I am not confusing a grading curve with a normal distribution of scores. If these tests were truly criterion-referenced, wouldn't we see results like what occurred in New York? It was called a scandal. Too many students were passing, so it wasn't valid.

      I think using tests designed to rank students, and then setting cut scores later to make sure the "right" number passes or fails may be a tool that has its uses, but it isn't showing what kids "learned." I am saying these tests, for all their fancy mumbo-jumbo, don't reflect a normal distribution. The results are contrived, just like a grading curve.

      Thank you for taking the time to give such a thoughtful response.

  6. I heard Keller interviewed yesterday on NPR and was not impressed. He said that SS should be insurance, only for those who "need" it. Now I'm no actuary, but jeez, do you think that might warp people's incentive to save for retirement? Under Keller's scenario the reward for my 401K doing well is the loss of my SS benefits.

    1. He's working for the people who intend to bury SS.

      Means-testing is one more nail in the coffin.