Monday, May 07, 2007

You-know-who in a chicken basket

These two occurrences have been noted elsewhere, and they're not related, except by the coincidence of showing up almost consecutively on the morning's reading list. But taken together, they do sort of suggest a question: If this is how you play in the big leagues, why do we even bother teaching ethics out in the provinces?

Here's Bob Woodward in the Post, reviewing George Tenet's new apologia:

Full disclosure: In discussions with Tenet as a reporter for this paper, I many times urged him to write his memoir, and, after he resigned from the CIA, I even spent a day with him and his co-writer, Bill Harlow, in late 2005 to suggest questions he should try to address. Foremost, I hoped that he would provide intimate portraits of the two presidents he had served as CIA director -- George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Instead, he has adhered to the rule of CIA directors: protect the president at all costs.

Gawd. OK, let's pretend for just a moment that the subtext for this isn't a war, in which things go boom and people die and the international order changes in unpredictable ways. Let's pretend it's just a new LP record album* or something. Does nobody at the Post cop to the idea that you simply do not ask a producer at one label to review the album he told another label's artist to record? "Full disclosure" isn't enough. This one should have gone on the spike, no questions asked.

If the Post still wants to make up for underplaying Walter Pincus's prewar reporting, why not let Pincus review the damn book? Or if Pincus also spent too much time with Tenet, find somebody who knows the terrain but isn't compromised -- and isn't going to spend a lot of review space playing he-said-I-said with an author who can't shoot back:

Tenet incorrectly suggests that I had one source for this report. There were at least four firsthand sources. When I interviewed President Bush in December 2003, he quoted the "slam dunk" phrase four times, and then in a fifth citation the president said, "And Tenet said, 'Don't worry, it's a slam dunk.' And that was very important." I provided this portion of the transcript to Tenet.

Assuming Bush is only one of the "at least four firsthand sources" (which has precious little bearing on his or the other sources' credibility), doesn't this one still sound a bit like the guy who didn't believe what he read in the paper, so he went out and bought a dozen more copies to make sure?

Then comes this (hatlo: The invaluable Regret the Error):
A front-page article on Wednesday about an academic study that detected a racial bias in the foul calls of referees in the National Basketball Association noted that The New York Times had asked three independent experts to review the study and materials from a subsequent N.B.A. study that detected no bias.

The experts, whose names the authors of the two studies did not learn until after the article was published, all agreed that the study that detected bias was far more sound. That study was conducted by Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School, and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate student in economics.

After the article was published, The Times learned that one of the three experts, Larry Katz of Harvard University, was the chairman of Mr. Wolfers’s doctoral thesis committee, as Mr. Wolfers had acknowledged in previous studies. Because of this, Mr. Katz should not have been cited as an independent expert.

An updated version of the Wolfers-Price study added acknowledgments for Mr. Katz and a second expert The Times had contacted, David Berri of California State University-Bakersfield. They were thanked for brief “helpful comments” about the paper they made to Mr. Wolfers via e-mail messages after reviewing it for The Times. These later comments would have been mentioned in the article if editors had known about them.

Well, give the Times credit for acknowledging this sin (and, while we're at it, for linking out of the original article to the study itself). And it's hard to say from here how much due diligence would have been needed to spot this sort of academic logrolling. But it's not as if the Times isn't familiar with Prof. Wolfers' work. It's run his nonacademic writing. It's praised him as one of the young scholars who make up "the future of economics." It swallowed wholesale his assertions about point-shaving in college basketball. It's written fulsomely about how he brings his methods to the craft of calling political races ("Mr. Wolfers, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, sitting in the comfort of his living room, had been a better pundit than most of the professionals on television, thanks to a Web site that is based in Ireland").

The issue here isn't necessarily Prof. Wolfers' data, though it'd be nice if the Times (and NPR) spent more time asking for details of what the results mean (does Chart 3 really show that the change in black-white foul ratio doesn't become significant until you get to an all-white refereeing team?) and less on asking for social comments. Nor is it whether science has a better chance of getting in the paper if the people who do it are young and hip and say slightly outrageous things about their results. It's something along the lines of how conventional wisdom gets to be so conventional, and it suggests that the place to start would have been in somebody else's stats department, with someone who reviews a lot of this sort of thing and doesn't have a stake in the outcome. In other words: Pick experts for their ability to knock a story off the front, not for their ability to grease the skids for it.

It wasn't the dissertation chairman's job to recuse himself. It was the Times's job not to put him in that position.


* "Coach, let's talk about your record." JUST KIDDING


Blogger Editoress said...

Fev, great job, as usual.

5:16 PM, May 10, 2007  

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