Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

An Indiana cancer cluster in the NYT

Over the years, the New York Times and writers associated with it have done more than most of us to debunk scares over purported cancer clusters. “When multiple cases of cancer occur in a community, especially among children, it is only human to fear a common cause,” wrote George Johnson in a 2015 Times piece. “Most often these cancer clusters turn out to be statistical illusions, the result of what epidemiologists call the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. (Blast the side of a barn with a random spray of buckshot and then draw a circle around one of the clusters: It’s a bull’s-eye.)”

Johnson’s writings in publications other than the Times have cogently analyzed dubious claims of cancer clusters in Toms River, N.J. and Love Canal, N.Y. Times science reporter Gina Kolata was a pioneer in questioning claimed incidence patterns, and a Times editorial helped in dispelling one of the most famous cancer cluster theories, that of breast cancer on Long Island.

Dozens of refuted cancer cluster scares later, are we more cautious when new ones are put forward? Or has nothing changed?

On Jan. 2 the Times published, to predictably sensational reaction, a piece by Hiroko Tabuchi profiling a claimed childhood cancer cluster in Johnson County, Indiana. Local campaigners have collected cases of childhood cancers — diverse kinds of it, not all one type — associated with the county since 2008, which would imply a rate of six cases per year. The piece, unfortunately, omits to mention the county’s population; it’s 139,654. It does concede, somewhat backhandedly, that the county is within a broadly normal range on its numbers, by noting that it has an incidence of childhood cancer slightly above the average for American counties, placing it in the 80th percentile of all such counties, which in this kind of statistical distribution means not really any great outlier at all.

Cluster alarms call for a culprit, and the local campaigners have settled on a now-shuttered industrial plant that used TCE (trichloroethylene), a solvent familiar from dry cleaning and used at many thousands of sites. They suspect it may have spread through the water and subsequent evaporation, which would explain — or would it? — which some sick children lived in homes distant from the plant and why current water testing is at best inconclusive.

I’ve written a fair bit about cluster controversies in the past, including the one in Hinkley, Calif. made famous by Erin Brockovich, and the Woburn, Mass. story captured in the book and movie “A Civil Action.”

NYT: credit card companies should cut off (or report) gun sales

In the New York Times, financial writer Andrew Ross Sorkin asks why credit card companies and banks should not be made to monitor customers’ accounts for unusual gun purchases and share the information with law enforcers. Excerpts from my response at Cato.

…In an advocacy piece imperfectly dressed up as a news story, New York Times financial reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin observes that some perpetrators of mass public shootings have bought guns and ammo using credit cards, and asks why credit card companies and banks should not be made to stop this. How? Well, they could “create systems to track gun purchases that would allow them to report suspicious patterns” and “prevent [customers] from buying multiple guns in a short period of time.” Invoking the Patriot Act – you knew that was coming, didn’t you? – the piece goes on to ask why the sweeping financial-snooping powers bestowed on the feds by that act should not be deployed against everyday civilians who purchase more guns than would seem fit for them to buy.,,,

The piece mentions one reason gun dealers are reluctant to pass on to banks information about what products their customers buy: someone else might come into possession of the list and know to pitch guns to those names. It doesn’t spell out nearly as clearly what might seem a bigger fear about a who-bought-guns data file, namely that it would go a long way toward identifying owners once confiscation of existing weaponry gets on the table as a proposal. The ACLU may not care about gun rights, but as Sorkin concedes, one of its policy analysts gets to much the same point by a different route: “The implication of expecting the government to detect and prevent every mass shooting is believing the government should play an enormously intrusive role in American life.”

Whole piece here.

P.S. Scott Greenfield: And just wait till they accomplish their crackdown on transactions in cash.

Political pressure on Facebook intensifies

Will revelations over data use by Cambridge Analytica lead to more intense government regulation of Facebook? Julian Sanchez and I talk to Caleb Brown at the Cato Daily Podcast. Separately, Sanchez writes that we shouldn’t expect regulatory micromanagement to do a good job of safeguarding user privacy. “How Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook targeting model really worked – according to the person who built it” [Matthew Hindman, The Conversation] Note that regulation tends to entrench incumbents [Tyler Cowen linking Stratechery (one consequence of outcry is that social media providers may make it harder for users to export their data to other platforms)]

Related: “In Europe, platforms are incentivized to take down first, ask questions second.” [William Echikson, Politico Europe] Pro-censorship UNC professor and New York Times contributing op-ed writer (and what a phrase that is to type) recalls days when media had but one throat to squeeze [David Henderson on Zeynep Tufekci in Wired] How Facebook recently navigated pressures on hosting a group whose leaders were prosecuted under British hate-speech laws [John Samples, Cato] From LBJ and Nixon to Trump and Elizabeth Warren, “regulation is an inherently political act.” So maybe think twice before putting Facebook and Google under the thumb of your worst political foe? [Donald E. Graham]

January 24 roundup

  • Bryan Caplan and Arthur Brooks on international adoption, the Hague Convention, and Type I and Type II error [Caplan/EconLog, Brooks/NYT]
  • It’s about the pecking order: enrolling a 3-month-old chicken in a “distinguished lawyer” marketing program [Conrad Saam]
  • West Baltimore police checkpoints, Montgomery County rent control proposals, taxes, regulations, gerrymandering and more in my latest Maryland policy roundup [Free State Notes]
  • Also from me: with Oprah Winfrey in the news, I recall the time I was on her talk show [Frederick News-Post]
  • Yet more from me: as part of a Reason symposium on Trump’s first year, his administration’s centrist course on gay issues;
  • More work for age discrimination lawyers? “The New York Times is looking for young writers” for paid positions according to its ad [archived original, and updated current page with legally safer wording, via @jackshafer]
  • “Copyright Troll Gets Smacked Around By Court, As Judge Wonders If Some Of Its Experts Even Exist” [Tim Geigner, TechDirt]

Federal judge dismisses Palin libel suit against NYT

Federal judge Jed Rakoff has dismissed Sarah Palin’s libel suit over an unfair and inaccurate swipe at her in a New York Times editorial [Eriq Gardner/Hollywood Reporter, Tim Cushing/TechDirt, Jacob Sullum/Reason, Tom Rogan/Washington Examiner]

We are rightly proud of the broad sweep of First Amendment protection our constitutional law gives to wide-open discussion about public figures, even when, as in the Times’s reference to Palin, it results in commentary that the Times itself recognized within a day was grossly off base and retracted. If the New York Times expects professional respect, however, it needs to hold itself to standards higher than the ideological schlock merchants of both sides, which would mean not printing such things in the first place.

Maybe the best outcome in the case would be if the Times paid $0 damages, but the editor who wrote the false words resigned in shame.

Workplace roundup

  • Occupational licensure reforms advance in Mississippi and Arizona [Eric Boehm, Reason, first and second posts]
  • I should live so long: “Will the New York Times’ Labor Reporting Ever Get the Facts Straight?” [Jim Epstein; coverage here of the NYT’s 2015 nail salon reporting embarrassment]
  • Silliest claim about proposed salary-history-inquiry bans is that they would advance “transparency” in hiring [Seth Barron]
  • Many states complicate offender re-entry after incarceration with needless licensing barriers and fingerprint checks [Eli Lehrer, Inside Sources]
  • H.R. 1180 (“Working Families Flexibility Act of 2017”), introduced by Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL), would curb some overtime litigation by allowing private sector comp time under some conditions [Evil HR Lady]
  • Layers of irony: “Disability Services Company to Pay $100,000 to Settle EEOC Disability Discrimination Lawsuit” [commission press release in EEOC v. ValleyLife (Arizona), h/t Roger Clegg]

“Opening up” libel law, cont’d

It is not clear whether a Thursday tweet from President Donald “Sue the Press” Trump should be interpreted as a serious policy proposal as distinct from an irritable gesture, but if its logic were pursued it might suggest that the chief executive favors extending defamation liability to coverage that is incomplete as opposed to untruthful and would have been fairer if it included points to be made on behalf of a covered personage. That’s not how defamation works under current First Amendment law, though [Jacob Sullum; earlier on Trump and libel]

Supreme Court roundup

“Trump threatens to sue New York Times”

Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, following negative coverage including a story on his use of tax breaks in real estate development [The Hill]:

Vague lawsuit threats are usually the bumptious kind: there is no cause of action for “irresponsible intent.”

Donald Trump and libel litigation

Presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaking today: “We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.” Trump also said of Amazon, whose Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, a newspaper that just ran an editorial seeking to rally opposition to Trump: “If I become president, oh do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems.”

The President has no direct power to change libel law, which consists of state law constrained by constitutional law as laid out by the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan. A President could appoint Justices intent on overturning the press protections of Sullivan or promote a constitutional amendment to overturn it. Assuming one or the other eventually was made to happen, further changes in libel law would probably require action at the state level, short of some novel attempt to create a federal cause of action for defamation.

But although Trump is unlikely to obtain the exact set of changes he outlines, the outburst is psychologically revealing. Donald Trump has been filing and threatening lawsuits to shut up critics and adversaries over the whole course of his career. He dragged reporter Tim O’Brien through years of litigation over a relatively favorable Trump biography that assigned a lower valuation to his net worth than he thought it should have. He sued the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic over a piece arguing that a planned Trump skyscraper in lower Manhattan would be “one of the silliest things” that could be built in the city. He used the threat of litigation to get an investment firm to fire an analyst who correctly predicted that the Taj Mahal casino would not be a financial success. He sued comedian Bill Maher over a joke.

I have been writing about the evils of litigation for something like 30 years, and following the litigious exploits of Donald Trump for very nearly that long. I think it very plausible to expect that if he were elected President, he would bring to the White House the same spirit of litigiousness he has so often shown as a public figure. (cross-posted at Cato at Liberty)

P.S. Also reprinted at Newsweek. And Ilya Somin cites further elements forming a pattern: Trump has expressed his wish to “have the FCC take some of his critics off the airwaves” and his regret that protesters at his events could not be dealt with in such a way that they “have to be carried out on a stretcher.” He also writes that should Trump proceed to appoint judges who strongly share his view of libel law, those judges “are unlikely to effectively protect other important speech rights and civil liberties.” And a late-January post from Patterico recalls Trump threats against the Washington Post (again), John Kasich, a t-shirt company, and a Jeb Bush PAC, to which might be added the Club for Growth, reporter Tim Mak, Scotland, Univision, and many more. Yet more: Mike Masnick, TechDirt.