This month's recommended readings all take the form of letters.
- Thomas Jefferson, "Letter to John Norvell", National Archives, 6/10/1807
To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted so as to be most useful, I should answer 'by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.' Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time: whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables. … I will add that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.
- Bari Weiss, "Resignation Letter", Bari Weiss, 7/14/2020
It is with sadness that I write to tell you that I am resigning from The New York Times. …
Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative. …
Part of me wishes I could say that my experience was unique. But the truth is that intellectual curiosity―let alone risk-taking―is now a liability at The Times. Why edit something challenging to our readers, or write something bold only to go through the numbing process of making it ideologically kosher, when we can assure ourselves of job security (and clicks) by publishing our 4000th op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a unique danger to the country and the world? And so self-censorship has become the norm. …
Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired. If a piece is perceived as likely to inspire backlash internally or on social media, the editor or writer avoids pitching it. If she feels strongly enough to suggest it, she is quickly steered to safer ground. And if, every now and then, she succeeds in getting a piece published that does not explicitly promote progressive causes, it happens only after every line is carefully massaged, negotiated and caveated.
The paper of record is, more and more, the record of those living in a distant galaxy, one whose concerns are profoundly removed from the lives of most people. …
Even now, I am confident that most people at The Times do not hold these views. Yet they are cowed by those who do. Why? Perhaps because they believe the ultimate goal is righteous. Perhaps because they believe that they will be granted protection if they nod along as the coin of our realm―language―is degraded in service to an ever-shifting laundry list of right causes. Perhaps because there are millions of unemployed people in this country and they feel lucky to have a job in a contracting industry.
Or perhaps it is because they know that, nowadays, standing up for principle at the paper does not win plaudits. It puts a target on your back. …
All this bodes ill, especially for independent-minded young writers and editors paying close attention to what they'll have to do to advance in their careers. Rule One: Speak your mind at your own peril. Rule Two: Never risk commissioning a story that goes against the narrative. Rule Three: Never believe an editor or publisher who urges you to go against the grain. Eventually, the publisher will cave to the mob, the editor will get fired or reassigned, and you'll be hung out to dry.
For these young writers and editors, there is one consolation. As places like The Times and other once-great journalistic institutions betray their standards and lose sight of their principles, Americans still hunger for news that is accurate, opinions that are vital, and debate that is sincere.
- Ariana N. Pekary, "Personal news: why Iím now leaving MSNBC", Ariana N. Pekary, 8/3/2020
… July 24th was my last day at MSNBC. …I simply couldn't stay there anymore. My colleagues are very smart people with good intentions. The problem is the job itself. It forces skilled journalists to make bad decisions on a daily basis. …
It's possible that I'm more sensitive to the editorial process due to my background in public radio, where no decision I ever witnessed was predicated on how a topic or guest would "rate." The longer I was at MSNBC, the more I saw such choices―it's practically baked in to the editorial process―and those decisions affect news content every day. Likewise, it's taboo to discuss how the ratings scheme distorts content, or it's simply taken for granted, because everyone in the commercial broadcast news industry is doing the exact same thing. …
…The model blocks diversity of thought and content because the networks have incentive to amplify fringe voices and events, at the expense of others…[ellipsis in the original] all because it pumps up the ratings. …
Context and factual data are often considered too cumbersome for the audience. There may be some truth to that (our education system really should improve the critical thinking skills of Americans)―but another hard truth is that it is the job of journalists to teach and inform, which means they might need to figure out a better way to do that. They could contemplate more creative methods for captivating an audience. Just about anything would improve the current process, which can be pretty rudimentary (think basing today's content on whatever rated well yesterday, or look to see what's trending online today).
Occasionally, the producers will choose to do a topic or story without regard for how they think it will rate, but that is the exception, not the rule. Due to the simple structure of the industry―the desire to charge more money for commercials, as well as the ratings bonuses that top-tier decision-makers earn―they always relapse into their old profitable programming habits.
… I've even heard producers deny their role as journalists. A very capable senior producer once said: "Our viewers don't really consider us the news. They come to us for comfort." …
- Elliot Ackerman, et al., "A Letter on Justice and Open Debate", Harper's Magazine, 7/7/2020
…The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. …Censoriousness is…spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. … The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won't defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn't expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the above readings are solely those of the individuals providing them and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Fallacy Files or any of its employees or assignees. Spelling in the Jefferson letter has been modernized. Presented for entertainment and educational purposes only. May cause drowsiness. Do not operate heavy machinery while reading.
If you were a spy back in the days when Prussia still existed, and you were captured by the Prussian Secret Service, you would have been subjected to a "game" of Prussian roulette. It wasn't a fun game, at least not for you. The game was like Russian roulette, but with two bullets, since the Prussians prided themselves on being twice as mean as the Russians. It used a six-shot revolver, with two live cartridges inserted into the cylinder in chambers next to each other, and the other four chambers left empty. The cylinder was then closed and spun. The barrel would be held to your head and the trigger pulled.
If you survived the first round of the game, you would be subjected to a second round, but this time you would be given a choice: either the cylinder would be spun once again before pulling the trigger, or it would not be spun.
Assuming that you were a spy captured by the Prussians, which should you have chosen: spin or no spin?
Extra Credit: What would be your chances of surviving a game of Prussian roulette if you chose to spin the cylinder on the second round, and if you chose not to spin it?
Since the revolver had six chambers and only two contained bullets, your chances of surviving the first round of the game would be four out of six, that is, a two-thirds chance.
You should have chosen not to spin the cylinder. Since you survived the first round, the hammer fell on one of the four empty chambers. Because the two bullets were in chambers next to each other, only one of the four empty chambers was followed by a loaded chamber. Therefore, the chance that the next chamber had a bullet in it was only one in four, so that your chance of survival was three out of four, instead of the two out of three odds if you chose to spin again.
Extra Credit Solution: As we saw in the hint, above, your chance of surviving the first round of Prussian roulette was two out of three. If you survived to play a second round, spinning the chambers again, your survival chances would still be two-thirds. So, your chance of surviving both rounds would be two-thirds squared, which equals four out of nine times, or about 44%. In other words, you'd be more likely than not to be shot.
As we saw in the solution, above, if you refrained from spinning the cylinder, your chance of surviving the second round would rise to three out of four. So, your chance of surviving both rounds would be two-thirds times three-fourths, or one-half, that is, 50%. This is a better chance at survival than if you spun the cylinder, but you'd be just as likely to be shot as not.
In conclusion, Prussian roulette is not a game that you should want to play.
Acknowledgment and Disclaimer: This puzzle is based on one from William Poundstone's How Would You Move Mount Fuji? (2003), pp. 8-9 & 147-148. This puzzle is fictional. There was no such thing as Prussian roulette. No Prussian prisoners were harmed in the making of this puzzle.
Who Will Fact-Check the Fact-Checkers? (Part 2)
Part 1 examined a factual failure at The New Yorker1, once famed for its rigorous fact-checking. Part 2 is about a supposedly true story by "police abolitionist" Derecka Purnell published by The Atlantic. Here's the operative paragraph:
The first shooting I witnessed was by a cop. I was 12. He was angry that his cousin skipped a sign-in sheet at my neighborhood recreation center. I was teaching my sister how to shoot free throws when the officer stormed in alongside the court, drew his weapon, and shot the boy in the arm. My sister and I hid in the locker room for hours afterward. The officer was back at work the following week.2
However, according to Christopher Bedford of The Federalist, important details of the story were false:
The article's title and call for police abolition remain unchanged, although the story justifying her activism is no longer about (1) a police officer shooting (2) a child (3) without serious consequences, and is about now (1) a private security guard shooting (2) an adult (3) and being charged with assault.3
Purnell subsequently confirmed this by "tweeting":
The shooter was a uniformed private guard with a badge and gun. When we say abolish the police, that includes private police, too.4
The Atlantic went on to correct the story5, thus vitiating whatever rhetorical power the opening anecdote had to support the call for abolishing the police. That the resulting article ends up advocating abolition of the police based on an incident in which a security guard shot someone and then was arrested by the police makes about as much sense as any other argument for abolishing the police. A single anecdote is very weak evidence, even when the anecdote is true, but a false anecdote is evidence of nothing except for the author's bad memory or, perhaps, youthful misunderstanding of what happened.
Why did The Atlantic publish this article? Was it fact-checked before publication? If so, why weren't the falsehoods caught? If not, why not? According to Bedford:
The Atlantic still refuses to share any corroborating evidence or if they did a fact-check on the original story before publication…. When asked if The Atlantic spoke to the victim, spoke to the guard, or acquired a police report, Anna Bross, a vice president of communications at the magazine, replied, "To start, you can find coverage of the incident in local newspapers in 2004." … While still declining to say if the article was fact-checked before it was posted on July 6, and if so by who, Bross emailed that she "will keep an eye out for the significant corrections or updates to your piece(s)," referencing The Federalist investigation that fact-checked the article for them.3
The fact that The Atlantic keeps stone-walling about whether it fact-checked the article indicates that it probably didn't. Like the statistic from the Lepore article examined in part 1, the original anecdote was implausible. We were supposed to believe that a police officer would shoot his young cousin in the arm for not signing in at a recreation center. Then, the cop was back on the job the next week as though nothing had happened. Perhaps this would sound plausible to a thirteen-year-old, but it shouldn't to any adult. So, how did this get past the editors at The Atlantic? Presumably, the story was simply too good to check.
What does Purnell think would happen if the police were abolished? If she would read the Lepore New Yorker article referred to in Part 1 she'd learn a little about what happened before there were police, and why police were established in the first place:
[The] history [of the police] begins in England, in the thirteenth century, when maintaining the king's peace became the duty of an officer of the court called a constable, aided by his watchmen: every male adult could be called on to take a turn walking a ward at night and, if trouble came, to raise a hue and cry. This practice lasted for centuries. (A version endures: George Zimmerman, when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, in 2012, was serving on his neighborhood watch.) The watch didn't work especially well in England―"The average constable is an ignoramus who knows little or nothing of the law," Blackstone wrote―and it didn't work especially well in England's colonies. Rich men paid poor men to take their turns on the watch, which meant that most watchmen were either very elderly or very poor, and very exhausted from working all day. …
…[U]nlike their British counterparts, American police carried guns, initially their own. … American police carried guns because Americans carried guns, including Americans who lived in parts of the country where they hunted for food and defended their livestock from wild animals, [and] Americans who lived in parts of the country that had no police…. Outside big cities, law-enforcement officers were scarce. … Meanwhile, Americans became vigilantes, especially likely to kill indigenous peoples, and to lynch people of color. … A San Francisco vigilance committee established in 1851 arrested, tried, and hanged people; it boasted a membership in the thousands. An L.A. vigilance committee targeted and lynched Chinese immigrants.6
How does Purnell propose, as in her "tweet", to get rid of private security guards? Would she make them illegal? How will that law be enforced without police? Does she desire a return to vigilantism? We're already seeing this happening in Minneapolis and other cities at the center of the anti-police agitation that she supports7. How would she stop it? Abolishing the police would only return us to vigilance committees and lynch mobs.
- Who Will Fact-Check the Fact-Checkers?, 7/30/2020
- Derecka Purnell, "How I Became a Police Abolitionist", The Atlantic, 7/6/2020. This is the original, uncorrected version of the story, courtesy of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.
- Christopher Bedford, "The Atlantic Finally Admits Its Police Abolition Piece Is Based On A False Narrative", The Federalist, 7/21/2020.
- Derecka Purnell, "Tweet", Twitter, 7/20/2020.
- Derecka Purnell, "How I Became a Police Abolitionist", The Atlantic, 7/20/2020. This is the corrected version.
- Jill Lepore, "The Invention of the Police", The New Yorker, 7/13/2020. Warning: Contains the four-letter f-word. No, not "fact".
- See, for instance: Leila Fadel, "Armed Neighborhood Groups Form In The Absence Of Police Protection", NPR, 6/3/2020.