Monday, July 27, 2015

Former NYT reporter reveals latest example of Gell-Mann Effect

On May 10th, The New York Times published the first of a two part expose of the nail salon industry in New York. I did not read it. I chose to omit investing time reading the article based on four premises, 1) the NYT would get the commercial details wrong, 2) the NYT would fail to understand the broader issues of immigration, licensing, trade-off decisions, etc., 3) this seemed a classic example of the NYT's pandering to the guilty conscious of the pathologically altruistic, and 4) Nail salons? Really, this is the material social issue of the day?

Many people find it fun to exercise moral outrage about things close to them but not affecting them directly and the NYT has a terrible proclivity for just such reporting. Exercising journalistic advocacy to fix other people's problems with money from yet further other people, and with no regard whether the "beneficiaries" actually wanted the problem "solved" or actually benefited from the solution imposed on them.

I was happy to let the SJW and hand waving crowd exercise their irascibility over this apparent non-issue, confident that this would either blow over or be exposed. And sure enough, just three months later, here we have a rather thorough takedown of both the facts of the issue as well as a major charge against the editorial integrity of the Times from What the ‘Times’ Got Wrong About Nail Salons by Richard Bernstein. Ironically, it is a former New York Times journalist himself who is having his very own Gell-Mann Amnesia moment. Bernstein and his wife have two nail-salon stores and have been in the industry for more than a decade. Read Bernstein's whole article to discover as did Michael Crichton that
You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
Bernstein's experience is even worse. Not only did the nail-salon reporter not understand the industry, she also reported flat out untruths and misreported numerous critical facts. The article was so riddled with errors of fact and interpretation that it would have had to have been rewritten and the Times was simply unwilling to correct that which it knew it had misreported.

Michael Crichton noted that
That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.
If you can't get the basic facts right about a story in your own backyard, what basis is there for having confidence in their ability to report anything more distant or more complicated than having your nails done?

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