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NPR Recapitulates an Ancient Argument

January 23, 2019 Leave a comment

Early in NPR’s 2012 Planet Money story Why People Do Bad Things, reporter Alix Spiegel announced: “We are going to take all of the traditional answers” to the question of why people do bad things, “and we’re going to throw them away and we’re going to propose new ways to explain our bad behavior.” (For a transcript, see Planet Money’s 2015 favorite story repeat.)

If we had gone along with Spiegel and thrown away all of the traditional answers, we would have limited our ability to tell whether or not the “new ways” were actually new. Spiegel described one of the ways as “radically different.” Two weeks later, in a revised news story heard on All Things Considered, she called it “radically new.” Actually, it was similar to an influential argument from classical antiquity, not radically new or different at all.

In the Protagoras dialogue, which Plato wrote 2400 years ago, Socrates described why, according to most people, we do bad things. Most people think that often “people know what’s best for them and still don’t want to do it, even though they could – they do something else instead.” Socrates asked lots of people what could explain this. They told him, he reported, that anger, pleasure, pain, love or fear often overpower us, but “we certainly know what’s best.”

Socrates himself had a different idea, which he introduced while interpreting a poem:

I mean, I pretty much think that no one who knows anything believes that people ever make mistakes wilfully or do things that are wrong, or bad for them, wilfully. Smart people know full well that when you do things that are wrong, or bad for you, you always do so without meaning to.

Later, he argued that “nothing was more powerful than knowledge.” “Whenever a person has knowledge it always overpowers pleasure and anything else.” So when people do things which are bad for them, they “make those mistakes through a lack of knowledge.” The cause of their mistakes is ignorance. (The Protagoras quotations are from Adam Beresford’s translation.)

Fast-forwarding to a few years ago, we find NPR co-reporter Chana Joffe-Walt saying that, according to a group of present-day researchers, we have the “flawed premise” that people facing an ethical decision “clearly understand the choice that they are making.” In the All Things Considered audio, Spiegel said that. In the Web version, the two reporters presented university researcher Ann Tenbrunsel considering a businessman’s purported first act of fraud:

There is, she says, a common misperception that at moments like this, when people face an ethical decision, they clearly understand the choice that they are making. “We assume that they can see the ethics and are consciously choosing not to behave ethically,” Tenbrunsel says. This, generally speaking, is the basis of our disapproval: They knew. They chose to do wrong.

Socrates had said something similar back in ancient Greece, that most people think that people “certainly know what’s best” even if they do something else instead.

In our time, the university researchers were challenging our alleged flawed premise by making “this very uncomfortable argument” that “most people don’t necessarily intend to do bad,” said Spiegel. “They’re saying that our minds are kind of limited in a way that makes it hard for us to make ethical decisions.” People “have these huge cognitive blind spots which make it difficult for them to see what they’re doing as unethical, even when it is profoundly unethical,” Spiegel said. “It’s not that they’re evil — it’s that they don’t see,” the reporters wrote.

Socrates had similarly argued that people don’t mean to do bad things. They make mistakes because they don’t know. They do bad things out of ignorance. Tenbrunsel and the other university researchers in ethics likely knew this argument from Plato’s Protagoras.

A few centuries after Socrates and Plato, an unknown writer or scribe in the Greco-Roman world wrote in Greek that, according to Jesus, the people who were were crucifying him “know not what they do.” Surely someone on the NPR team knew of this uncomfortable argument which still appears today in the Christian New Testament.

The journalists did a clean sweep of these ancient Christian and Socratic answers to the question of why we do bad things, as well as all other traditional answers in our intellectually diverse world, and threw them all away. Thus abandoning whatever they knew of the answers, the journalists recapitulated an ancient argument, falsely branding it, in the audio versions of their story, as the radically different and radically new argument of present-day researchers.

When discussing the businessman’s first fraud, the journalists likewise abandoned their own knowledge.

NPR’s current supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices, Mark Memmott, told NPR Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen that the NPR reporters should have challenged or explained what the businessman said. The information that NPR included in its 2018 Correction “was all there to be fairly easily found,” he said, and the information directly contradicted the businessman’s story. Memmott said that “we just needed to check what he was telling us against court records and newspaper archives.”

But the reporters had checked. They had the disqualifying legal case information in their possession. It was “one of the first things” Spiegel pulled as a reporter. The team of reporters and editors had the information, according to Ombudsman Jensen’s report. The reporters and Anne Gudenkauf, the editor who led the NPR Science Desk back then, were at a loss to explain how they could have failed to take this disqualifying case information into account. Indeed, the reporters even discussed the legal cases in every iteration of the NPR story—while ignoring, in every iteration, the case information that they had in hand that contradicted the tale they were telling.

According to Spiegel, researchers say that frequently “our minds simply can’t fully process the choices that we are confronted with.” Were Spiegel and Joffe-Walt’s own story errors supposed to be examples of this alleged incapacity? Were the reporters and their editors simply unable to fully process the legal case information that Spiegel had pulled and distributed to the team first thing? Were they simply driven by irresistible forces to take all of the traditional answers and throw them away? Was their ignorance in these two matters inevitable?

“To think is an act of choice,” wrote Ayn Rand, in one of the traditional answers to the question of why people do bad things that the reporters threw away, this one from the mid-twentieth century. The function of your mind is not automatic. “In any hour and issue of your life, you are free to think or to evade that effort.”

We differ widely in our readiness and ability to process the alternatives we face, due in good measure to our attitudes and the thinking we’ve done, what we’ve learned or failed to learn.

We can make ourselves ignorant of things of importance, we can fail to see them, simply by evading the effort of thinking. Smart people among us can do this as easily as anyone. They may see much to think about, but also clever ways to evade the effort—like cheerfully inviting everyone to throw away all the traditional answers.

The educated, award-winning NPR reporters and editors knew to pull the legal case information about the businessman. They knew to distribute it among themselves. To all appearances, they could have fully processed that information. They could have reviewed and integrated all the information that they had. What was so hard about that? They appeared to have evaded the effort because it didn’t suit their project.

The journalists were outright evasive about the traditional answers to the question of why people do bad things. Spiegel declared that “we are going” to take all of the traditional answers and “throw them away,” so it was no wonder that they misconstrued the presented argument of researchers as radically new.

NPR’s mission is to create a more informed public. Given this mission, NPR journalists shouldn’t have thrown away all of the traditional answers, fostering ignorance in themselves and NPR listeners. As Rand argued, describing the virtue of rationality, one must never make any decisions out of context, “apart from or against the total, integrated sum of one’s knowledge.” The journalists apparently made decisions in an irrational way in two areas, leading them to misinform the public about the businessman and about our intellectual heritage.

The public is still accessing this story. NPR issued a Correction about the businessman. NPR should also correct the public record and stop misinforming people about our intellectual heritage. The idea that, when people do bad things, they “know not what they do” is of ancient origin and widespread today. The particular argument that the journalists presented was similar in both form and content to an influential Socratic argument, not radically different or new.

Copyright © 2019 Paul Vanderveen All Rights Reserved

NPR Please Correct the Correction

In mid-February, NPR placed a Correction notice on the webpages of all versions of Alix Spiegel and Chana Joffe-Walt’s science news story “Psychology Of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things.” The Correction acknowledged that NPR got details wrong about the subject of the news story, a businessman. Then NPR got something new wrong in the Correction itself:

The details about others in this report — including researchers Lamar Pierce, Francesca Gino and Ann Tenbrunsel — are not in question.

I questioned details about others, including the researchers. I did this in the very essay, The Art of Fraud Detection, which drew NPR’s attention back to the news story. What was NPR trying to do by making this false claim in its Correction—cover up its inaccurate, unethical journalism?

Here is a summary showing the range of details I questioned.

In section 5 of my essay, I quoted reporters Spiegel and Joffe-Walt claiming in the online version of the news story that researchers have concluded that most of us behave profoundly unethically “all the time.” Spiegel and Joffe-Walt’s claim seemed far-fetched, so I read Blind Spots, a 2011 book by featured researcher Ann Tenbrunsel and Max Bazerman. I wanted to see what these two researchers had actually concluded in this and other regards. In section 7 of my 10-part essay, I repeated the reporters’ far-fetched claim about researchers. And then in section 10, I cited a contrary conclusion from the two researchers’ book: “Most of us behave ethically most of the time.” This was quite a contrast. Obviously, if most of us behave ethically most of the time, then we don’t behave profoundly unethically all the time.

This is an example of my questioning a detail about the researchers in the news report. I questioned how NPR characterized what researchers concluded, and I provided evidence from two of the researchers that NPR got it wrong.

I questioned many other details in the news story in a variety of ways.

In section 4 of my essay, I quoted Tenbrunsel claiming that the businessman’s “sole focus” when he lied on a loan application “was on making the best business decision.” Spiegel said that Tenbrunsel presented this claim as just “one way to understand” the businessman’s choice to lie, but Spiegel and Joffe-Walt used the claim anyway, as a “possibility,” “to demonstrate in a small way” an argument Tenbrunsel and other researchers were making. In section 6, I questioned Tenbrunsel’s basis for making the claim. Her claim exemplified her idea of cognitive blind spots, but on what other basis did she make it? In section 7, I argued that the businessman couldn’t have focused solely on making the best business decision. He had to focus some of his attention on how to lie about his income, as his own words indicated he understood. And then in section 10, I argued further that the odds of Tenbrunsel getting right what had been going through a stranger’s mind eight years earlier when he told that lie were low. So I questioned in a number of different ways this detail about researcher Tenbrunsel in the news story.

By questioning Tenbrunsel’s claim, I was also questioning the reporters’ use of it and more broadly the reporters’ use of their tale about the businessman in their own attempted demonstration of the researchers’ argument.

In section 5, I quoted Tenbrunsel saying, about making a decision, “the way that the decision is presented to me very much changes the way in which I view that decision and then eventually the decision it is that I reach.” She was speaking about herself in the news story by way of example. I argued that we don’t have to be passive recipients of other people’s presentations, not in the slightest. We can think for ourselves, notice what is happening and consider all our own knowledge when making our own decisions. So I questioned this detail about Tenbrunsel in the news story also—as well as the reporters’ use of this detail, too.

My essay was a real-life demonstration that we can think for ourselves about NPR’s entire news story.

I showed in section 6 how, if we think for ourselves, we can notice many questionable journalistic behaviors. For instance, the reporters didn’t tell us in a timely fashion about the businessman’s father’s death (letting us suppose that they had corroborated a family vignette involving the father), used four dubious sources about the businessman and apparently withheld pertinent, disqualifying information from us.

In section 8, I argued that the reporters appeared to be familiar with the legal cases involving the businessman, but readily available information about those cases in news and court reports contradicted the tale that they were telling about him.

In section 10, I reviewed my overall argument by discussing a claim from Tenbrunsel and Bazerman’s book. The researchers argued that we are blind to others’ unethical actions (as well as our own) and that many forces motivate us to remain blind about it. In section 2, I had reported that a few users of NPR’s website, in their impromptu comments about the news story, touched directly upon the reporters’ unethical behavior. These users did notice the unethical behavior; they weren’t blind to it. Many more in NPR’s audience knew enough to have suspected it, I argued in section 6. They just needed to attend to what they were hearing or reading and think about it, while considering all their own knowledge. They needed to do this instead of identifying with the businessman in the news story and looking inward as the reporters encouraged them to do. It is our method of using our minds, not the extent of our knowledge, that matters most. Changing our method is within our capabilities, I argued in section 10.

When I brought my essay to NPR’s attention back in December, I explained that false claims about the businessman “were central to the NPR story in all versions, and it was very easy to suspect and determine that the claims were false.” Furthermore I wrote that these false claims “involve journalistic ethical lapses and raise questions about NPR’s informal culture and adherence to NPR’s ethical standards.” In my brief email, I twice referred NPR to my essay for details.

Given that NPR falsely asserted in the Correction that details about other people in the news story are not in question, NPR should now correct the Correction and acknowledge in it that I questioned much more than just details about the businessman. I also questioned details about the researchers and others in the news story, as well as the reporters’ journalistic behavior and NPR’s informal culture.

NPR has a simple standard regarding corrections. NPR’s Ethics Handbook explains: “Errors of fact do not stand uncorrected. If we get it wrong, we’ll admit it.” NPR can live up to its own standards here by forthrightly correcting the Correction.

Why I Wrote “The Art of Fraud Detection”

NPR Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen asked me a series of questions, including how much time I spent researching and writing my critique—that is, my article “The Art of Fraud Detection,” and why I wrote it. She included some of my emailed answers in a sidebar that appeared alongside her post “Fact-Checking A Fraud: The ‘First Lie’ Wasn’t Really The First.”

Later, a friend also asked me why I wrote my article. She had already read Jensen’s post, so I asked her and then others whether they had noticed the post’s sidebar. They had completely missed it. I think advertisers have trained us to overlook messages that appear alongside whatever we’re reading.

So I’m here separately posting the sidebar. It consists almost entirely of answers I provided to some of Jensen’s questions.

She wrote:

I don’t agree with all of Vanderveen’s conclusions, but I was curious about what led him to invest so much time and effort in this exercise.

He told me he heard of the story from a friend who “knew of my interest in fraud,” and he then listened to the podcast. “In May 2012, before I finished listening to and reading the news story, I knew that the tale of Toby’s first fraud was fiction. I also thought that I could find confirming evidence of that on the Internet. And indeed, it took me about 5 minutes right then to find the two main pieces of evidence (news reports and a court decision) that I cover in my article. How could NPR and seasoned journalists and editors not do their homework? What was going on? I began working on my critique right away. After I retired from paid employment, I made better progress researching and assembling my critique.”

About his interest in fraud, he told me: “All my adult life, I have been keenly interested in how we learn to think about our minds (given that each of us experiences only one). This led to my studying philosophy, working in human services and writing my 1993 article, Formation of the Concept of Mind. About 10 years ago, the housing crash and financial crisis naturally exposed many Ponzi schemes and other instances of fraud. The evidence was clear that many people had no clue how another person could be defrauding them. The sheer extent of the fraud started me focusing on how desperately people needed to learn to think realistically about people and what they were doing (including themselves). So I started tracking the fraud cases I came across in the news and learning what I could from them.”

He said he has no personal stake in the story and does not know anyone involved.

His motivation, he said, is “to help people understand why fraud happens and what we can do to limit it. I hope NPR and journalism schools will use my article to improve training and ethical behavior of journalists. I hope my article will help listeners and readers become better consumers of news. And beyond that, I hope the article will help all of us to think more realistically about ourselves and others.”

No Expiration Date for Correcting Errors

“It’s been nearly six years, but there is no expiration date for correcting errors.” That’s the opening sentence of Why NPR Just Corrected a 2012 story by iMediaEthics reporter Sydney Smith.

Short Answer

February 26, 2018 Leave a comment

Friends have asked me what I felt and thought about NPR’s response to The Art of Fraud Detection. IMediaEthics yesterday asked me if I had any comment on NPR’s corrections and on the post, Fact-Checking A Fraud: The ‘First Lie’ Wasn’t Really The First, by NPR’s public editor (or Ombudsman) and whether I am satisfied with NPR’s response to my complaints.

Here’s my short answer. I was pleased that NPR responded. I appreciated Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen’s role. She came forth with information and asked good questions. I felt she helped NPR’s newsroom move things along. I actually talked with her about the role of narrative in journalism, which says a lot, and she included what I said in her post.

NPR published its Correction notice the day before Jensen and I spoke on the phone. I appreciated their timing on that. They didn’t leave me hanging.

In Jensen’s post, she quoted extensively from my initial email to NPR, my emailed responses to her questions and my article. She indicated in her post that she wasn’t laying out my entire argument or getting into a specific issue that I raised in conversation with her, thereby alerting her readers that there was more to my article. She was thorough. I felt she knew what she was doing and she was doing it right.

She asked about my interest in fraud and why I had written my article, and she included my response in a sidebar. She included my hope that my article will help all of us to think more realistically about others and ourselves, not just about fraud.

I was taken aback by a couple things she wrote and one element of NPR’s Correction notice, but as I think about these items, I realize they are not so important in the big picture. Nevertheless, I do plan to touch on them, as well as to write further about the following point, which is important.

The unethical journalism that I documented in my article (and mentioned in my initial email to NPR) is far more important than specific false claims in the NPR story. We all have the power to curtail unethical journalism and fraud in general by thinking about people instead of identifying with them.

Given all the information in Jensen’s report, as well as the claim in NPR’s correction that other details were “not in question,” which was false, I think that NPR will need more time to come fully to terms with what I’ve written.

NPR Responds

February 15, 2018 Leave a comment

NPR Still Misleading the Public

January 28, 2018 Leave a comment

On December 11th, I alerted NPR to my article “The Art of Fraud Detection,” available on this blog. I asked if NPR will correct Alix Spiegel and Chana Joffe-Walt’s news story, “Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things.” I briefly described the false claims in the news story and noted that they involved journalistic ethical lapses. I referred NPR to my article for further details.

A person in NPR Audience Relations promptly replied that “NPR takes its responsibility to be accurate very seriously” and that my comments “have been forwarded to the staff that researches corrections.”

A person in NPR’s Office of the Ombudsman also replied to my email, writing that she had forwarded my message “to our Standards & Practices editor for further review.”

As of today, January 28th, none of the four versions of Spiegel and Joffe-Walt’s news story has an editor’s note or correction alerting listeners and readers to the unreliability of the story. NPR is still misleading the public, including students and faculty at Georgia State University.

In the Fall semester, GSU’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies offered a graduate level course, PMAP 8431 Leadership and Organizational Behavior. The course is required in GSU’s Master of Public Administration program, and Joannie Tremblay-Boire taught the course. Spiegel and Joffe-Walt’s 2012 All Things Considered news story was required reading for the last class session on December 4th, less than two months ago.

In other developments, on January 3rd, I added an Author’s note near the end of section 8 of “The Art of Fraud Detection” to correct an error I had made. I had initially concluded that, in a 2015 Planet Money show, Spiegel and Joffe-Walt informally rehashed the news story that aired on All Things Considered in 2012. Actually, in that 2015 show, Planet Money just repeated a still earlier 2012 version of Spiegel and Joffe-Walt’s story.

Recently, having corrected the information about the 2015 Planet Money show, I removed my Author’s note from section 8, incorporated mostly minor edits in that and other sections and added an all-in-one PDF edition of “The Art of Fraud Detection” to this blog.