Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

Bobo thinks he understands statistics, FSM help us.  In “The Philosophy of Data” he cobbles together some disparate studies about statistics and gurgles that our ability to gather and process huge amounts of data does many things, including correcting intuitive biases and illuminating patterns of behavior.  He really needs to sit down with Nate Silver who can explain data collection and statistics to him in words of one syllable.  Mr. Cohen is in Munich, and has tottered very close to a “let’s you and him fight” column.  In “Intervene in Syria” he says a political solution cannot be achieved until the balance of power is altered.  So of course we’re supposed to train and arm the Syrian Free Army and, of course, he agrees with the use of cruise missiles to destroy Assad’s aircraft on the runway.  Just what we need to get embroiled in!  Our other adventures in the area have gone so very, very well…  In “Academic Counseling Racket” Mr. Nocera says the case of Michael McAdoo, now a Baltimore Raven, shines a light on the real scandal at the University of North Carolina.  In “A Convenient Morality” Mr. Bruni says that Catholic officials all too often pick and choose when laws apply to the church.  Here’s Bobo:

If you asked me to describe the rising philosophy of the day, I’d say it is data-ism. We now have the ability to gather huge amounts of data. This ability seems to carry with it certain cultural assumptions — that everything that can be measured should be measured; that data is a transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology; that data will help us do remarkable things — like foretell the future.

Over the next year, I’m hoping to get a better grip on some of the questions raised by the data revolution: In what situations should we rely on intuitive pattern recognition and in which situations should we ignore intuition and follow the data? What kinds of events are predictable using statistical analysis and what sorts of events are not?

I confess I enter this in a skeptical frame of mind, believing that we tend to get carried away in our desire to reduce everything to the quantifiable. But at the outset let me celebrate two things data does really well.

First, it’s really good at exposing when our intuitive view of reality is wrong. For example, every person who plays basketball and nearly every person who watches it believes that players go through hot streaks, when they are in the groove, and cold streaks, when they are just not feeling it.

But Thomas Gilovich, Amos Tversky and Robert Vallone found that a player who has made six consecutive foul shots has the same chance of making his seventh as if he had missed the previous six foul shots.

When a player has hit six shots in a row, we imagine that he has tapped into some elevated performance groove. In fact, it’s just random statistical noise, like having a coin flip come up tails repeatedly. Each individual shot’s success rate will still devolve back to the player’s career shooting percentage.

Similarly, nearly every person who runs for political office has an intuitive sense that they can powerfully influence their odds of winning the election if they can just raise and spend more money. But this, too, is largely wrong.

The data show that in state and national elections that are well-financed, television ad buys barely matter. After the 2004 election, political scientists tried to measure the effectiveness of campaign commercials. They found that if one candidate ran 1,000 more commercials than his opponent in a county — a huge disproportion — that translated into a paltry 0.19 percent advantage in the vote.

After the 2006 election, Sean Trende constructed a graph comparing the incumbent campaign spending advantages with their eventual margins of victory. There was barely any relationship between more spending and a bigger victory.

In May and June of 2012, the Obama campaign unleashed a giant ad barrage against Mitt Romney, but as political scientist John Sides wrote in The Times’s FiveThirtyEight blog recently, the ads had no lasting effect.

Likewise, many teachers have an intuitive sense that different students have different learning styles: some are verbal and some are visual; some are linear, some are holistic. Teachers imagine they will improve outcomes if they tailor their presentations to each student. But there’s no evidence to support this either.

Second, data can illuminate patterns of behavior we haven’t yet noticed. For example, I’ve always assumed that people who frequently use words like “I,” “me,” and “mine” are probably more egotistical than people who don’t.

But as James Pennebaker of the University of Texas notes in his book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns,” when people are feeling confident, they are focused on the task at hand, not on themselves. High status, confident people use fewer “I” words, not more.

Pennebaker analyzed the Nixon tapes. Nixon used few “I” words early in his presidency, but used many more after the Watergate scandal ravaged his self-confidence. Rudy Giuliani used few “I” words through his mayoralty, but used many more later, during the two weeks when his cancer was diagnosed and his marriage dissolved. Barack Obama, a self-confident person, uses fewer “I” words than any other modern president.

Our brains often don’t notice subtle verbal patterns, but Pennebaker’s computers can. Younger writers use more downbeat and past-tense words than older writers who use more positive and future-tense words.

Liars use more upbeat words like “pal” and “friend” but fewer excluding words like “but,” “except” and “without.” (When you are telling a false story, it’s hard to include the things you did not see or think about.)

We think of John Lennon as the most intellectual of the Beatles, but, in fact, Paul McCartney’s lyrics had more flexible and diverse structures and George Harrison’s were more cognitively complex.

In sum, the data revolution is giving us wonderful ways to understand the present and the past. Will it transform our ability to predict and make decisions about the future? We’ll see.

Bobo, sweetie, the phrase “lies, damn lies and statistics” isn’t new…  Go have a little sit-down with Nate Silver.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Syria, for Israel, is a conundrum. The ousting of its despotic ruler, Bashar al-Assad, would remove Iran’s sole Arab ally and cut the Iranian conduit to its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. That is in Israel’s strategic interest. On the other hand Israel does not relish post-Assad chaos in Syria that allows sophisticated weaponry to fall into the hands of Al Qaeda splinter groups that love a vacuum and loathe Jews.

So it was interesting to hear Israel’s outgoing defense minister, Ehud Barak, speak in favor of Assad’s departure at the Munich Security Conference, saying he hoped to see it happen “imminently.” No option on Syria at this stage of its unraveling is without significant risk. But the worst course is the one President Obama and Western leaders have fallen into: Feeble paralysis most foul.

Israel has just bombed a Syrian convoy of antiaircraft weapons in a sortie that also hit a weapons research center — with no response from Assad beyond a belated grumble that this was “destabilizing” (that process seems advanced already). Just how much of a paper tiger Assad has become is one question raised by this attack. Another is whether the Western use of force will inevitably provoke a strong Syrian riposte; it seems not.

Syria, 22 months into its uprising, presents an unconscionable picture. Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special representative for Syria, summed up the disaster in a leaked report to the Security Council on Jan. 29. He spoke of “cities that look like Berlin in 1945.” He decried the 60,000 killed, the massacres, the 700,000 refugees (rising to one million in a few months), the more than two million internally displaced and the tens of thousands of detainees. He warned of neighbors including Jordan and Lebanon collapsing under a further flood of refugees.

“I am sorry if I sound like an old, broken record,” Brahimi told the Security Council. “But I seriously don’t see where else one should start or end except in saying that things are bad and getting worse, the country is breaking up before everyone’s eyes; there is no military solution to this conflict — at least not one that will not destroy Syria completely and destroy also the nation of Syria; Syrians cannot themselves start a peace process, their neighbors are not able to help them; only the international community may help.”

But of course the “international community” — that awful phrase — is divided, with a Libya-burned Russia and an anti-intervention China deep in a blocking game. Brahimi wants a transitional government formed with “full executive powers” (this, he explained, is diplomatic speak for Assad having “no role in the transition”). The government would be the fruit of negotiations outside Syria between opposition representatives and a “strong civilian-military” government delegation. It would then oversee a democratic transition including elections and constitutional reform.

This sounds good but will not fly. I agree with Brahimi that there is no military solution. Syria, with its mosaic of faiths and ethnicities, requires political compromise to survive. That is the endgame. But this does not mean there is no military action that can advance the desired political result by bolstering the armed capacity of the Syrian opposition, leveling the military playing field, and hastening the departure of Assad essential for the birth of a new Syria. Assad the Alawite will not go until the balance of power is decisively against him.

The United States does not want to get dragged into another intractable Middle Eastern conflict. Americans are tired of war. My colleagues Michael Gordon and Mark Landler have revealed how Obama blocked an attempt last summer by Hillary Clinton to train and supply weapons to selected Syrian rebel groups.

Nor does Obama want to find himself in the business of helping Islamist extremists inherit a Syrian vacuum. The opposition coalition is divided and lacks credibility. But the net result of these concerns cannot be feckless drift as Syria burns. Senator John McCain was right to say here that, “We should be ashamed of our collective failure to come to the aid of the Syrian people” and to answer a question about how to break the impasse with two words: “American leadership.”

An inflection point has been reached. Inaction spurs the progressive radicalization of Syria, the further disintegration of the state, the intensification of Assad’s mass killings, and the chances of the conflict spilling out of Syria in sectarian mayhem. It squanders an opportunity to weaken Iran. This is not in the West’s interest. The agreement that Assad has to go is broad; a tacit understanding that it is inevitable exists in Moscow. The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, spluttered in justified incredulity at the notion the opposition would sit down with a regime that has slaughtered its own.

It is time to alter the Syrian balance of power enough to give political compromise a chance and Assad no option but departure. That means an aggressive program to train and arm the Free Syrian Army. It also means McCain’s call to use U.S. cruise missiles to destroy Assad’s aircraft on the runway is daily more persuasive.

Any excuse to use weapons, right?  Next up is Mr. Nocera:

On the day after the Super Bowl, I got a call from Michael McAdoo, a 22-year-old defensive lineman for the winning Baltimore Ravens. I had been expecting his call for several weeks, ever since the North Carolina Court of Appeals refused to revive his lawsuit against the N.C.A.A. and the University of North Carolina, where he had played for two years before being declared permanently ineligible. Though he didn’t dress for the big game — he’s been injured most of his short professional career — McAdoo had attended the team’s practices and meetings; he told me he’d been too busy to call earlier.

Athletes almost never win lawsuits against the N.C.A.A. There is, after all, no constitutional right to play college sports, and because the N.C.A.A. is a “voluntary” organization made up of member institutions, courts are loath to interfere, even when the rules seem unfair.

In 2008, in his first semester at North Carolina, McAdoo had asked a former tutor to help him write citations for a paper, something he was unsure about. With the due date fast approaching, the woman — whom he wasn’t supposed to talk to because she was no longer an official tutor — essentially wrote the citations herself. Several years later, in the middle of a burgeoning “scandal” involving more than a dozen Carolina football players, the e-mail exchange between McAdoo and the former tutor was unearthed, and his actions were reported to the N.C.A.A. and the school’s honor court.

The honor court ruled that McAdoo should be suspended for a semester. Never one to show mercy, the N.C.A.A. went further, barring him from ever playing college football again. McAdoo sued to get reinstated, but the case was tossed. Because his college career ended prematurely, he signed with the Ravens for the professional minimum (which, at $450,000 a year, is admittedly none too shabby).

When stories like McAdoo’s burst into public view, the athlete is almost always cast as the villain, a cheater gaming the academy. But, in this case, McAdoo was the true victim. The real scandal is what goes on under the rubric of “academic counseling.”

It is not news, of course, that universities accept athletes who read at the fifth-grade level or worse; quite often academic counseling is remedial. But McAdoo wasn’t in that category. He had been an O.K. student in high school, and his mother, a schoolteacher, was adamant that he get a college education. He told his recruiters he wanted to major in criminal justice.

Once he got on campus, however, he was quickly informed by his academic counselors that North Carolina didn’t have a criminal justice major. According to McAdoo, his counselor picked his major, African-American studies, because it wouldn’t interfere with football practice.

Among the first classes he was “assigned” (as he phrases it) was a Swahili course, an “independent studies” class taught by the department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro. “There wasn’t any class,” McAdoo recalled. “You sign up. You write the paper. You get credit. I had never seen anything like it.” He never once met his professor. Despite the strange circumstances, he researched and wrote the paper. It was that paper that got him in the trouble with the N.C.A.A.

“All the academic counselors knew about the paper classes” — as they were called — “and they all steered athletes to them,” says Mary Willingham, a former academic counselor at the university.

But when the N.C.A.A. went after McAdoo, there was no mention of the phony classes. The school certainly never mentioned them, and as for the N.C.A.A., all it cared about was whether McAdoo had committed academic fraud for getting citation help in a class that never met. McAdoo’s contention — that he had no reason to believe he had done anything wrong, because he had simply done what he’d been told to do — fell on deaf ears. His college career was sacrificed so that the N.C.A.A. could maintain its longstanding pretense that college athletes are supposed to be students first.

The paper classes were eventually exposed by The News & Observer, after which the university asked former Gov. James Martin of North Carolina to conduct an investigation. Martin, who issued his report a few months ago, found that 216 courses were problematic, and that as many as 560 grades had been changed. He laid all the problems at the feet of Nyang’oro (who had earlier been allowed to retire), and one department colleague. Martin insisted that the scandal wasn’t strictly an athletic one, because nonathletes also took some of the paper classes. Well, maybe.

As for Michael McAdoo, the public humiliation still stings. “I had days when I was so depressed, I could barely get out of bed,” he told me. He feels that he put his trust in an institution that ultimately betrayed him.

“I would still like to get a college degree someday,” he said. “But not at the University of North Carolina. They just wasted my time.”

As long as billions and billions of dollars are involved in the bread and circuses of college (and professional) sports nothing will change.  Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

Last week, the Obama administration proposed a further tweak to its rules about insurance coverage of contraception, trying to quiet religious organizations’ complaints that the edict tramples on their beliefs. Roman Catholic officials have been especially vociferous. Their moral conviction, they insist, cannot be slave to secular convention.

Except, that is, when it works to their advantage. When it profits them. And this two-tracked approach was illustrated by another recent news story, one that flickered onto and then off the public’s radar more quickly than it should have, and deserves a closer look.

The news story brought to light a wrongful-death suit by a widower, Jeremy Stodghill, in regard to his wife and the twin 28-week-old fetuses inside her when she died in a Catholic hospital, St. Thomas More, in Cañon City, Colorado.

The hospital’s lawyers argued that the woman’s death couldn’t have been prevented. As to whether proper medical attention might have yielded the delivery of two healthy baby boys, lawyers argued that the question was ultimately irrelevant, because wrongful death can apply only to people and, legally speaking, fetuses aren’t human lives.

This isn’t how the Catholic Church is supposed to see things. It’s the opposite. The church staunchly opposes abortion, holding that life begins at conception, and has even raised concerns about the morning-after pill. And the fetuses inside Lori Stodghill, 31, were four weeks past what’s generally considered viability.

Lawyers by nature use the best strategies available to them, in a brutal arena where failing to do so puts clients at a disadvantage. And the Colorado litigation is just one case involving one Catholic hospital, which may not have gotten any green light for its arguments from high-ranking church officials. In fact, Colorado’s three Catholic bishops on Monday released a statement that articulated their objection to the hospital’s legal approach and said it should be abandoned henceforth.

But the hospital isn’t some random outlier. It’s run by Catholic Health Initiatives, which operates 78 hospitals in more than a dozen states. And a habit of clinging to a religious identity one moment and abandoning it the next is visible beyond this case, especially in the church’s management of its child sexual abuse crisis.

We’ve been getting a fresh and galling peek into that with the court-compelled release of documents from the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which engaged in a pattern of willful blindness and outright cover-up so egregious that the current archbishop, José Gomez, took the shocking step last week of publicly reprimanding his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony.

The documents show that Mahony and his lieutenants repeatedly failed to report allegations to law enforcement officials and urged accused priests to leave or stay out of the state, lest they face prosecution. They decided, in short, that the church’s representatives and reputation mattered more than justice: that the church could hold itself above laws that governed everybody else.

This was hardly isolated behavior. Around the country, the church has beaten back lawsuits by priests’ victims and tried not to furnish information about priests’ wrongdoing by claiming that such scrutiny violates the free exercise of religion, said Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who has represented hundreds of victims over three decades. “It’s audacious, it’s bold and it’s across the board,” he said.

But the church has simultaneously reserved the right to behave just like any other institution, leaning on legal technicalities, smearing victims and demonstrating no more compassion than a tobacco company might show. “In the name of Jesus,” Anderson told me, “they do things that Jesus would abhor.”

They do things erratically, that’s for sure. From my extensive reporting on the sexual abuse crisis in the 1990s, I don’t recall any great push to excommunicate priests who forced themselves on kids. But when Sister Margaret McBride, in 2009, was part of a Phoenix hospital’s decision to abort an 11-week-old fetus inside a 27-year-old woman whose life was gravely endangered by the pregnancy, she indeed suffered excommunication (later reversed).

So a fetus matters more than the ravaged psyche of a raped adolescent? And Sister McBride deserved harsher rebuke than a rapist? It’s hard not to conclude that a church run by men shows them more mercy than it does women (or, for that matter, children).

And it’s hard to keep track: just when is the church of this world, and when not? It inserts itself into political debates, trying to shape legislation to its ethics. But it also demands exemption: from taxes, from accountability, from health care directives.

And in the Colorado wrongful-death case, the hospital suddenly adopted the courts’, not the church’s, definition of life. Only now, with that argument already made, is Catholic Health Initiatives saying it made a moral error.

A district court rejected Jeremy Stodghill’s wrongful-death claims. He and his lawyer, Beth Krulewitch, have appealed to the state’s Supreme Court.

One final verdict is already in. On the charge of self-serving hypocrisy, the church is guilty.


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