Who quackwatches Quackwatch? A case study in fallacy.

This article, by Dr. Dwight Lundell, challenges the conventional wisdom about cholesterol and its relationship to heart disease. What he says is nothing new to me, I’ve been reading up on this for a while and a growing number of doctors are questioning or outright rejecting the long-held assumptions. (Read the article for the details—that’s not my purpose here.)

Lundell was a heart surgeon for about 25 years and bases his conclusions in part on his observations of various patients.

On QuackWatch appears this article, by Dr. Stephen Barrett, titled “A Skeptical Look at Dwight Lundell, M.D.” Barrett’s goal is to undermine Lundell’s arguments about cholesterol.

Barrett challenges Lundell’s credibility with two lines of argument:

Lundell was disciplined several times during his time as a surgeon for lapses in treatment, mostly related to inadequate record-keeping, but also inadequate post-operative care of a patient in at least one case;

Lundell experienced some financial trouble, and pleaded guilty to tax evasion.

These arguments might undermine Lundell’s abilities as a clinician, or in the paperwork requirements of medical care, and they certainly suggest you would prefer not to lend him money. But they say absolutely nothing about his thoughts on cholesterol, inflammation and diet.

Barrett’s argument is nothing but ad hominem, that is, an attack on the other person’s character rather than an actual refutation of his case. If everything Barrett says is true, and he has the citations to validate his allegations, then we can agree that Lundell has some serious character flaws. However, that proves absolutely nothing about the validity of his science.

Ad hominem arguments are designed to cast an opponent in a bad light so that an audience will tend to doubt or disregard his position on the relevant issue even though there has been no evidence presented that addresses that position. It is a tactic adopted most often by those who have no real evidence to present.

The Ferguson Crackdown

If you doubt the value of a free press, consider the assault on the media covering the tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, this week.

The situation was very tense there for days after the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a local police officer, for unclear reasons. As the community began to protest, the St. Louis County Police rolled in with military gear, unnecessarily escalating the situation enormously.

The only reason we know about any of that is because reporters were on the ground covering it. The police did all they could to prevent them from fulfilling their mission of informing the public, including briefly arresting a couple and firing tear gas at an Al Jazeera camera crew.

I am sure there are some who would welcome a media blackout so that the heavy-handed militarized police could do whatever they wanted with impunity. Those people, I argue, don’t understand how America is supposed to work.

What Isn’t Said

Liberal media bias? Try this on:

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank and Fox News both report on a mayor upset about the closure of the hospital in his small North Carolina town, which resulted in the death of a heart attack victim.

Both reports link the closure to the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare.”

savesignHowever, to read the Fox Report, you would be forgiven for thinking that Mayor Adam O’Neal blames the law and the president. O’Neal is a Republican and no fan of the ACA. The Fox News piece is headlined “North Carolina mayor walks to Washington to bring focus to ObamaCare’s effect on rural hospitals.”

However, the Fox piece omits some very important information that puts the mayor’s objections into context. As Milbank reports, his real objection is to his state’s Republican leaders who refused to accept federal funds for Medicaid expansion.

Milbank: “If the governor and the legislature don’t want to accept Medicaid expansion, they need to come up with another program to assure that rural hospitals don’t close,” the 45-year-old mayor said. Otherwise, he continued, “they’re allowing people to die to prove a point. That is wrong, and I’m not going to be a party to that.”

Fox: A North Carolina mayor on Sunday was just a few miles away from finishing his 273-mile walk to Washington to draw attention to the closing of his small town’s local hospital and the plights of other rural facilities caught in financial bind created largely by ObamaCare, a changing economy and less federal funding.  … The mayor and others argue that an increasing number of small, rural hospitals have been shuttered since ObamaCare was signed into law in 2012.”

As far as I know, there’s nothing factually wrong in either report. But by correlating the hospital closures with the passage of the ACA, Fox implies a direct causation that skips over the part where the state could have taken funds to keep the hospitals open, but didn’t.

It is a form of manipulation I call “lying with the truth.” The facts are correct, but the careful omissions and implied connections weave an implicit narrative that is not at all true.

Statistically Significant

Take a look at this story. Based on this article, you learn that there are a number of sentiments about bring-your-own-device, the concept of employees using their own smart phones tablets, etc., for work, prevalent in today’s workforce. The study that reveals these attitudes focuses on security concerns.

A well-researched article based on a well-conducted study could provide valuable information and insight for managers to take action on.

But that’s not what this is, despite appearances.

The first red flag is that the source of the information, a company called Webroot, just happens to provide the services that its survey says people need.

That isn’t necessarily proof that the data is unreliable, but it should be a clue to look deeper. When you do, when you look at the actual survey, you find this detail all the way at the end: The two online surveys from which the conclusions are derived “are not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.”

What that means, essentially, is that there is no basis to extrapolate the results to the population in general. The percentages they report cannot be assumed to pertain to anyone beyond the small number that were surveyed.

If you’re interested in a deeper understanding of probability sampling and why it’s important, read this article.


You know, that guy

We all know one, probably more than one: The person who lacks a filter, who can be counted on to blurt out some inappropriate comment at just the wrong time. The one who tells off-color jokes with no regard to whether the listeners are uncomfortable. The one who seems to have a minimal concept of boundaries or taste.

We all know them. We should know better than to hire them as editors.

alabama hed


Reporters vs. Content Creators

Most media outlets still call the people who write their articles “reporters,” but they are also lumped in with others — graphic artists, photographers, videographers, etc. — as “content creators” generically.

If you listen to the never-ending chatter in newsrooms, you’ll hear a lot of references to “content.” While I get the need for a catch-all phrase when information comes in many forms and formats, I also think it blunts the nature of what journalists (another perfectly good catch-all that already existed) are supposed to do.

In short, the job’s goal is to discover, confirm and report information that is some way revelatory and useful. “Content creation” suggests that any material that fills the requisite space in an entertaining — sellable — way is fine. Too often, that suggestion is the reality. This is why the wedding of two unremarkable celebrities passes as “news.” (Kudos to the New York Post’s takedown.)

I grant that news is not always entertaining. In fact, reading an article about Crimea or the U.S. trade deficit can be downright boring. But these things are also important, even if fewer people are interested.


The Press vs. The Policy at the 9/11 Museum

You’re on a tour of a museum which commemorates an event that was a national tragedy and outrage. A woman chirps merrily, distractingly, on a cell phone, provoking another to ask her to stop. Another woman steps up to ask what just happened between the first two women.

Which of the three women will the museum evict?

If you thought the chatty phone user would be shown the door, get real. This is America, where the right to disrupt any solemn moment with your unrelated, self-absorbed chatter is inviolable.

The one who spoke up, maybe? After all, she could have been construed as confrontational, maybe at risk of starting a fight. But nope, she’s fine too.

No, the National 9/11 Museum in New York decided that Jen Chung, a reporter for Gothamist, should hit the bricks for daring to ask a question. Where does she think she is, America?

To be fair, the museum does have a policy that members of the press must get “prior written authorization” in order to conduct any newsgathering in the museum. Yet Chung was there on her own time, as a citizen. She asked the women what the problem because it had unfolded right in front of her.

In addition, not one but two security guards warned her to ask no more questions, after she made the mistake of identifying herself as a reporter, and to both of them she expressed understanding and agreement, and asked no more questions (according to her own account at least). Then she came out of the restroom and encountered a third guard who escorted her out of the building.

The 9/11 Museum is intended to be a somber place for quiet reflection, and while I think the media restrictions are not unreasonable, there is also the matter of common sense. After Chung agreed to refrain from questions, and followed through on that promise, making her leave was just vindictive.

Incidentally, the museum’s rules also forbid distracting cell phone use. But Lady Chatterbox apparently suffered no repercussions.

What do you think, America?


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