Category Archives: Journalism

3 Reasons (At Least) To Disregard The Tampa Bay Times Editorial On Fluoride

The Tampa Bay Times Wins Our Silliness Award 

The Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) does great investigative work, but its editorials can best be ignored, unless one is looking for good examples of illogical and sloppy thinking.

A recent manifestation is the Times‘ crusade in favor of fluoridation. In its 18 March full-page editorial, “Reverse the decay of common sense” (a plea that ironically can be applied to how it composes its own editorials), the Times spewed out violations of reasoned analysis in a gusher of polluted newsprint:

1. The editorial starts with a blend of grade-school appeals to emotion and ad hominem attacks: “Defining moment,” “Midwestern sensibilities,” “extremism,” “tea party followers,” “conspiracy theorists,” and “tiny antifluoride group.” This pompous puffery is irrelevant to whether or not fluoride in our drinking water is beneficial.

2. The editorial then states: “The evidence that fluoridated drinking water is safe and prevents tooth decay is overwhelming and widely embraced,” followed by a list of two federal agencies, a state agency, and two dental associations.

This is a great example of the fallacy of naming an expert or two, or even a consensus of experts, to support a claim. Citing experts, however, neither supports nor refutes a claim. Experts make claims that are often wrong. Brilliant people, even Einstein, have said dumb things. Plus, experts can be biased or corrupt. It is the science and analysis presented by experts that are important, not the experts themselves.

Although the editorial listed pro-fluoride evidence (the flaws of which I will not dissect here), no informed contrary views were expressed. Not one, in the entire full page. Since it doesn’t take much digging to find some credible professional opinions opposed to fluoridation, this seems inexcusable if one expects a newspaper to hew to the journalistic standard of being fair and balanced.

3. Fallacious economic analysis: “The annual savings [of no fluoridation] per resident works out to 29 cents.” First, viewing the 29 cents in isolation makes it seem like a trivial sum, which is a fallacy of context: numerous government expenditures, when viewed individually, look like trivial sums, although they may accumulate into a mountain of headache for the taxpayer. Second, even assuming that fluoridation is not harmful and is beneficial (not proven anywhere in the editorial), the actual economic question is, is the expenditure of taxpayer money appropriate, particularly when individuals can obtain fluoridation via toothpaste or mouthwash? The Times seems to think that it is fine to force everyone to pay for those few who may not be able to afford fluoridated toothpaste. To properly determine the worthiness of fluoridation, however, would require a review of government spending priorities; e.g., perhaps that 29 cents would be better spent on community policing.

I could continue, but hopefully my point has been made. Also, although my research indicates that there are credible folks with anti-fluoridation viewpoints, please note that I am not taking a position one way or the other with regard to fluoridation. What I am doing is demonstrating that the Times editorial on the issue is rife with logical fallacies and devoid of a balanced scientific discussion. The editorial’s harsh attack on county commissioners opposed to fluoridation was therefore inappropriate.

How can this be? How can the Times crank out such shoddy work, while still claiming to be a clear-thinking community leader? I will try to answer that in a future post.

-Ed Walker


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PolitiFact Earns “Pants On Fire” Rating

PolitiFact Claims To “Sort Out The Truth In Politics.” They Don’t Prove It, Earning A “Pants On Fire” Rating.

PolitiFact, operated by the St. Petersburg Times, claims to be a site to help you “sort out the truth in politics.”

As we’ve mentioned before (“Internet Hazards, Junk Journalism, and Movie Malarkey: Who Do You Trust? (Part 3)“), calling yourself a fact-check organization does not make you one. Here’s how to tell, using PolitiFact as an example:

1. Does PolitiFact disclose its sources of income, if any, that may tend to bias their evaluations? No.

2. Does PolitiFact disclose the backgrounds of its reporters and editors, so the reader may account for potential bias? No.

3. Does PolitiFact state that its staff includes an ombudsman who is tasked with presenting contrary or minority views, and ensuring balance? No.

4. Does PolitiFact provide a set of criteria to ensure (a) that a representative selection of issues will be checked (balance), (b) that both sides of the issues will be reviewed (fairness), and (c) that issues will be numerically scored with regard to degrees of truth or falsity (objectivity)? No.

PolitiFact scores a big fat zero, ranking it among sites devoted to UFOs, ghosts, psychic phenomena, and other organizations that dabble in pseudoscience.

This does not mean that PolitFact is completely biased or always wrong. It does mean that they have no sound basis for claiming that their comments are anything more than mere opinion. It also means that their evaluation criteria may shift from issue to issue, perhaps allowing them to indulge in subtle favoritism toward people or issues they like, while awarding “pants on fire” ratings to those they don’t.

For example, they recently rated “government takeover,” a slogan widely applied to the Obama health care plan, as “Lie Of The Year” (Dec 16, 2010). But since they have no scientific standards for what constitutes a lie, their pronouncement itself may be “a lie” to those who define “government takeover” as severe governmental intrusion and regulation, arguably true characteristics of the Obama plan. To brand “governmental takeover” a lie, PolitiFact had to resort to equating that term with socialism, which the plan — at least initially — is  not. However, the technical distinction between complete governmental control, versus merely huge amounts of governmental control, is likely a distinction of no consequence to average citizens, who have made clear their opposition to the Obama plan.

Without standards, the PolitiFact “fact checkers” may also shift the context of an issue, trivializing important positive aspects of events they don’t like, while emphasizing minor negative or irrelevant aspects. For example, the PolitiFact front-page coverage of the massive Tea Party march (September 14th, 2009) was headlined “Tea Party photo shows huge crowd — at different event.” Disregarding the fact that the march was indeed massive and highly newsworthy, and also disregarding the fact that the fake photo they presented was never presented as an official photo by the Tea Party, they trivialized one of the most important political events of the year.

PolitiFact may not even be aware of their selective bias, and it appears they never will be, because they have no scientific standards to guide them.

-Ed Walker





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Internet Hazards, Junk Journalism, and Movie Malarkey: Who Do You Trust? (Part 3)

Hazards From The Internet

An Internet site can call it itself anything. For example, just because a site bills itself as being a “fact check” organization does not mean that it delivers the facts. Similarly, those glowing Internet ratings and reviews that you read may have been written by folks who are owners or employees of the companies whose products and services are being reviewed. Of course, they do not identify themselves as such; e.g. a review that reads, “Ed Walker is a great engineer! – Ed Walker,” will likely not engender confidence in the objectivity of the review.

The bottom line is that owners, employees, friends, and relatives can all contribute positive but biased or completely false reviews (although sometimes these are counterbalanced by opposing and scathing lies posted by competitors and grouches).

How does one know whether or not to trust an Internet source? The best route is to verify that the source has been recommended or approved by a person or organization of unquestioned integrity. A traditional means of such fact-checking would be to rely on media outlets such as newspapers and television news programs. Unfortunately, this is no longer a reliable method…

Junk Journalism

Although there are many fine journalists, there are also many in the media who label themselves as such who are not; i.e., they are not balanced, fair, nor objective. This is indeed a tragedy, because average citizens do not have the time or resources to independently research the multitude of important issues which affect their lives. They need help from honest and competent journalists.

Many of today’s journalists, however, do not appear to have taken any courses in critical thinking, or even in the basics of true journalism. Pseudo-journalists routinely report things as facts when they aren’t (psychic phenomena), have no sense of balance (non-stop coverage of an event in a celebrity’s personal life while ignoring global calamities), and reflexively promote their own unscientific and emotionally-laden views (politics).

Some reporting of political issues by major news outlets is extremely biased and dishonest, going to such lengths as to employ fraudulent polling, wherein the desired result is obtained by over-sampling a part of the population that is in favor of the desired result. (This tactic is humorously demonstrated in a classic Stan Freberg TV commercial from the 1950s that claimed, “Nine out of ten doctors recommend Chun King Chow Mein!” The ad showed ten doctors in scrubs, comprised of nine smiling Chinese and one frowning white guy.)

As a minor example of the present unfortunate state of journalism, many reporters today seem to have a compulsion to be novelists. The newspapers in Tampa routinely begin a news item with flowery language of the “It was a dark and stormy night” variety, leaving out who, what, when, where, and why. Sometimes, maddeningly, such essential information is absent from the entire column.

Movie Malarkey

In addition to conventional news sources, we often look to the art of filmmaking for education and inspiration. Films based on insightful and well-researched literature can indeed be powerful learning tools. Lesser works, however, can be nothing more than slick propaganda.

Some movies are produced that purport to be documentaries, but aren’t. Some claim that they’re “based on a true story,” but actually have only a superficial resemblance to the truth.

For example, the popular movie Titanic (directed by James Cameron) did a wonderful job in recreating the technical details of a marvelous ship, but it did a lousy job in portraying the historical record. In addition to other distortions, it obscenely damaged the reputation of First Officer Murdoch: “In Cameron’s version, he is a posh git [British slang for incompetent person] who takes a bribe, shoots a passenger, panics, and commits suicide. In reality, he gave his lifejacket away, drowned, and has a memorial in his home town of Dalbeattie.” (ref. “James Cameron’s Avatar can’t be any worse than ‘Titanic'” by Libby Purves.

As an engineer I appreciate faithfulness to technical details, but all in all I would have preferred to learn the truth about the history of the times, rather than view accurate images of a big boat weaved around a story of deceitful distortions.

Artistic license is often cited as an excuse for grossly distorting history, to achieve a “dramatic effect.” Artistic license however should not be a license to steal, to alter the historical truth. Unless you know that the folks involved in making a movie have the highest integrity, it would be wise to ignore the “lessons” that movies teach.

This post completes an introduction to the principle of objectivity, which is essential to Engineering Thinking. To be objective we must be free of emotional blockages and willing to question our cherished assumptions. We must also be prepared to invest the time it takes to properly research important issues, so that we avoid the self-serving lies of the frauds, the agenda-driven propaganda of deceitful media sources, and the biases and delusions of otherwise honest folks.

In addition to objectivity, there are several other important principles of Engineering Thinking. But before we get into those, in our next post we’ll start to put what we’ve learned to work, with a practical analysis of a common problem.

Next Post:

My Spouse Is Too Moody: What Do I Do?

-Ed Walker


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