Friday, December 30, 2011

Margaret Wente: Fabulous Fake Protesters, Fishermen, Polls, Pew Reports (and other possible P words?)

The Globe and Mail added an Editor's Note to address Margaret Wente’s latest error (about the Pew Global Christianity report) that we identified here - the fourth correction in seven months (sadly, others equally worthy, have been ignored).

Hmmm...anything worth looking at in the rest of the column?

For example, Wente mentions Philip Jenkins’ 2002 book “The Next Christendom” only late in the article and in passing, even though much of her column relies on his ideas (and the corrected claims are now attributed to him). Some parts also sound a lot like previous reviews of Jenkins’ book.

Library Journal: by the year 2050, only about one-fifth of the world's three billion Christians will be non-Hispanic Caucasian.

Wente: By 2050, only a fifth of the world’s three billion Christians will be non-Hispanic Caucasians.

Library Journal: with the rise of Islam and Christianity in the heavily populated areas of the Southern Hemisphere, we could see a wave of religious struggles, a new age of Christian crusades and Muslim jihads.

Wente: The rise of Islam and Christianity in the heavily populated South could create a new era of religious strife, of jihads and crusades.

Ms. Wente also provides exactly the same Jenkins quote that had appeared in another online review, then follows up with a paragraph that begins: “Or, you could argue that Christianity is simply returning to its roots” - sort of like the “or” indicates that what follows is her own contribution or counter-theory, when in fact, the paragraph includes both Jenkins words (Jenkins: “As Christianity moves South and East, it is returning to its roots” – emphasis added), and a number of his other ideas in a form similar to the same book review which contained the quote.

Wente: It was born as the religion of the outcast and the dispossessed. Today, it’s embraced by young rural migrants flooding to the giant, impersonal cities. Like Islam, Christianity is a reaction to urbanization, cultural upheaval and displacement. It provides meaning, community, refuge, support networks and an anchor. It also offers blessings and redemption. Christianity, in its original form, preaches that supernatural intervention can help you in the here and now…

About.com: They are, quite simply, fulfilling profound social needs. Countries in the south are experiencing great economic and demographic difficulties – traditional ways of life are fading away while young people are moving in increasing numbers to the cities…Increasing numbers of people, disconnected from tradition and family, are searching for meaning and community in impersonal cities….Christian groups form a sort of “radical community”…where supernatural power is shown to act in their lives, here and now…

Wente doesn’t attribute these ideas to Jenkins or the various reviews. But as we’ve seen, there are other instances of what people might consider plagiarism or improper attribution. And it’s difficult to understand why the Globe would correct a 19 word attribution issue from the New York Times, but leave other, longer examples standing.

And there’s this little attribution problem (noted in comments) from December 22: “According to a poll by Ipsos Reid, two-thirds of Canadians approve of its efforts to boost the military and fight crime. Sixty per cent of the public feel the government is enhancing Canada’s reputation in the world. And a whopping 80 per cent agree with its decision to ban the niqab at citizenship ceremonies – a move derided by much of the progressive left,” Wente informs us.

The last of those results are not from Ipsos Reid, who didn’t poll on the subject of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. Could be an older Angus Reid poll on the niqab in Qu├ębec, or a Forum Research survey done for Sun News. We don’t know, because the Globe and Mail won’t say.

I wonder if Ms. Wente will offer up one of those year-end reflections on columns past? As a member of the Q Media Panel on CBC, she was asked to select the most over-rated story of the year. She chose the Occupy protests, and had the brazenness to claim that they were a “media projection”.

Well, in her hands they were. Wente set out to paint the Occupiers as lazy, entitled students. The laziness and entitlement seem to be hers, though – since, rather than go out and interview anyone herself, she just picked up characters from other stories - one of whom, it turned out, was not an Occupy protester at all.

While Wente’s “John” was not fabulism (among other things, inventing a character from scratch would have required more work), one could argue that the effect was the same – and that “John” as a “face” of the Occupiers, went past the notion of a ‘media projection’ into fiction – a character cut and pasted from one narrative into a different one (in which he had no part), similar to the scientist who mysteriously became a fisherman in Margaret’s story.

The Globe corrected the most recent Pew error, probably because Pew contacted them, and they carry some weight. But it should have been corrected because it was wrong. Otherwise, they seem more interested in protecting their long-time columnist and former editor from further embarrassment. Sadly, in so doing, they seem less concerned with their responsibilities to readers, or with upholding the standards that (hopefully) the rest of their writers still respect. Let’s hope for better things in the New Year.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Margaret Wente, Math and Christianity: More factual/attribution errors?

Wente writes that Christianity is the “fastest-growing religion in the world today”. “By 2050, Christians will outnumber Muslims 3 to 1.”

She claims that this comes from a “new report on global Christianity from the Pew Research Center.”

A pdf of the report is here, and if anyone can find anything suggesting that “By 2050, Christians will outnumber Muslims 3 to 1”, please advise. My search turns up no 2050 projections at all, and Muslims are not mentioned except in a footnote on Russia.

Wente goes on to describe a 2002 book by Philip Jenkins, offering similar points and the identical selected quote found in this book review:

There, another Jenkins quote appears: “Soon the phrase “a White Christian” may sound like a curious oxymoron…By 2050, there should be about three Christians for every two Muslims worldwide”.

The “should be” looks like it’s followed by a proviso – confirmed when Jenkins notes that while the percentage of Christians worldwide has remained the same for the past 100 years, Muslim numbers have surged from 12 or 13 percent in 1900 to just under 25 percent today.

Unlike the Pew Report, Jenkins does offer 2050 projections, writing: “Christians in 1900 outnumbered Muslims by 2.8 to 1. Today the figure is 1.5 to 1, and by 2050 it should be 1.3 to 1.” (Philip Jenkins, “The Next Christendom”, page 203)

http://books.google.ca/books?id=EIAKmFFfG3sC&pg=PA203&lpg=PA203&dq=2050+christians+muslims&source=bl&ots=v3X0LC0NVA&sig=etL3uuUSCCAMc-8iaXJG-ne2Lgo&hl=en&sa=X&ei=-cv1TrWbHqLZ0QG-1-mVAg&ved=0CCQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=2050%20christians%20muslims&f=false


Last month, Wente picked up an unsuspecting "John" and erroneously turned him into the “face” of the Occupy movement. She’s also been known to turn scientists into fishermen. These mishaps usually occur through a failure to attribute, which is a fairly common occurence. Here she attributes statistics to a report, but the claims don’t seem to be there. Did she make up a billion extra Christians, or subtract a few million Muslims? Did she accidentally turn Jenkin’s 2050 ratio of “1.3 to 1” into “3 to 1”? And why did she claim that these figures come from the Pew Center?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Margaret Wente’s methods: Are there different attribution standards for different journalists?

More borrowed/recycled material? Just highlighting addenda to a post earlier this week which identified similar questions. In todays’s column, Margaret Wente recycles again. Here she is on January 7, 2011 with the same message and the same quote:

Wente, Dec. 10, 2011: This steady rise in material well-being helps explains why the Occupy movement didn’t catch on as many people expected it to. On the whole, average people think their lives are pretty good. “They don’t feel the moral outrage that radiates from the more passionate egalitarian quarters of society,” writes Prof. Cowen.

Wente, Jan. 7, 2011: There’s a reason people aren’t rioting in the streets over rising inequality. As Tyler Cowen writes in a widely noted essay (The Inequality that Matters) in The American Interest quarterly, ‘when average people read about or see income inequality, they don’t feel the moral outrage that radiates from the more passionate egalitarian quarters of society”.

And just to demonstrate how prevalent these attribution questions are, a quick scan of the same January 7 column turns up what seem to be more borrowed quotes and wayward quotation marks:

A passage about The Economist appears in an earlier review of the same book Wente criticizes (The Spirit Level). Not only does she reproduce the quote as if she found it herself, the words in bold caps - which appear within quotation marks in Snowdon’s version - are presented as Wente’s own prose in the Globe.

Christopher Snowdon: The Economist published its Quality of Life index in 2005, the relative income theory was explicitly rejected: ‘There is no evidence… that an increase in someone’s income causes envy and reduces the welfare and satisfaction of others. In our estimates, the level of income inequality had no impact on levels of life satisfaction.’

Wente, Jan. 7, 2011: And The Economist, among many others, argues there is no evidence that an increase in someone’s income causes envy and reduces the welfare and satisfaction of others. “In our estimates, the level of income inequality had no impact on levels of life satisfaction,” it noted in its quality-of-life index.

It’s interesting to compare the growing list of attribution questions in Ms. Wente’s writing (three of which have resulted in corrections/Editor’s Notes in the last several months) with other journalists who have apologized or been been fired for plagiarism. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable could explain how they are they different?

Addendum: And there's more. Same column.

Wente, Dec. 10, 2011: “The inequality of personal well-being is sharply down,” wrote economics professor Tyler Cowen in a terrific essay, The Inequality That Matters….Bill Gates may have a much bigger house than you do, but he eats the same kind of food and wears the same kind of clothes. And thanks to him, even poor people have access to computers.

Michael Barone: Tyler Cowen writes in The American Interest, "The inequality of personal well-being is sharply down over the past hundred years and perhaps over the past 20 years, as well." Bill Gates may have a bigger house than you do. But you have about the same access to good food, medical care and even to the Internet as he does.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Margaret Wente: More migrating quotes and improper attribution?

Checking facts and quotes is sort of like the morning crossword. Sometimes it turns up alarming things, like when Margaret Wente apparently picked up a “John” on some website and took him to the Occupy protests.

Maybe Ms. Wente sprinkles quotes in her columns to make it look like she does research. But often these people are “her friends”, like “Virginia”, or “Ben”. Columns frequently begin and end with personal anecdote, making it seem as though the ideas and insights spring from her own experience. But there are problems.

Today's attribution issue: Ontario’s new anti-bullying initiative for schools, which Wente opposes. “Plenty of teachers are skeptical, too”, she writes, offering examples of what readers assume are some of those skeptical Ontario educators to backstop her claim. Wente provides three un-sourced quotes. One is something she says an unnamed teacher “told her”.

And: “’Administrators have had their spines surgically removed,’ one teacher says”.

This quote turns up on a 2001 blog post that has nothing to do with bullying or public schools, let alone the new Ontario law at the center of Wente’s article. Linda Seebach’s comment concerns academic freedom in American universities. Don’t know whether that’s where Ms. Wente found it, but given “John”’s surprising second life as an Occupy protester, one has to wonder.

Seebach, a geriatric blogger and contributor to the far right FrontPage Magazine (amongst other publications), also writes about the “nanny state”, “leftist universities”, and (like Wente) the appalling state of math instruction. A decade ago, she penned a diatribe on “political correctness” on American campuses that included this line:

If you’re not routinely involved in higher education, you may not realize that many senior administrators have had their spines surgically removed as they crawled up the academic ladder.”

Seebach identifies herself as a “retired editorial writer and op-ed columnist” from Minnesota, “where in an earlier century she had been a math professor at St. Olaf College”. Given that they seem to share so many things, perhaps Ms. Wente considers her a kindred spirit, but Seebach’s comment appeared as that of an editorialist on another topic, and cannot legitimately be viewed as the solicited reaction of a “teacher” to Ontario’s new legislation.

We’ll skip over the problems with facts and arguments, and go to the third quote.

Wente: “As one school safety consultant says, ‘Parents and educators have the most important tools that legislation cannot deliver – education and supervision.’”

This looks like it comes from another American blog, although the post also appeared here, as a Letter to the Editor about cyber-bullying legislation in the U.S.

Kenneth Trump of Cleveland: Parents and educators have the most important tools that legislation cannot deliver: Education and supervision”.

So, while it would have been both relevant and important to obtain reaction from Ontario educators about the new anti-bullying proposals, Wente contents herself with old, borrowed material, providing not one identified quote from the “plenty” of teachers she claims oppose it.

And as with “John”, it’s reasonable to ask how appropriate or professional it is to take un-attributed quotes from one context and repurpose them for a different issue.

More quote/attribution problems:

Plagiarism?

As has happened before, Ms. Wente fails to capture the entirety of a passage in quotation marks. Does the second sentence (in bold caps) constitute plagiarism?

Joel Kotkin, Foreign Policy: Cities often offer a raw deal for the working class, which ends up squeezed by a lethal combination of chronically high housing costs and chronically low opportunity in economies dominated by finance and other elite industries. Once the cost of living is factored in, more than half the children in inner London live in poverty…

Wente: As Mr. Kotkin has written, “Cities often offer a raw deal for the working class, which ends up squeezed by a lethal combination of chronically high housing costs and chronically low opportunity in economies dominated by finance and other elite industries.” Once the cost of living is factored in, more than half the children in inner London live in poverty.

Inaccurate quote?

Wente: “The environmental movement is deeply stained with a sort of Malthusian current,” Mr. Owen says. “It's anti-urban, anti-industrial, agrarian, primitivist.”

David Owen, quoting Daniel Lazare: Recently I asked (Daniel) Lazare whether he detected that same antagonism in the American environmental movement. “Unquestionably”, he said. “Green ideology is a rural agrarian ideology… The environmental movement is deeply stained with a sort of Malthusian current. It's anti-urban, anti-industrial, agrarian, primitivist.”

Recycled? Borrowed?

Maybe Ms. Wente doesn’t like the work involved in gathering quotes or soliciting comment. Recently she recycled a bit from an article she had written just weeks earlier:

Wente, July 30, 2011: As Fortune’s Nina Easton writes, 20 per cent of all American men are “collecting unemployment, in prison, on disability, operating in the underground economy, or getting by on the paycheques of wives or girlfriends or parents.”

Wente, August 16, 2011: These men, as Fortune’s Nina Easton observes, are either “collecting unemployment, in prison, on disability, operating in the underground economy, or getting by on the paycheques of wives or girlfriends or parents.”

The August column also includes a quote from Karl Marx. One might be forgiven for wondering whether Margaret has a bedside copy of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Or is it possible the quote came from an editorial in the Australian on the same topic?

Wente, August 16, 2011: Karl Marx described such people as “vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, brothel-keepers, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars.” (He was referring to 19th-century France.)

Brendan O'Neill, The Australian, August 6: this welfare-state mob has more in common with what Marx described as the lumpenproletariat. Indeed, it is worth remembering Marx's colourful description in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon…“vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, brothel-keepers, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars…”


Addendum: Today’s column is pretty much a rehash of one from earlier in the year – again re-using an identical quote.

Wente, Dec. 10, 2011: This steady rise in material well-being helps explains why the Occupy movement didn’t catch on as many people expected it to. On the whole, average people think their lives are pretty good. “They don’t feel the moral outrage that radiates from the more passionate egalitarian quarters of society,” writes Prof. Cowen.

Wente, Jan. 7, 2011: There’s a reason people aren’t rioting in the streets over rising inequality. As Tyler Cowen writes in a widely noted essay (The Inequality that Matters) in The American Interest quarterly, ‘when average people read about or see income inequality, they don’t feel the moral outrage that radiates from the more passionate egalitarian quarters of society”.

Addendum 2:

And just to demonstrate how common this is, from the same January 7 column, more migrating quotation marks. The passage about The Economist, which Wente presents as if she dug it up herself, in fact appears in an earlier review of the same book she discusses (The Spirit Level). Not only does she reproduce the quote, the highlighted words - which appear within quotation marks in Snowdon’s version - are presented as Wente’s own prose in the Globe.

Christopher Snowdon: The Economist published its Quality of Life index in 2005, the relative income theory was explicitly rejected: ‘There is no evidence… that an increase in someone’s income causes envy and reduces the welfare and satisfaction of others. In our estimates, the level of income inequality had no impact on levels of life satisfaction.’

Wente, Jan. 7, 2011: And The Economist, among many others, argues there is no evidence that an increase in someone’s income causes envy and reduces the welfare and satisfaction of others. “In our estimates, the level of income inequality had no impact on levels of life satisfaction,” it noted in its quality-of-life index.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Margaret Wente: attribution, quotation marks?

Related content turned up the Pinker/Gladwell debate, and an older Wente article - ostensibly about Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”. Again she shows herself to be a fan’ of Steven Pinker (and another author). Don’t know if this was noted at the time, but since Ms. Wente thinks students get away with plagiarism too easily, one might ask whether turning in something like this would be acceptable.

Aside from a short section in quotes, some of Pinker’s (at times identical) wording is not included in quotation marks (see sections in bold caps).

Wente: Mr. Pinker… wrote: “The common thread in Gladwell's writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favour of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition” – explaining his appeal to both the Horatio Alger right (Mr. Gladwell is extremely popular on the Dilbert circuit) and the egalitarian left.

Pinker, NYT: The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition… this has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left.

Earlier in the same NYT piece, Pinker uses the same expression Wente places in parentheses : a popular speaker on the Dilbert circuit.

Perhaps more problematical, Wente doesn’t summarize Gladwell’s wide ranging and eclectic book herself – it seems Pinker’s criticism of certain parts will do:

Wente: Mr. Gladwell claims that cognitive skills don't predict success, that intelligence scores do not relate closely to job performance and that above a minimum IQ of 120, higher intelligence doesn't bring greater intellectual achievements.

Pinker, NYT: It is simply not true thatcognitive skills don’t predict a teacher’s effectiveness, that intelligence scores are poorly related to job performance or… that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements.

Later, Wente drops in a paragraph which seemed odd, as she doesn’t strike one as an expert in Chinese agriculture. The paraphrased criticism is similar to one in a review by Peter Cocianis, an academic “completing a history of world rice production and the international rice trade since the seventeenth century”. But first, it’s worth noting how Wente sets up this little bit of Gladwell’s book (she reduces the several Asian examples Gladwell lists to just “China”):

Wente: “Mr. Gladwell's most tortured explanation for differing achievement is his effort to figure out why Chinese kids (as a group) are so much better at math than Western kids. The answer, he says, is found in centuries of rice-based agriculture”.

Gladwell on NPR: “’why is it that kids from Japan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong [and] China vastly outperform their American or Western counterparts in math,’ …Gladwell… says he found the answer in the agricultural tradition of rice farming”.

Wente:This explanation makes sense only until you realize that rice isn't cultivated in the north of China, that other Asians are also good at math and that Chinese kids born and raised in North America retain much of their advantage”.

Peter Cocianis, Open Letters Monthly, April 2009: “…paddy rice has for millennia been the leading food crop on Java, in Thailand, in Burma, and in the Philippines… Do the inhabitants of rice-growing southern China outperform the inhabitants of northern China in math? As anyone with even a cursory sense of Chinese history knows, northern China for millennia has been a wheat/millet/small grain-producing region rather than a rice region”.

It’s reasonable to wonder if she borrowed that, and if so, whether she could have given the Chinese rice expert, and his publication, credit. As for Pinker, perhaps he wouldn't object - after all, she's a fan and helps him sell books. And maybe he doesn't need whatever he makes from a piece in the NYT.

*****

Context: Other attribution issues (aside from the most recent "John" debacle – which netted an Editor’s Note/clarification), are re-posted below, beginning with two the paper chose to address.

May 2011: In an article with a number of other borrowed, un-attributed quotes, Wente turns Dr. Mike Carron, a scientist at Mississippi State University, into a "fisherman".

Wente: “Red snapper are unbelievable right now,” one fisherman said. “You could put a rock on the end a string and they’d bite it.”

AP: "Red snapper are unbelievable right now," said Mike Carron, head of the Northern Gulf Institute in Mississippi. "Now you could put a rock on the end of string and they'll bite it."

Globe Correction: “A quotation about the abundance of red snapper in the gulf of Mexico, in a column of April 26, should have been attributed to Michael Carron, chief scientist of the Northern Gulf Institute”.

June 2011, Margaret and the New York Times:

Wente: …But it hasn't worked out that way, Mr. West writes. Instead, what we've built is a vast cultural dependency. Americans and Canadians are fighting and dying while the Afghans by and large stand by and do nothing to help them.

Dexter Filkins: …This isn’t happening. What we have created instead, West shows, is a vast culture of dependency: Americans are fighting and dying, while the Afghans by and large stand by and do nothing to help them.

Globe Correction, June 3: The words “Americans…are fighting and dying, while the Afghans by and large stand by and do nothing to help them” in the Focus section of March 12 should have been attributed to Dexter Filkins in the New York Times.

Unaddressed attribution: Wente and Helen Rumbelow, The Times, May 2011 (overlapping sections in bold caps):

Wente: ONE OF THE WORLD'S MOST AUTHORITATIVE SOURCES OF BREASTFEEDING RESEARCH IS MICHAEL KRAMER, PROFESSOR OF PEDIATRICS AT MCGILL UNIVERSITY. "The public health breastfeeding promotion information is way out of date," HE SAYS. THE TROUBLE IS THAT THE BREASTFEEDING LOBBY IS AT WAR WITH THE FORMULA MILK INDUSTRY, AND NEITHER SIDE IS BEING VERY SCIENTIFIC. "When it becomes a crusade, people are not very rational."

Rumbelow: ...ONE OF THE WORLD'S MOST AUTHORITATIVE SOURCES OF BREASTFEEDING RESEARCH: MICHAEL KRAMER, PROFESSOR OF PAEDIATRICS AT MCGILL UNIVERSITY, MONTREAL.

..."The public health breastfeeding promotion information is way out of date," KRAMER SAYS. THE TROUBLE IS, HE SAID, THAT THE BREASTFEEDING LOBBY IS AT WAR WITH THE FORMULA MILK INDUSTRY, AND "NEITHER SIDE IS BEING VERY SCIENTIFIC ... when it becomes a crusade, people are not very rational."

Wente and the Cato Institute website:

Wente wrote about Hernando de Soto in "The bad-paper trail: Where are the toxic assets?", Globe, May 2, 2009. Almost identical wording had appeared in de Soto's Cato Institute profile:

Wente: "delivering formal property rights to poor people can bring them out of the sway of demagogues and into the modern global economy…"

Cato Institute: “Delivering formal property rights to the poor can bring them out of the sway of demagogues and into the extended order of the modern global economy”.

Wente: “For his challenge to the status quo, the Shining Path, the Peruvian Marxist terrorist group, targeted him for assassination. His offices were bombed and his car was machine-gunned. Today, the Shining Path is moribund, and Mr. de Soto continues his passionate mission”.

Cato Institute: “For his efforts, the Peruvian Marxist terror group Shining Path targeted him for assassination. The institute's offices were bombed. His car was machine-gunned. Today the Shining Path is moribund, but de Soto remains very much alive and a passionate advocate…”

And this.