Times piece triggers request: Is it time for a cognitive test for the upper-end mainstream press corps?
The unusual suggestion was triggered by a flawed analysis piece in today's New York Times. In hard copy, the piece appears on page A11, the first page of the paper's National section.
The piece was written by Gina Kolata, a highly experienced science reporter. On line, Kolata's report appears beneath this headline:
"Trump Passed a Cognitive Exam. What Does That Really Mean?"Finally! Finally, or so we assumed, the New York Times would establish a basic point:
The Times would explain that the (rather basic) cognitive test the president aced is not a psychiatric assessment. Or at least, so we assumed.
The Times had already mangled this key distinction on at least three occasions. We assumed Kolata would articulate this basic point as she explained what that cognitive exam "really means."
Alas! Kolata made no attempt to articulate this point. Instead, it fell to a New York Times reader to clarify this basic point. He does so in a letter in this morning's Times. We present the letter as it appears in today's hard-copy Times:
TO THE EDITOR:Indeed! This letter writer establishes the key distinction. Let's say it again, nice and clear:
Re “After Exam, President Is Found to Be of Sound Mind and Body” (front page, Jan. 17):
It is worth noting that while a cognitive test such as the Montreal Cognitive Assessment that was used to test President Trump can detect signs of dementia, it in no way rules out most other mental illnesses, including major ones and especially personality disorders that some have speculated the president may suffer from.
I do not know whether Mr. Trump suffers from a mental disorder, but to imply that a normal score on a cognitive exam in any way rules this out would be like saying that if someone had a normal cardiac exam that would rule out the possibility of diabetes.
S— A— K—, PHILADELPHIA
The writer is a physician.
"While a cognitive test can detect signs of dementia, it in no way rules out most other mental illnesses."
This isn't a difficult point. That said, the Times had already mangled this point in Gail Collins' Thursday op-ed column, then again in yesterday's guest column by Michael Goldfarb, an NPR alum.
Each column claimed or suggested that the test of cognition ruled out the possibility of mental illness. These were extremely dumb claims. Remarkably, Kolata skipped this basic point in her analysis piece.
By way of contrast, the Philly physician articulated this basic distinction with ease. Meanwhile, might we note a pitiful point about the way the physician's letter is presented?
On line, the letter links to this January 17 news report from the Times' front page. That said, it isn't clear if the Philly physician is criticizing that report.
In the body of his letter, the physician suggests that someone has "implied" that Trump's performance on the cognition test "rules out" the possibility that he "suffers from a mental disorder." But his letter, as presented, doesn't say who may have made that suggestion.
In fact, that front-page news report made that very suggestion. The problem started right in its opening paragraph:
SHEAR AND ALTMAN (1/17/18): President Trump’s White House physician said Tuesday that the president received a perfect score on a cognitive test designed to screen for neurological impairment, which the military doctor said was evidence that Mr. Trump does not suffer from mental issues that prevent him from functioning in office.We're sorry, but that cognitive test is not a test of various possible "mental issues." Lead reporter Michael Shear muddied this point in his opening paragraph, then did so again later in his report.
"Can anybody here play this game?" So Casey Stengel once asked. With complete and total seriousness, we ask the same question of the "rational animals" who write for this puzzling newspaper.
On at least three occasions, the Times has now suggested that last week's test of cognition was a psychiatric test. This morning, the paper's science reporter passed on the chance to straighten this out, even as a letter writer articulated this key distinction with ease.
How is it possible that major upper-end journalists persistently function so poorly? We can't necessarily answer that question, but extremely poor cognitive functioning has long been a basic part of our upper-end journalism, with disastrous results.
Most simply put: this may simply be the best our journalists are able to do. That physician was able to establish a point which has persistently gone over the heads of our journalists.
We started this site twenty years ago in part because of this problem. Was the Gingrich Medicare plan merely "slowing the rate at which the program would grow?" Or was Gingrich actually proposing "Medicare cuts?"
For two solid years, this basic matter was too much for our journalists to handle. That said, they'd never been able to explain the way the Social Security trust fund actually works.
Persistently, they're overwhelmed by almost any statistical matter. They're completely unable to handle test scores. So too with issues of lead exposure, or with the much larger question of health care spending and costs.
Can our species do better on a regular basis? There's no clear sign that it can.
Still coming, though postponed now until Monday:
How it looks when a vaunted "Rhodes scholar" clowns.