Clickbait journalism

Recently I heard a radio call-in host debate a caller about media motivation.

The caller thought the media it was ideology.

The radio host, who has been in the business for a long-time and has experience with NBC, assured him that’s not it.

It’s profit. The stories they carry, the angles they take — for ratings, for profit.

That’s good to keep in mind.

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Not so seismic

ABC News described today as a “seismic shifting” day, for Romney, exposing what he really thinks, with the release of his recorded comments at a fundraiser.

Is it scandalous to suggest that someone who has a financial interest in government may have a conflict of interest when it comes to casting their vote? I thought that was common sense.

Isn’t this very fact exploited over and over by Democrats in their campaigns when they try to scare these people into voting for them to keep getting their goodies?

Today is a seismic shift…to a new dumb.

I have a simple solution. You have a choice. If you are eligible to receive benefits from the “social safety net” you can choose to receive the benefit or choose to vote. It’s your choice. Choose wisely.

Un-Scientific American

On a recent business trip, I picked up a copy of Scientific American magazine at an airport news stand to read on the plane.

I’m not a regular reader.  I was a put-off by the lead editorial in the magazine, Physician Heal The System.  In it, the editors conclude:

It [the U.S.] spends far more per capita than any other industrial nation, yet all that money fails to buy the best care.

And how did they determine what the “best care” is?  They at least mention more than life expectancy.  But, that’s the only stat they expand on.

In terms of people’s level of disability, the care they receive for chronic conditions, and their life expectancy, the U.S. ranks below many other countries that spend much less. Compared with the average American, the average citizen of France or Israel lives three years longer, the average Australian four years, and the average Japanese five years.

But, the fact that they even included life expectancy and then gave actual figures on it alone made me think that the editors are not scientific, but rather political.

It doesn’t take much scientific thinking to figure out that life expectancy is not a good measure on which to make cross country comparisons on the quality of medical care because there is much more that influences life expectancy.

For example, Americans, drive more miles on average than citizens of other countries that happen to have taxpayer provided medical care.  Driving more miles increases the chances of dying in a car accident and is not related to the quality of the medical system.

That’s just one non-medical care factor.  There are others.  Rates of obesity, age composition of the population, smoking habits, alcohol and drug abuse and ethnic diversity also contribute to the differences in life expectancy and also have nothing to do with the quality of medical care.

I think most people are intuitively skeptical of the life expectancy/quality of medical care link.  If it were true that we could get three to five years longer lives simply by moving to these countries to take advantage of their high quality and “free” health care systems, wouldn’t more people be moving out of the U.S. to these countries? Aren’t we shortening our children’s lives by raising them in this country with high-cost, lower quality medical care?

Thomas Sowell discusses this topic in his column today and its worth a read.  He writes:

But supporters of government medical care show virtually no interest in such realities [actual quality of medical care in those countries]. Their big talking point is that the life expectancy in the United States is not as long as in those other countries. End of discussion, as far as they are concerned.

They have no interest in the reality that medical care has much less effect on death rates from homicide, obesity, and narcotics addiction than it has on death rates from cancer or other conditions that doctors can do something about. Americans survive various cancers better than people anywhere else. Americans also get to see doctors much sooner for medical treatment in general.

In the same issue of Scientific American magazine, just a few pages later, writer Jessica Wapner explores why rates of HIV are so high in the southern U.S.  Amazingly, she didn’t just assume medical care quality as the sole reason for this statistical disparity.   She writes:

As with all these other health problems, however, addressing the HIV epidemic in the southern U.S. requires much more than just having effective and affordable medicine. It demands an understanding of why individuals in the South turn out to be particularly likely both to delay testing and to seek medical attention only in the later stages of HIV infection, when it is most difficult to treat.

Nice job Jessica.  Perhaps you can teach your editors something.  I would like to reword your passage as such:

As with all these other health problems, however, Addressing the life expectancy variations HIV epidemic between in the countries southern U.S. requires much more than just having effective and affordable medicine. It demands an understanding of why individuals in the U.S. South turn out to be particularly more likely both to delay testing and to seek medical attention only in the later stages of HIV infection, when it is most difficult to treat to engage in life shortening behavior.

This is news?

ABC News Headline:

Arizona Sheriff Blasts Rush Limbaugh for Spewing ‘Irresponsible’ Vitriol

The Sheriff’s argument:

“The vitriol affects the [unstable] personality that we are talking about,” he said. “You can say, ‘Oh no, it doesn’t,’ but my opinion is that it does.”

The fact that this is a news story amazes me.

It seems highly unprofessional for a law enforcement official to use a case he’s working to editorialize his unsubstantiated opinion.

Shouldn’t law enforcement officials be giving us briefings on the case at hand and saying things like “innocent until proven guilty” and “that’s not for me to decide, my job is to enforce the law, not prosecute it.”

Second, the fact that this even made it as a news story tells me that our journalistic standards have sunk to the level of The Quibbler in Rowling’s Harry Potter universe.

Some questions the journalists could have asked the Sheriff:

How does your opinion on this matter relate to this case?

Have you found evidence that this unstable person was influenced by this vitriol?

If so, how again does that relate to this specific case?

Also from this article:

Dupnik said he had been advised not to discuss Loughner’s mental condition or his home life, but said, “I can tell you this is a somewhat dysfunctional family.”

Next questions:

If you have been advised not to discuss this, why are you?

Do you think your inadequate professionalism risks violating the suspect’s right to due process and increases his chances of getting off with a mistrial?

An Honor

Russ Roberts, economist, blogger, author (among other things) added a new category to Cafe Hayek.  The new category is Dinner Table Economics.  He wrote:

I want to start a new category of posts here called “dinner table economics,” questions involving economics for talking about over the dinner table. I want to top my hat to Seth’s blog, Our Dinner Table that gave me the idea.

I am honored and humbled that my blog gave him the idea to start this new category.  Naturally I think that’s a great idea and I look forward to reading and learning from his posts.

The first topic of that category: a study linking vaccinations to autism.  One of the key studies showing this link may be corrupt.     Roberts writes:

What we talked about at dinner was whether it was a good idea to vaccinate and how would you know whether vaccination had side effects such as autism. This got us into a discussion of  what an experiment is, how reliable is an experiment, the ideas of causation and correlation, sample size, spurious correlation and so on.

Great topic.  Call something a ‘study’ carried out by ‘experts’ and it gains instant credibility with many people.  News anchors seem to love how that rolls of their tongues.  A new study out today in the Journal of such-and-such says that this causes an X% greater chance of that.

Tell people to be skeptical of studies and do some due diligence before drawing a  conclusion and they look at you like you must be thick.  It’s a study.  It was carried out by experts.  It’s peer reviewed. All good stuff, but none of it means it’s right.  Believing it’s right without looking into is faith.

I got early exposure to be skeptical of conclusions drawn on experiments and studies from physicist Richard Feynman’s book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character), which I highly recommend.  One of Feynman’s specialties was poking holes in others’ experiments.  If I recall, even in a discipline like physics, conclusions were often polluted by the bias of the experimenters and mistakes.

Back to the vaccination study.  A local TV news story a few years ago featured a child who developed autism soon after receiving his vaccinations.  I’d find such news stories better if the reporter consulted with folks like Mr. Feynman or Mr. Roberts to provide a more complete picture and remind us that one story does not establish cause and effect.

Even the skeptical me can be swayed by a personal story.  Such stories are powerful.  That’s why politicians love to have mascots (thanks for that one Sowell) to call on during speeches.   But, what we don’t realize is that we are often swayed by the exception (HT: Don Boudreax of Cafe Hayek), not the rule. And we might be wrong.

Rep. Barney Frank

I consider Barney Frank a politician at his finest.  I don’t trust any politician, even the ones I end up voting for, because I think they all have a little bit of Barney Frank.  It just amazes me at how blatant Frank can talk out of all sides of his mouth, never accept responsibility for supporting obviously flawed policy and nobody seems to care.

Here’s a post from Harvard Econ professor Greg Mankiw’s blog:

Barney Frank, Then and Now

A news story from 2003:

The Bush administration today recommended the most significant regulatory overhaul in the housing finance industry since the savings and loan crisis a decade ago.

Under the plan, disclosed at a Congressional hearing today, a new agency would be created within the Treasury Department to assume supervision of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored companies that are the two largest players in the mortgage lending industry….

Among the groups denouncing the proposal today were the National Association of Home Builders and Congressional Democrats who fear that tighter regulation of the companies could sharply reduce their commitment to financing low-income and affordable housing.

”These two entities — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — are not facing any kind of financial crisis,” said Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee. ”The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies, the less we will see in terms of affordable housing.”

A news story from yesterday:

In a sharp-edged debut debate, US Representative Barney Frank, a Democrat, and Sean Bielat, his Republican challenger, squared off yesterday over national security, illegal immigration, and the roots of the mortgage crisis….

Bielat, a former Marine officer from Brookline, said Frank had contributed to the downfall and subsequent recession by supporting lenient lending standards for prospective home buyers.

“He has long been an advocate for extending homeownership, even to those who couldn’t afford it, regardless of the cost to the American people,’’ said Bielat, 35.

Frank, a leading liberal who has represented the state’s Fourth Congressional District for nearly 30 years and became chairman of the House Financial Services Committee in 2007, said he and other Democrats fought to curb predatory lending practices before the recession but were thwarted by Republicans. He said he had supported efforts to help low-income families rent homes, rather than buy them.

“Low-income home ownership has been a mistake, and I have been a consistent critic of it,’’ said Frank, 70. Republicans, he said, were principally responsible for failing to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants the government seized in September 2008.

WTF WSJ?

I was pleased to see Spreading Hayek, Spurning Keynes in the Wall Street Journal this morning about professor of economics Peter Boettke at George Mason University.

After spending the entire article laying out the thinking behind Austrian economics, it ends with this:

But as much as the Austrian diagnosis may resonate now, it doesn’t provide a playbook for what to do next, which could limit its current resurgence.  Mr. Hayek rightly warned of the dangers of central planning, Mr. Boettke says, but “he didn’t give a prescription for how to move from ‘serfdom’ back.”

Straw man.  I’d be shocked if Boettke’s quote was taken in context.

Keynesians need “playbooks”.  Austrians want less government and more adult behavior.   Move in that direction.