SATURDAY, JUNE 25, 2022
Counting to six can be hard: The statement is bannered across the top of this morning's New York Times.
Counting to five (or to six) can be hard! As you can see by clicking here, the Times banner headlines say this:
A 6-to-3 Ruling Ends Fifty Years of Federal Abortion Rights
We were a bit surprised—perhaps almost a bit confused—by the banner headline's reference to that "6-to-3 ruling."
We were surprised by the baldness of that headline. In fairness to whoever wrote the headline, the Times report, by Adam Liptak, starts off exactly like this:
LIPTAK (6/25/22): The Supreme Court on Friday overturned Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion after almost 50 years in a decision that will transform American life, reshape the nation’s politics and lead to all but total bans on the procedure in about half of the states.
“Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority in the 6-to-3 decision, one of the most momentous from the court in decades.
You can hardly blame the headline writer for citing a "6-to-3 ruling." According to the published text of the front-page report, Alito had written for the majority in a "6-to-3 decision" as the Court "overturned Roe v. Wade."
That said, we were hardly the only ones who were perhaps a bit confused by the statistics. Later in the front-page report, Liptak offers this:
LIPTAK: The decision left important questions unanswered and revealed tensions among the five justices in the majority.
Dearest readers, it's just as we've told you. At the very top of our upper-end press corps, statistics can be very hard!
The question we ask should be obvious. If there were only "five justices in the majority," why does that banner headline refer to a "6-to-3 ruling?" Also, why does Liptak's text cite a "6-to-3 decision?"
In fairness, Liptak makes a few fuzzy attempts to explain the confusion. That said, we've looked at the Washington Post, the Associated Press and Reuters, and no one presents a more muddled picture than our tribe's greatest newspaper does.
At the Washington Post, the editorial board tells a different story in a very explicit way. Headline included, this is the way the Washington Post's editorial begins:
The Supreme Court’s radical abortion ruling begins a dangerous new era
In a reckless fit of judicial activism that will redound for generations, the Supreme Court on Friday overturned Roe v. Wade, the half-century-old precedent that declared that Americans have a constitutional right to obtain abortions. It is hard to exaggerate how wrongheaded, radical and dangerous this ruling is, and not just for anyone who could ever become pregnant. A 5-to-4 majority has thrust the country and the court itself into a perilous new era, one in which the court is no longer a defender of key personal rights.
Consolidating the work of these two newspapers, a 5-to-4 majority somehow created a 6-to-3 decision!
As noted, the Times produced the murkiest work among the four major news orgs whose presentations we've reviewed. In print editions of the Washington Post, the corresponding front-page report starts like this, double headline included:
Roe v. Wade struck down
Roberts says court went too far, doesn't join majority
The Supreme Court on Friday overturned the fundamental right to abortion established nearly 50 years ago in Roe v. Wade, a stunning reversal that could alter the nation’s political landscape and leaves states free to drastically reduce or even outlaw a procedure that abortion rights groups said is key to women’s equality and independence.
“Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences. And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority. “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”
The vote was 6 to 3 to uphold a restrictive Mississippi law. But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. did not join the opinion and criticized his conservative colleagues for taking the additional step of overturning Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a subsequent case decided in the early 1990s that reaffirmed the constitutional right to abortion.
According to that front-page report, Chief Justice Roberts didn't "join the opinion" which overturned Roe. Indeed, we're told that he didn't "join the majority" right in that second headline.
The Post's report may leave the typical reader wondering how these procedures work. How can a Justice vote to "uphold a law" without "joining the opinion?" Exactly how does that work?
In truth, we haven't seen a single news org which explained this matter with care. For our money, the New York Times' banner about the "6-to-3 ruling" created the most confusion.
Readers, can we talk? Here in our human world, counting to six can be hard! Also, consider this timeless bromide:
The man with one watch always knows the time. The man with two watches is never quite sure!
That's the old joke called "Goldberg's Law," a joke we learned from Paul Reiser. In the current case, the citizen with one newspaper may think he knows the size of the vote. The citizen with several newspapers may no longer be sure.
As anyone with cable knows, we humans don't always reason especially well. That's even true at the highest ends of high academic culture, a point the later Wittgenstein kept trying to establish.
This fascinating problem surfaces when people try to explain the theory of relativity or Gödel's incompleteness theorems. Such tasks are extremely hard to achieve. In wonderfully amusing ways, we humans tend not to notice the fact that we constantly try and fail.
Earlier this week, Kevin Drum was willing to take The Gödel Challenge. For our money, he didn't succeed at this task, but so what? Neither has anyone else!
(Your assessment of his effort may differ.)
According to the leading authority on the topic, Gödel was one of the three most significant logicians in the history of the western world. But what exactly did Gödel prove? And did his work even make sense?
Did this greatest logician's work make sense? For an array of reasons, we're prepared to believe that the answer could be no.
Of course, the fact that no one can explain what Gödel actually did makes this question hard to resolve. In our view, it's a deeply human story.
We hope to return to the topic soon. But all of a sudden, Roe is gone, defeated by a 6-3 ruling by a five-vote majority.
How did we manage to reach this place? Our blue tribe's incompetence comes center stage when such a question is asked and answered.
We may review the history next week. It involves Al Gore's troubling three-button suits, and You-Know-Who's endless clowning.
Our tribe has gamboled and played for a very long time. Given the way our human brains are wired, it's quite hard for us to see this.