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Five Corrections to The New York Times (hms.harvard.edu)
107 points by kauffj 22 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments

Seeing an informed rebuttle like this always reminds me of the "Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect as illustrated by Michael Crichton:

"You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. 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. . . In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know."

OTOH, reading between the lines, it seems like there was contention between the story author and the rebuttal author all through fact-checking. This hints that there is another side to this story.

The story could be told in a variety of ways:

"You see a subordinate making a mistake."

"Your cab driver took a wrong turn."

I suspect that some form of the amnesia effect is necessary for us to function in a complex society.

That whole concept might have made more sense in the age of more tightly-controlled print media, but nowadays when even outfits like Forbes have guest contributors, not so much.

Just because one journalist sucks doesn't mean the next one does, and slagging on the next guy only because the former one did a poor job amounts to a combination of genetic and adhom fallacies. Editors were never intended to be subject matter experts on everything their writers write about - stick to scientific journals if that's the level of assurance you want. (And depending on how you feel about the reproduction crisis, even that might be questionable.)

An ironic critique from Crichton, really.


> Several scientists whose research had been referenced in the novel stated that Crichton had distorted it in the novel.

A line can be drawn to separate journalism and writing a fictional novel.

When the fictional novel "contains many graphs and footnotes, two appendices, and a 20-page bibliography" citing real-life research into a real-life phenomenon, you're blurring that line.

I believe it is often the point of fiction to blur the lines between fiction and reality.

OK, let's back up a bit.

What do you think Crichton's genuine intent was in including misleading footnotes referencing real scientific studies in a book about a real scientific phenomenon he's on record as denying the severity of?

I confess, as a reformed English major, that I don't care much about authorial intent. If I did, then I'd probably have to destroy the joy that books like Ender's Game bring. To me, it's much more useful and no less true to pretend that books are independent of the author.

If your point is that Crichton is a jerk or a climate change denier, I don't disagree. It jibes with what I've heard. Much beyond that, I'm not sure it's possible for us to interpret his motivations accurately.

I had to google to see what M. Gell-Mann had to do with this ... and it turns out he has nothing to do with it. Crichton just used his name to name an effect.

Is there a better name for this though? from behavioral sciences or psychology?

Gell-Mann and Crichton are friends (acquaintances?) who have different expertises and notice different wrong stories in the paper. The parent quote is missing the reference to Gell-Mann, it goes "You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business." I think the name is pretty good as is?

There's a related one, though not from psychology: Knoll's Law of Media Accuracy.

"Everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true--except for the rare story of which you happen to have firsthand knowledge."


I think the name is brilliant as one expects that the Gell-Mann effect is named after its primary creator, Murray Gell-Mann. If you know about the topic in detail, one knows that is not the case. A similar situation to what the Gell-Man effect is. I'm sure Crichton loved this fact and is one of the reasons he used Gell-Man's name for his coined idea.

I have not read through the whole article yet, but it seems strange and it is unfortunate that this Harvard published request for corrections has no links at the start to the paper in question[1], the nytimes article[2], or David Reich's response he sent to the nytimes[3]. Here are some links.

[1]Skoglund et al. (2016) paper "Genomic insights into the peopling of the Southwest Pacific.", doi: 10.1038/nature19844, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27698418

[2]"Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps?", https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/17/magazine/ancient-dna-pale...

[3]Never printed by the nytimes, but it would have been nice if he had linked to a personal copy.

Past the edit time limit. Here is his the letter to The New York Times on his personal website[1].

[1] https://reich.hms.harvard.edu/letter-response-jan-17-article...

Mostly agree, but is this really sensible to consider this "Harvard published"? This is just a Harvard PI putting up a letter on his own personal website, albeit one he probably had assistance setting up.

I did not notice that it was just his personal site. I just looked at the HN URL. If HN had given the full address (reich.hms.harvard.edu) it's less likely I would have made that mistake. Better stated would have been "published by a Harvard Medical Researcher on his website". It is a pretty polished piece and if he was hoping it gets picked up by someone (like HN), then adding links would have been more professional and make the piece more creditable and useful.

In person, David Reich is an extremely thoughtful and kind guy. I have no reason to doubt his version of events. Population genetics is a remarkably subtle field, and it's not surprising that a journalist would understand it 95% correctly, with the missing 5% being devastating for their article.

In addition, his recently published book says plenty that does not jibe with the version of his ideas presented in the NYT article. In other words, if he were really as the NYT article suggests, he wouldn't have published that book, which contradicts some of the things the NYT article says he asserts.

you should always be skeptical, even of nice experts. But in this case, he backed up his arguments with fairly good data (some of this stuff is still in open disagreement when he claims it's fact) so anybody in competent in the field (like a fact checker) could verify his claims. But make no mistake: this was a carefully written rebuttal by a master of the scientific arts, designed to maximize impact and make the Times look like they were unfair to him.

> you should always be skeptical, even of nice experts

Ha! You're of course right. A lecture finished right as I was typing so I didn't quite finish. I lead with the comments on his personality because I had intended to close with a comment about how I've never seen him take up such a fierce posture before, and I wanted to make a comment that this was definitely not his usual tone.

> by a master of the scientific arts, designed to maximize impact and make the Times look like they were unfair to him.

As opposed to the journalists who wrote the initial article, who are not masters of their own profession and do not have incentives besides impartially reporting the truth?

Is anyone under the impression that when someone believes they have been falsely represented by a major news outlet and issue a rebuttal that they are trying to maximize impact and make it look like -- i.e., show -- that the outlet was unfair to them?

>... do not have incentives besides impartially reporting the truth?

That’s a very big assumption and a rather naïve view of modern journalism. Impartially reporting the truth is what we like to think journalists do, but it isn’t safe to suggest that’s what they actually do.

The negative qualifiers in that sentence mean exactly the opposite, due to the “As opposed to” prelude, which is meant to show exasperation.

I think a sarcasm is not the right word to describe this. What is it called? Not quite irony either...

Facetious is the word you're looking for. He made the comment in jest, not to be taken seriously

Does the US not have a Press Complaint Authority? In Denmark, we have Pressenævnet[0] which handles complaints against media outlets.

If an article is found to be at fault, the publishing outlet will be required to publish a retraction/correction/apology, depending on the offence. During the review, the outlet can make their case against the complaint.

Does the US not have something similar? Because these complaints sound like the perfect fit for something like this.

[0] https://www.pressenaevnet.dk/

I certainly hope we don't.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and the press, including the freedom to make mistakes and even outright lie. There is no godlike authority that can tell truth from fiction without fail, and having government censors telling people what they can say (especially w.r.t. political speech) would invert the relationship between the people and their government, making government the master instead of the servant.

Instead, we rely on an educated readership to identify bias and mistakes and call them out, as has been done here. People get the journalism they deserve. To the extent we're failing to teach our children critical thinking skills, we're putting our democracy at risk.

The NY Times and other resources currently considered "credible" have earned that credibility from the people not through government permission but by generally providing a useful service to its consumers, despite all the mistakes they make and biases they present.

The NY Times in particular has unfortunately been burning through that hard-earned credibility capital at an alarming rate, even long before the current last few years, with the result that there are large portions of the country that no longer trust it like they did, with good reason. More recently they have taken the bait proffered by Trump and his ilk and lowered themselves to his level, spinning most articles I've seen with more political or oppositional bias than in the past.

I can only hope this is a cyclical phenomenon, where the citizenry/readership becomes ignorant of the related history and its challenges, simply because we've lived through a period where the battles were won and we could take such things for granted. Just like our predecessors, this generation is going to painfully relearn that everything printed (or typed) should be taken with a grain of salt and cross-checked against multiple sources.

>The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and the press, including the freedom to make mistakes and even outright lie. There is no godlike authority that can tell truth from fiction without fail

A word from Herbert Marcuse on this notion:

"This pure toleration of sense and nonsense is justified by the democratic argument that nobody, neither group nor individual, is in possession of the truth and capable of defining what is right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, all contesting opinions must be submitted to 'the people' for its deliberation and choice. But I have already suggested that the democratic argument implies a necessary condition, namely, that the people must be capable of deliberating and choosing on the basis of knowledge, that they must have access to authentic information, and that, on this. basis, their evaluation must be the result of autonomous thought.

In the contemporary period, the democratic argument for abstract tolerance tends to be invalidated by the invalidation of the democratic process itself."

"People get the journalism they deserve."

Do you really feel that that's happening?

You've been given an example of a system that might work in a civilized, modern country called Denmark. Maybe it's worth looking into it rather than repeating your First Amendment / "government is the servant" saw.

>The NY Times and other resources currently considered "credible"

Yea, but...

>The NY Times in particular has unfortunately been burning through that hard-earned credibility capital at an alarming rate

Ah, never mind you got it.

>More recently they have taken the bait proffered by Trump

How this isn't being observed by more people is stunning. 100% of the time, NYT, CNN, MSNBC, WaPo are running what they think is an effective awareness and information campaign - and is in reality going to cause scandal fatigue and hurt their credibility. Everyone complains about his Twitter... stop airing every single one of his tweets. In another two years, the country won't be on fire, and statistically Trump has a good chance at re-election.

All the media pearl clutching, faux-rage, and surface depth "activism" aren't helping... well, it's not helping them anyhow.

> and is in reality going to cause scandal fatigue and hurt their credibility. Everyone complains about his Twitter... stop airing every single one of his tweets

I agree but it takes 5 minutes to write an article about how 'terrifying' the latest tweet is by the president and that article will generate a lot of clicks to have a high margin on return so I don't expect to see this stuff go away.

They're a business and have to publish articles to make money and can't just sit on every thing waiting for a big story so I understand. I think all you can do is just ignore it.

> 100% of the time, NYT, CNN, MSNBC, WaPo are running what they think is an effective awareness and information campaign - and is in reality going to cause scandal fatigue and hurt their credibility. Everyone complains about his Twitter... stop airing every single one of his tweets.

But right now it's good for those sweet clicks. They have an audience who loves to get worked up about Trump, just as there's an audience that loves to get worked up about the kind of people who get worked up about Trump. They have their own content, too.

You will likely be interested in this recent New Yorker article which considers this topic.


And accompanying interview with Jill Abramson.


But, basically... yes, what you said. And newspapers mostly lack any credible business plan ideas that don't rely on this.

There is currently no real demonstrated business model to sustainably pay for good journalism. Some are hoping they can at least fund good journalism with clickbait and sponsored content... ugh.

I agree with both of you, and pose this question... do you think they have more desire to see Trump not win again because of their integrity - or want Trump to win because it's extremely good for business?

Oh, I'm pretty sure political topics will continue being clickbait for quite some time whether Trump wins or not.

I think most of those who work at the NYT would like Trump not to be president, and most of those who work at Fox News would like him to be president.

_Covering_ Trump is good for business for both of them though. And if Trump is out, there will be some other topics that are either way too.

it's not clear who would be the decider if the authors were at fault, given that the science around this is not authoritative and won't be for another 30 years.

> Does the US not have a Press Complaint Authority?

This would be part of the executive branch, and run by someone appointed by the President. Do you think that would be net positive or negative?

It would be positive, since the President is appointed by the citizens.

There are lots of restrictions on government that prevent it from directly implementing policies passed by a majority vote, or empowering officials elected by majority vote. And overall these restrictions are considered essential by almost everyone even if many dispute any given restriction. So it's clear that merely being appointed by a majority is not enough to make an official's power net positive.

To be clear, the link you posted is a discussion on the previous letter sent to a more general audience.

I don’t understand that people are still surprised that articles, particularly about complex issues, mess things up or gets facts wrong. I think a journalist context switches a lot (even in the same field) and it’s hard to get everything right. I don’t read news as facts, more like indications that something have happened and if it’s sounds interesting I do some reasearch about it or check reports or follow numbers on my own. I never assume that news reporters gets the whole story. It perplexes me when people scream “fake news” or something. “Fake news” doesn’t exist because the opposite doesn’t either. When we talk about news, Plato got it right.

It's not that mistakes happen, it's that retractions are usually hidden and do not contain the same level of effort to educate the reader as the initial incorrect reporting.

can someonepost the link to the main article in question?

Edit: I was looking at a corrected article. Ignore this post.

I don't know a whole lot about this, but I do know that if you write something to show that you were misrepresented in an article you need to be extremely careful to not misrepresent the article.

He says:

>The article wrongly states that in 2015 my colleagues I argued that the population of Europe was “almost entirely” replaced by people from the Eastern Europe Steppe

When the article says:

>Almost entirely replaced existing commmunities [snip] in Central and Northern Europe.

" Correction: Jan. 25, 2019 An earlier version of this article misstated the number of peer reviewers who evaluated the 2016 Nature paper “Genomic Insights Into the Peopling of the Southwest Pacific” before publication. It was four, not three; a fourth reviewer was added to evaluate the paper after the original submission was revised. The article also misstated the geographical area where migrants from the steppes of eastern Ukraine and southern Russia significantly replaced existing communities of hunter-gatherers and early farmers, as reported in an academic paper on the migration. It was Central and Northern Europe, not the entire continent. "

Whoops! Fooled by the edit

The article's title says "New York Times", but the article itself says "New York Times Magazine". They're completely different publications...

I think completely different publications is a bit exaggerated. According to wiki:

"The New York Times Magazine is a Sunday magazine supplement included with the Sunday edition of The New York Times. It is host to feature articles longer than those typically in the newspaper and has attracted many notable contributors."

I also was curious as to how supplement was defined within the context of publishing and again according to wiki:

"A supplement is a publication that has a role secondary to that of another preceding or concurrent publication. A follow-on publication complements its predecessor, either by bringing it up to date (e.g. the Index Catalogue), or by otherwise enhancing the predecessor's coverage of a particular topic or subject matter, as in the Tosefta."

In my opinion the difference is insignificant.

They don't seem to share staff though, at least not on the editor level, compare: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/admin/the-new-york-... and https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/magazine/masthead.html

There's also the obvious difference that one is a newspaper and the other is a magazine; I think it's just a bit unclear what is being meant when they claimed they are "different publications".

uhhhhh.... it's an insert in the sunday times. served up alongside the times on the website. created by the publisher of the times. I suppose you could get technical and say it's an independent publication that is housed within another publication... but that would be pedantic to the point of meaninglessness.

Why? There are a host of obvious physical and content differences between a newspaper and a magazine, with the newspaper broadsheet being about twice as wide as the magazine for example[1].

I suppose if you ignore the differences between the print versions you get closer to a purely pedantic distinction, but really I think the problem is that the measure of difference is unclear.

1: https://nytmediakit.com/index.php?p=specs/magazine/standard-...

the magazine is only delivered within the NY Times Sunday issue. it can't be purchased inpendently. In the URL on the NY Times site, it's listed as a section: https://www.nytimes.com/section/magazine

When I had a subscription to the NYTimes, the NYTimes Magazine was included in every sunday paper. So not quite "different publications".

I think the magazine is a Sunday insert from the same company.

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