Many times, at parties and in other conversations over the years, I
have vociferously defended fellow journalists against charges of bias
in their work. Particularly journalists working in the lowly field of
print journalism, as opposed to TV.
everyone in the field is perfect, unbiased, or even a good reporter.
And not that I haven't ever encountered an editor who really, really
wanted a story to say "X" as opposed to "Y." I remember one editor who
complained that a story I'd done about NASA test pilots didn't make
them sound like the wild cowboys he imagined they were.
(Unfortunately--or fortunately--the truth about test pilots is, they're
not cowboys. They're precision engineers and very calculated
risk-mitigators, hitting test cards with calm, methodical accuracy. The
risk isn't in their attitude. It's in the inherent hazards of testing
new technology under real conditions for the first time.)
within those caveats, I've always maintained that the majority of
professional print journalists, anyway, try very, very hard to get the
story right. But recently, I had an experience that gave me a new
perspective on the issue.
A few weeks ago, I
attended the public launch of a company's product that had, until that
point, been kept tightly under wraps. The product involved a
breakthrough approach and new technology that had the potential of
having a revolutionary impact on its industry, as well on consumers
around the world. Unlike most of the journalists covering the event, I
was not an expert on that particular industry. It wasn't my normal
"beat." The reason I was there was because I'd been interviewing the
company's CEO over the previous several months for a book project. But
that also meant that while I wasn't an expert about the industry in
general, I was in the odd position of knowing more about the company's
"secret" product than any other journalist in the room.
was an eye-opening experience. A lot of major news outlets and
publications were represented at the press conference following the
announcement. A few very general facts about the product had been
released, but the reporters had only been introduced to details about
it a half hour earlier. There was still a lot about how it worked, how
it differed from other emerging products, and why the company felt so
confident about its evolution and economic viability, that remained to
But the reporters' questions
weren't geared toward getting a better understanding of those points.
They were narrowly focused on one or two aspects of the story. And from
the questions that were being asked, I realized--because I had so much
more information on the subject--that the reporters were missing a
couple of really important pieces of understanding about the product
and its use. And as the event progressed, I also realized that the
questions that might have uncovered those pieces weren't being asked
because the reporters already had a story angle in their heads and were
focused only on getting the necessary data points to flesh out and back
up what they already thought was the story.
is always a tension, as a journalist, between asking open-ended
questions that allow an interview subject to explain something and
pressing or challenging them on accuracy or details. But if you think
you already know the subject, or already have a story angle half-formed
in your head, it's easy to overlook the first part.
journalists at the press conference didn't have a bias as the term is
normally used; that is, I didn't get the sense that they were
inherently for or against the company or its product. They just
appeared to think they knew the subject well enough, or had a set
enough idea in their heads as to what this kind of story was about,
that they pursued only the lines of questioning necessary to fill in
the blanks of that presumed story line. As a result, they left the
press conference with less knowledge and understanding than they
otherwise might have had. And while nobody could have said the
resulting stories were entirely wrong, they definitely suffered
from that lapse. Especially, as might be expected, when it came to the
predictions they made about the product's evolution or future.
In his new book, How We Decide,
Jonah Lehrer cites a research study done by U.C. Berkeley professor
Philip Tetlock. Tetlock questioned 284 people who made their living
"commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends,"
asking them to make predictions about future events. Over the course of
the study, Tetlock collected quantitative data on over 82,000
predictions, as well as information from follow-up interviews with the
subjects about the thought processes they'd used to come to those
His findings were surprising.
Most of Tetlock's questions about the future events were put in the
form of specific, multiple choice questions, with three possible
answers. But for all their expertise, the pundits' predictions turned
out to be correct less than 33% of the time. Which meant, as Lehrer
puts it, that a "dart-throwing chimp" would have had a higher rate of
success. Tetlock also found that the least accurate predictions were
made by the most famous experts in the group.
Why was that? According to Lehrer,
"The central error diagnosed by Tetlock was the sin of certainty,
which led the 'experts' to impose a top-down solution on their
decision-making processes ... When pundits were convinced that they
were right, they ignored any brain areas that implied they might be
Tetlock himself, Lehrer
says, concluded that "The dominant danger [for pundits] remains hubris,
the vice of closed-mindedness, of dismissing dissonant possibilities
A friend of mine who's an editor at the New York Times
said those results don't surprise him at all. "If you watch a White
House press conference," he said, "you can tell who the new reporters
are. They're often the ones who ask the best questions." I must have
looked a little surprised. "Seriously," he said. "I actually think we
should rotate reporters' beats every two years, so nobody ever thinks
they're too much of an expert at anything."
an interesting idea. There's some advantage to having good background
in a subject, of course. For one thing, it takes a lot less time to
research and write a story if you at least know the general subject
matter and have tracked news developments in it over a period of time.
And while an expert can miss information because they assume they
already know what there is to know, a newcomer can miss information
from not knowing enough to know what there is to ask.
a tricky balance to try to strike--in part because assuming we know the
salient points of a topic or story isn't an obvious, conscious bias as
most people define or understand the term. Indeed, "practically all" of
the professionals in Tetlock's study claimed, and no doubt believed,
that they were dispassionately analyzing the evidence. But it's a
reminder that we all have, as Tetlock put it, the potential to become
"prisoners of our preconceptions." And that sometimes, even if we think
we know the story, it might be worth asking questions as if we don't.
Every now and then, we might hear or learn something that, as long as
we're open to hearing it, might change our minds about what the real
A new anatomical understanding of how movement controls the body’s stress response system
Elite tennis players have an uncanny ability to clear their heads after making errors. They constantly move on and start fresh for the next point. They can’t afford to dwell on mistakes.
Peter Strick is not a professional tennis player. He’s a distinguished professor and chair of the department of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. He’s the sort of person to dwell on mistakes, however small.
“My kids would tell me, dad, you ought to take up pilates. Do some yoga,” he said. “But I’d say, as far as I’m concerned, there's no scientific evidence that this is going to help me.”
Still, the meticulous skeptic espoused more of a tennis approach to dealing with stressful situations: Just teach yourself to move on. Of course there is evidence that ties practicing yoga to good health, but not the sort that convinced Strick. Studies show correlations between the two, but he needed a physiological mechanism to explain the relationship. Vague conjecture that yoga “decreases stress” wasn’t sufficient. How? Simply by distracting the mind?
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The choice to leave academia does not have to mean life as a barista.
There is a widespread belief that humanities Ph.D.s have limited job prospects. The story goes that since tenure-track professorships are increasingly being replaced by contingent faculty, the vast majority of English and history Ph.D.s now roam the earth as poorly-paid adjuncts or, if they leave academia, as baristas and bookstore cashiers. As English professor William Pannapacker put it in Slate a few years back, “a humanities Ph.D. will place you at a disadvantage competing against 22-year-olds for entry-level jobs that barely require a high-school diploma.” His advice to would-be graduate students was simple: Recognize that a humanities Ph.D is now a worthless degree and avoid getting one at all cost.
Women engage in indirect aggression and slut-shaming, even in clinical research studies. Why?
One day in Ontario, 86 straight women were paired off into groups of two—either with a friend or a stranger—and taken to a lab at McMaster University. There, a researcher told them they were about to take part in a study about female friendships. But they were soon interrupted by one of two women.
Half the participants were interrupted by a thin, blond, attractive woman with her hair in a bun, dressed in a plain blue t-shirt and khaki pants, whom the researchers called “the conservative confederate."
A man who served the regime recounts his efforts to bring it down.
The theory of Jung Gwang Il’s work is essentially this: Tiny packets of information just might bring an end to decades of tyranny in his homeland. From his base in South Korea, he sends USB drives, SD cards, and other devices—loaded with Hollywood movies, South Korean television shows, and testimonials from North Korean defectors—across North Korea’s borders. His weapons against North Korea’s repressive, nuclear-armed regime are Skyfalland South Korean soaps. His battlefield is a country with no free press, virtually no internet (there’s an intranet), and minimal relations with much of the planet. Jung’s mission, in other words, is to funnel fragments of the outside world into the most information-starved nation on earth—and to thereby undermine a government for which he was once willing to sacrifice his life.
Recently I sat down with Vice President Joe Biden to explore whether his approach to foreign policy challenges, and his patterns of interaction with global leaders, constituted something distinctive enough to call “The Biden Doctrine,” which I wrote about here in The Atlantic. In a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion that touched on America’s current political contest, the vice president shared some of what he believes are Hillary Clinton’s strengths and weaknesses. And in a powerful ending to our chat, Biden indicted the leadership elites of both parties for looking down on and leaving behind Americans who deserve better. I felt that this material deserved its own space, and wanted to share the larger conversation with readers. The transcript, condensed and edited for clarity, follows.
A 160,000-mile quest to visit all 59 of the country's natural treasures
Mark Burns spent five years visiting all 59 of the United States' national parks. Captured in stirring black and white images, his landscape photography project was completed just in time for the National Park Service's centennial celebration. “It's a time to reflect on the rich history of our national parks,” Burns said of his 160,000-mile journey, “but it's also a time to plan wisely for the next 100 years.” Glacier Bay's wild coastline, Death Valley's parched terrain, and Yellowstone's surging geysers are all pictured in searing detail. One image from each park is currently being exhibited at the Houston Museum of Natural Science until September 5th. A selection can be found below.
City dwellers spend nearly every moment of every day awash in Wi-Fi signals. Homes, streets, businesses, and office buildings are constantly blasting wireless signals every which way for the benefit of nearby phones, tablets, laptops, wearables, and other connected paraphernalia.
When those devices connect to a router, they send requests for information—a weather forecast, the latest sports scores, a news article—and, in turn, receive that data, all over the air. As it communicates with the devices, the router is also gathering information about how its signals are traveling through the air, and whether they’re being disrupted by obstacles or interference. With that data, the router can make small adjustments to communicate more reliably with the devices it’s connected to.
One black woman tries to reconcile her faith with the institution’s history of discrimination.
It’s been six years since I became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Each year has been a lesson in faith and doubt, stretching and engaging what it means to be black, a woman, and Mormon. The decision to join on my own was not an easy one. As the child of a Protestant mother and a father who converted to Islam in his teens, I was doing something unheard of in my family by becoming a Mormon. And as a black woman, I had a heightened awareness of what it means to potentially be the only black person in any given congregation in the United States.
As a child, I watched as preachers in my congregation espoused their deepest beliefs about God. They spoke to the horrors faced by black people in the United States in their dealings in life and death. There was intense power in their sermons, one that was complemented by the soft presence of a “Black Jesus,” a savior who understood the plight of African Americans in word and form. He represented the long tradition of resistance within the black church to white-supremacist theology: Racialized violence in the United States was often supported by white Christians who recognized whiteness as good and blackness as evil. Within the walls of my congregation, blackness was not discounted, but embraced in all its various forms from the pulpit to the pews. Islam also informed my faith; I witnessed the immense devotion in my father’s prayers and the care with which he kept his Koran. These two traditions of my childhood shared a reverence for and recognition of a version of God who is not racist.
Every year, hundreds of people attend the Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot, cultivating a love for assault weapons in an era of mass violence.
It was Saturday at the 16th-annual Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot and Trade Show, and I had my thumbs on the trigger of a Browning M1919, prepared to unleash hellacious destruction on an unsuspecting refrigerator.
The Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot is one of several “machine-gun shoots” around the country. For two days in June, hundreds of people traveled to Wyandotte, Oklahoma, for the opportunity to fire nearly every species of automatic weapon from the past century. There were UZIs and M16s, Barrett .50-caliber rifles, WWII-era belt-fed Brownings, and even a Minigun—a giant, chair-mounted cylindrical device powered by a car battery. As of 10 a.m., all 84 firing positions were trained downrange onto a hill stocked with junked cars and dead kitchen appliances, waiting for the starting signal.