Missed conceptions and bad taste.

What's happening in our readers' forum.
Sept. 3 2008 11:13 AM

Palin-tology

Missed conceptions and bad taste.

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

Saturday, July 30,  2008

A very welcome development this week, after the article in "Medical Examiner" on hospitals' E.R. problems produced a monster response from readers—more than 400 top-posts. The Fray team's job is to read as many of these as possible and then try to summarize the reactions as helpfully as possible for other readers. But in this case, one of the authors of the piece—Jesse M. Pines, who co-wrote with Zachary F. Meisel—bravely read a very high number of the posts and wrote in the Fray about them for us. He identified five different sets of responses, including:

1) Complaints from angry health care providers who felt they'd been insulted. Answer—no such criticism intended.

2) Patients giving experiences of the system, good and bad.

3) Congratulatory messages from those who agreed with the article.

4) Posts from nurses who commented on the "bed-hiding" issue. Answer: "The point was not to say that anyone is lazy—you are just as overloaded as we are in the ER."

The fifth group was from providers who talked about other problems in the health care system that contribute to crowding, and our author had this to say:

While I'm glad that you used this forum to discuss these issues because all are important, the article was about the hospital practice of boarding admitted patients in the ER. And how in some communities with high Medicaid and uninsured populations where hospitals are capacity-constrained (where demand for services exceeds supply on both the ER side and inpatient side), boarding is the profit-maximizing strategy. While Zack and I thought we explained it in the article, I am sorry if this was unclear to some.

He argued his case with more details and references before concluding:

I thank you again for your interest in this important topic that affects all Americans. Because sooner or later, you and your loved ones will all need to go to the ER. This needs to be discussed in public forums by people who understand the issues and can provide suggestions to hospital administrators and policymakers who have the power to eliminate boarding through objective measurement and accountability for this crisis.

Anyone interested in the issue should read the post in full here. And Mr. Pines is most welcome to come and help us in the Fray any time.  MR ... 5:30 p.m. GMT

Tuesday, July 22,  2008

Prized Fray regular wmccomninel watched Generation Kill, read the review in "Culturebox", and started a great thread which led to his laying this thought on the line:

My own life was negatively affected by serving in both wars in Iraq, that much is certain. And yes, even if you just drove to the mall, when America went to war so did every American citizen, happily or not.

His top-post thoughts on the program were fascinating, worth quoting at length:

War is not just another slice-of-life experience. It tends to be thoroughly atypical in many dimensions simultaneously which makes its only points of reference internal to the experience of war itself. In other words it gets a little bit crazy when viewed from an external, normal frame of reference. When one goes home again and things are normal there is no way to translate the war experience into non-war terms. There simply are not enough common reference points upon which to draw for you to align the two different experiences in ways which are even vaguely accurate. The parallels to gang wars which the reviewer suggests that the producers have brought with them from their work on The Wire are perhaps as close as one could aspire to in such an effort. They are still woefully inadequate to the task however.

Crime within a society has a certain business-as-usual flavor (rare bizarre incidents excepted). That is why there are so many police shows, it is just too easy make another new one. War on the other hand defies all boundaries. It is the complete absence of normal law and order, hence the absurdity of trying to define 'war crimes' as if there were a proper way to conduct day-to-day war operations as we do with the goods and services of the civilian economy. Indeed I find the mix-up stems entirely from the way that so many people view war as being just 'business by other means' and not the last resort of a sovereign nation at severe risk of its own dissolution.

Geo140 had experience in the Marines and watched the original program with interest:

I don't know that I look at Generation Kill as a slap in the face to anyone who served in the military, or in the war. I simply see it as a pretty good story with some accurate details and a harsh exterior. If you're looking to this show to find a reason to hate the Marines or the military, or support an archaic view of what a soldier is, then you were lost before this show even aired. And if you're watching this show just to get a glimpse of what war could be, and what the men and women who fight those Wars might face, you may be better off--but only slightly.

Some of the arguments the program and article produced were very angry –just the list of thread titles would tell you that: Among the repeatable are "You're an idiot," "Same old tired story," and "Generation Wuss." The post featured above was called "ACME War Services, the musical"—you'll have to read it to find out why. MR...4 p.m. GMT

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 7:03 PM Once Again, a Climate Policy Hearing Descends Into Absurdity
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 18 2014 6:00 AM All Shook Up My 11-year-old has been exploring herself with my “back massager.” Should I stop her?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 7:23 PM MIT Researchers Are Using Smartphones to Interact With Other Screens
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.