I was happy to talk to AP reporter Tamara Lush about the Hulk/Gawker case and its impact on free speech and press. She’s a great reporter, and her work tends to be properly balanced (meaning, balanced with credible arguments), well written and informative. But when the story appeared, this is what was up front:
Or as University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks put it: “It’s hard to imagine that any credible media outlet is truly confused about the difference between a sex tape and the Pentagon Papers.”
Franks, hyping her revenge porn agenda, remains shameless as ever in doing everything possible to make people stupider to serve her cause. While she may be dishonest, she’s not stupid, which means she realizes that she’s making people stupider and doing so deliberately. She gets away with it because of the title of law professor, and who is Lush, a reporter, to question an academic? And so, Franks appears in the article, offers an idiotic quote, and readers are left a little stupider about their Constitution than they started.
Who’s to blame?
Deception of the media by academics has not only become a pervasive problem, but one which the media has come to take as an occupational hazard. Obviously, the result is that the public is worse for having learned whatever it is that academic frauds are spewing, and the public really can’t stand being any more clueless than they already are. But it’s no longer shameful for an academic to deceive for their own purposes, and it’s no longer shameful for the media to serve as their messenger.
This American Life had been deceived by a political science researcher at the University of California–Los Angeles, Michael LaCour. His paper, based on falsified data, had slipped past peer review and landed in the pages of Science, the country’s most prestigious scientific journal. This American Life declined to comment for this article, explaining that they might return to the incident in a future episode. But it’s not hard to read the implicit what-could-we-do? shrug in Glass’ statement. Science had spoken. Science had changed its mind. “Obviously the facts have changed.”
What was the fraud?
The LaCour study, which focused on canvassers’ ability to change voters’ minds, was an especially subtle piece of fraud. It was hard to catch. LaCour had produced a result that was unusual, dramatic, optimistic, and, as Glass noted during the episode, different from 900 other similar papers that LaCour’s colleagues had reviewed. No journalists—as far as I can tell—went looking for aberrations; in the end, a couple of graduate students caught him after they tried to replicate his methods.
Note that the academic fraud was “unusual, dramatic, optimistic.” Perfect for today’s media. Calling political science “science” is part of the problem; it imparts the magic of hard science to the worthlessness of social science. And since it’s science, one wouldn’t expect a journalist to know anything about it, or even bother trying to think very hard about it when they have a study, report, quote from an academic (often described as “scholar” or “expert,” and usually described with such elevated characterizations by themselves or their university publicity departments).
So why is most science journalism so uncritical? And what would it take to build an effective, responsible culture of investigative science journalism?
Is science journalism unique? Is it subject to the same foibles as legal journalism? Science journalists are co-opted into the realm of scientific research, and imagine themselves as having important scientific chops. They want too much to be the reporter who breaks the huge scientific study story, and so they suck up to those handing out the embargoed studies in advance, and speak no ill lest they be pulled from the list of trusted outlets. And most importantly, they believe.
But approaching science as an exercise in purity, divorced from other incentives, Seife says, “ignores the fact that science doesn’t work perfectly, and people are humans. Science has politics. Science has money. Science has scandals. As with every other human endeavor where people gain power, prestige, or status through what they do, there’s going to be cheating, and there are going be distortions, and there are going to be failures.”
This is putatively about science, where the scientific method can be applied, and anything calling itself a study must, if it’s to be credible, be replicable. But news makes a big splash, everybody reads it and their reference is framed, and the 100 studies that later prove it can’t be replicated never make the cut of a headline story. So the fraud is propounded as truth, and the truth is ignored.
Here’s the uncomfortable side of this story: A substantial portion—maybe the majority—of published scientific assertions are false.
In rare cases, that’s because of fraud or a serious error. The number of scientific papers retracted each year has increased by a factor of 10 since 2001.
Much of what we are told about science is false. Not a lie, but not true. At least with science, even soft, mushy, squishy science, there is a chance of being put through the scrutiny of replication. At least there’s a chance of a study disproving an earlier study that informed Americans that eating chocolate will help them lose weight (when everyone knows, that’s donuts, not chocolate).
Law isn’t science. It requires no research study to opine. There is no replication study to disprove. The two historic constraining factors, fellow academics calling bullshit and the shamefulness of intellectual dishonesty, have been lost to academic politics. So there is no comfort to be found from our “scholars.” They have their causes, and will abuse their credentials to pursue them without fear of anyone with the same or better credentials calling them out as frauds and liars.
So does the fault lie with the journalists to vet the credible from the deceitful? Perhaps they should know the difference, at least the ones who are also lawyers and should have the capacity to distinguish sound legal reasoning from utter agenda-driven nonsense. But that asks too much of them. They don’t know. Their traditional reliance on ascribed credibility provides an easy out, and even if they’re somewhat trained and knowledgeable, who are they to challenge a self-proclaimed scholar?
The bottom line is that it falls to us to call bullshit, as no one else can, or will, step up to the plate.* And looking at the depth of public knowledge and understanding, the scope of dissemination of sound reasoning versus vapid or deceptive assertions, we’re losing the battle. Reporting on law is in a death spiral, and there will be no research study to stop it from hitting bottom.
People are getting stupider about law, about the Constitution, despite efforts to counter the spoon-fed agenda-driven drivel that finds its way into reporting. With science, at least there may be a study disproving a false conclusion, even if no one learns of it. With law, we’ve got nothing.
*What about future lawyers? When their minds are shaped by the same academics who shamelessly put their agenda first, and when their academic studies include such critical legal training as “Law & Sexual Deviance” and their schools suck them in by promising to make them “social justice lawyers,” don’t expect much.