The vocabulary is political

Remember when the (GW) Bush administration decided that torture should be called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and then the New York Times, like all other American news sources, started to call torture “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and people wrote angry letters to the public editor, and the public editor eventually wrote that if the White House decides that torture should not be called torture then calling torture torture is a political issues on which reporters should not take sides?

And Paul Krugman wrote a column in which he said that if the Bush administration declared that the Earth is flat, then the New York Times would have an article headlined “Roundness of Earth disputed,” in which it would make sure to have quotes both from round-Earther and flat-Earther?

Part of the reason for all this, as explained in this very good article in The Atlantic, is that political reporters (as opposed to political opinion writers) need access, that is, they need White House officials to talk to them, whether on the record or off the record. The ability to withhold access gives administration officials great leverage.

And so Myron Ebell, who works in a think-tank financed by the coal industry, and according to whom climate change is a vast conspiracy perpetrated by left-wing scientists, some of which scientists he has personally attacked, and who is being considered to lead the EPA, is now a climate contrarian, according to the New York Times.

Maybe soon enough, outside the opinion page, the New York Times will start calling racism “race realism.”

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Should the NYT and the ACM report facts?

Last week, the public editor of the New York Times wrote a post asking the following question: when the paper reports a statement from a public figure which is not true, should it also report the fact that the statement is false?

The post received hundreds of comments, mostly of the form “Wait, what? Is this even a question?” and it has stimulated a rich online discussion, mostly as incredulous that this would even be a question. In fact, the reluctance of mainstream media to report facts (as opposed to reporting statements) has been a long-standing problem. More than eleven years ago, Paul Krugman wrote “If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ”Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.” After all, the earth isn’t perfectly spherical.

Krugman was joking, but something rather similar happened when reports of prisoner abuse surfaced during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Times was taken to task for never referring to the abuse as “torture” and eventually there was an article (from the public editor at the time? I wasn’t able to find it) explaining that since the Administration had taken the position that whatever happened to the prisoners was not torture, to say otherwise would have meant choosing sides in a political controversy.

If you are reading in theory you are probably aware of two bills making their way in the Senate and the House, called PIPA and SOPA, respectively, which have the goal of shutting down sites that illegally contain (or link to) copyrighted material. While the DCMA already allows the shutting down of web site in such cases, it can only be enforced within the US. PIPA and SOPA would allow copyright holders to go after a foreign website by requiring Domain Name Servers to stop resolving the domain name, and requiring search engines to stop linking to the website.

Objections to the bill include concerns about the unintended consequences of giving the state the power and the technical ability to “censor” websites, about the security vulnerabilities that would arise from any tampering with the DNS protocols, and the ramification, both in terms or quality of results and of free speech considerations, for search engines.

Meanwhile, the Research Works Act would forbid the NIH and other federal agencies to mandate open access publishing of the papers resulted from sponsored research. The intention of the bill, which is to restrict access to federally funded research, is an attack to the academic community, for which open access is an unqualified good thing.

As the leading association of technical and academic computer science professionals, one would expect the ACM to publicize the technical issues involved with SOPA and PIPA (the free speech issues are clearly a political issue on which the ACM might want to stay neutral) and to come out strongly in opposition of the Research Works Act, especially considering that ACM is a member of the Association of American Publishers, which has been the main lobbying force behind the bill, so that not speaking out is essentially the same as supporting the bill. The MIT press, for example, which is a member of the AAP, has come out against the Research Works Act.

The President of the ACM, however, has stated his intention of keeping the ACM away from any discussion of SOPA, PIPA and the Research Works ACT. (An ACM technical committee might produce a statement on SOPA and PIPA, but it would not be a position statement of the organization as a whole.)

Edited to add: the White House has come out against the DNS-blocking provision, and there are moves under way to amend both legislation to remove DNS-blocking. Meanwhile, as Doug Tyger correctly points out in the comments, the United States ACM Public Policy Council has sent letters to congress highlighting the technical concerns raised by the proposed legislation.

Lies, Damn Lies, and New York Times Reporting

Exercise for the reader: find what is wrong with the following paragraphs from an article in the New York Times about the high cost of certain cancer drugs.

In the clinical trial that led to approval of the drug, 27 percent of the 109 patients experienced a reduction in tumor size. The reductions lasted a median of 9.4 months.

But considering all the patients in the trial, only 12 percent had a reduction in tumor size that lasted for more than 14 weeks.

Update: from the press release of the pharmaceutical company:

The results of the trial demonstrated that 29 of 109 evaluable patients, or 27%, responded to FOLOTYN. The median duration of response was 287 days, or 9.4 months (range 1-503 days). Thirteen of 109 evaluable patients had a duration of response ≥ 14 weeks (range 98-503 days).

So the median of 29 numbers is 287, and 16 of those numbers are less than 98.