Thursday, November 19, 2009

Who speaks for the EU?

Last week the Czech Republic became the last European Union member state to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. The next challenge was for national leaders to fill two key new positions created by the Treaty: a president and a high representative for foreign policy. The choices were made earlier today in Brussels: Belgium Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy will become EU president, and the current EU Trade Commissioner, Britain's Catherine Ashton, will become the face of the EU's foreign policy.

The New York Times article on these choices highlights commentary from those who are disappointed by the low political visibility of both choices. For a long time, Britain's Tony Blair was considered the front-runner for the presidency. However, Blair combines greater international standing with a more controversial political history (including support for the Iraq War), and proved to be unacceptable to a number of member states.

While some disappointment may be understandable, there are reasons to be optimistic too. If one cares about the strength and unity of the EU, it is far from obvious that appointing a strong but intensely controversial person such as Blair to the presidency would have been a good idea.

The history of the European Court of Justice may be instructive here. Few people can identify individual ECJ justices, but almost everyone agrees that it is the most powerful institution in the EU. In contrast, many people can identify Javier Solana, the former NATO Secretary-General who has been the EU's foreign policy czar for about a decade, but few argue that his international standing contributed a lot to the power of his position.

Appointing major international figures to these two new positions would have risked shifting the emphasis from the position to the person, and surely that is the last thing the EU needs.

The Gladwell Value Problem

On the whole, I like Malcolm Gladwell's work a lot. Both The Tipping Point and Blink were interesting and thought-provoking. While I thought Outliers was weaker, its overall message is even more important than that of the other two books.

In Outliers, Gladwell makes clear just how much context matters to success later in life. The standard narrative of the American dream emphasizes hard work almost at the expense of other requirements (all people could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps if they only applied themselves). Most people, when pressed, acknowledge that talent cannot be ignored (it's hard to pull on bootstraps if you don't have any arms). Few people, however, are conscious of the importance of personal circumstances (what if you don't have any bootstraps?). For people opposed to distributive justice, that importance constitutes an uncomfortable truth.

Throughout Outliers, it sometimes appears that Gladwell wants to claim that talent is comparatively unimportant (if you practice long and hard enough, and are given bootstraps, you can pull yourself up, with or without arms). That claim is implausible, but fortunately it is also not necessary for the deeper point (having bootstraps matters!) to hold.

Gladwell's latest book is a collection of some of his articles written for the New Yorker. What the Dog Saw includes chapters on varieties of mustard, Ron Popeil (of "it slices, it dices" fame), fear vs. panic, intelligence reform, and much more. There is some thematic ordering to the essays, but no overall message.

Steven Pinker's excellent but critical review of the book points out some of its shortcomings, which in many ways are shortcomings of Gladwell's work more generally, though they emerge in sharper relief in some of the individual essays. Although Pinker does not quite put it this way, two key weaknesses systematically undermine the power of Gladwell's conclusions. First, his understanding of what we know about the neurological, psychological, and sociological determinants of decision-making appears simplistic (evident also in Blink). Second, he mischaracterizes key insights/implications from statistics quite often (evident also in Outliers). Pinker amusingly characterizes Gladwell's failings as the "Igon Value Problem", after an error in the book which suggests Gladwell is not familiar with eigenvalues.

Pinker implies that Gladwell simply does not understand psychology or statistics well enough to draw conclusions, but I am not convinced this is true. It seems more plausible to me that Gladwell's preference for unexpected insights and neat conclusions drives him to oversimplify issues; sometimes this merely results in a loss of nuance, but occasionally (probably too often, in fact) it actually leads him astray. The validity of Pinker's overall critique is underscored, I think, by the weakness of Gladwell's reply to it, which focuses not on Pinker's general argument, but rather on one small empirical claim Pinker uses to buttress his argument.

Food and famine in North Korea

President Obama is visiting South Korea at the moment. Today he announced that he will send an envoy to North Korea to discuss that country's nuclear program. These days, when North Korea hits the news it is usually because of its nuclear policy (including the development of nuclear weapons). However, it is worth remembering that North Korea is also one of the worst governments on earth (quite possibly the worst) in terms of taking care of its citizens.

A disastrous famine ravaged the country in the late 1990s. By most estimates, at least half a million people died of starvation, and maybe two million more died prematurely. The famine was ended only thanks to foreign food aid (in particular from the UN's World Food Programme). Two weeks ago the New Yorker published an article by Barbara Demick which offered a searing account from a survivor of the famine, who has since escaped to South Korea. Highly recommended reading! (Only the abstract is still available at the New Yorker's website; the full article is available to subscribers, or electronically from most university libraries).

Renewed food shortages have arisen in the past two years (for 2008, see coverage in the Washington Post and Time magazine). These are caused in part by cuts in food aid in retaliation for North Korea's nuclear tests, most recently in May. However, since the North Korean government has proven it does not much care if its subjects live or die, the rationale for such sanctions is unclear.

It is to be hoped that a renewal of talks with North Korea will be accompanied by an increase in food aid; the North Korean government may be willing to see millions of its subjects die rather than change its policies, but why should the rest of the world be just as heartless towards those who are unfortunate enough to have been born there? (To get a sense of the implications of the reduced supply of emergency food aid, see the the last two paragraphs on the WFP's country page.)

Who opposes healthcare reform, and why?

Two interesting op-ed articles about healthcare in the New York Times today. One, by Nicholas Kristof, draws parallels between the current healthcare debate, the Medicare debate 40 years ago, and the Social Security debate 30 years before that. Kristof makes clear just how similar (and how devoid of reality) the arguments opposing each policy innovation have been.

For a more detailed analysis of the nature of such rhetoric I highly recommend Albert Hirschman's The Rhetoric of Reaction (The examples Kristof gives fall mostly in Hirschman's "Jeopardy" category: the new policy is argued to fatally undermine highly valued other achievements.)

The second article, by Gelman, Silver, and Lee, notes that a legislator's support for or opposition to "Obamacare" appears to be driven more by their constituents' support for or opposition to Obama than by whether or not these same constituents actually support healthcare reform. In other words (and unfortunately so): legislators care about politics more than policy.

The authors imply that this is strange, since legislators claim to be listening to their constituents. But it may make perfect sense, if legislators have reason to believe that their constituents also care more about politics than policy outcomes. (Indeed, they may well be correct in such a belief, as numerous political commentators have suggested, for example Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas?)

German, Silver, and Lee also provide a very telling chart of support for healthcare reform, by state, age, and income level. This chart makes clear just how important economic self-interest is to public opinion on healthcare reform. Those who are below retirement age and earn less than $40,000/year are more likely to support reform, on average (and the poorest are the most likely to do so), whereas those over 65 (who are eligible for Medicare) or who make more than $70,000/year (most of whom are probably insured through work, and who in any case are better able to afford basic preventive care) are less likely to support reform, with the richest and oldest are least likely to do so. It is striking how consistent this pattern is across states, although some regional differences do remain.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Reporting, fact-checking, or jumping to conclusions

Mebrahtom (Meb) Keflezighi won the NYC marathon last Sunday, a great and well-deserved victory, and the first for an American citizen since 1982. It will not surprise those who follow distance running closely that debates immediately broke out on running bulletin boards as to how "American" Meb really is. The New York Times has a good article reviewing some of the arguments.

Meb was not born in the U.S. — he immigrated at age 12. But he has been a U.S. citizen for years, and is a product of U.S. running programs (high school, college, post-collegiate). Personally, I am convinced that the real reason some people discount his American-ness is racial, not the fact that he was born elsewhere (after all, Frank Shorter was born in Munich). However, the point of this post is not to take issue with anonymous message board contributors spouting their ill-informed and ill-formed opinions.

Instead, I want to look more closely at the "contribution" to the debate by CNBC's sports business reporter Darren Rovell. Rovell wrote an online reaction to Meb's win titled "Marathon's Headline Win Is Empty". Why did Rovell think it was empty? Because "the fact that he's not American-born takes away from the magnitude of the achievement the headline implies": "he's like a ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league."

So what did Rovell know about Meb? Apparently only that he was born elsewhere, as we shall see below. So what does a good reporter do to learn more? Nothing, it seems. And what did Rovell conclude based on his "knowledge"? That Meb is essentially a ringer, someone with an unfair advantage. How can one conclude this? There appear to be only three ways. The first is explicit in the article, the second and third are implicit.

1. Meb is not "really" American because he is inspired by the motivation of prize money equivalent to "a lifetime full of riches" for a poor African. This argument logically fails, since as Rovell could not help but notice, Meb actually lives "in our country", where his marathon winnings do not constitute a lifetime of riches.

2. He is not "really" American because his formative years, and the decision to become a professional runner, took place in Africa, where the lure of prize money does come into play.

3. He is not "really" American because he is genetically African, which offers an unfair advantage. This obviously, implies a racist understanding of what it means to be American.

Rovell ignored the fact that argument 1 fails, and did not elaborate on which of arguments 2 or 3 he subscribed to. Numerous readers complained about his "analysis", forcing him to write a response, which centers around the following few sentences:

"I didn't account for the fact that virtually all of Keflezighi's running experience came as a US citizen. I never said he didn't deserve to be called American. All I was saying was that we should celebrate an American marathon champion who has completely been brought up through the American system. This is where, I must admit, my critics made their best point. It turns out, Keflezighi moved to the United States in time to develop at every level in America."
Some comments:
• Rovell did not explicitly say that Meb did not deserve to be called American, but he did say that he was unwilling to "break out my red, white and blue" for him.
• He did not say that we should only celebrate someone who has completely been brought up through the American system. Indeed, he did not mention the American system at all.

Why, then, suddenly refer to the American system now? Because it allows him to claim that he was putting forward argument 2 above, not argument 3. But this raises another, equally uncomfortable point.

Rovell is identified as a "reporter" on CNBC's website, not a bloviator. His bio is all about the "reporting" he does. Yet apparently this "reporter" did not bother to check even the most trivially accessible information about Meb: the age at which he came to the U.S., and his running resume. Why not, if this was really the key to his argument, as he tries to claim in his follow-up piece?

We can draw one of two logical conclusions: a) Rovell does not deserve to be called a reporter; b) Rovell is, in fact, a racist. Or, perhaps better for Rovell but worse for the quality of our media, a third conclusion: many reporters nowadays believe (correctly?) that they can forego actual reporting and even fact-checking with impunity.

The importance of fact-checking

In recent weeks, there has been some debate here in Athens about the safety of raw milk. Two weeks ago, I wrote a letter to the Flagpole weekly, in reply to some fear-mongering on the issue which used false, misleading, and unverifiable statistics.

One of the "facts" I took issue with was the claim that the CDC has reported that from 1998 to 2005, one thousand people fell ill from consuming unpasteurized milk, and two died. As I pointed out in my response, the former figure appears plausible, but the CDC's published statistics offer no indication that two people died from consuming raw milk during that period. The only deaths due to milk consumption the CDC does report are three deaths due to the consumption of pasteurized milk, in 2007 — the epitome of an "inconvenient truth" for those who wish to attack unpasteurized milk.

After some additional research, I found that the claim about 1000 illnesses (actually, the "correct" figure is 1007) and 2 deaths pops up everywhere, including in official documents. Indeed, the FDA offers it in its rather fear-mongering Q&A article on raw milk without offering any attribution other than to mention the CDC.

The FDA's document claims the following: "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that from 1998 to 2005, there were 45 outbreaks of foodborne illness in which unpasteurized milk or cheese likely made from unpasteurized milk were implicated. These outbreaks accounted for 1007 illnesses and 104 hospitalizations, and two deaths. The actual number of illnesses is almost certainly higher, but not all cases recognized are reported."

This claim, or parts of it, is widely copied in other articles (a Google search on the string "1007 illnesses, 104 hospitalizations" gives 884 hits), usually verbatim, and rarely with reference to the original source.

Further digging indicates that the FDA did at one point offer an actual source for the claim, in a March 1, 2007 press release. There, they refer to the March 2, 2007 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) 56(8):165-167. This report is easily downloadable from the CDC website, and it does not support the FDA's claim. Instead, it notes that over the period 1998-2005, just 33 (not 45!) outbreaks were reported, without specifying anything about number of illnesses or deaths. In turn, the MMWR simply refers readers to the CDC's annual listings which, as I noted, do not indicate any deaths.

Why, do people — and not just random blog posters; the National Environmental Health Association does it too — misleadingly cite this report for a claim which it does not support? Presumably because citing a source makes a claim seem more authoritative, and they cannot be bothered actually to double-check whether that source supports their claim. The FDA surely knew that the citation was false, but probably assumed — correctly — that most people would not double-check.

Still further digging shows that the MMWR of of November 9, 2007 (56(44):1161-1164) does offer the claim the FDA already announced in March. Here we find the statement: "During 1998--2005, a total of 45 outbreaks of foodborne illness were reported to CDC in which unpasteurized milk (or cheese suspected to have been made from unpasteurized milk) was implicated. These outbreaks accounted for 1,007 illnesses, 104 hospitalizations, and two deaths (CDC, unpublished data, 2007)."

Note that they refer to unpublished data (and that the blame is spread to cheese, something most of those who use the claim ignore). Indeed, this data appears never to have been published. That is puzzling, since it obviously contradicts published data (as well as the figure of 33 outbreaks offered in the same publication just a few months earlier). The most likely explanation is that further research showed the data to be unverifiable or faulty. The fact that the claim is offered in an "editorial note" rather than in an actual research report is, perhaps, telling.

Why, then, does the FDA continue to use this claim in its official information? Because it is convenient for the story they wish to tell, one imagines. But their doing so is disingenuous at best, and it permits others to get away with offering misinformation simply by appealing to the "authority" of the FDA, a government agency.

Indeed, numerous online sources simply copy the November MMWR claim, again usually without attribution, down to the mysterious (and utterly unhelpful) citation to "(CDC, unpublished data, 2007)". Even a presumably peer-reviewed article in the journal Food Microbiology (26(6):615-622) gets away with doing so, despite the fact that none of the authors was associated with the CDC, so they obviously had no access to that data, and they do not indicate where they got the figures (probably the FDA press release).

Given how easy it is to access the alleged sources of these claims, it is disappointing how rarely people actually do so. Data offered without a source is unverifiable and hence worthless, so one should always cite sources. Moreover, the point of citing a source is not to look intelligent or well-read; it is to offer your readers the opportunity to learn more and/or to verify that you are right. At a minimum, then, you should make sure that they will actually find what you claim they will.