The Times’s Little Saint Nick - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Times’s Little Saint Nick

We often assume that racism or sexism is primarily about in-your-face bigots or misogynists,” op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof lectured his New York Times readers in June. But no, it turns out “research” has demonstrated “that the larger problem is unconscious bias even among well-meaning, enlightened people who embrace principles of equality”—people like Nicholas Kristof.

Scientists, claimed Kristof, have proved that “females don’t get any respect”: 

Researchers find that female-named hurricanes kill about twice as many people as similar male-named hurricanes because some people underestimate them. Americans expect male hurricanes to be violent and deadly, but they mistake female hurricanes as dainty or wimpish and don’t take adequate precautions.

Just one problem: the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was bunk. For one thing, the researchers skipped Katrina (along with 1957’s Audrey), counting it an “outlier,” so we can still blame George W. Bush.

For another, National Geographic’s Ed Yong noted that the researchers had considered hurricanes during the period 1950-2012. But until 1979, all hurricanes had women’s names. “This matters because hurricanes have…been getting less deadly over time,” Yong observed. When the dataset was limited to 1979-2012, there was only a “marginal correlation.”

What’s more, Slate’s Eric Holthaus tried running the post-1979 data without the second-deadliest storm—2012’s Sandy—and the correlation flipped direction. Excluding Sandy and Katrina, male-named hurricanes were deadlier. That points to another problem with the notion of a hurricane’s sex. The researchers classified Sandy as a female name—as did the World Meteorological Organization, which sandwiched “her” between Hurricane Rafael and Tropical Storm Tony. But when naming human beings, Sandy can refer to someone of either sex.

Kristof not only swallowed whole the study’s bogus claims but did so after critics had debunked it. He regurgitated it along with “embellishments not supported by the study, such as asserting the causality between implicit beliefs and action,” noted Slate’s Jane Hu.

It was a characteristic performance for Kristof, who over the years has developed quite a record of advancing dubious factual claims. In a May 2012 column, he asserted: “A widely used herbicide acts as a female hormone and feminizes male animals in the wild. Thus male frogs can have female organs, and some male fish actually produce eggs.”

“What herbicide exactly?” asked science journalist Deborah Blum in a critical blog post for the Public Library of Science. “Here, reader, you are just out of luck. Because he is just not going to tell you that.” She guessed it was atrazine, which had been fingered as causing frog sex changes in two papers published—like the hurricane study—in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But as Hank Campbell of Science 2.0 noted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, those papers exemplified PNAS’s lackadaisical peer-review process. Both atrazine studies had the same lead author, who was permitted to choose his own editor, a colleague. The Environmental Protection Agency undertook an investigation of the atrazine claims. “As the agency investigated, it couldn’t even use those papers about atrazine’s alleged effects because the research they were based on didn’t meet the criteria for legitimate scientific work,” Campbell wrote. “The authors refused to hand over data that led them to their claimed results—which meant no one could run the same computer program and match their results.”

Blum had opened her post by describing herself as a “long-time fan” of Kristof, specifically of “his work in social justice journalism, his passionate reporting of problems others ignore.…It’s outstanding work and, oh, how I wish he would stick to it. Because his secondary crusade of the last few years, you know, the one against evil industrial chemicals, is really starting to annoy me.”

Despite considerable in-the-field reporting, Kristof’s “social justice journalism” has often proved fact-challenged as well. A December 2009 column made a pitch for Obamacare under the headline “Are We Going to Let John Die?” Kristof told the story of John Broadniak, a young Oregon man with a brain tumor. “Without insurance, John has been unable to get surgery or even help managing the pain,” he wrote. “John says the principal obstacle to treatment appears to be simply his lack of insurance.”

But Michelle Malkin reported that three weeks before Kristof’s column ran, Brodniak, who was on Medicaid, had arranged to be treated at the Oregon Health Sciences University. Malkin’s scathing conclusion: “John Brodniak, a man who already has government health insurance and is already being treated for his illness, is the New York Times’s poster boy for why we need a new, massive nationalized health care system.”

A January 2009 Kristof column told the story of Long Pross, a Cambodian teenager who claimed to have been kidnapped at age thirteen and sold to a brothel: “Glance at Pross from her left, and she looks like a normal, fun-loving girl, with a pretty face and a joyous smile,” Kristof wrote. “Then move around, and you see where her brothel owner gouged out her right eye.”

This past June, more than five years after the column appeared, an “Editor’s Note” was appended to it on the Times’s website: “This column reported the story of Long Pross, who said that she was forced to work in a Cambodian brothel, where a pimp gouged out her eye. A Newsweek article has raised fundamental doubts about her story, citing medical records showing that a surgeon removed her eye because of a nonmalignant tumor.” The Newsweek story raised similar doubts about Somaly Mam, a Cambodian anti-trafficking activist who had been a major Kristof source. “I wish I had never written about her,” he lamented in a blog post this June.

Similarly, in an April 2011 column Kristof had to distance himself from the work of Greg Mortenson, who ran a charity called the Central Asia Institute and whose memoir, Three Cups of Tea, described his work building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Montana’s attorney general was investigating the institute’s finances. The case was settled a year later without criminal charges, but Mortenson had to repay more than $1 million to the institute, leave its board, and promise not to oversee its finances.

“I’ve counted Greg as a friend, had his family over at my house for lunch and extolled him in my column,” Kristof admitted. Mortenson even gave Kristof a book blurb. Little wonder, then, that Kristof was pained to acknowledge that Mortenson might have done wrong: “I don’t know what to make of these accusations. Part of me wishes that all this journalistic energy had been directed instead to ferret out abuses by politicians who allocate government resources to campaign donors rather than to the neediest among us…”

That wish is telling. Moral crusaders are especially vulnerable to confirmation bias, the tendency to be insufficiently rigorous about testing information that bolsters one’s preconceptions. Kristof fancies himself a champion of social justice, and especially of the interests of women. The latter preoccupation has led even feminists to mock him as a “white knight.”

No doubt Kristof means well. And some of his reporting is surely solid. But with a reputation like his for errors, one would have to be as credulous as Kristof himself to take anything he writes without a grain of salt. In the end, a cynic is a more honest man than a sincere naïf.

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