Journalist BS Detectors are Defective, Require Recall and Massive Class-Action Law Suit

February 8, 2011

As I wrote last year, anyone with a properly functioning BS detector would have suspected that Toyota cars were not automatically and uncontrollably accelerating due to faulty electronics:

There were hundreds of news reports that repeated these claims as if they were credible, promoting a mass hysteria about runaway cars.  Toyota sales plummeted, they became the target of SNL ridicule, etc… Anyone with half a brain and a reasonable amount of skepticism would have suspected that the driver was likely the least reliable part of a modern car and would have guessed that people were mistakenly pressing the gas.  But very, very few of the news reports on this issue emphasized this likely explanation.  Instead, most acted as if we lived in a John Grisham novel where evil corporations knowingly hide the defects of their products as they kill and maime their customers to maximize profits.  This does happen, but it is very, very rare.  To treat these claims as evidence of real safety issues with cars was simply mistaken reporting.

Now it’s official.  The U.S. Department of Transportation with assistance from NASA released a report today that “found that engine electronics played no role in incidents of sudden, unintended acceleration of [Toyota] cars

Of course, much of the damage to Toyota sales and reputation exacerbated by hysterical reporting done with faulty BS detectors has already been done.  Maybe we need a recall of those defective reporter BS detectors.  And I smell a massive class action law suit.  Actually, the more likely outcome is the continuing deterioration of traditional journalism.

That “Wizardry” Teacher Firing – There’s More to the Story

May 15, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Recently, a lot of people linked to this story:

A substitute teacher in Pasco County has lost his job after being accused of wizardry. Teacher Jim Piculas does a magic trick where a toothpick disappears and then reappears. Piculas recently did the 30-second trick in front of a classroom at Rushe Middle School in Land ‘O Lakes. Piculas said he then got a call from the supervisor of teachers, saying he’d been accused of wizardry. “I get a call the middle of the day from head of supervisor of substitute teachers. He says, ‘Jim, we have a huge issue, you can’t take any more assignments you need to come in right away,'” he said. Piculas said he did not know of any other accusations that would have led to the action. The teacher said he is concerned that the incident may prevent him from getting future jobs.

Quite a few bloggers and (especially) their commenters used this as an opportunity to bash their favorite targets: Parents are stupid, conservatives are stupid, Christians are stupid, stupid people are stupid, etc. A handful of people even managed to ask whether maybe the school officials bear just a tiny fraction of the responsibility.

Unfortunately, when describing the story, most bloggers and even most media outlets failed to include this information:

Local education officials, however, deny that Piculas was sacked for wizardry, citing a number of other complaints made against the teacher, such as not sticking to lesson plans and allowing students to use school computers.


His dismissal form and the formal letter informing him that he would not be hired again also state that he used inappropriate language in class and put a student in charge of the class. And that reference to letting students “use school computers” turns out to mean that he allegedly let kids wander away from class and use the computers when they were supposed to be at their desks working.

Always click through those links before posting!

Nor did many people mention that the same school district that allegedly fired a substitute teacher for performing one magic trick has been hiring a professional magician to come in and perform for the kids for years, and after this story broke, they’ve reassured him that they still want him to come do his show. That tends to discredit the storyline some are peddling that Pasco County has been taken over by crazy right-wing extremists.

It’s not even clear whether any parental complaint about wizardry was actually filed. Most media reports I’ve seen have reported as fact that a parent complained to the school about wizardry, but the only evidence for this “fact” seems to be the claims of the fired substitute himself.

Tampa Channel 10 initially reported that the district claimed that the reason for the firing wasn’t “just” wizardry. That’s better than most media outlets, which didn’t report the district’s side of the story at all. But the claim that the problem wasn’t “just” wizardry didn’t come from a quote; the reporter put that word into the district’s mouth. As noted above, other outlets reported simply that that district denied wizardry was an issue. All the direct quotes and documents from the district seem to back that interpretation rather than the characterization in the initial Channel 10 report. And when Channel 10 did a follow-up report, the district said performing magic tricks is not against school policy, and the teacher’s magic trick was “insignificant.”

It is, of course, theoretically possible that there really was a parental complaint about wizardry, and that a dim-witted local school official decided to fire a substitute based on one parent’s crazy complaint, and that the district made up a bunch of accusations against the substitute after the fact in order to cover up what had happened (all of which is alleged by the fired substitute).

If so, I can only say that the schools in Pasco County are amazingly responsive to their parents. Do you suppose they have a big phone bank to call every parent at home every night and get approval for the next day’s lesson plan and lunch menu?

Kudos to Tampa Channel 10, which seems to have done the most follow-up work on this story, and to the few other media outlets doing their jobs.

The NYT Bully

April 24, 2008

A month ago the New York Times (NYT) carried on its front page the story of “a boy the bullies love to beat up, repeatedly.”  The story was heart-breaking and appealed to everyone who’s been bullied or worried about their children being bullied — that is, almost everyone.  The piece led to appearances on CNN and the Today Show by the boy, Billy Wolfe, countless articles in papers around the country, a flood of sympathetic letters to the NYT, and outrage in the blogosphere.

Billy Wolfe lives in my town, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and some of the incidents described in the article occurred at a school my children attend (although Billy is older and is now at the high school).  The story didn’t fit with what I know about Fayetteville schools. 

Sure enough, a little more than a week after the NYT article, the Northwest Arkansas Times (NAT) disclosed the existence of a police report on Billy Wolfe that suggests that he may have been the bully, or at least played a significant part in instigating the assaults.  The NAT reporting on the police report contains allegations that Billy harassed a student confined to a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy by sneaking up behind him and screaming to aggravate the disabled boy’s sensitivity to noise, by bouncing a rubber ball against the disabled boy’s head, and by calling him “stupid” and a “retard.”  The police report provides further context on the assaults described in the NYT.  One allegedly occurred after Billy called a boy who had just moved from Germany and whose mother had just died of cancer a “”gay [expletive ] German” and then called his “deceased mother a vulgar name. ”  Another incident allegedly occurred after Billy pushed another student.  Billy was accused of picking on other kids, stealing, and intimidating those that he picked on against telling the teacher.

But the NYT article by Dan Barry makes no mention of the police report or the details contained in it.  Nor did Dan Barry’s reporting uncover any of the information from the interviews contained in the Northwest Arkansas Times article.  Instead, Barry simply writes, “It remains unclear why Billy became a target…”  He also declares, “[Billy] has received a few suspensions for misbehavior, though none for bullying.”  It seems the NYT reporter either somehow missed the existence of the police report or decided not to include its contents in his piece.  Either way, it is very sloppy reporting.  I sent an email to the Public Editor of the NYT asking if Barry had seen the police report, and, if he had seen it, why he chose not to include it in his article.  Other than a form letter I’ve received no reply.

Of course, regardless of what Billy may have said to other students, it is wrong for them to hit him.  Furthermore, even if Billy has been a bully of others doesn’t mean that he is not himself being bullied.  And Fayetteville schools deserve some blame for not being on top of this situation better.  But the more complicated picture that emerges after learning of the information in the Nothwest Arkansas Times but excluded from the NYT, is one that looks like school fighting and conflict and not necessarily bullying.  Bullying implies a relatively clear hierarchy of victim and assailant.

But a newspaper article about conflict and some fighting in a small school district in Arkansas wouldn’t have been front page news in the NYT.  Perhaps that’s why Dan Barry preferred his Lifetime Channel movie-version over the more complicated version that the facts seem to support.  Perhaps it wasn’t ambition but laziness that distorted Barry’s article.  Finding the police report and collecting all of the interviews found in the NW AR Times article would have required — uhm — reporting.  It was much easier to take the story that the Wolfes’ attorney was peddling.  And yes, the Wolfes are suing some of the other students and are planning to sue the school district.  Barry’s article may read like a plaintiff’s brief because there actually is a plaintiff’s brief out there.

Others in the blogosphere have covered this story very well.  In particular, see my Manhattan Institute colleague, Walter Olson’s post at  Blogger Scott Greenfield is quoted there with a pretty harsh assessment:

…what is the New York Times thinking? To have its knees cut off by its Northwest Arkansas namesake is humiliating, but to be shown up as deceptive fundamentally undermines its credibility. Without credibility, the Times is just a dog-trainers best friend and a tree’s worst nightmare. …

 The failure of the New York Times to present a full and accurate account of the Billy Wolfe story is disgraceful and unacceptable. … If you’re going to put an article on the front page with a big picture, don’t blow it. The Times did. They should be ashamed.

Unfortunately, the Fayetteville School District is inexperienced with handing national reporters and they are handcuffed in responding to accusations because of student privacy issues and a pending lawsuit.  Dan Barry from the NYT was able to ride roughshod over a small town school district.  Maybe the Gray Lady is the most obvious bully here. 

More Money Myth

April 20, 2008

An article in today’s LA Times illustrates how the money myth is alive and well.  The piece by Seema Mehta focuses on private fund-raising efforts in California that are seeking to off-set proposed budget cuts. 

The article, and the people quoted in it, wish to establish 1) that California spends far too little on education, which is demonstrated by the alleged fact that it spends less per pupil than almost all other states; 2) that private fund-raising is necessary to make a significant difference in remedying those perceived shortfalls; and 3) that inequities in the capacity of different communities to engage in private fund-raising is a significant contributor to inequities in student achievement between those communities. 

All three of these claims are inconsistent with the available evidence. Mehta attempts to establish the first claim that California spends far less than most states by asserting, “The state ranks 46th in the nation in per-pupil spending.”  According to the U.S. Department of Education’s most recent Digest of Education Statistics, total per pupil spending in California ranked 23rd of the 51 states and DC, not 46th.  Total per pupil spending was $9,655, trailing the national average of $10,071, but not by much.  It’s true that the cost of living is higher in California.  Perhaps it would be desirable for California to spend more.  But the claim that California woefully under-spends on education would have to be supported by systematic evidence, none of which is provided in the article — other than the false ranking.

The second claim that private fund-raising is an essential part of overcoming budget shortfalls is also inconsistent with the evidence.  In a chapter I wrote for Rick Hess’s book on education philanthropy, With the Best of Intentions, I found that total private giving to public education is a tiny portion of total spending on schools.  All giving, from the bake sale to the Gates Foundation, makes up less than one-third of 1% of total spending.  It’s basically rounding error.  This is not to say that private giving to public schools can’t do some good.  It’s just completely unrealistic to expect private funding to make-up for or significantly supplement public funding.  The taxing power of the government generates over half a trillion dollars each year for public education, which would entirely consume the net worth of the 12 richest people in the world in a single year. 

But the LA Times article suggests that private giving can (and must) make a big difference.  It cites the example of the Irvine Public Schools, which receives $3 million annually from a community foundation.  it also quotes the head of that foundation saying, “The only way to take good districts and make them great is to do private fund-raising. But it’s even more urgent now with the terrible budget cuts.”  Nowhere does the article mention that this $3 million represents less than 1% of the total spending by the district.  Numerators always feel bigger without denominators.

The third claim that inequities in private fund-raising are exacerbating inequities in student achievement pre-supposes that the private giving makes a big difference in the wealthier districts.  It also pre-supposes, contrary to the bulk of rigorous research, that variation in spending is a significant factor in explaining variation in achievement.  It’s not.  So, if private giving is a tiny portion of total spending — even in the wealthy districts — and per pupil spending does not significantly account for achievement, it’s not clear why the article would fret that inequities in giving were a problem for the achievement gap.  But the article does, quoting state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, “Parents in well-to-do communities can raise significant sums of money to augment their local schools’ budgets, while schools in low-income neighborhoods fall further behind. This is part of the reason that we have an achievement gap in California. We have an economic and moral imperative to close this gap.”

The only way the money myth will fade is if reporters and newspapers are held accountable for repeating it. 

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