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A TALE OF TWO PREDISPOSITIONS! The Post and the Times offered dueling spins. What makes them see things as they do? // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MAY 5, 2009

Where do red-neck racists with brain problems come from: Is that Benedict Carey—or Benedict Arnold? In this morning’s “Science Times,” Carey tattle-tales on the whole human race—specifically, on our tendency to attribute moral greatness to ourselves, as opposed to The Others. Naughtily, Carey starts with an oblique reference to the current debate about uses of torture. But let’s focus on the facts—the facts that Carey has discovered in some ongoing research.

“Stumbling Blocks on the Path of Righteousness,” Carey’s headline says. And yes: We thought of the growing progressive world as we scanned his tattle-tale work. Here’s the way he started:

CAREY (5/5/09): Most people are adamant: They would never do it. Ever. Never deliberately inflict pain on another person, just to obtain information. Ever artificially inflate the value of some financial product, just to take advantage of others’ ignorance. Certainly never, ever become a deadbeat and accept a government bailout.

They speak only for themselves, of course. As for others, well, turn on the news: shady bankers, savage interrogators and deadbeats are everywhere.

“Turn on the news,” Carey invites. It was hard not to think of the growing world of “progressive” news, where readers and viewers are constantly urged to see themselves as far more moral than the limbic brain-damaged red-necks and racists who parade around with their troubling “boobs” and their clownish tea bags. You’re just better than others, progressive news teaches. But uh-oh! We humans are inclined to think that way, Carey tattles:

CAREY: In recent years, social psychologists have begun to study what they call the holier-than-thou effect. They have long known that people tend to be overly optimistic about their own abilities and fortunes—to overestimate their standing in class, their discipline, their sincerity.

But this self-inflating bias may be even stronger when it comes to moral judgment, and it can greatly influence how people judge others’ actions, and ultimately their own.

We humans! We’re inclined to think we’re morally better than others—even, perhaps, when we’re not! And omigod! This “holier-than-thou effect” can be quantified now, Carey soon suggests:

CAREY: One way to test whether people live up to their virtuous self-image is to set them up. In one study, for example, 251 Cornell students predicted how likely they would be to buy a daffodil at Daffodil Days, a four-day campus event to benefit the American Cancer Society. Sure enough, 83 percent predicted that they would buy at least one flower but that just 56 percent of their peers would.

Five weeks later, during the event, the researchers found that only 43 percent of the same students actually bought a daffodil. In other experiments, researchers have found that people similarly overestimate their willingness to do what’s morally right, whether to give to charity, vote or cooperate with a stranger. In the end, their less generous predictions about peers’ behavior tend to be dead-on accurate—for themselves as well as others in the study.

Wait a minute! Even Cornell students are subject to this delusion? Didn’t Olbermann go there? (Is there any chance that this happens at Stanford?) Overpaid corporate stars to the side, those Cornell kids overstated their own vast moral greatness when it came to the purchase of daffodils; 83 percent said they would buy, but only 43 percent actually did. (What percentage of their peers bought dils? Drat! Carey doesn’t say.)

In fairness, studies of the purchase of flowers can only take us so far. That said, we were intrigued by the comments of one of Carey’s psychologist fellers—Nicholas Epley, University of Chicago, who devises these buzz-kill experiments:

CAREY: “The problem with these holier-than-thou assessments is not only that we overestimate how we would have behaved,” Dr. Epley said. “It’s also that we blame every crisis or scandal on failure of character—you know, if we just fire all the immoral Wall Street bankers and replace them with moral ones, we’ll solve the problem.”

In experiments as in life, the holier-than-thou effect diminishes quickly when people have actually had the experience they are judging: dubious accounting practices will appear less shady to the person who has had to put a good face on a failing company. And the effect is apparently less pronounced in cultures that emphasize interdependence over individual achievement, like China and Spain.

For ourselves, we first observed something like the “holier-than-thou effect” in the early 1970s, when a well-intentioned journalist, observing from afar, explained that it must be teacher laziness which was keeping other Baltimore schools from achieving the remarkable test scores recorded by some Baltimore schools. (By happenstance, we knew that the teachers in one of those schools were blatantly cheating on these tests. But we just couldn’t convince him! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/8/05.) But we’ve been endlessly struck by this “holier-than-thou” approach as we watch the spread of our new “progressive” media. We progressives are the good people, we are constantly told in these venues; the others are just racists and red-necks, limbic brain-damaged tea-baggers! (Sometimes, they have fake breasts!) In our lifetime, there has always been a strong strain of this moral self-glorification in American “liberal” politics. It tends to harm progressive interests. But it sure feels good going down!

Last night, watching our “TV machine” thing-y, we were stunned by one example of this holier-than-thou self-glorification. We plan to discuss that example tomorrow. In the meantime, we’d say that Carey played a mean Benedict Arnold in this morning’s Science Times. For ourselves, we’d have to say that his red-neck tendencies have never come through quite so clear.

A TALE OF TWO PREDISPOSITIONS: To what extent have the provisions of No Child Left Behind improved student achievement?

If we actually care about what is true, that question is hard to answer. But: If we simply want to promote our predispositions, that can be easily done. In yesterday’s Post, Margaret Spellings presented a groaning op-ed column, filled with technical errors and shortcuts (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/4/09). Unsurprisingly, her errors and shortcuts helped her conclude, as she constantly does, that No Child has been a howling success. (Spellings was Bush’s Ed Sec. The Post never fails to give her space in which to push her poorly-founded assertions.)

Last week, though, the New York Times put its thumb on the scale in the other direction. When Sam Dillon reported those new NAEP scores—the same NAEP scores from which Spellings was working—he instantly claimed that the new test scores show that No Child has pretty much flopped (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/29/09). On what basis did Dillon discard No Child Left behind? The new test scores only cover four years—but we made more progress during an earlier twenty-year period, he absurdly noted, at the start of his front-page news report. On the same day, the Washington Post ran a news report which quickly said that the new test scores “provide fuel’ to those who support No Child. Sadly, we’ve always tended to discuss our public schools in these spin-drenched ways.

To what extent has No Child Left Behind improved student achievement? To be honest, it’s hard to tell from these important new data. But as a general matter, nothing seems to stop the Post from pimping the wonders of testing-based programs—and the New York Times will often be there to turn up its nose at apparent success. When those NAEP scores were released last week, the contrast was so silly and so pronounced that we thought the time had finally come to offer a few general speculations about the way these two newspapers tend to approach such issues.

Let’s start with the Washington Post. We really think the time has come to offer a bit of a warning:

When you see the Post gush about testing-based programs, we would suggest that you might recall this: In these days of failing newspapers, the Post’s parent company makes lots of cash from Kaplan Inc., the paper’s so-called “education division.” Last November, the Post’s Frank Ahrens reported some dollar figures:

AHRENS (11/1/08): The Washington Post Co. yesterday reported an 86 percent decline in third-quarter earnings compared to the same period last year, as a significant loss at the flagship newspaper division offset gains at the company's education and cable divisions.

However, the losses were largely the result of one-time charges; cost-cutting enabled the company and its newspaper division to emerge from a second-quarter dip into the red, The Post Co.'s first quarterly loss in its 37-year publicly traded history.

[...]

The company's stock closed up 8 percent at $426.80 yesterday, as Wall Street recognized the diminishing impact of the newspaper in The Post Co. and rewarded the surging growth of the company's education and cable divisions—Kaplan Inc. and Cable One, respectively.

Kaplan, the Post’s education division, “now provides 53 percent of company revenue,” Ahrens reported. And yes, Kaplan seems to deal heavily in educational testing services. Wikipedia always says it best. Here’s the way its nameless scribes begin their report about Kaplan:

WIKIPEDIA: Kaplan, Inc. is a for-profit corporation headquartered in New York City and was founded in 1938 by Stanley Kaplan. Kaplan provides higher education programs, professional training courses, test preparation materials and other services for various levels of education.

For ourselves, we’re interested in argument—less so in motive, not at all in business practice. But it has gotten hard to read the Post’s education coverage without thinking of the newspaper’s tie to Kaplan. For ourselves, we support annual testing in public schools; we can’t imagine running a low-income system without some (potentially) objective measure of progress. But the Post’s knee-jerk affirmation of All Things Testing gets increasingly hard to take. It’s increasingly hard to read this paper’s news reporting, and its editorials, without wondering if some Kaplan-based conflict of interest has infected the paper’s overall judgments. Has Kaplan Inc. gotten into the water? We wonder more and more.

Spellings’ piece was a technical groaner, about a very important subject. But it effusively praised No Child Left Behind. The Post rushed the piece into print.

This doesn’t mean that the Times’ reporting is better. Last week, we thought Dillon’s overt spinning against No Child Left Behind was massively worse than Maria Glod’s milder spinning in the Post, which tilted in favor of No Child Left Behind. What explains the way the Times reports on the public schools?

What follows is guesswork: You always have the High Manhattan desire to sneer at Dummy Bush. But we sometimes think we spot a world view lurking behind some Times reporting—a tired but well-intentioned world-view which seems to be hanging around from its hey-day in the newly liberal mid-1960s. We’ve decided not to go into this today, because our sense of this is so airy. We’ll simply suggest that you might wonder at times about the Post’s great love of All Things Testing. Again: We strongly support annual testing (competently conducted and sensibly used). But the Post sometimes seems to be conducting a long, ardent love affair with testing. Every time they fail to edit Spellings’ self-endorsements, a name now pops in our head—and yes, that name is Kaplan.

Final note about last week’s test scores: Until recently, no one has really had an inventive to cheat on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This is especially true of the NAEP’s “long-term trend assessment,” which doesn’t even report results on the state-by-state level. As far as we can tell, no teacher or principal would have an incentive to cheat on this program; neither would a state department of education. In other testing programs, people do have large incentives to cheat—and cheating has often occurred. Especially in the NAEP’s “long-term trend assessment,” such incentives have never seemed to exist.

That said, the NAEP is important because it’s widely viewed as the gold standard of testing—the “nation’s report card.” In the “main NAEP” program, fourth-, eighth- and twelfth-graders get tested—and states will sometimes get yelled at now for their statewide results. Incentives to cheat have thus been invented, at least on the “main NAEP” (as opposed to the “long-term trend NAEP”). If we were running a news division, we would give our reporters an assignment: Find out how the NAEP gets administered. See if there’s any chance, from the state level down, that anyone has started to tinker with this program’s procedures. On the main NAEP, are states attempting to tilt their statewide student samples, thus producing higher statewide averages? Do schools which take part in the NAEP feel under pressure to produce good results? If they do feel any such pressure, could they gimmick the program’s procedures? The history of the past forty years is clear: As soon as testing programs get tied to “accountability,” someone somewhere starts to gimmick their procedures. As far as we know, such problems have never infected the NAEP. We should all try to keep things that way.

Final point: The Post and the Times will cover this topic when the cow jumps over the moon. They’re too busy offering dueling spins about what the new NAEP test scores “mean.” And the Post is too busy rushing Spellings’ bungled words of self-praise into print. Again. What else is current?