A sinister atmosphere spreads …

What's happening in our readers' forum.
Sept. 21 2008 9:08 AM

Casting a Spell on the Economy

A sinister atmosphere spreads …

Economics and witchcraft: This is not a combination we'll be hoping for more of in the future. Tim Harford's "Undercover Economist" on the dangers of being a witch in a recession produced considerable unease and gloom, and that's just in someone reading all the posts. In terms of fuel, "you need fires to stay warm … widows are renewable and environmentally friendly." You like that? How about: " 'Suffer not the witch to live'—That's good enough for me, heathens." (Possibly posted with a sense of irony.) "Wow, Christ said that? Christians are more badass than I thought," came back from Autotomic. (No, He didn't, BTW. The quote is strictly OT.) Surprisingly, up popped the name of Helen Duncan, the last person we were expecting, and the last person imprisoned (but not, as one post dramatically claimed, executed) under the Witchcraft Act in the U.K., in 1944; posters debated her case.

You kind of know that someone is going to start her post: "As a practicing witch, and a student of history ..." and in this case it was Elviragultch (yes, well …) who went on: "I have known for some time that the killing of witches is mostly a political act" and set off a long, sometimes odd thread.

Boredwell is not happy about the history of human relations, and after describing various miseries says, understandably, that the list shows a "mind-boggling, soul wrenching sobriety I am not able to comprehend."

"The self-consuming politics of fear" was the excellent post title from Wrolph, who said:

Smart rulers (and usurpers) know the power of fear and use it during times of economic crisis to great effect:

Step 1, find a good victim.
Step 2, whip the masses into a lather in order to divert them from asking too many difficult questions about the current rulers, or to make the current rulers look feckless.
Step 3, let the blood wash away our sins.

This is one of the divide and conquer tactics that has been time tested. The Nazis had their Jews, the Aztecs (and Romans) sacrificed humans to appease the gods (and deflect criticism of their own poor economic management). If our current economic crisis doesn't abate soon, look to our glorious rulers to follow suit.

Doc Holliday had a nicely judged post covering several aspects of the discussion, concluding, "Humans are a superstitious lot and prone to doing irrational things when stressed. This does not make it right or even understandable." No indeed. Time to get away from this atmosphere of unhappiness and cruelty and go read some readers' posts about the election. MR2:30 p.m. GMT

Friday, September 12,  2008

Yet again, I bring special qualifications to the week's Fraywatch subjects: I too was charmed by 100-year-old " Diary" geezer Leon Despres, and I too have a copy of Hotel Rwanda sitting unwatched near my TV. We were all in it together this week, with some very agreeable results.

Loving Leon: "Keep writing Leon you are interesting" Boils said. S/he was speaking for all readers—there were no dissenting voices, a rare phenomenon in the Fray. Eikciv put it this way: "I must admit that I did come to tears, not because I felt sorry for you, not at all, but because your voice carries such impact. Suddenly, I wanted to go to your apartment and converse with you for an entire day."

This came from Old Jarhead:

Sorry to use the trite phrase 'an inspiration' but your diary entry fills me with optimism. So I'll say it anyway; your attitude is an inspiration, and bears testimony to the beauty, and absurdity, of life. I'm only a little over halfway to your years, and will quite probably never see 100, but if I can sustain only a fraction of your interest in life for whatever years I've been allotted, I'll continue to be satisfied. Bravo!

More of the same (in the nicest possible way) from Akaneshua:

In a country that values youth over wisdom, it is easy to lose touch with people who retire or are shuffled off to nursing homes but I think this separation is at a great disservice to us. These articles are like a conversation with that interesting older man whom you see around but never get to speak with.

Regretflix—that was KathM's splendid coinage, and she was one of many who read and enjoyed the article about unwatched movies from Netflix, with Hotel Rwanda the most mentioned. Fray posters contributed advice: Ed Dunkle suggestswe multitask while watching and remember, "The key to happiness is low expectations."

Why not just send the movies back? Because of the pesky requirement to rate them—as Persia says, "Where's my 'I'm a lazy slacker and didn't watch it' button?"

Dsf3g  spoke for many:

When The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is just a hand's width away from Conan, I mean, seriously, what do you usually feel most in the mood for, German Expressionism or Austrian Blade Wielding Killing Machine?

But others wanted to talk up the neglected films: Which you might think had the most supporters? Fitzcarraldo perhaps? Vegemighty kept putting if off because of "applying for grad school, rugby season, job interviews, a wedding, a honeymoon, starting grad school …" but eventually watched it and "quite liked it." No, the surprising wave of enthusiasm (surprising? astonishing) was for the little-known Roll Bounce, along with a warning against letting it persuade you back on to the ice-rink (keywords: negative, falling, gruesome, not a good idea.)

This is a cry from the heart of Bureau Cat:

So you have heard from the person who has had Z sitting on top of his or her TV set for months now. Please ask him/her to send it in, on my behalf—I have been waiting for it.

And more good advice from Chicagogirl (whom we know to have an extensive knowledge of movies, and very good taste): "Go with Galaxy Quest."

Another Fray with no fights came on Ron Rosenbaum's " Spectator" on blurbing poetry: The best efforts by posters will feature in the column, and as of now there's still time to contribute. Literate, interesting, and collegial—the discussion is a model Fray. —MR ... 3:30 p.m. GMT

Wednesday, September 3,  2008

Many readers were shocked, shocked, by William Saletan's theoretical article about past candidates' daughters—"Pointless speculation" with a "sensational title" in a "so-called respectable publication," "breath-takingly goofy," "womb-obsessed." They say that as if those were bad things—have they not read Slate before? The answer is probably "No": At this stage in an election year, we get a lot of new Fray posters. A regular reader is more likely to argue with the statistics than the premise or to offer a suggestion, as Lizdexia did: "Why not list all the male writers at Slate, and compare them to the statistics for wife beaters?" (Lizdexia is a new poster but promising.)

The Fray was loving the Palin family in all its glorious newsworthiness—"Should we judge? Hell yes," as sfifeadams had it here, and the following comments come from all over the boarrds.  This helpful remark came from Xaedalus: "I think [Palin] will put to rest once and for all the idea that we are a misogynistic nation. Rather, she will show that the people who hate Hillary, just plain hate Hillary and not the XX." Moderately Amused put it this way: "Somewhere, Dan Quayle has got to be smiling. His place in history as the most capricious pick for VP has just been erased."

Jack cerf had his own take:

What Palin exemplifies is the Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart sentimental populist wish-dream, seen in movies like Dave, and on every daytime TV judge show, thatall would be well if a regular person, just like ourselves, only a little bit better, ran things instead of professional politicians, lawyers and intellectuals. I don't underestimate its appeal.

And Silas Porter had similar views:

I guess I am one of the dwindling number of Americans who wants my leaders to be more extraordinary than me, more intelligent and more talented. I think the people who look for regularity in their leaders are really just looking for someone to affirm them as people--to tell them that people like you--average--can succeed. Doesn't that sound lame?...America, please stop being such morons about this. This isn't a high school election. It's not a popularity contest.

No? Are you sure?

If you're going to make the most of this election and the press coverage, you can't be too squeamish, and sometimes it's time to wallow in bad taste. We thought we'd done well by finding this imagined convention introduction from guylinder, who had heard that Bristol Palin's baby-father will be there:

Ladies and gentlemen, let's give a warm Republican welcome to the man who is having sex with the vice presidential nominee's daughter!

—but actually maybe more people will be outraged by donfromcalifornia's simple question:

Ummm, I don't know how to say this without being a jerk, but do college age republicans come off like nerds? I'm going to college right now, and I'm an independent, so I'm not biased, honestly. It's just hard to take them seriously. I look at the young dems as stupid, and the young republicans as dorks.

We try to offer something to offend everyone.  MR 4.30 p.m. GMT

Friday, August 15,  2008

Last week, Ron Rosenbaum published a call for greater journalistic coverage of scientific dissent on global warming. Journalists covering climate change find an overwhelming consensus among the scientific community that mankind's release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the last century will cause dramatic changes in the Earth's climate. If true, this consensus seems to call for a substantial policy response. To Rosenbaum, the scale of the costs attendant upon dealing with global warming justifies granting a heightened profile to those who dispute the factual basis for the scientific consensus.

Most of our readers found Rosenbaum's argument unpersuasive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a majority of Fraysters support marginalizing the fringe voices in the climate-change debate. Many posters wonder along with brucewhite where to draw the line between legitimate dissent and crackpot theory:

I admire Ron Rosenbaum as a writer but wonder if this matter is as simple as he paints it. There are sceptics everywhere but do we want to relitigate everything all the time unless serious new evidence comes to light? Evolution? Alien visitors? The intervention of demonic forces? Holocaust denial?

I'm not arguing that there is no possibility of a good case to be made against anthropogenic global warming but most of the scepticism one reads is pretty low level and not much of it emanates from climate scientists. If we are to inhabit a world shaped to such a degree by the fruits of science we need to give scientists some credit when they present us with inconvenient truths. In fact we rely on a huge amount of consensus for our global society to function—this doesn't mean that other voices shouldn't be heard, but journalists do have the right not to accord them all equal respect.

New York Times science writerAndrew Revkin writes in to challenge Ron Rosenbaum's use of his blogroll to bolster a climate-change skeptic's credibility:

I wish Ron Rosenbaum had explored my Dot Earth posts and Times articles on how best to cover climate science as well as my blogroll. Then he might have realized that Nick Lemann's admonition to "find the argument" is only one of the vital steps required to effectively communicate a complex subject.

An equally important step is to place the areas of ongoing scientific dispute within the broader context of what is not in dispute. If that step is not taken in a story, the lure of conflict can mask the broader reality, and perpetuate policy stasis.

So, yes, "find the argument." But then also "find the agreement" as well. It's not as sexy, but it may be the only way journalism can help society absorb that climate science has a herky-jerky trajectory, that some uncertainty is normal, but that a growing human influence on the planet's thermostat is not in dispute.

Another step is to discriminate between scientific and policy arguments. High-profile skeptics on climate have a hodegepodge of views on the science, but are bound by a common stance that restricting greenhouse gases is a waste of resources. On a science development, I don't seek input from policy advocates, whether from Greenpeace or the Cato Institute. On a policy story, everyone's invited.

To auros, debating the factual basis for believing in global warming is a sideshow to the policy argument we should be having.

I understand the CJR author's point, while disagreeing with some of her methods. I think Ron gets it too, as he recognizes that if the consensus is right, and global warming poses a serious peril to civilization, then anything that tells the voters that such peril doesn't exist will tend to slow down action to address it. Personally, I think of the situation more as deciding how much insurance to buy. You don't buy homeowner's insurance because you believe your house is definitely going to burn down. You buy insurance because it might burn down. If the best available science says there's a 1% chance of catastrophic climate change, the kind that sinks New York, Miami, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Boston under several meters of seawater—well, how much are you willing to pay for insurance against that risk? Is 0.1% of GDP unreasonable? 1%? 10%?

Given that there are also a bunch of non-global-warming-related disadvantages to our current energy system, I'd vote for devoting a significant chunk of GDP to dealing with this situation. Maybe not 10%, at least not immediately—trying to transition the economy that fast would cause a lot of dislocation and unnecessary pain. But a percentage point or two? Sure.

One of the most interesting replies came from Arlington, who sees parallels between our reaction to the bad news of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and today's response to global warming:

There are parallels to instruct us. When Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, she was attacked by debunkers who sounded like those now objecting to the global warming consensus. Some of it was very personal and mean, impugning her sanity and her sexuality, if you can believe it. Fortunately, most honest scientists recognized Carson was calling attention to a real crisis, something that was actually happening and could be documented, even though they realized Carson's appeal was largely emotional and scientifically flawed. The result was the DDT ban, which saved the bald eagle, among many other species, from extinction.

But Carson's detractors are sore losers. Now that the bald eagle is no longer threatened with extinction, the debunkers say the whole thing was a manufactured crisis in the first place and would have taken care of itself. There was no reason to ban DDT, they claim, and doing so promoted worldwide famine and caused malaria deaths by the millions. Carson was the devil.

And journalists hopped on the bandwagon. They reproduced accusations that Carson was responsible for more deaths than Hitler. They researched their articles by lifting quotes from authors who contribute to organizations like junkscience.com and others who insist that science should direct itself at the goal of making life easier, safer and more comfortable for a consumerist society. This was all very convenient, since Carson was long dead and the problem she identified had been effectively addressed by regulation and enforcement. And it sold newspapers.

This is the point of the CJR article. Go ahead and promote your byline. Sell your papers. Advance your career. Just don't forget you owe your readers something of the truth. Journalistic ethics require discriminating between various sources of information. Some sources should be used with skepticism and some should not be used at all. It's difficult to determine the difference, particularly when the writer doesn't have the scientific background to draw a clear line. Conveying the truth involves more than presented the reader with John said this and Mary said that. Who is John? Who is Mary? Where do they get their funding and support? What do their peers say about them? Not everyone who challenges scientific consensus is a martyr.

There are many more great posts in the Spectator Fray. Check them out and share your thoughts. GA2:18 p.m. PDT

Friday, August 8,  2008

A very welcome development this week,

Is the landline telephone going the way of the dinosaur? Readers are surprisingly hung up on the possibility of its extinction, as forecast by Daniel Gross in this July 25 article that made a mysterious reappearance yesterday on Slate's "most e-mailed" list.

Perhaps accounting for its renewed popularity is an improbable but vocal minority of land-line defenders who helped reactivate the debate in "Moneybox" Fray. Their many reasons for staying hard-wired include:

  1. Social-life management: i.e., giving out the home number knowing you will hardly ever be there to actually answer it (camiwa).
  2. Retro-chic appeal, particularly if it involves a rotary-dial telephone (NickD).
  3. Paranoia: access to emergency services in the event of blackouts, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, or other acts of God (VEH, NewYorkDave). Plus, the advantage of Enhanced 911, which automatically relays your street location to the operator (Tonyw1538).
  4. Coverage gaps in rural areas like western Wisconsin, where "you can be driving down major interstates and not have any bars for a good hour or two" (Chasmosaur).
  5. Potential health benefits: avoiding both the radiation emitted from cell phones and the " permanent crick … from trying to hold a tiny sliver of metal on my ear" (sugar_k).
  6. Fax machines and international calling, especially for mothers with children "scattered around the continent" (Herbie2).
  7. Peace, quiet, and simplification: "Now, when my under 30 husband and myself … are out, we can enjoy our time without the cellular leash" (trudycatsmom).

This type of age-conscious declaration was recurrent in the Fray and may have to do with a nerve that Gross unintentionally plucked, by equating land-line usage with the over-thirtysomething crowd.

It's never fun to be painted with such a broad brush, or worse yet, to feel obsolete. Hence the strident response of Atmos2, a 40-year-old proud to proclaim his exclusive reliance on cell phones.

Of course, one can always find some reason to cling to technology of the past. "Why Don't I Own a Horse and Buggy?" chidesFaxMeBeer, "I mean, I suppose we could all have continued to use our horses to take us on short trips to the store."

Before we grow too dismissive of land-line users, let us acknowledge that the beauty of the Fray lies in its ability to inspire volumes to be collectively written on some of the least likely topics such as this.

In general, reader proclivities have been tending toward the quirky this week, such as Jody Rosen's exposure of a serial plagiarist and a "Culturebox" piece about the 10 oddest travel guides ever written.  Be sure to check them all out. AC1:08 p.m. PDT

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.