Monday, July 05, 2010

No evidence: Better than fake evidence?

The 30-second Kathleen Parker:

I'm not saying Obama is a girlie president, but he is the first girlie man to be president! Here are some random observations, some misinterpretations of a genuine rhetorical scholar and some bogus pseudo-linguistic assertions I don't understand either! More Pulitzers, please!

Thanks to the eternal vigilance of the cousins at the Language Log, this summary can be appended: Yes, it appears possible to analyze the speech in question so as to yield the asserted proportion of "passive-voice constructions." But even if the Global Language Monitor was able to recognize the passive voice at better than chance levels (it isn't), there's no correlation between the grammatical construction we call "passive" and the concept of "passivity in a leader" -- and a good thing too, since the manly boil of George W. Bush's speechmaking appears to contain significantly more of it than the mincing simmer of Obama's.

That's getting to be a familiar refrain: Columnist makes stuff up, Post fails to exercise minimal due gatekeeping diligence, and yet another steaming cartload of bullpoop is loosed upon the world of political discourse. So it was hardly a surprise to click over to the Foremost Newspaper of the Carolinas this morning and find this:

Is Obama paying price for acting too much like a woman?

Which is the same column, with a notable deletion:

His lack of immediate, commanding action was perceived as a lack of leadership because, well, it was. Campbell's research, in which she affirms that men can assume feminine communication styles successfully (Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton), suggests holes in my own theory. She insists that males are safe assuming female styles as long as they meet rhetorical norms for effective advocacy - clarity and cogency of argument, appropriate and compelling evidence.

Whoa! I don't think Kathleen Parker's a very good writer, but I do think she's a less clumsy writer than that -- I mean, going straight from her core assertion to the acknowledgement that her own "theory" is unlikely to hold water. Here's her original:

His lack of immediate, commanding action was perceived as a lack of leadership because, well, it was. When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama's speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.

Granted, the century is young -- and it shouldn't surprise anyone that Obama's rhetoric would simmer next to George W. Bush's boil. But passivity in a leader is not a reassuring posture.

Campbell's research, in which she affirms that men can assume feminine communication styles successfully (Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton), suggests holes in my own theory. She insists that men are safe assuming female styles as long as they meet rhetorical norms for effective advocacy -- clarity and cogency of argument, appropriate and compelling evidence, and preempting opposing positions.

The "13 percent passive-voice constructions" is gone. That's pretty obviously an editorial change, but where did it happen? Is it just the Observer omitting words at random to make the column fit in the designated hole?* Or did the syndicate have a belated change of heart? Or is something else afoot?

My bet is on random -- though having spent 11 years omitting words, needless and otherwise, under that very roof, I'd like to hold out hope for "belated attack of conscience." The column appeared today, and the Logsters first nailed it last Thursday. It's run in quite a few places since then, but I haven't seen that omission anywhere else.

Promising sign, but not conclusive. Columns, unlike news stories, tend to have conclusions, and the Observer omitted Parker's:

And, perhaps, next time will be a real woman's turn.

Yeah, it's lame, stupid and irrelevant, but it is a conclusion. And that suggests that space was the main issue -- meaning that any couple of sentences could have brought the thing down to length. Why were the ones referring to Paul Payack's fabricated data the ones that went? And if it was an attack of conscience, why not kill the damn column altogether?

Accounts from those at the Obs are thus solicited. And anyone who wants to explain why deleting the faulty evidence makes it all right to run a column based on faulty evidence can step to the head of the line.

* In case you were wondering, kids, a change in the SAU column width from 12p4 to 11p ain't just whistling Dixie.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Jan said...

Yeah, 12p4 to 11p is tough, but you don't give us the relevant font (etc.) comparisons. And to kill a columnist's kicker -- well, even some under-40 editors (though not all) will hesitate. Why not entertain the hopeful theory that Parker heard about Mark Liberman's rebuttal and asked to have the syndicated version toned down -- figuring that was concession enough, given that the rebuttal appeared on a (mere) blog? (Yes, you may now call me a cockeyed optimist.)

10:03 PM, July 05, 2010  
Blogger Jan said...

Oh, and I should have added: Great catch!

10:04 PM, July 05, 2010  
Blogger fev said...

Ack! Blogger is somehow making comments invisible, so maybe they'll appear with some prompting.

OK. I _do_ admit the possibility that the writer or the syndicate fixed the column. I think it's a low probability, because writers don't tend (in my experience) to do that sort of structural damage to their own prose; there'd be a couple bars of filler there if the writer had done the revising. And I can't see the syndicate moving a writethru without checking with the columnist -- certainly not as easily as I can see some poor rimrat with a dozen lines of overset doing a half-ass suture job and calling it good.

I'm more inclined to hope that it was a non-random choice at the Obs, but I wouldn't bet a lot of the old McClatchy stock on that (oops, wrong metaphor).

None of which, of course, clears the Post's op-ed gang of responsibility for the original fake. Given how much we rely on falsifiability in the empirical world, how come do they insist on running stuff that's actually been falsified already?

12:09 AM, July 06, 2010  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

"how come do they insist on running stuff that's actually been falsified already?"

Assuming that's not a rhetorical question: because it fits in the frame around the picture the WaPo is trying to paint. Their op-ed page has become quite dismally full of falsified stuff in recent years.

8:24 AM, July 07, 2010  

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