Who will issue a correction first?
Nicholas Kristof, who uncritically cited the hurricane/himmicane paper which appeared in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences but then was debunked in a stunning round of post-publication review?
David Brooks, who botched some historical economic statistics and, in an unrelated incident, uncritically cited some education statistics from magazine publisher Ron Unz that were later debunked in a stunning round of post-publication review?
The clock is ticking . . .
Before going on, let me emphasize that there’s no shame in making a mistake. I am not in any way mocking Kristof and Brooks for promoting bad research. These things happen. The only way to be sure you’re not promoting bad research is to promote no research, and that’s the road to being Mike Barnicle.
I applaud both Kristof and Brooks (along with the other NYT columnists, most notably Paul Krugman) for engaging with social science research, for reading widely and being interested in the connections between research and policy.
And then when it turns out they made a mistake, they can correct it. No shame in that, no shame at all. It’s just opening things up a bit, and it’s not such a bad thing for readers of the New York Times to realize that columnists can get things wrong. There was only one Art Buchwald, after all, and he’s no longer around.
To make things easier, I’ve drafted admissions of error for both columnists below. I have not attempted to imitate their style but rather to express, as sincerely as possible, the content that I think would be appropriate in each case.
Kristof: One thing we’ve learned in recent politics is that perception is as powerful as reality. In areas ranging from economics to legislation to counterterrorism, outcomes are often decided as much by expectations as by the hard numbers. So when I read recently of a study finding that the naming of hurricanes affects people’s reactions to them, I wasn’t surprised, and I wanted to share this information with you, my readers. It turns out, though, that this study was sloppy and should not have been published. I’ve read enough critiques and talked with enough experts to realize this. I regret using a column to promote research which happened to be wrong, but I don’t apologize for doing it. The research claim made sense to me and it was published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Hey—it turns out those guys make mistakes! Luckily I have this column where I can quickly correct my mistakes. Let’s hope the National Academy of Sciences figures out how to do this too.
Brooks: Over the past two years I’ve talked a lot about humility and the need to balance humanistic and scientific thinking, a balance that is central to politics. As political leaders from Margaret Thatcher to Paul Ryan have taught us, warm feelings are no substitute for hard facts. In today’s column I’d like to exercise a bit of humility myself and tell you about a couple of factual mistakes I’ve made over the past few years. . . .
In the immortal words of Chris Hedges: That wasn’t so bad, was it?
P.S. When looking up Kristof’s column, I found this:
Correction: June 16, 2014
Nicholas Kristof’s column on Thursday misspelled the middle name of a Vanderbilt professor. She is Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, not Hyunjong.
Similarly, there was this memorable correction from a David Brooks column a couple years ago:
An earlier version of this column misstated the location of a statue in Washington that depicts a rambunctious horse being reined in by a muscular man. The sculpture, Michael Lantz’s ‘Man Controlling Trade’ (1942), is outside the Federal Trade Commission, not the Department of Labor.
I think if you’re willing to correct the spelling of one vowel in somebody’s middle name or the location of a statue of a rambunctious horse, you should be willing to correct the erroneous statement, “Researchers find that female-named hurricanes kill about twice as many people as similar male-named hurricanes because some people underestimate them,” or various erroneous economic and education statistics. Again, no shame in issuing a correction. We all make mistakes, dude.