"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Drug Testing Welfare Users Is A Sham, But Not For The Reasons You Think

Some people say the War on Drugs is ‘unwinnable’. But there’s actually a foolproof solution that cures drug addiction approximately 100% of the time. That solution is – put people on welfare in Tennessee.

Or at least that is what I am led to believe by articles like Mic’s A Shocking Thing Happened When Tennesee Decided To Drug Test Its Welfare Recipients, which describes said shocking thing as:

1 out of 812 applicants tested positive for drugs. One. Single. Person. Tennessee conservatives suspicious that welfare recipients are a bunch of drug-addicted slackers were proven dead wrong. Big surprise!

After instituting dehumanizing drug-testing requirements to welfare recipients on July 1, 10 people total were flagged for possible drug use and asked to submit to testing. Five others tested negative, and four were rejected after refusing. As Think Progress notes, that means that just 0.12% of all people applying for cash assistance in Tennessee have tested positive for drugs, compared to the 8% who have reported using drugs in the past month among the state’s general population. If you assume the four people who refused were on drugs, it’s still a paltry 0.61%.

In other words, the plan intended to verify right-wing beliefs that welfare recipients are a bunch of drug-addicted slackers looking for a handout has demonstrated exactly the opposite.

The article has 11,000 notes on Tumblr right now, I’ve seen it all over my Facebook feed as well, and the same story has been taken up, with the same editorial line, by a host of other news sources. Jezebel: State Drug Program Busts A Whopping 37 Welfare Applicants. Wall Street Journal: Few Welfare Applicants Caught In Drug Screening Net So Far. New Republic: Red States’ New Tax On The Poor. Daily Kos: Tennessee Just Wasted A Lot Of Money Drug Testing Welfare Recipients. ReverbPress: Another GOP Fail: 0.2% Of Tennessee Welfare Recipients Found To Use Illegal Drugs. Mommyish: Results Of State Drug Testing Prove Gross Assumptions About Welfare Applicants Are Wrong. Washington Post: Scott Walker’s Yellow Politics.

These stories all make the point that we have many stereotypes about the poor, and one such stereotype is that the use lots of drugs, but in fact these sorts of welfare programs find them to use fewer drugs than the general population, and therefore we should stop being so prejudiced.

And if they were found to use only two-thirds, or half as many drugs as the general population, this might indeed be the lesson.

But look at the numbers in the quoted Mic article. Welfare users use only about one percent as many drugs as the general population. Really?

No. Not really at all. According to legitimate research in this area, poor people use as many drugs as anyone else and probably more. The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that illegal drug use was slightly higher in families on government assistance (9.6%) than families not on government assistance (6.8%). The National Coalition For The Homeless notes that about 26% of them use drugs, which is about 2.5x as high as the general population. I crunched some data I have from the hospital I work at, and it shows that poor people (defined as people who get health insurance through an aid program) have moderately higher rates of drug use related problems than the general population. So these articles are reporting a drug use rate in the Tennessee population about one percent of that ever reported in any comparable poor population anywhere else.

Kate from Gruntled and Hinged brings up another curious inconsistency. The false positive rate for drug tests is – well, it depends on the test procedure, but it’s usually at least 1%. So if every single welfare user in Tennessee was 100% clean, we would still expect between 1% to 5% positive drug tests. Instead, they got 0.12% positive drug tests. This isn’t just suspiciously good, it’s impossibly good.

So what’s going on here?

Before I explain, here’s a collage of the stock photos displayed above some of those news stories I linked to.

I now have a picture on my website called urine_collage.png

If you’re familiar with the state of the American media, you won’t be surprised to learn that urine was not involved in the ovewhelming majority of this program’s drug tests.

So how did they test people for drugs?

They gave them a written test, where the test question was basically “do you use illegal drugs or not?” You can see the exact procedure on the sidebar here.

And lo and behold, the overwhelming majority of people answered that they didn’t.

A more accurate stock photo they could have used

Now the numbers make sense. It’s not that only 0.2% of welfare recipients use drugs. All this tells us, if anything, is that 0.2% of welfare recipients are on so many drugs they can’t figure out how to check “NO” on a form.

Why would the government do something like this? As best I can tell, the plan was originally to give everyone urine checks, but in Florida the courts decided that urine-checking people without prior suspicion was unconstitutional. The Republicans were pretty attached to their “drug test welfare recipients” plan and didn’t want to look like they were wimps who backed down just because of one little court case, so they decided to give people the written test in the hopes of having prior suspicion for the people who said yes. Sure, it made no sense, but they could still tell their constituents they were drug testing those welfare recipients, and in principle they’d won an important victory. Or something.

Which raises another interesting question – how did Florida’s urine-based program do before the courts struck it down?

According to the media, abysmally. MSNBC: Drug Testing Welfare Recipients Looks Even Worse, “[Florida Governor] Scott’s policy was an embarrassing flop. Only about 2 percent of applicants tested positive, and Florida actually lost money”. TBO: Welfare Drug Testing Yields 2% Positive Results, “Newton said that’s proof the drug-testing program is based on a stereotype, not hard facts.” ATTN: Why Drug Testing Poor People Is A Waste Of Time And Money, “Florida tested welfare recipients for four months before its drug test mandate was thrown out by the courts. Only 2.6 percent of welfare recipients tested positive. The rest of the Florida’s population use drugs at a rate of 8 percent. So, again, welfare recipients used drugs less than everyone else.”

Now we’re merely at one-quarter of the drug use rate people with good methodologies find. Improvement!

So I looked up exactly how this works. Apparently welfare recipients were asked to pay for their own drug tests, and would be reimbursed if the results came back negative. 7000 welfare users did this, but 1600 declined to do so – numbers that were not mentioned in most of the pieces above.

Opponents of the program say that maybe those 1600 people could not find drug testing centers near them, or couldn’t afford to pay for the tests even with the promise of reimbursement later, or something like that. I am sure that some of them did indeed decline for reasons like those.

But also, people on welfare don’t have very much money [citation needed]. If I were a welfare recipient, and they were going to drug test me and not reimburse me if I came out positive, and I was on drugs, I would decline the hell out of that test.

Suppose that the poor in Florida use drugs at the same rate as the poor in various studies and surveys – about 10%. We have 8600 welfare recipients, so we would expect 860 drug users. Of the 7000 who agreed to testing, we know that 2.5% are drug users – that’s 175 people. That in turn would suggest that of the 1600 who refused testing, about 685 were drug users – 40% or so. That would imply that about 80% of drug users versus about 12% of nonusers refused testing.

These numbers seem pretty reasonable to me. Most welfare users want to keep their benefits, so the majority will agree to testing, but a few will inevitably fall through the cracks because they can’t reach a testing center or because they have moral objections to the tests. On the other hand, clued-in drug users will realize that for them, testing means a major inconvenience and monetary charge without any likely corresponding gain. So we would expect drug users to decline testing at a higher rate than nonusers. In order to use the Florida data to say that welfare recipients in general use drugs at a rate of 2%, we would need to assume that drug users were no more likely to refuse drug testing than nonusers, even though the testing rewarded non-use with money but punished use with a loss of money.

(note that there are some different numbers in different places for Florida. I assume that these represent different years, stages of testing, parts of Florida, etc, but I’m not sure. The only one that is seriously different from what I’m saying above is the one that says “only 1% of people declined testing”. After some search, I’m pretty sure that’s referring to that only 1% of people made appointments for testing, then cancelled later. But I am less confident in the Florida numbers than in the analysis of Tennessee)

So the Florida numbers are consistent with welfare recipients using drugs less, more, or the same amount as the general population.

So I have a question for you guys.

How come Brian Williams is being dragged over the coals for lying in the media, but everyone who publishes these kinds of articles gets off scot-free?

If I understand correctly, Williams said that his helicopter got shot at when he was in Iraq, but in reality he was just in a helicopter in Iraq at the same time as some other helicopter nearby was getting shot at. This is obviously stretching the truth, but it seems to me it could have been worse. No important policy decisions are going to hinge upon exactly which helicopter Brian Williams was in. And he didn’t get it infinitely wrong – for example, there was, in some sense, a war in Iraq.

On the other hand, discussions of how many poor people use drugs is pretty important for all sorts of policy questions, and these people completely dropped the ball. So why does nobody get reprimanded for this kind of thing?

You might argue that Brian Williams’ actions were obviously malicious and deceitful, but that screwing up drug numbers is an excusable mistake. I say it’s exactly the opposite. Brian Williams did exactly what I unfortunately do all the time – unthinkingly tell a story the much cooler way it should have happened, the way it happened in my head – rather than the way it actually did happen (my colleagues elsewhere in the psychiatry blogosphere go further and call this “normal brain function”).

On the other hand, I have more trouble imagining a situation in which I would accept the claim “only 0.1% of poor people use drugs, which is barely one percent of the rate in the general population” without wanting to do a little more research to see if it is true. If your reporters are capable of making this mistake honestly, get better reporters.

But I’m not sure it’s honest. A lot of these sources admit they took their story from a Think Progress piece on the issue. Think Progress does mention that the tests are a sham, although only in one sentence that is easy to miss. Either the secondary reporters didn’t read Think Progress thoroughly, or they consciously decided not to mention it.

But even if it was an honest mistake, I still have trouble excusing their arrogance. I mean look at that Jezebel article. The writer says this proves that people who think welfare recipients use drugs “consider ‘facts’ troublesome” and that their “entire social philosophy boils down to ‘Ew, poor people.'”

You’re saying that’s not as bad as a helicopter-related embellishment?

Yes, okay, drug testing welfare applicants is in fact probably a bad idea. It’s a bad idea because the courts have banned doing it in a way more effective than asking them politely if they use drugs or not, but it was a bad idea even before that. It’s a bad idea because drug tests have frequent false positives, but it’s a bad idea even without that. It’s a bad idea because quitting drugs is really hard and denying people benefits isn’t going to help.

But if, in the service of proving this to be a bad idea, you decide it’s acceptable to fudge the numbers to make your point, horrible things happen. First, you contribute to a culture of telling lies and lose the opportunity to protest when the other side does it. Second, you make it harder to trust you on anything else.

But most important, tell one lie and the truth is forever after your enemy. I recently argued that we need to reform suboxone prescribing laws, because it’s the best anti-addiction medicine we’ve got and right now poor people can’t access it. . Why should anyone listen to me now? They can just answer “Actually, that would be a waste of money. As per an article I read in Jezebel, pretty much no poor person has ever been addicted to drugs.” Then the laws don’t get reformed and people die.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

265 Responses to Drug Testing Welfare Users Is A Sham, But Not For The Reasons You Think

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’m surprised that anyone actually thinks Brian Williams was maliciously lying. (Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be.)

    • haishan says:

      Totally shouldn’t be. Even if nobody really believed it — and people think our memories are way more accurate than they actually are in general — you shouldn’t be surprised that people are using it for cheap political points.

      Personally, I suspect this is a test run for attacking Hillary Clinton for doing exactly the same thing.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Maybe they pushed it, but which things snowball looks pretty random to me.

        • It would be interesting to test this using a similar methodology to this paper, which shows that random snowballing can explain turnover rates for popular songs, dog breeds, and baby names.

          I guess you would need to check whether the turnover rate of most popular articles was independent of the number of articles published on a site. I wonder aloud how difficult it would be to scrape this information.

      • Gbdub says:

        On the one hand, I’m surprised anyone is surprised that Brian Williams (or any reporter with that high a profile) is a self-aggrandizing schmuck.

        On the other hand, I’m surprised anyone is fine with totally giving him a pass on it. Sure, knocking him down may be cheap political points, but falsely portraying yourself as a bullet dodging badass is also about cheap political points – turnabout is fair play.

      • Steve Johnson says:

        It’s the opposite of a test run for that – it’s preemptive immunization for that.

        In a few months people will realize how ridiculous the Brian Williams thing is – he had nothing to gain and retold a story that was pretty close to what happened. At that point they’re primed to dismiss those types of stories.

        In actuality the Hilary Clinton story is far worse.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          Man. I just… man.

          • Ialdabaoth says:

            Man what, indeed, my friend. Man what indeed.

            Let me try to say something of substance:

            It’s the opposite of a test run for that – it’s preemptive immunization for that.

            In a few months people will realize how ridiculous the Brian Williams thing is – he had nothing to gain and retold a story that was pretty close to what happened. At that point they’re primed to dismiss those types of stories.

            In actuality the Hilary Clinton story is far worse.

            This is stated with such surety, and is so far into conspiracy-land, that I found myself both unable to engage with it, and unable to leave it be.

            I’m left just boggling at the inferential chasm.

        • ryan says:

          My inner Turk is quite pleased with your analysis.

      • “Personally, I suspect this is a test run for attacking Hillary Clinton for doing exactly the same thing.”

        The attention the media has recently given to this and the Bill Cosby stuff does seem to point to some anti-Clinton Slytherins.

      • Lenoxus says:

        Both “test run” and “pre-emptive immunization” are interesting hypotheses. A is aware that B has a certain skeleton in hir closet, and so makes hay out of C having a similar skeleton, either to get people to think of that type of skeleton is a big deal or that it’s no big deal. It’s a neat idea for an episode of Scandal, but when has something like it occurred in real life?

    • Tom Scharf says:

      I’m surprised at how many articles I saw that rationalized this as unintentional lying due to flawed memory. My guess is because he is so “likable” that people simply do not want to believe it. Just remember to give everyone else who is caught in a bald faced lie the same benefit of the doubt, especially people in the opposing tribe.

      I think if Brian Williams truly believed in his memory, he would be fighting this accusation a little harder. Apparently there were further questionable embellishments as well.

      • Anonymous says:

        To be honest, Tom, I had no idea even who Brian Williams was before all this came out.

        OTOH, I did know about Elizabeth Loftus.

    • akira says:

      Not sure what weight “maliciously” is carrying in your formulation, but I am comfortable in calling it a lie and find that the initial effort to rush out epistemology based defenses a rather apparent form of tribalism that would be laughed aside by its proponents under different circumstances.

      Even with all of the furor surrounding Williams’ comments, there seems to be some lingering premises in his favor; Scott’s understanding in this post is that a helicopter near Williams’ came under fire, while a pilot and two other crew members actually aboard his helicopter said they arrived at least 30 minutes after the attacked helicopter landed.

      This of course leaves out all of the other questionable accounts that have surfaced since the initial report (seeing a floating dead body in the French Quarter during Katrina, being embedded with Seal Team Six and getting a piece of the downed chopper used in the OBL raid, etc.)

      • Anonymous says:

        I am comfortable in calling it a lie and find that the initial effort to rush out epistemology based defenses a rather apparent form of tribalism

        Hate to break it to you, but calling it a lie *is itself* a rather apparent form of tribalism.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        [[ I am comfortable in calling it a lie and find that the initial effort to rush out epistemology based defenses a rather apparent form of tribalism]]

        Hate to break it to you, but calling it a lie *is itself* a rather apparent form of tribalism.

        Brian Who? But I’ve noticed in similar controversies, some lack of distinction between ‘lied’, ‘was mis-quoted/taken out of context’, ‘mis-spoke’, ‘mis-remembered’, ‘innocently repeated mis-information’, ‘made an honest mistake’, and ‘came to a conclusion the speaker disagrees with’.

    • William O. B'Livion says:

      What do you mean by “maliciously lying”?

      He lied from the beginning, and clearly it as to make himself look better.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      I really can’t imagine saying my helicopter was shot at when it wasn’t, except as a deliberate lie.

      Typical mind fallacy?

      • Nornagest says:

        I suspect the word doing most of the work there is “maliciously”, not “lying”. Generally speaking, there’s no malice in trying to make yourself look good, even if you lie in so doing.

        Or the incident could have grown in his memory. That does happen too, and if Wikipedia’s accurate on the issue (I’m willing to entertain that it might not be) the strongest versions of the story didn’t appear until 2013, a decade after the fact.

        • Anonymous says:

          What I know about memory suggests the latter explanation.

          If you say something believing it to be true, I don’t call it lying.

          • Stella says:

            The fact that memory is fallible (which it is) doesn’t mean that people don’t also *lie,* all the time. And given that he also seems to have told several far-fetched tales, I suspect that’s what’s happening here. I certainly don’t think it’s malicious.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        I really can’t imagine saying my helicopter was shot at when it wasn’t, except as a deliberate lie.

        How can the passenger have first-hand knowledge either way, other than a bullet coming through the hull, or possibly a good view out the window of an attacking plane? Absent that, your knowledge would have to come thru someone else: perhaps the pilot, who probably got it from some outside observer, or from reports from a nearby plane that did get some hits.

        So there are several points for possible misunderstanding already. Plus, the pilot/s would begin with warnings like “Some gunfire has been reported in this area”, or (Clintonista speaking here) “Better get across the asphalt fast, there’s been some sniper activity around here.” I think the passenger’s rational response would be to accept the warning and dodge across, inspired by the working hypothesis that there are some snipers out there.

        Bits and pieces from several incidents, years past, can mix and match in even the most honest memory. And rounding off to a brief colorful statement, is just how human minds work.

    • arthur somethingorother says:

      Someone wanted an excuse to shit on Brian Williams’ face, so they picked some totally innocuous shit that a million other people have done and used it as one.

      The fact that it’s a completely stupid excuse is the whole thrill. Nobody ever starts an irrational shitdicking frenzy for a reason that makes rational sense.

      It’s http://i.imgur.com/B9NNE7n.jpg, and I won’t even say the word because there’s a 50-90% chance someone’s going to respond to this post I just wrote by saying HE SAID THE WORD, GET HIM, even on a rationalist website, because that is how irrationality works

      It’s all violent animal pack behavior horseshit. We’re a tiny slice of human on the back of an ape on the back of a lizard on the back of a fucking fish.

  2. BD Sixsmith says:

    We draw clear moral lines between “willful dishonesty” and “innocent mistake” without, in many cases, having good epistemological cause for classifying deeds. It depends in large part on public relations. That, presumably, is why Mr Williams is the first person to be sacked for telling mistruths about the invasion.

    (I feel for the person who ticked “yes”. Such honesty and yet it will go quite unrewarded.)

    • hawkice says:

      You lie and the truth is forever your enemy, but you force people to choose between poverty and the truth, and you’ll never hear the truth again.

      • Troy says:

        I’d rather be honest than poor.

        • David Simon says:

          That’s, um, kind of a one sided choice. Did you mean you’d rather be poor than dishonest?

          • Jared says:

            Troy was probably saying that hawkice screwed up the choice, “force people to choose between poverty and the truth,” instead of “between poverty and dishonesty”.

            Also possible reference to:

            “I’d rather be rich than stupid.” -Jack Handey

  3. LTP says:

    This is why I hate mainstream political discourse.

    Oh, and I think the only reason Brian Williams is being attacked so much is that there’s a video of him from 2003 describing what happened that can easily and quickly be contrasted with videos of him telling the exaggerated/stretched story. It’s irrational to react more to that than to these people talking about drug tests, but that’s the way it is. If it is on video, or recorded audio, or a picture, that riles people up more than anything in the written word.

  4. John Schilling says:

    Lots of people are emotionally invested in poor people / welfare recipients being virtuous folks beset by circumstance and deserving of society’s help. There’s no way to throw the reporters responsible for this damnable lie under the bus, without also damaging the broader ideal – and the people whose self-image is tied up in that ideal.

    Almost nobody is emotionally invested in Brian Williams, War Hero. He’s expendable, and can be expended without collateral damage.

    • Cadie says:

      If the idea of drug users universally being Bad People who deserve bad things to happen to them wasn’t also distressingly common, then the emotional investment in welfare users being good, innocent people wouldn’t be as likely to cause so much media deceit. Separating infrequent casual use from addiction, and recognizing addiction as a medical problem, would mean that “welfare recipients are deserving of help” and “a small but not insignificant fraction of welfare recipients use recreational drugs” would be compatible opinions.

      Whether people on welfare deserve benefits or not depends on one’s other views, I suppose, and there are a lot of other issues that come up related to it: deterring fraud, how to decide who gets help, possible welfare reforms, and more. But the stigma towards drug users is why politicians and reporters (and much of the public) can’t reconcile the idea of welfare recipients using drugs with [most] welfare recipients being decent people.

      • One doesn’t need to believe drug users are *bad*. I don’t think it’s wrong to do drugs or drink. I don’t think it’s wrong to be picky about which job I accept either. I engage in all these behaviors myself.

        However, if I were dependent on the largess of others (like a welfare recipient), it would hardly be unreasonable for those others to demand that I avoid behaviors which are likely to result in continued dependency. Nor would it be unreasonable to withdraw their largess if I continued engaging in such behaviors.

        Moral intuition: I might let a friend crash at my house for a bit if his house were destroyed. But I’d expect him to put effort into apartment hunting, and I’d probably kick him out if he didn’t. This doesn’t mean I think he’s a bad person because his house burned down, or that I think failing to apartment hunt is a bad thing.

    • Shenpen says:

      How about some signalling-theory?

      The people who are like “let’s not pay welfare to junkies” are signalling that they are one step above them on the social ladder, they usually have jobs and when they rarely need assistance they are not taking drugs. They are signalling “we are respectable, unlike them”.

      The Jezebel readers who are like “we totally feel no eww about the poors” are signalling “we are higher than the working class. nobody would ever question we are upper middle class. we don’t need to separate ourselves from the welfare class, and we can show our status by conspiciously caring for them, as nobody would mistake us for them. also, we don’t have to endure the company of a lot of poor people so we don’t really have our no-eww tested much”.

  5. Shmi Nux says:

    You have a stray period in the last paragraph. Also, re “get better reporters”, have you, by chance, come across a media source that did report better on this issue?

  6. Sharon says:

    They fudge numbers because they think that if poor people are addicts, “ew poor people” is a perfectly reasonable social philosophy to take. That seems LESS progressive than not fudging the numbers to me.

    • satanistgoblin says:

      Not necessarily, they could fudge numbers because they think that their less enlightened readers will go “ew poor people”, so they need to be mislead for the greater good.

      • Sharon says:

        Thinking of the masses as unenlightened is *also* a less progressive position.

        • Not That Scott says:

          Thinking of the masses as unenlightened is the progressive position, the ur-position from which all other progressive positions flow.

          (This is the utopian vision if you’ve read Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate, or the unconstrained vision if you’ve read Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions or The Vision of the Anointed.)

          • randy m says:

            Yup. Enlightened people don’t need elites remaking society to control their dark impulses or mitigate their incompetence.

          • Luke Somers says:

            *Head-scratch* Hmmm. Hmm. I guess, in some versions of ‘progressive’. That feels like 1920’s progressive. What I’ve seen lately doesn’t feel like that.

  7. anonymous says:

    Brian Williams has a name. His story is personal and emotional and relatable. His story is easy to tell. I heard about it on the view. I don’t think you could tell a story about bad statistics on the view.

    Why do we hear about Eric Garner and not about everyone who dies from malaria? Malaria doesn’t have a face and it doesn’t have a story. It’s just people far away who die a lot.

    We could do this all day. I don’t think there is any easy fix, or if there is I don’t know about it. It’s just a lot of people like you doing the best they can to not bullshit people and try to make things a smidge better.

    If somebody knows a more effective method I’d love to hear about it.

    • If a news website were like Wikipedia, maybe it would work better. Every article that was turned out would have to be reviewed by someone with a completely different ideological position, who would then edit the article, fact-check things, and send it back to the prior person. That person could review, and when the two finally came to a consensus, that could be published. More important articles would have to involve three, or four people with similarly disparate views: a Randian, a Neoreactionary, a feminist, and a Marxist, say.

      Of course, ideally you would want an individual to be able to do this in their own head… but this might be more realistic.

      Of course, this hypothetical website would need to be successful enough to pay for the additional infrastructure. It would also churn out articles more slowly. But if it got a good enough reputation, it might be able to crowd out the supposedly higher-class and more objective news sources–or at least force them to adopt the same policy or to get better.

      Edit: Of course, there is wikipedia news. So maybe everyone should just use that. It seems like some kind of proactive approach to journalism is still likely to necessary in some cases, which is why some more formal organization might be necessary.

      • Vulture says:

        Wikinews exists, but it is notoriously low-volume. And all the resulting selection effects that you can imagine happen as a result: I recall taking a look at it during the 2012 US Presidential election, and the only US political article on the front page was a headline about the nominee from a party that wasn’t on the ballot in like half of the union.

        (meta aside: we’re required to provide email now?!?)

      • I like where you are going with this. Please get in contact if you do any theoretical work on this topic or stumble across anything similar.

      • Richard Gadsden says:

        Hypothetical website would need someone very rich to buy an existing highly-respected brand (e.g. New York Times, Washington Post), throw a load of money at operating this way and hope to crowd out everyone else.

        Problem is that things written by committee lack literary style, and journalists mostly respect writing first and reporting second rather than the other way around, so you wouldn’t start winning Pullizers just for being right.

    • “I don’t think you could tell a story about bad statistics on the view. ”

      I think this is an important point. To me, Scott’s analysis of the statistics is if anything more convincing than the evidence that Brian was lying. The latter depends on other people’s testimony. Without a significant effort I don’t know for sure if they are telling the truth, if the news stories about the case are for some reason filtering out the evidence that he was telling the truth or honestly confused or something. Scott’s argument is a matter of logic, which I can check inside my head.

      But I think that for most people it’s the other way around. I’ve been struck in the online climate arguments by how few people on either side actually understand the arguments, evidence, science whose conclusions they are citing. It’s much more a matter of “sources of information I trust say conclusion X is true” than “I can tell, by thinking about it, that conclusion X is true.”

  8. onyomi says:

    I feel like some blame should go to those who did a study in this way in the first place, and for then releasing the numbers to news outlets. I hate to say, but I think most reporters don’t bother to check the methodology when a study comes out reporting something they expect their readers will like to hear. They certainly should be better fact-checkers, but I imagine the number of reporters who willfully said “I can see the problems with the methodology here, but I’ll report it anyway” were probably few.

    The designers of the study, on the other hand, should know that a questionnaire is not going to produce reliable results for something like drug use. If a more reliable method is not available, either don’t do the study at all or publish the findings with a very big caveat, like “self-reported drug use among welfare recipients is x.” If they instead send out a press release saying “study finds only .5% of welfare recipients use drugs” without stating clearly upfront that it was based on a survey, most people will just assume it was a urine test, as most drug tests are, and not look into it further, especially if the result is one coherent with their world view.

    • Andrew says:

      It wasn’t a study at all. It was an enforcement mechanism. The people
      posing the questions didn’t do so with any intent to aggregate the
      answers and draw conclusions. (Just like the questions the IRS asks on
      your tax form, say.)

      • onyomi says:

        So it was the reporters themselves looking into the reporting mechanism who aggregated the results? In that case, whoever did that probably was disingenuous. Still, a questionnaire? Really? It reminds me of that gun vending machine on the Simpsons that makes you push a “no” button in response to the question “are you a criminal?”

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Most of the clickbait articles that Scott linked attribute the information to this piece, which has an unreasonable headline and first paragraph, but whose second paragraph is quite clear:

          Out of more than 16,000 applicants from the beginning of July through the end of 2014, just 37 tested positive for illegal drug use. While that amounts to roughly 13 percent of the 279 applicants who the state decided to test based on their answers to a written questionnaire about drug use, the overall rate among applicants is just 0.2 percent.

          That is based on this piece, which is less reasonable, but explains the situation at the end. Also, it gives the verbatim questionnaire.

          • caryatis says:

            Oh, thanks. These are the questions apparently:

            Tennessee’s drug testing questionnaire for applicants for cash assistance has three questions:

            1. In the past three months have you used any of the following drugs?

            2. In the past three months have you lost or been denied a job due to use of any of the following drugs?

            3. In the past three months have you had any scheduled court appearances due to use or possession of any of the following drugs?

            Marijuana (cannabis, pot, weed, etc.)

            Cocaine (coke, blow, crack, rock, etc.)

            Methamphetamine/amphetamine type stimulants (speed, meth, ecstasy, X, ice, etc.)

            Opioids (heroin, morphine, methadone, opium, buprenorphine, codeine, etc.)

          • randy m says:

            The conclusion in the last line is still misleading if one doesn’t read carefully and note that it is the rate of reporting honestly drug use and not simply that of drug use.

          • Deiseach says:

            Having looked at the regulations in question, they’re not as horrible as I thought they’d be. Yes. there’s a political element of “get those lazy bums off the public purse” to it, but considering our own Labour Party Minister for Social Protection is happy to trumpet “cut down on benefit cheats and dole spongers” campaigns, you can’t simply say it’s the mean ol’ right wingers stomping on the poor (all politicians do equal-opportunity stomping on the poor when they think it’ll appeal to the middle-class voters that will save their seats in the next election).

            Before you start laughing about “Ha, ha, who is going to answer “yes, I take drugs” on an official form?”, I can actually see a reason why an applicant might answer “yes” to these questions; if they want help to get off drugs.

            Drug Treatment Referral. If the results of the confirmation test indicate usage of drugs as defined in
            this Chapter, the Department shall refer the Families FirsUTANF recipient for a substance abuse evaluation to determine the appropriate treatment plan and/or recovery support group or resource.

            That recommendation, and the fact that they won’t dob you into the cops if you do test positive, are the carrots for going along with this. The stick, of course, is that if you don’t comply, you don’t get your benefits.

            It’s not merely a questionnaire; every new applicant has to fill it in. If you answer “yes” to any of the questions (and don’t have a valid prescription for why you might be on certain drugs), you have to do the urine drug testing which the department pays for (at least in Tennessee) and if that’s positive, sign up to a rehab scheme.

            But it’s also “reasonable suspicion” – say you answer “no” to the questionnaire but the case worker thinks you’re maybe telling fibs, you naughty thing! Well, then you have to do the urine drug testing (or again, lose your benefits). And from dealing with clients/applicants in my job, we effin’ well can tell when you’ve been taking more than aspirin, even if you’re sure you’re not showing any signs when you call in to the office.

            I don’t know if the department does any police checks, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t. We also have a similar questionnaire on our application forms for social housing about public order offences, including violent assault, criminal damage, drugs, and rape.

            You can certainly tick “no” to all these, but we don’t simply take your word for it.

            (a) Before being offered tenancy of a council house, everyone gets police vetting check. Everyone. Old age pensioners, eighteen year old single mothers, respectable and non-respectable alike.

            (b) Some people are trying to turn their lives around and as part of that answer honestly about past offences. We try to accommodate people who genuinely are trying to move past bad situations by not making their circumstances worse.

            (c) We read the court pages in the local newspapers. That means (most recent examples) we know about applicants who are up on charges for stabbing another woman in the stomach during a row at a party. Or which tenants/occupants are going to be exchanging their occupancy for a stay in Limerick/Portlaoise/Mountjoy Prison.

            (d) Local knowledge. If there is gossip in the village about you being involved with a crowd of thieves/drug dealers/violent getting drunk and assaulting people types, somebody in this section will have heard and know about it.

            (e) Some people are not so smart. Sure, answer “no” to all the questions, but don’t then provide as proof of address a letter sent to you by the Probation Service.

        • gattsuru says:

          It reminds me of that gun vending machine on the Simpsons that makes you push a “no” button in response to the question “are you a criminal?”

          Interesting example. ATF Form 4473, which you must fill out if purchasing a firearm from anyone who sells guns across state lines or as a business, asks “Have you been convicted of any felony…”. Private sellers are actually encouraged to ask something similar, since it’s illegal for them to sell to anyone with a criminal record, too.

          This exists because while the Gun Control Act of 1968 outlawed transfer of a firearm to most classes of convicted or indicted criminals (and the Brady Act of 1993 further restricted sales to people who the seller could not prove they believed were not criminals), the FBI didn’t finish creating a criminal background check until 1998 (NICS).

    • gattsuru says:

      That’s often the case — especially in biochemistry and social science, you see a lot of studies playing reporters like a fiddle — but this situation seems to involve a lot of reporters handling the numbers directly.

      Honestly, it’s not that they’re leaving out facts that gets me. I’d like my social justice rigorous, or at least not requiring a mountain of salt, but it’s at least understandable when they’re no better than anyone else. But it often goes beyond that.

      There’s an image set going around Tumblr (of course) describing how a 15-year old Somali Muslim boy was killed by a hit-and-run driver who spewed bizarre anti-Islamic conspiracy theories. It doesn’t take much digging to find that the murderer had been institutionalized for what looks like severe paranoid schizophrenia that might relevant, but at least that’s the expected sort of mistake and at least it doesn’t immediately undermine the entire example. You can at least understand when folk say maybe the paranoid schizophrenia used the rhetoric, and it’s at least comprehensible to tie Fox News echolalia into things if you weren’t feeling terribly generous, and you can at least pretend, when you’ve caught someone misleading this way, that they didn’t really mean it.

      But then you dig a little deeper, and the murderer’s first name is Ahmed. His mother says he, too, is from Somalia, and that he is or was Muslim (presumably when medicated), as well. This turns the story from wrong to “I can’t believe anything else you say”. This brand of social justice doesn’t just lack rigor: it’s actively undermining its own integrity for all but the most dedicated followers.

      • Lightman says:

        I actually looked up the story you were referring to – while Ahmed is indeed Somali, he is a Christian, not a Muslim. Which doesn’t totally invalidate your point, but still, that’s less damning for the tumblrites than you say.

        • gattsuru says:

          Sorry, to clarify, it’s Ahmed’s mother claiming that he’s Muslim. That’s probably not related to definitions of religious affiliation we’re using, or her translator botched the tenses, or there’s some sort of confusion, hence why I specifically pointed it as his mother’s claim…

          But even the weakest possible sequence of events completely go at odds with the claimed significance.

        • randy m says:

          If the reporting of the story was about American bigotry rather than foolish America importing African religious war, yes, yes it is undermined rather completely.

    • Dain says:

      I worked in a high pressure media environment for a couple of years, and had to produce 5 to 7 stories daily. We took our cue from the likes of Gawker and the NYT because it’s too time-consuming to come up with the framing and narrative all on our own. I kind of lamented this but OTOH loved being enmeshed in the current events zeitgeist. (Is that redundant?) It beat boring byline-free copywriting.

  9. Douglas Knight says:

    You imply that the Daily Beast article talks about the Tennessee results. But it doesn’t — it’s 18 months old and only mentions that Tennessee is the in future. That’s also why it say “That’s why the GOP keeps adding screening laws,” which is no longer true after the court case. It does quote the problematic Florida numbers and others that are 10x the Tennessee numbers.

    Also, the Daily Beast article equivocates between drug use and drug abuse. The author does this probably out of confusion or opportunism, there is an important distinction there: causes of poverty vs common luxuries.

  10. Jacob Schmidt says:

    I was a little bit confused, as I believed similar reporting in the past, but I usually look for statistical shenanigans out of habit. Had I been duped?

    But no, the possibility of drug using welfare recipients refusing to take the test had been accounted for.

    Source:

    Since the state began testing welfare applicants for drugs in July, about 2 percent have tested positive, preliminary data shows.

    So far, they say, about 2 percent of applicants are failing the test; another 2 percent are not completing the application process, for reasons unspecified.

    At most 4% would have failed, which is below the general population. I’m not sure what’s happening, here.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      That is from 4 weeks into the program. Scott’s source from 6 weeks later claims that 20% failed to complete the screening. Your first thought should always be that one of the articles is flat-out wrong, but one way to reconcile them is that the time limit for testing is more than 4 weeks, so maybe 2% explicitly refuse, while 20% fail to do it, but it was not possible to know that at the time of the first article. Scott’s article’s source is a broken link to an AP article, apparently this one.

      (There’s a weird discrepancy that the 4 week article talks about 1000 taking the test in the first month and expecting that to be typical, but the second article says 8500 applicants in the first 10 weeks. Also, the AP article puts the actual testing at 0.5% fail rate, which is too low for false positive reasons.)

  11. haishan says:

    Constitutional issues with the Florida program aside, what would happen if you described roughly its effects and asked people their opinions? “We can fairly cheaply remove about 800 drug users from the welfare rolls, but we’ll also end up denying welfare to about 800 non-users.”

    The little liberal homunculus in my head hates this idea; she thinks it’s wildly unfair to punish poor people (often racial minorities) for using drugs when it’s fairly easy for rich whites to get away with it. My libertarian homunculus isn’t happy about people being on welfare at all, but as long as they are, we shouldn’t make the problem worse by legislating what they put in their bodies. My inner reactionary thinks there are fairly effective ways of stopping everyone from using drugs, and we should just do those.

    But my conservative homunculus is totally confused and silent. I can’t tell whether he’s okay with this tradeoff or not. This would be an interesting thing to investigate further — anyone better than me at ITT’ing American conservatism have any ideas?

    • caryatis says:

      Well, if you think welfare is not good for people, then denying it to non-drug-users is not a real cost. Also, couldn’t you just give people the option of appealing the test? Two false positives in a row has got to be much less likely than one.

      • haishan says:

        Also, couldn’t you just give people the option of appealing the test? Two false positives in a row has got to be much less likely than one.

        Most of the “false positives” come not from actual false positives but from non-users being unable or unwilling to pay for and take the drug test.

        My inner model of a conservative doesn’t have a problem with welfare so much as with people abusing welfare. Giving citizens a little extra help to get them to where they can support themselves, is the ideal. This model may or may not be accurate; I’m not sure.

    • satanistgoblin says:

      “My inner reactionary thinks there are fairly effective ways of stopping everyone from using drugs, and we should just do those.”

      There actually are? What are they?

        • satanistgoblin says:

          Well, it sounds a lot like how a lot of countries are dealing with drugs and a lot were, only maybe dialled to eleven. Probably same laws would have very varied results in different countries.

        • Rehab and prison count as carrots now? Tasty!

          • haishan says:

            The “hey you can integrate into society if you stop getting high” part counts as a carrot. It’s more than the US does, for sure.

      • DES3264 says:

        Randomly test previous drug users with less than 24 hours notice. If they fail a test, or fail to appear for one, they go to jail for 24 hours the same day (or as soon as they are found). With such a strong incentive to stay off drugs, almost all addicts can find a way to do so.

        I am referring to the HOPE program in Hawaii and many programs like it, where this model was tried with drug-addicted parolees. (We are talking about people who committed other crimes, but also had drug addictions.) The supreme court basically says that you can do anything to a parolee which is not as bad as sending them back to jail, so this sort of force can be applied to them.

        From a social engineering perspective, the main lesson of HOPE seems to be that drug users have extreme hyperbolic discounting, so a 50% chance of 24 hours in prison is a more effective threat than a 5% chance of a year. (Exact numbers are made up.) Since housing a prisoner is expensive, it makes sense for society to take this trade off.

        This sort of social control is one of the few things that evokes non-utilitarian gut level responses in me. It is obviously better for both parolee and society for the parolee to be out on the street but under the constant supervision of the government, rather than in jail. But my gut says you either throw a person in a cage, or admit that they are a human being; you don’t put them in a choke collar and send them out in the world.

    • Lenoxus says:

      Non-conservative here, but my understanding is that American conservatism is generally against welfare almost entirely, on first principles. And hence (to extend from what caryatis said) the conservative homunculus might say “So, there’s a politically feasible way to reduce welfare rolls by 1600 people? Excellent. Shame that some people still get welfare afterward.”

      Of course, a typical Republican politician might not literally say that welfare should be abolished. The boilerplate answer to debate questions on the topic is “Give a hand up, not a handout” (or “Teach a man to fish…”), but I’m not aware of a particular policy that conservatives point to as demonstrating this, other than workfare.

      In general, everything about welfare is anathema to modern American conservatism: it’s funded by taxpayer money, implying that the government is better than personal charity to address the problem; it enables laziness (though why the same criticism isn’t leveled against private-charity equivalents, other than a sense that it’s none of our business, I’m not sure); and in the combination of these two things, it is yet another example of the government unnecessarily mucking around in a perfectly functional free market.

      Although politicians who spell it out in such frank terms may be walking on thin ice (especially the ones that have to appeal to the center), I don’t think the average American conservative would feel too misrepresented by my description (apart from my commentary against the position).

      • Irrelevant says:

        why the same criticism isn’t leveled against private-charity equivalents, other than a sense that it’s none of our business, I’m not sure

        Private charity uses the money of voluntary participants, and can be more selective about who it helps than a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic approach.

  12. Tom Scharf says:

    “So why does nobody get reprimanded for this kind of thing?”

    Two words: Plausible deniability.

    They are only reporting what others said. They are correctly reporting what others have said. They can claim that they had no reason to doubt this information (hmmmm…) and didn’t have the ability to run down and verify it other then verifying that others did in fact state this.

    It’s the National Inquirer model for reports that they would like to believe are true and allows them to score points against their foes. The fancy term is of course confirmation bias. If it stated that 35% of people were failing drug tests, this report would be examined closely and probably not reported at all.

    This all goes down to who you trust in the media and who you don’t. Eventually they will report on something that you happen to have a lot of knowledge on due to your career or hobby, and then they make an absolute mess of it. If they refuse to correct it, or even refuse to look into it, then their credibility goes downhill.

    Unfortunately with most news sources they have split credibility, reporting accurately on some subjects, and taking a lot of artistic license with others.

    If our esteemed host ever pointed his statistical microscope at environmental reporting, I think he would come away pretty disappointed. It has been open season on math here for decades.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Except that every single one of these articles destroys its plausible deniability by citing the Think Progress article that talks about the written screening.

    • This all goes down to who you trust in the media and who you don’t….

      The endpoint of this process, which I and many others have already reached, is never to trust anything that you hear in the media. There is no distinction between “news” and “propaganda”, and there probably never was, so all reporting from every media source should be treated with maximum skepticism. Sometimes the media does accidentally say something true, but this should be treated as a rare and exciting aberration, not as something expected.

      • randy m says:

        And it’s the understanding that this is so, or the assumption atleast, that makes conservatives happy to go after Brian Williams for demonstrable, if admittedly entirely irrelevant falsehoods.

      • My conclusion, long ago, was that the one consistent media bias was in favor of telling a good story.

    • Texan99 says:

      Reprimanded for what, and by whom? Are we to think the writers of these pieces weren’t serving the purposes of their employers?

      It’s for readers, if anyone, to implement an effective reprimand in the form of relentless skepticism of anything else published by that source. The publication at some point will have to decide whether it makes its living by presenting an attractive advocacy for a target audience or by maintaining a reputation for truthfulness and fairness.

  13. Good reporting. You’re moving to the red side? Even though you put that disclaimer at the end, this is still an article reds can add to their arsenal (parts of it taken out of context). It reminds me of when Steve Sailer heavily criticized the Levitt abortion/crime study, on dubious math, but without realizing or willfully ignoring that the implied results of study agree with his HBd-centric views. What is more important: taking one for the team and being wrong, or being right and kinda pissing your team off.

  14. ddreytes says:

    I mean, I think you know what the reasons are. This is the structure of Internet media, this is the structure of American partisan politics. In some sense, it almost doesn’t matter whether or not this was an ‘honest mistake’ or not. And honestly, I kind of suspect that it was an honest mistake. The financial incentives of online make it so necessary for Internet media to sell out as hard as possible to specific subtribes and castes, and to make headlines that are as strong and remarkable as possible, that this is something that happens all the time. And it completely makes sense to me that a site like Jezebel would completely fail to do basic research on something that seems to support their worldview and then make very, very strong research about it. The financial incentives that drive that industry, and the social structure of American culture and politics that underlies it, almost make it inevitable. People can go in with the intent of being basically honest and I don’t think it would improve or change the conversation at all. And I think people mostly accept this kind of thing as the style of the times, or at the very most recognize that it’s bad but only realize it’s happening when other tribes do it.

    Basically, burn down the Internet and start again.

    • Sites like Jezebel are paid by the click and pageviews, and integrity and truth takes the back seat. I guess this why The Daily Show is important to so many people because it was one of few places people could turn to for news that wasn’t embellished . People are seeking reality, even if this reality doesn’t agree with their preexisting biases or beliefs, and this is a good sign.

      • Tom Scharf says:

        I think this comment qualifies as unintentional satire. Or maybe my sarcasm meter isn’t properly tuned.

      • ddreytes says:

        The Daily Show had some kind of commitment to the truth but at the same time it was also presented from and with a specific kind of worldview. People liked it because they were seeking reality but also because they had a preconceived notion of what reality would be like and the Daily Show tended rather to reinforce that understanding (in addition to being pretty funny).

        Perhaps I’m being too cynical, though.

        • Gbdub says:

          I don’t think you’re being too cynical. The Daily Show definitely has a slant (I think you defined it well – a preconceived notion of reality). Jon Stewart is definitely a phenomenon of the young, predominantly white, upper middle-class wing of the blue tribe, and his show reflects that.

          I much prefer South Park as satirists, because they do seem more committed to being equal opportunity offenders. Stewart seems to have started to take his political influence a bit too seriously starting in the late 2000s and his comedic integrity suffered as a result.

    • Tom Scharf says:

      Right, and one of the important aspects of this is there is no effective penalty for overstating the facts here. Maximizing the message impact is a far greater priority than accurately conveying information.

      • ddreytes says:

        I don’t think that’s entirely true – people do have different aesthetic senses, and different standards and expectations for what messages should look like. Not just in terms of what appeals to them aesthetically but in terms of what kinds of arguments they find compelling and reasonable. If all you care about is getting the splashiest headline you’re going to have a hard time establishing yourself over the long term.

        So both Jezebel and the Huffington Post have a deep interest in maximizing the message impact, but they’re going to use very different styles and approaches in doing so because they appeal to slightly different crowds. A Jezebel headline and a Huffington Post headline aren’t going to look the same. Obviously it’s an economically driven thing where there’s an incentive to build a stable userbase, but it turns into an aesthetic thing and I think comes to represent a distinct point of view both for the readerbase and the writers.

        • ” A Jezebel headline and a Huffington Post headline aren’t going to look the same. ”

          Some years back, I spent a number of blog posts defending Republican candidates who were less nutty than the media made them out to be. My impression at the time was that the Huffington Post was a relatively honest source of information, despite its biases.

          There was one candidate who was widely asserted to have come out against the separation of church and state. The HP story, as best I remember, accurately stated his position (that the separation, properly understood, did not have as strong implications as some thought) and provided a video of the talk of his on which the claim was based.

          Here’s my old blog post on that:

          http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2010/09/ken-buck-and-separation-of-church-and.html

  15. tyra says:

    Maybe I’m too naive or arrogant, but I think this leans more towards incompetence rather than maliciousness.

    Sad as it is, the majority of people are mostly innumerate. Maybe not in an absolute sense, numbers of daily life (prices, time, etc.) are no problem, but abstract concepts? Complicated stuff like statistics or percentages?

    For many people numbers work more as feelings than anything else. There is few vs. many, little vs. a lot, less vs. more, minority vs. majority.
    So they read that number and don’t get suspicious. It’s just read as “less than expected” or “less than the other side claimed”. It doesn’t matter whether the number is 2% or 0.2% or 0.002%, most people would act no differently. It’s just a small number.

    • I’d actually agree with you – but I also agree calling people out for this sort of thing is healthy. Ideally in the way Scott calls people out – dismantling much of what’s wrong with it while still being respectful, resisting any urge to sneer.

      But I’m probably not really one to comment on journalism – I avoid traditional reporting avenues as much as possible. Less because I think they’re never trustworthy and much more because I find their tone and handling of topics toxic. (That’s one of the reasons I’m so glad Scott has his blog. The tone is just so much more palatable, because he treats practically every subject with respect.)

      Generally, I find the idiom ‘never attribute malice to what can be adequately explained with ignorance’ a useful rule of thumb. Granted, I might be naive, I don’t know – but if so, the mindset hasn’t failed me yet.

      I know that if I would have heard of the study in a stand-alone summary, I would not have had any reason to mistrust it – partly (and mainly) because I’m not emotionally invested in the subject either way, but also because I have no comparison numbers as to what a ‘normal’ percentage of drug use is. Obviously I would expect more fact-checking from a journalist (even given my embittered relationship with classic journalism), but I can also picture someone getting caught up in exactly the wrong fact-checking. Sometimes people will double-check everything except for the important parts. (I know that’s happened to me before while programming – I can’t imagine it’s all that different in other fields, especially when looking at the less competent in said field.)

      • Texan99 says:

        I don’t attribute Brian Williams’s errors to malice. The thing is, I don’t have to attribute them confidently to anything in particular in order for him to lose his credibility. It could be a brain tumor–who cares? (Other than friends and family concerned about his health; no one would wish an illness on the man.) The fact remains that when you see glaring discrepancies between the facts and a person’s depiction of the facts, that’s all you need to know the next time you’re wondering whether to place much stock in what he reports.

        If your thermometer reads 33 degrees F but you’re sweltering, you might or might not be curious what’s wrong with it or who’s fault it is, but one thing you’re pretty clear about is that it’s broken. If your first question is, “Did a Rep or a Dem build this thermometer?” then you have a confused relationship with the truth. Anyone who resists concluding that Brian Williams has destroyed his own credibility, but who readily accepts that President Bush maliciously lied about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, has some major cognitive methodology to sort out.

        • I’m not sure if you’re trying to disagree with me or not – the vehemence in your tone could go either way. In case you are, I think we may be misunderstanding each other:

          1) I have zero opinion on the Brian Williams thing, mostly because I hadn’t heard about it until this blog post and haven’t been inclined to look. (I’m not American; I’m just seriously not interested.) I wasn’t trying to make a statement specifically about it.

          2) If you want to apply my general statement to the situation (which is more than fair, since it is a general statement!), then we’re saying the same thing. Basically, it doesn’t matter if it’s malicious or ignorant: If it’s wrong, call it wrong, and bring it to people’s attention. (I am in favour of doing this in the most respectful possible way, because I sure have made some stupid mistakes in my life, myself – but I do feel, quite strongly, that this should never happen to detriment of addressing these issues. In my experience, there is rarely any actual conflict between those two goals, though.)

  16. HeelBearCub says:

    I think you are making a category error (and throwing a spanner in the works) when bringing in Brian Williams. Brian Williams’ (and journalists’) first order job is to accurately report what they saw with their own eyes. If you can’t represent that you do this, you fail in the very first pre-requisite for employment.

    But journalists, especially those that aren’t doing opinion or investigative work, aren’t supposed to interpret results. They ask a government official a question “How many people failed the test?” and they get an answer. They report the answer. They might ask both proponents and detractors of the law or program in question for their interpretation and report that as well.

    The kinds of interpretive mistakes you see here are made all the time, across the political spectrum, some of it is poor understanding, some of it is regurgitation of what political operatives say, and some of it is a sensational headline that is supposed to get people to read the underlying article, which actually says something quite different than the headline.

    I think that it is a failure of journalism, but the reason for it almost surely a market failure. Journalistic endeavors aren’t (mostly) compensated for presenting detailed, nuanced, slow-developing, well thought out, in-depth examination of the facts. The large bulk of the population doesn’t want to consume that. And if journalism is not consumed, it cannot be supported in a market based system. Multiple outlets exist that attempt this, but by definition that won’t be widely read and are funded in some other manner than strictly consumption based.

    Because those accounts won’t be as widely read, you are less likely to notice them.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      + this whole comment

      But journalists, especially those that aren’t doing opinion or investigative work, aren’t supposed to interpret results. They ask a government official a question “How many people failed the test?” and they get an answer. They report the answer. They might ask both proponents and detractors of the law or program in question for their interpretation and report that as well.

      Yes. By older standards, the journalist was not supposed to be the judge of some claim that could be fact-checked. At whatever depth you’re reporting, you find someone likely to disagree, and ask them for comment. First, the politically minded people who are pushing or detracting the testing law, who will be quick with a simple answer. If (in this case) the anti-testing Democrat cites figures, ask the pro-testing (note the hyphen) Republican which statistical expert you should consult to vet those figures (ie question the methodolgy etc); ask the Democrat also to suggest an expert on their side. But an expert (especially one who has not heard of the matter before your call) is not likely to give a quote with numbers in it before your new-media deadline.

  17. cassander says:

    It doesn’t require math to explain how Williams lied, and accepting that he lied does not require anyone to question any pre-existing political beliefs. Condemning him lets us all feel good and costs us nothing. Hence, it’s quite popular.

  18. Elissa says:

    Look, maybe this is just an idiosyncratic pet peeve of mine, and this is probably going to be an uphill battle with an audience that enjoys Eliezer Yudkowsky’s writing, but can we use less ludicrous hyperbole to talk about the importance of intellectual honesty than ‘tell one lie and the truth is forever after your enemy’? I have told a lie before! I have told more than one lie!

    • ddreytes says:

      This is, obviously, just the kind of thing that happens in a crowd that’s so devoted to Kantian ethics and the idea of the categorical imperative.

    • Vulture says:

      I have always interpreted that expression as a figure of speech, not literally literally true. Obviously, fudging a number on your tax return doesn’t turn you in Robert Anton Wilson, but the expression captures a fairly important insight about contagious lies and so on. I’ve never heard anyone claim that its meaning was unclear.

      • Elissa says:

        Oh for heaven’s sake, I can understand the concept of figurative language and still find rhetorical excesses irritating.

        You guys are like, truth Nazis or something.

        • looks like we had our Godwin moment

          • Elissa says:

            ooh ooh report me

            No but really, do you lie to the truth Nazis to protect the Chu hiding in your attic? Do you?

            (I’m sorry, Scott. A little bit.)

        • Emile says:

          Yep!

          I have limited time to spend reading stuff, so I’d rather have more truth nazis around so I don’t spend too much efforts disentangling exaggerations and rumors and noise.

          (“truth nazi” has a nice kind of ring to it, though I guess making it an identity label may not be the greatest PR move…)

      • social justice warlock says:

        In other words, it’s a lie.

    • Ialdabaoth says:

      I think that the phrase was useful in the context it was being provided, but is unfortunately twistable into a general wise-sounding aphorism that is provably false (as you have just demonstrated).

      The sentiment EY seemed to be expressing was something like “as long as you hold to an inaccurate claim, you will have to continuously distort every other claim you make to maintain consistency with that first claim – all of which will be undone together the moment any one of them turns out to be verifiably false.”

      This is a general problem with being pithy – pith isn’t very structurally sound on its own.

      • Elissa says:

        Oh, I would have said it’s something like “Lies cut both ways, because the parts of reality you don’t like are hopelessly entangled with the parts you need to use,” which is a bit more general and interesting than the more common “oh what a tangled web” sentiment I think you’re pointing at. I’m fine with the actual message, but I don’t think the isolated phrase conveys it well, and it’s unfortunately moralistic and over-the-top.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        I like the way Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney puts it. “Lies always beget more lies! See through one, and their whole story falls apart!”

        • Jiro says:

          Wouldn’t you would disproportionately hear about lies that fell apart rather than lies that are successful? If a lie is successful, you’ll never know about it unless you personally are the liar, or unless someone writes a tellall book, deathbed confession, etc.

    • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

      >but can we use less ludicrous hyperbole to talk about the importance of intellectual honesty

      I can agree with this sentiment, but would make it broader: can we, in general, be less hyperbolic about moral failures in general? Adjectives like “horrible”, “awful” and the always popular “evil” are very strong when attached to “people” (and other related nouns).

    • anonymous says:

      If you’re willing to throw the truth under the bus, don’t come crying if you get a flat tire.

    • Texan99 says:

      Nevertheless, the truth on the subject of the lie is your enemy, unless you’re indifferent to whether people know you were lying. Most of the time, people lie with the desire to be believed, or else why would they bother?

      The more lies you tell, the more pieces of the truth become your enemy. That may not be a problem if you lie only occasionally and about very unimportant things. It’s not an all-or-nothing process, but it can easily become progressive, like gaining 2-7 pounds a year.

      • RCF says:

        But the truth on the subject of your lie presumably already was your enemy, or else you wouldn’t have lied. People generally only lie if the truth would hurt them.

  19. Andrew says:

    Your “host of other news sources” are:

    * Jezebel

    * Daily Kos

    * ReverbPress

    * Mommyish

    To the extent that these are even “news sources” they are trash journalism.

    Brian Williams, on the other hand, is the anchor (and editor) of the #1 primetime network news program. And his whole schtick (like every anchor of that program ever) is to put on a super-serious voice and act super-responsible and neutral about everything. NBC News, and Williams, are trying very hard to be respected.

    And they are succeeding, as a cursory look at the list of awards received shows: Peabody, Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism, Emmys.

    Now, I fully agree with the point that the misrepresentation of the welfare drug business is much worse (as a misrepresentation) than anything Williams did. But DailyKos isn’t winning any Peabody awards. They’re not in the same category whatsoever. They’re not competing in the same game.

    • Caleb says:

      In a quick Google search, I found the same deceptive Tennessee stats cited by:
      USA Today, Wall Street Journal (blog), The New Republic, The Washington Post, and Time.

      • Andrew says:

        I don’t see the deceptive use of the stats in the USA Today article. They reported the same facts as Scott.

        I didn’t check all the rest of your links, so I’m not sure to how many this applies, but I’ll also point out that there’s a big difference in standards between the news agencys’ online/blog stuff and what they print. (Which is worthy of criticism in itself, but it does mean you can’t judge the one based on the other.)

        • Paul Torek says:

          That’s interesting (the USA Today example). Thanks for checking.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          The WSJ one is pretty good. The rest are bad, although it’s just one line in an article that is not wholly about Tennessee (in particular, no room for a ridiculous headline). But I don’t like the USA Today one. The second half is correct, but the first half is quite misleading.

          Incidentally, the original article was in a local paper. This was then syndicated to local radio (citing the paper, but dropping the author) and USA Today (changing the headline). Think Progress picked up the radio copy(!), added a sensational headline and rearranged it to make it clearer. Everyone else followed TP.

    • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

      This is correct, old news media is definitely subject to higher standards…. however, and please excuse me for sounding reactionary here, I cannot help but find this scary, because people (lots of people, smart people even) are increasingly reliant on such sites for their news, and their success creates incentives for everyone to follow suit.

      • Andrew says:

        Well, I don’t think it’s a “new” vs. “old” thing, really. “Yellow journalism” is not a new phenomenon. There’s still a broad spectrum of respectability in print journalism, as well as broadcast.

        It’s possible more people are relying on worse sources today, but I think the question would have to be very carefully studied to find out. (Just reading isn’t relying, either.) My impression is that there is not a huge amount of undue respect granted to clickbait sites — there is a lot of derision (even though the derisive people still can’t look away).

        • Emile says:

          The “old media” equivalent of clickbait are tabloids and the like, but it was much easier to steer clear of them; they wouldn’t show up in your facebook feed or in mailing lists or in SSC’s link posts…

  20. keranih says:

    [Them] will tell enough lies to mantain the slide towards entropy, so there is no need to assist [Them]. And the truth is always easier to manage.

    Given the stats of the elevated drug use among welfare receipents, and the g-factor related research which would seem to indicate that the average member of this group is already handicapped in various mental skills (vs the average person not on assistance), it would seem that reducing the drug use among this group would be at worst neutral and more likely helpful.

    While I have some sympathy for the idea that regular drug testing is invasive and inhumane, it might be useful to review the drug testing routine for active duty military members before becoming too enraged.

    I also would not have any ill feeling towards any person who said, my brother asked if he could move in with me/borrow money from me/etc because he’s in a bad spot, but I think at least part of the reason he’s in that spot is because of the drugs/alcohol. I already helped him out and now he’s back for help again. I told him he’d have to prove he was going straight before I gave him help. And then he stomped off in a huff.

    Finally (and apologies for going on, but if it was simple, it would already be fixed) I agree with those who say that the point shouldn’t be to deny people assistance if they’re using drugs, but to get them into programs where they could get off drugs. So my question is – should there be a population which we should be concentrating on more, than those whose drug habit makes them non-self supporting? And for any population, how do we identify those using drugs for channeling into those programs?

  21. Liz Calkins says:

    I think this is one of those lies that took hold because the progressives are rightly concerned about it being successfully used as ammunition against a demographic that already has a massively uphill struggle to be treated humanely.

    I’m of the mindset that one, of course poor people use drugs sometimes; the situation of abject poverty you have to be in to qualify for welfare (and the continued terrible existence you will likely have on the paltry amount you will get) would drive just about anyone to be tempted to drug up or drink to distract themselves from it mentally. And that, as you say, it’s not as if losing their only means to barely survive is going to make a drug addict feel less likely to want to use drugs (or be able to afford help to quit if they do feel less likely, for that matter). And that, as you also say, it’s not like we condemn rich people who use drugs.

    On the other hand, considering the stereotype that poor people are all lazy useless good-for-nothings that are only poor because they’re worthless and made bad choices and thus don’t deserve help, the truth that there is a significant number of poor people that use drugs would just further that stereotype and fuel even more calls for cutting benefits to people who already get barely enough to survive on as it is.

    So, the reason Williams gets raked over and the drug test people don’t is simple to me: Raking Williams over doesn’t threaten an already tenuous social situation so it’s “safe”. Whereas, while I am a proponent of truth, I recognize there’s a real big problem to tackle on how we can be truthful about the drug use situation without giving a massive blow to an already beleaguered demographic.

    • keranih says:

      of course poor people use drugs sometimes; the situation of abject poverty you have to be in to qualify for welfare (and the continued terrible existence you will likely have on the paltry amount you will get) would drive just about anyone to be tempted to drug up or drink to distract themselves from it mentally.

      Leaving aside the definitions of ‘abject poverty’ used here – if I understand it, you postulate that – at least for impoverished people – the typical chain of causation goes like this: Poverty–>misery –>drug/alcohol use.

      Am I understanding you correctly?

      • Liz Calkins says:

        @keranih

        More or less. It’s not inevitable causality, obviously, but have been poor myself and worked with and befriended other poor people, there’s a definite hopelessness involved sometimes that I can see some people choosing drugs as a distraction from. Certainly sometimes I’ve wished I wasn’t an abstainer so I had that distraction myself.

        A lot of poor people smoke tobacco and drink for just that sort of distraction, so I am unsurprised if some of them do other types of recreational drugs as well. Nor can I blame them much.

        @Andrew

        Agreed.

        • Texan99 says:

          And you don’t think it’s possible to reverse those errors and paint an equally realistic picture?

        • MostlyRight says:

          In my experience in this country poverty usually follows from bad decision making (failure to make the most of an education this country provides for free, choosing to live a YOLO lifestyle, sleeping around, sitting around being lazy, and yes drug use) instead of the other way around.

          • James Picone says:

            How high a percentage is ‘usually’ here? There are mental health problems that are likely to lead people into poverty, even treated – schizophrenia for example. Sometimes more temporary mental health problems make working a problem – major depression, for example, makes it rather hard to work.

            My understanding of healthcare in the US is that if you don’t have health insurance, serious health problems can be financially crippling as well. So someone who’s struggling-but-getting-by, making responsible decisions and making do on a low income that doesn’t come with health insurance attached, could be screwed by, for example, being hit by a car. Even here in the enlightened socialist utopia of Australia, I know people who can’t afford decent dental care – and as a result easily-handled minor issues become huge big deals that need lots of money to deal with.

            I don’t know how large those classes are compared to ‘people who make poor life decisions’, though. A lot of poor people have health problems, in my experience, but making poor life decisions can be a causal factor for a variety of health problems, so not terribly indicative.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            @Texan99

            I don’t understand what “errors” you’re referring to; my post is drawn from my own experiences being poor and the experiences of other poor people I’ve known and worked with.

            @MostlyRight

            I’m guessing you don’t live in the US, because in my experience most people here are poor because they fell through the cracks somehow.

            * Most of the poor people I’ve known had no access to higher education due to being unable to afford it, and often also went to public schools that were bad because they were in poor neighborhoods and how we fund schools here.

            * Most poor people get locked out of good jobs thanks to lacking the required connections that middle class and rich people are much more likely to have, even if they do manage to successfully achieve some higher education or getting marketable skills via some other method.

            (This one hit me; even though I had more than enough marketable skills to work a good job, I simply couldn’t figure out how to find and get hired at one. The one good job I did ever find I got because I had a connection through my best friend.)

            * Almost all of them actually work extremely hard. Minimum wage jobs are often physically and/or emotionally grueling, and many poor folks have to pull down multiple jobs to get by due to the low wages.

            * Many people end up poor due to illness or injury of themselves or a family member, which can be devastating with the loss of income, the resulting medical bills, and how it can mess people up mentally.

            (This is how my mother and I originally went from being middle class to being poor, after we lost my father to cancer.)

            * Many more people end up poor due to an unexpected layoff. Especially in today’s economy there’s an increasing number of people like myself who had good jobs, lost them to the crisis, and have been unable to find similar jobs to replace them versus being knocked back into low-paying jobs.

            * I have never once personally met a poor person who actually enjoyed being poor or was sitting back being lazy about getting assistance. Never. Every single one of them wished badly that they could find a good job that would pay them enough to not struggle and not need assistance, but simply had no success in finding one.

            In the temp agencies especially, not only were people not lazy, but they basically were hustling for work. A lot of the discussions during lunchtime would be about how such-and-such company would be looking for temp work soon after the current assignment ended, or how they heard such-and-such company might even be looking for permanent workers soon and they were going to apply.

            Seriously, I know I get sick and tired of constantly being told how it’s somehow my fault I’m poor. Which bit was my fault, exactly? My father dying from cancer? My mother being too poor to afford to send me to college? Companies that paid living wages being unwilling to hire me despite my having all the skills they said they needed in their want ads and despite my busting my backside proving I was a good worker at whatever jobs I did get? Losing my one good job to the financial crisis? The crisis meaning bupkiss was available afterwards? My mother deciding to get so sick she needs me to be a live-in caretaker?

            And most of the poor people I’ve known have had stories similar to mine, where they were trying their best and just got socked with one too many roadblocks of some sort.

            If we’re using drugs and/or mentally ill, it’s often because we’re dealing with the hopelessness of being poor, rather than the other way around.

        • keranih says:

          I actually reject that line of cauasality, and hold that there are as many people who have no misery reason to use drugs as there are people driven to it by misery. And also that the causality flows in the other direction – people who do not spend money on tobacco, alcohol and drugs have more money to spend on other essentials and are less poor, and those of middle and higher classes who do use those items are less well off than those who don’t.

          Addicitions are a real problem, but we should be focusing on getting people off these money-sinks, not excusing their use “because they are poor and miserable.”

          Of course, as I said below, so long as they are purchasing their habits themselves, I’m going to assume they have enough control of their habits as an adult to make their own decisions. When they have to be on welfare, that’s not the same thing.

    • Andrew says:

      “concerned about it being successfully used as ammunition against a demographic that already has a massively uphill struggle to be treated humanely”

      Of course, the demographic you’re talking about is “the poor” (or: “welfare recipients”).

      But you *could* say exactly the same thing about the demographic of “drug users.”

    • DrBeat says:

      What if “they are eternally powerless victims who have no agency whatsoever and are entirely at the whims of our evil, evil system” and “they are morally condemnable and thus deserve to suffer” aren’t the only options? Then you wouldn’t have to tell lies to defend the former statement!

      • Liz Calkins says:

        You’re preaching to the choir on that one, FWIW.

        I just recognize that currently trying to get people as a whole to actually understand there’s other options is an uphill battle fraught with potentially devastating consequences if it’s fought improperly, so I can understand why some people find it safer to lie.

        • DrBeat says:

          Why do you think that everyone will default to “the poor aren’t human” if you don’t trick them with the equally-false progressive lie? That sure seems like what you’re arguing.

          I mean, couldn’t a conservative say the same damn thing backwards? That yes, poor people are human, but to counteract the insane and destructive lie progressives tell, he has to tell his own lie about them being awful people who deserve bad things if he wants there to be any CHANCE a person might be held responsible for their own actions instead of exalted as the wonderful, powerless, saintly avatars of victimhood.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            Why do you think that everyone will default to “the poor aren’t human” if you don’t trick them with the equally-false progressive lie?

            …because that literally is what already happens. No offense, but, you do actually watch and read the news, right? You do pay attention to the sorts of things that get said literally every time the matter of living wages, raising benefits, covering healthcare or higher education, pretty much anything involving the poor gets brought up? The notion that the poor are subhuman scum that deserve their fate for [insert reason here] already is very much the default, one we’re only very slowly crawling away from. In part, I hate to but have to admit it, because of progressive lies like this one.

            At least this is what it’s like where I am in the US, though from what I see my British friends post, the dehumanization of the poor seems to be in some ways even worse in the UK.

          • Troy says:

            Liz, could you give an example of what you have in mind? Are these things Fox News presenters say? Things Republican politicians say? Whatever the case, is there a charitable interpretation of what they’re saying that doesn’t imply “that the poor are subhuman scum that deserve their fate”?

            I don’t deny that some people in the U.S. hold contempt for the poor, but I think the degree to which conservatives hold attitudes as extreme as those you impute to them is frequently exaggerated by progressives.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            @ Troy

            The attitude that all poor people are subhuman scum who made bad choices and thus deserve their fate is utterly pervasive. I honestly feel kind of bewildered that I have to explain this, when I literally cannot think of a single article about the poor receiving any kind of help or suffering issues that wasn’t chock full of people saying the poor deserve what problems they get, unless it was on a super-liberal blog like Think Progress (and even that isn’t a guarantee of not getting that sort of anti-poor commentary).

            I certainly have near-constantly had people accuse me personally of making bad choices to end up poor, to the point where I’ve gotten extremely sick and weary of it.

            Here’s an article with anti-poor comments from people who live in areas that are generally liberal: http://www.topix.com/forum/city/north-adams-ma/T09E0QELQHC3BG66K

            Note how the sentiments match those of several people here: That poor people are lazy good-for-nothings who are poor because they made bad choices.

            And there’s stuff like this: http://www.katebelgrave.com/category/welfare-reform/ that’s been linked to by my UK friends, where their dehumanization of the poor is actually institutionalized to a degree.

          • DrBeat says:

            …because that literally is what already happens. No offense, but, you do actually watch and read the news, right? You do pay attention to the sorts of things that get said literally every time the matter of living wages, raising benefits, covering healthcare or higher education, pretty much anything involving the poor gets brought up? The notion that the poor are subhuman scum that deserve their fate for [insert reason here] already is very much the default, one we’re only very slowly crawling away from. In part, I hate to but have to admit it, because of progressive lies like this one.

            There are people who believe (or who pretend to believe) that the poor are evil and deserve to be punished.

            You haven’t shown, or attempted to show, that EVERYONE would believe this if not for the progressive lie being told.

            What I find far more likely is that there are some people who think (because they want to believe it) the poor are evil and deserve to be punished, and there are some people who think (because they want to believe it) the poor are virtuous, holy avatars of victimhood with no agency whatsoever. Both of these beliefs are false, both are destructive, and you could make the case that both are equally destructive, since telling a population “you can not and should not ever be held responsible for your actions” has never helped anyone or anything.

            In justifying telling the lie they want to tell, each side would point to the other side and claim that their lie is only necessary because without it, everyone would believe the lie the other side tells.

            Why should I believe that your lie is really the only thing stopping people from believing the other’s side’s evil lie, when the other side claims the same thing? You can point to people who want to believe their lie, and they can point to people who want to believe your lie. Why is believing THEIR lie something that everyone will do if you don’t stop them, but believing YOUR lie only happens because your side puts effort into it?

          • Troy says:

            Liz: I agree that the comments on the linked article are very bad. But it doesn’t seem plausible to me that angry people who post comments like that on news stories are going to change their views because you lie to them (about how many poor people use drugs). They’re more likely going to respond by trusting mainstream media less.

            The UK thing seems to me to just be ordinary bureaucratic incompetence. It’s not institutionalized “dehumanization of the poor,” it’s institutions.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            You haven’t shown, or attempted to show, that EVERYONE would believe this if not for the progressive lie being told.

            And neither have you shown, or attempted to show, your assertion that if we simply told the truth, everything would be all hunky dory and people would totally accept the middle ground regards poor people, no sweat. So, we’re even?

            Of course, all you have to do to have proof of my stance is look at literally every debate ever involving helping the poor. Certainly the fast food people currently fighting an uphill battle for living wages would be happy to tell you how much they get it screamed at them that they don’t deserve a living wage for doing their work.

            I honestly have to wonder what planet you folks live on that you don’t see the poor being bombarded with hateful messages on a regular basis, especially since even this very article has multiple comments from people declaring that poor people just made bad choices they need to live with. Especially since the perception that poor people are all lazy ne’er-do-wells is precisely why the drug testing being discussed was implemented in the first place.

            http://www.addictinginfo.org/2013/06/01/your-lack-of-insight-and-compassion-make-you-ugly/

            http://jeysiec.tumblr.com/tagged/Minimum%20Wage

            http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/12/this-chart-blows-up-the-myth-of-the-welfare-queen/282452/

            @Troy: It’s less trying to convince them, and more defanging their ability to bend policy to their aims.

            And, did you actually read those UK articles? The “incompetence” is due to bureaucrats operating on false assumptions regards poor people brought about by dehumanizing stereotypes of the poor.

            It’s kind of frustrating having people try to claim to me that something that’s utterly and absolutely pervasive somehow really doesn’t actually exist or happen. It makes me feel gaslighted. It’s like, I know what I see with my own two eyes, and the fact that what I see is inconvenient to some folks’ personal narratives doesn’t make it stop existing.

          • DrBeat says:

            And neither have you shown, or attempted to show, your assertion that if we simply told the truth, everything would be all hunky dory and people would totally accept the middle ground regards poor people, no sweat. So, we’re even?

            No we aren’t, because that wasn’t what I claimed.

            I pointed out exactly what you are doing –assuming that EVERYONE will believe the other side’s lie if not for the lie your side tells. I said there was no reason to believe that your lie was the only reason everyone doesn’t think this way. I pointed out the much more likely scenario, that there is a group of people who want to believe each lie, and tell that lie because they want to believe it, and claim they have to tell that lie because if they don’t, the other side’s lie will reign supreme.

            You responded to this by saying “But if my side doesn’t tell their lie, then the other side’s lie will reign supreme! Don’t you see people believing the other side’s lie? How can you not see this proves everyone would believe their evil lie if not for our heroic lie?”

            The existence of people who believe the other side’s lie DOES NOT PROVE that everyone would believe that lie if not for your lie. It shows there is a group of people who want to believe that lie. There’s fucking light years between “this is what a certain quantity of people would believe” and “this is what all people would believe, if not for our heroic and noble lie”, and you need to stop pretending that proving the former proves the latter.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            The existence of people who believe the other side’s lie DOES NOT PROVE that everyone would believe that lie if not for your lie.

            No, the fact that people already believe that lie as the default situation is what proves that everyone would believe that lie if not for the progressive lie. Basically, if not for the progressive lie, the status quo of the poor being dehumanized would simply continue as is.

            That’s why your arguments literally make absolutely no sense to me right now. (It’s also why your interpretation of what I’ve been saying also makes absolutely no sense.) You seem to be arguing from some mythical non-existent world where the situation is currently wholly neutral towards poor people and it’s a question of what side things get tipped to via which side’s lie.

            Whereas the world we actually live in is one where the “lie” that poor people are subhuman scum who only got that way due to bad choices and thus deserve what they get is already the default and the majority view, and any lie from the progressive side is an attempt to finally push away from that default and towards the other side of the spectrum.

            So I’ve basically actually been arguing this entire time that: If we want to start telling the truth, we have to find a way to frame it so that the truth will let us keep pushing us away from the current harmful status quo, versus giving ammunition to those who wish to maintain it.

          • Troy says:

            And, did you actually read those UK articles? The “incompetence” is due to bureaucrats operating on false assumptions regards poor people brought about by dehumanizing stereotypes of the poor.

            I did read the article, and I think that you and I have different perceptions of what public policies amount to or evidence “dehumanizing stereotypes of the poor.”

            It’s kind of frustrating having people try to claim to me that something that’s utterly and absolutely pervasive somehow really doesn’t actually exist or happen. It makes me feel gaslighted. It’s like, I know what I see with my own two eyes, and the fact that what I see is inconvenient to some folks’ personal narratives doesn’t make it stop existing.

            I can only speak for myself here, but I suspect that what I say is true of other commentators here as well. I don’t deny that some people hold awful attitudes towards poor people (and toward other groups). We disagree not about the existence but about the scope of the problem (and about your proposed remedy). For example, I do not think that calls to, say, make it harder to be on welfare without looking for work, or even calls to scrap welfare entirely, need come from contempt for the poor. I think that people on both sides of the political aisle who care about the poor can disagree over whether progressive policy prescriptions (welfare, minimum wage, etc.) really help them, on the basis of such concerns as incentives, government inefficiency, and so on.

          • DrBeat says:

            No, the fact that people already believe that lie as the default situation is what proves that everyone would believe that lie if not for the progressive lie. Basically, if not for the progressive lie, the status quo of the poor being dehumanized would simply continue as is.

            No. You are wrong. There is no reason to believe this. You have never provided a reason to believe this. You just keep repeating your assertion that it is true, even after I point out how you haven’t proven it and it’s very unlikely.

            You want to tell Lie A. Lie A is false and destructive but you argue it is good because it balances out Lie B.

            Other people want to tell Lie B. Lie B is false and destructive but argue it is good because it balances out Lie A.

            You see someone who believes and tells Lie B. You say this proves that everyone would believe Lie B if not for your noble, heroic lie opposing it. It does not prove that. It proves that there are some people who believe and tell Lie B.

            Your Bizarro conservative counterpart sees an article about how you should never tell the police who robbed you because you’re just hurting the poor black youth who are total victims of the system, or the account of the aid worker in Haiti who was raped and apologized to her rapist because her wealthy First World privilege made him do it. She says “Look, these people are believing and telling Lie A! This proves that everyone would believe Lie A if not for my side’s noble, heroic lie opposing it!” She is also wrong. All it proves is there are some people who believe and tell Lie A.

            I don’t know how I can make this any simpler. Some people want to tell the lie that the poor are eternal, pure saints of victimhood with no agency. Some people want to tell the lie that poor people are worthless and should be punished.

            The fact that you see other people telling their lie does not mean your lie is just and necessary and heroic. The fact that they can see you telling your lie does not make their lie just and necessary and heroic. You are both liars. Neither of you is helping anything and neither of you has the moral high ground.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            For example, I do not think that calls to, say, make it harder to be on welfare without looking for work,

            Welfare, Unemployment, food stamps, and housing assistance all already have strict requirements for showing that you’re looking for work or are receiving training.

            (In fact, some of the programs even require your children to be working, if they’re over working age and not enrolled in schooling full-time. And yes, their income will count towards your requirements, and yes you will be rejected if it puts you just over the limit, even if it’s not actually enough to pay the bills. Hope you didn’t have a 17 or 18 year old that isn’t quite old enough to move out yet and you can’t afford to send to college.)

            So the fact that any people even think we need to continue harping on this point when the requirement in question already exists shows a great deal of contempt for the poor.

            or even calls to scrap welfare entirely, need come from contempt for the poor.

            Depends. If they mean scrapping it in favor of some sort of basic universal income scheme, then I agree, that’s obviously not contempt. (In fact, I even agree we should do something like that.)

            But generally the call has been to scrap welfare in favor of absolutely nothing at all, which I have a hard time reading as anything but contempt.

            I think that people on both sides of the political aisle who care about the poor can disagree over whether progressive policy prescriptions (welfare, minimum wage, etc.) really help them, on the basis of such concerns as incentives, government inefficiency, and so on.

            The problem is that one, studies almost always show that such programs are very good at helping the poor be less poor or at least less suffering (for instance, Social Security has been wildly successful in reducing poverty among the elderly, and minimum wage reduced poverty when it was originally implemented as being much closer to a living wage), and two, the obvious alternate solutions of things like living wages and more aggressive and widespread job placement programs are almost always poo-poohed by the same people who oppose assistance to the poor.

            @DrBeat

            I accidentally responded to your post in a slightly different threading; this blog’s comment format can get a bit disorienting.

          • Troy says:

            Liz, my intention is not to get into an object-level debate about the efficacy or desirability of welfare, minimum wage, etc. What I am claiming is that the people on the opposite side of the political aisle from you on these issues need not be motivated by contempt for the poor (or some other negative trait), but may in fact be motivated by a genuine desire to help the poor, coupled with empirical disagreements with you.

            For example, you mention current requirements to look for work. Obviously many conservatives who would criticize welfare for incentivizing laziness are aware of these. They would claim, e.g., that they are ineffective or that the form they currently take has other problematic side effects. For example, there is evidence that a lot of people who went off welfare during 90s welfare reform did not go back to work, but went on disability instead, as discussed in this NPR story: http://apps.npr.org/unfit-for-work/

            You might not think it’s a bad thing that all those people went on disability. But my point is just that these are complicated empirical questions, about which reasonable can disagree, and so you can’t conclude that conservatives only “continue harping on this point” because they hate the poor.

            Similar remarks go for studies on the effects of Social Security and minimum wage. These are contentious, and conservatives can reasonably contend about them. Minimum wage studies have been discussed on this blog before; Scott looked at a bunch of studies and found, IIRC, that the mean effect of minimum wage laws as measured by all the studies he could find was roughly 0.

            If you assume that the evidence obviously demonstrates the efficacy of your favored social policies, then it’s easy to conclude that those who oppose them must be evil. But in most real-life political cases the evidence is not so one-sided. This is one important reason why we should be charitable towards those on the other side of the aisle and not assume ill intent.

            Once we do that, then we can have more productive conversations about the object-level issues. But people are naturally disinclined to engage with interlocutors who assume the worst of them.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            Liz, my intention is not to get into an object-level debate about the efficacy or desirability of welfare, minimum wage, etc.

            Mine is. I admit I honestly have little to no interest in theory, ideology, or the like. My mindset tends to revolve around observing and analyzing empirical evidence, seeing if there’s problems to identify, trying to deduce the most likely causes of those problems, and trying to find the most effective way to solve them.

            What little ideology I have tends to be stuff like “don’t employ double standards” and “try not to cause harm if there’s other options” and “try to make life less sucky for humanity” and such.

            What I am claiming is that the people on the opposite side of the political aisle from you on these issues need not be motivated by contempt for the poor (or some other negative trait), but may in fact be motivated by a genuine desire to help the poor

            The problem is that empirical evidence often clearly shows that the policies implemented by the conservative aisle as of late tend to at best not help the poor and at worst actively harm the poor. So when conservatives cling to these sorts of policies regardless, I of course have a very hard time believing that they actually have any genuine desire to help the poor.

            And of course there’s the significant number of conservatives who have expressed open and obvious contempt for the poor.

            They would claim, e.g., that they are ineffective or that the form they currently take has other problematic side effects.

            In which case they’re certainly welcome to either provide proof of their claims, or provide actual effective solutions, neither of which they have done as of yet AFAIK.

            I mean, for instance, I would absolutely love to see some sort of comprehensive job placement program. If conservatives want to see people on government assistance working to support themselves instead, then great! I do too! So, raise the minimum wage to be a living wage, start creating public sector jobs since the private sector obviously isn’t creating enough jobs, and then create job placement programs where people can give their credentials and get directly placed in appropriate jobs. I would be deliriously happy if all that happened, and if government assistance could thus be reduced to just those people who sincerely are too disabled or young or old to work.

            Except, of course, the conservatives actually scream and cry and complain whenever any of the above solutions are suggested. Their “solution” to the problem of poverty is almost invariably to just kick the poor off all support with the attitude of “lol they’ll figure it out if they just stop being lazy and stupid”. I really need it logically explained to me how that doesn’t qualify as contempt, because I’m not seeing it.

            For example, there is evidence that a lot of people who went off welfare during 90s welfare reform did not go back to work, but went on disability instead, as discussed in this NPR story: http://apps.npr.org/unfit-for-work/

            OK, so, again, the conservatives are more than welcome to empirically examine that. Maybe some people who were on welfare were legitimately disabled after all. And those who weren’t, well, see above; they could always make an effort to get them placed into jobs.

            But otherwise, let me tell you, you do in fact have to provide actual hard proof you are looking for work or training, whether it’s listing everywhere you’ve applied to or providing official doctor’s or teacher’s notes. So I honestly don’t know what conservatives want further if they’re unwilling to do anything to actually help people with the process of finding work or seeking training.

            You might not think it’s a bad thing that all those people went on disability.

            If they were actually disabled or we can’t be bothered to lift a finger to help get them living wage jobs, then no, I don’t see why I should view it as a bad thing.

            They had a problem and they solved it. If we’re not willing to show/give them a realistic alternative way to solve it, IMHO we don’t get to complain about the solution they chose.

            But my point is just that these are complicated empirical questions,

            It’s really not that complicated to me, actually. If there’s a problem, either prove you’re going to make an effort to fix it, or shut up if it doesn’t get fixed or if other people try to fix it in a way you don’t like. It doesn’t seem that hard to me. Put up or shut up, to put it the short-short way.

            (Which goes for much more than just conservative complaints, I might add, just that conservative complaints happen to be the ones discussed at the moment.)

            and so you can’t conclude that conservatives only “continue harping on this point” because they hate the poor.

            Well, like I said, if you either refuse to lift a finger to help the issue, or your proposed “help” empirically actually isn’t yet you refuse to budge, then the only other motivations beyond hatred are either laziness or willful stupidity, neither of which I feel very much more charitable towards.

            Similar remarks go for studies on the effects of Social Security and minimum wage. These are contentious, and conservatives can reasonably contend about them.

            No, they really can’t. Oh sure, they can contend that alternative methods might be more effective, but they can’t claim that “get rid of both in favor of nothing at all” is more effective, because it simply isn’t. The fact that “nothing at all” was hurting millions of people is why both schemes were implemented in the first place. They were introduced to fix severe problems, not for kicks and giggles.

            If you assume that the evidence obviously demonstrates the efficacy of your favored social policies, then it’s easy to conclude that those who oppose them must be evil.

            Or lazy or willfully stupid, which, again, I’m not inclined to be very much more charitable towards.

            Although it’s really the other way around for me: I favor those social policies which have been shown to have the most efficacy. Or I at least oppose those policies which have been shown to be most harmful.

            But people are naturally disinclined to engage with interlocutors who assume the worst of them.

            I’m of the mindset that if you’re supporting policies which go against factual evidence and/or which cause provable harm to people, you really need to stop being surprised and upset that people assume the worst of you and actually own up to your crap.

          • Troy says:

            Hi Liz,

            Since, as I said, I don’t want to have a long debate about the object-level issues — not because I think they’re unimportant, but because doing so is time-consuming and I am not an expert on these issues — this will be my last post. I just want to reiterate that many of the empirical issues which you suggest have been firmly settled have been debated on this very blog. For instance, here’s the post by Scott I mentioned which talks about minimum wage studies; see the funnel plot near the end of that post, and the subsequent discussion in the comments. You’ll find, in that post and others, that a lot of people around here are also interested in “observing and analyzing empirical evidence, seeing if there’s problems to identify, trying to deduce the most likely causes of those problems, and trying to find the most effective way to solve them.” Nevertheless, they come to different conclusions (both from you and from each other). You can make of that fact what you will.

        • Liz Calkins says:

          @DrBeat

          No. You are wrong. There is no reason to believe this.

          Hmm. I seem to have actually made lots of posts giving reasons to believe this, but you seem to missed them somehow so I’ll be courteous and requote the pertinent information for you.

          * http://www.addictinginfo.org/2013/06/01/your-lack-of-insight-and-compassion-make-you-ugly/
          * http://jeysiec.tumblr.com/tagged/Minimum%20Wage
          * http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/12/this-chart-blows-up-the-myth-of-the-welfare-queen/282452/
          * http://www.topix.com/forum/city/north-adams-ma/T09E0QELQHC3BG66K
          * http://www.katebelgrave.com/category/welfare-reform/
          * The reaction towards the fast food workers and other low-wage workers trying to ask for living wages.
          * The reaction any time we have a discussion about whether to cut or raise benefits, including the very article we’re commenting one.
          * Speaking of, try reading some of the comments on the article we’re commenting on.

          You have never provided a reason to believe this.

          See above.

          You just keep repeating your assertion that it is true, even after I point out how you haven’t proven it and it’s very unlikely.

          And you just keep repeating your assertion that it isn’t true without providing me with any proof whatsoever of your claim, and you keep pointing out that I haven’t proven it even after I clearly have.

          Basically, when I provide proof and logic for my own claim, the person I’m arguing with gets to completely ignore it and refuse to address it and claim that I didn’t provide it, and in turn even though they provide no logic and no proof whatsoever of their own claim I’m expected to roll over and instantly agree they’re right and I’m wrong.

          I honestly had expected to actually get better debate tactics from commenters on a rationalist blog compared to what the rest of the general population employs.

          • DrBeat says:

            I keep saying “Showing me there are people who believe Lie B does not prove everyone believes Lie B” and you keep responding by showing me there are people who believe in Lie B and expecting it to prove that everyone believes Lie B.

            I give up.

  22. Dude Man says:

    How come Brian Williams is being dragged over the coals for lying in the media, but everyone who publishes these kinds of articles gets off scot-free?

    Two reasons:

    1. Journalism is about narrative, not truth.

    2. People perceive a difference between “getting the facts wrong” and “leaving out important details.” They both paint the wrong picture in a reader’s head, but generally people are much less forgiving of the former than the latter. Brian Williams got the facts wrong. These reporters just left out key details (these weren’t urine tests and a somewhat sizable chunk of people declined the test and weren’t included). Perhaps we should be treating lying by omission the same way we treat actual lying.

    • whateverfor says:

      There is a substantial difference between leaving out details and getting the facts wrong though. Honest but incomplete aggregates well: someone who reads multiple honest accounts that leave out information can get a generally accurate understanding. Multiple dishonest accounts are just useless.

      • randy m says:

        Multiple dishonest accounts at least alert you to the discrepancy, but multiple ones incomplete in the same way because they all crib from each other and they can’t all be corrected won’t get you to truth.

    • RCF says:

      If they said that less than 1% of poor people use drugs, that is a false statement, not merely an omission.

      • Dude Man says:

        No, it said only two percent of recipients tested positive. It left out that a sizable chunk of people declined to take the test and therefore didn’t receive welfare. What it said wasn’t wrong, but it was incomplete and misleading.

        • RCF says:

          “No, it said only two percent of recipients tested positive.”

          What is it? And why are you saying “no”? I said *if*. The part Scott quotes says:

          “In other words, the plan intended to verify right-wing beliefs that welfare recipients are a bunch of drug-addicted slackers looking for a handout has demonstrated exactly the opposite.”

          It did not demonstrate anything. And if we’re playing the technically true game:

          “that means that just 0.12% of all people applying for cash assistance in Tennessee have tested positive for drugs”

          I’m sure that more than .12% have tested positive. All the statistics show is that .12% tested positive in this program. Have they been tested in other programs?

          The title of the mommyish article is “Results Of State Drug Testing Prove Gross Assumptions About Welfare Applicants Are Wrong”. The testing does not, in fact, *prove* anything. The title is a flat-out lie.

        • DrBeat says:

          Saying something in order to make a person believe a thing you know not to be true is what is known as “a lie”.

          • RCF says:

            It does get fuzzy. Generally, the definition of “lie” is considered to include saying something that is false.

          • DrBeat says:

            Why should it be?

            Do we consider it immoral to say things that aren’t true into an empty room? No, we don’t. Is sarcastically saying things you obviously don’t think are true considered a lie? Again, it isn’t.

            The act of tricking or deceiving people is immoral, not the act of making untrue words come out of your mouth. If you say something that is not true, without any attempt or intention to make anyone believe that it is true, then nobody considers it a lie. So it follows that if you say things that are specifically chosen to be technically true, in order to get someone to believe something that isn’t true, you are lying.

            I would argue that it’s a worse form of lying, because doing it that way acknowledges that you KNOW what you are doing is wrong and you put enough premeditation into your actions to try and hide behind a technicality.

          • RCF says:

            ” If you say something that is not true, without any attempt or intention to make anyone believe that it is true, then nobody considers it a lie. So it follows that if you say things that are specifically chosen to be technically true, in order to get someone to believe something that isn’t true, you are lying.”

            That does not at all logically follow. Just because X&Y is Z, and X alone isn’t Z, that doesn’t mean that Y alone is Z.

  23. Princess Stargirl says:

    I think many (perhaps most) people are just incapable of reasoning about political topics. I once got involved in a heated argument about the average percentage of gdp nations spend on healthcare. Someone must have typed the question wrong into wolfram alpha because they got less than a tenth of a percent as the percentage of world gdp spent on healthcare.

    I mentioned that this cannot possibly be the right answer. If all nations besides the USA spent 0% of their gdp on healthcare the USA’s contributions easily get us to over .1%. I also mentioned that it is borderline insane to spend only 1 dollar out of 1000 on healthcare and no society would make such a crazy collective decision. No one cared. In fact I was accused of being “blind to my privilege” because I didn’t realize “most people on earth are just trying not to starve, they don’t have money for healthcare.”

    Of course I finally found and linked a table of healthcare spending by nation. None of the people who insulted me seemed ashamed of their insane mistake. Though they did accept my data. I will note the person who called me privileged is making pretty good money as a computer programmer.

    Many people fall into one of two categories. Either they are so mindkilled they accept any “fact” that supports their team. Or they have bought into the caricature of the “just follow the evidence” ideology and consider it anti-science to think about studies. Scott describes the later set in “cowpox for doubt.”

    • RCF says:

      In 2004, a compilation album called “Rock Against Bush” was released that had a list of reasons why Bush needed to be defeated in its liner notes. The list included such gems as that the national debt had increased by a factor of 200 during Bush’s first term. On the one hand, simply dismissing any claim that doesn’t comport with one’s preconceived notions is a dangerous failure mode, on the other hand one should be able to recognize that a claim is so outrageous as to require convincing evidence and double-checking. Extraordinary claims and all that.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Bush came in with a surplus, or very near to it, so that claim is probably true. It’s just doesn’t mean what most people think it means, because most people would have thought the defecit was huge already.

        Frankly, Bush taking a stable budget and tax situation and blowing it up with a supply-side works in theory but not in practice tax cut was really bad, so, I’m not even sure the claim falls into the technically correct but false in spirit category.

        • RCF says:

          1. Bush did not come in with a surplus.
          2. It said debt, not deficit.
          3. While Bush’s tax cuts and military spending didn’t help, Clinton left him with a tech bubble that was bound to cause problems once it popped.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits

            Clinton’s last four budgets did indeed run a surplus (1998-2001).

            I agree that it’s ridiculous to say that Bush increased the debt 200 fold, although I wonder if that was what was written. But it’s not in any way false to say that the overall deficit/debt picture went from very rosy (i.e. the chief concern as Bush entered office was making sure we didn’t pay down the debt too fast) to one of reasonable concern, even before the crash in 2008. That isn’t in any way lying with figures.

          • Tom Scharf says:

            If this were a yearly deficit measurement, then if it started negative (surplus) and proceeded positive (deficit) then I believe the correct computation would be that Bush increased the deficit by an infinite amount. That one might get a few doubts though.

            The same game is being played now with how much Obama has reduced the deficit, not as impressive when the first years were very large.

          • RCF says:

            “Clinton’s last four budgets did indeed run a surplus (1998-2001).”

            No, they did not. Do a basic google search on the matter.

            “But it’s not in any way false to say that the overall deficit/debt picture went from very rosy (i.e. the chief concern as Bush entered office was making sure we didn’t pay down the debt too fast) to one of reasonable concern, even before the crash in 2008.”

            Are you unaware that of the crash in 2001?

    • Texan99 says:

      You nailed it.

  24. Michael Watts says:

    I don’t get the point from Gruntled and Hinged. As I read the quote you provide, they tested 6 out of 812 welfare applicants for drugs, and of those tested, 17% tested positive. 17% of the test pool was 0.12% of the applicant pool, and this was reported as “0.12% of applicants tested positive for drugs”, which is horrific reporting malpractice. But the test’s 17% positive rate is well above the theoretical minimum 1% all-false-positives rate, so this isn’t impossibly good, it’s just incredibly overtly fraudulent reporting. Have I misread?

    • Douglas Knight says:

      The point is just that you can reject the claim that 0.12% of those given urine tests failed them without tracking down the reason that the number was mangled.

      • Michael Watts says:

        What claim that 0.12% of those given urine tests failed them? Where is that claimed?

        You can reject the idea that more than 10% of the applicant pool was tested, but that wasn’t claimed either.

  25. Steven says:

    The reason for the differential is simple enough. Brian Williams is believed to be in the business of providing facts. [Jezebel|Rush Limbaugh] is known to be in the business of reinforcing people’s existing opinions. Criticizing [Jezebel|Limbaugh] for getting facts wrong misses the point; the only people who expect [Jezebel|Rush Limbaugh] to get the facts right are so deep in their tribe that the light of truth can’t reach them anyway. On the other hand, Brian Williams, while not expected to be superhumanly accurate, is expected to be in reality’s ballpark.

    Nobody’s actually going to make policy based on [Jezebel|Rush Limbaugh]’s reporting on any issue, at least before it’s vetted and reported by real news sources. There are a few people who might want to, but our political system isn’t one that makes it possible. On the other hand, people might very well based on NBC News’s reporting, and the managing editor being repeatedly caught in exaggerations is accordingly actually an issue.

    • RCF says:

      “Nobody’s actually going to make policy based on [Jezebel|Rush Limbaugh]’s reporting on any issue”

      Yes, they are. Especially if you consider “Calling people and issuing death threats” to be “policy”.

      • Anonymous says:

        Not to mention One. In. Five. (as stylized by Ezra Klein in supporting California’s terrible Yes Means Yes law).

      • Steven says:

        Since you appear to be learning English as a foreign language, I recommend you get a copy of the OED on CD so you can look up unfamiliar words. It’s expensive, yes, but a really good resource.

        Anyway, both my comment and Scott’s original post (in the sentence “important policy decisions”) used the word “policy” it in the sense of OED definition #5, the one marked in that dictionary as “(The chief living sense.)” This definition could only encompass “Calling people and issuing death threats” if, for example, a government agency were to make such calls on instruction from elected officials.

        • RCF says:

          If there were a way to create a wordpress kill file, and I were aware of how to do so, would be put on it. I have reported your comment, as it was inexcusably uncivil.

  26. The difference in treatment seems like an example of Sayre’s Law . That’s not an explanation I know, just an observation.

  27. RCF says:

    Other lies that have been printed in mainstream newspapers, with no repercussions:

    During the last two years of the Clinton administration, the national debt went down.
    Citizens United declared that corporations are allowed to give unlimited funds to candidates’ campaign funds.
    One doesn’t need a background check if one buys a gun at a “gun show”.

    • Anonymous says:

      So, this graph gets it wrong?

      • gattsuru says:

        The phrase “percent of GDP” should give significant pause. You can argue that this is much better a metric — but it’s not the one the other commentor used, and a fairly complicated number, and turns much of the discussion into who had a better economy. The gross national debt in absolute dollars owed has increased every single year since the 1960s.

        They’re probably also working off “net” debt, rather than gross debt, which sounds honest until you discover that the vast majority of the difference comes from additional liabilities to the Social Security that were used to bulk up the general fund.

        • Anonymous says:

          I’m not an economist, but as a percent of GDP is my default expectation for how something like this would be reported.

          OTOH, reporting the debt in nominal dollars would seem a bit weird.

          • gattsuru says:

            Percentage of GDP is common for international comparisons, and completely nonsensical for interdecade comparisons. Not only has the method for calculating GDP been changed on more than one recent occasion, it also includes government outlays (or at least has for recent time periods in the US).

      • Andrew G. says:

        That article gets so much stuff wrong that cataloging the wrongness would require many volumes; but it certainly looks to me like the following facts can be extracted from the official data which it uses as source: that in the last years of the Clinton administration,

        – the gross ‘federal debt’ increased (slightly) in nominal dollars
        – the ‘federal debt held by the public’ decreased in nominal dollars
        – the gross ‘federal debt’ as a proportion of GDP decreased
        – the ‘federal debt held by the public’ as a proportion of GDP decreased

        and by my own calculations from the given source data:

        – the gross ‘federal debt’ in inflation-adjusted dollars decreased (slightly)
        – the ‘federal debt held by the public’ in inflation-adjusted dollars decreased

        • Anonymous says:

          I am not an economist, but when I look at all that and hold it up against

          During the last two years of the Clinton administration, the national debt went down.

          I don’t see the difference. What am I missing?

          • Andrew G. says:

            You’re not missing anything; the “debt went down” statement is true in all senses except one specific technical one which is usually only used to mislead.

      • RCF says:

        The San Jose Mercury News claimed that the national debt decreased during the last two years of the Clinton administration. It did not claim that the national debt, as a percentage of the GDP, decreased. It did not claim that the inflation-adjusted national debt decreased. It did not claim that the public debt decreased. It said that the national debt decreased. Furthermore, in the same article, it listed the then current debt as $14 trillion, which means that they could not possibly have meant “public debt” when they said “debt”. When I emailed them and informed them of their error, they refused to print a correction. Their error was knowing and deliberate.

        • Anonymous says:

          OK, but I don’t read the San Jose Mercury News (and had not heard of it prior to now). If you’re going to convince me that there’s widespread deception going on in the mainstream media, then point to better-known examples of the mainstream media. One bad news article does not a conspiracy make.

          • cypherpunks says:

            The San Jose Mercury News is a local paper, but it is the local paper of Silicon Valley. Only locals read it, but it matters.

          • Dude Man says:

            @cypherpunks

            By that logic, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch matter. A local paper is still just a local paper, and won’t have a wide readership outside of the city it covers.

            Also, I thought the SF Gate was the paper of choice in the Bay Area. Was I wrong?

          • cypherpunks says:

            The circulation of the Mercury News is twice that of the Chronicle.

          • RCF says:

            The San Jose Mercury news has a Sunday circulation 700k, which puts it in seventh place in the US (and is larger than the entire population of Milwaukee), about 10 million unique visitors to its website in a month, has won two Pulitzer Prizes, and is owned by The McClatchy Company, which has a total Sunday circulation of 2.8 million (NYT has only 2.3 million). You seem determined to come up with excuses to dismiss any evidence that you don’t like. And it’s not like they’re the only ones who have claimed that there was a surplus during the Clinton administration, or that CU allows corporations to donate to politicians, or that there is a gunshow loophole.

  28. Alexp says:

    I just assumed that the drug users were paying clean friends or acquiantences for clean urine. I doubt that even if they could use urine tests, they could afford to watch every welfare recipient pee. Failing that, maybe they were all using hard drugs that are harder to detect in piss tests.

    The real explanation is so much dumber.

  29. meh says:

    Will the 3 ‘horrible things’ really happen? Probably not amongst your core readership, only to the smaller group of more rational readers.

    1. “lose the opportunity to protest when the other side does it”

    Probably you still will protest when they do it, to the delight of your readers.

    2. “Second, you make it harder to trust you on anything else.”

    Core readership will trust you on anything, as long as it’s anti out group

    3. The truth probably is already your enemy, you make more profit with lies.

  30. Well… Maybe it would be better if reporters checked the primary source material. On the other hand, there are many examples of people reading primary source material and not understanding it. There is a trade off between people trusting the conclusions (even in this case) and people not trusting the conclusions, reading that vaccines contain “toxins,” and not knowing enough to put that in context.

    On the other hand, the trade off we have is to combine the worst aspects of both.

  31. Daniel says:

    I agree intensely with this post.

    You should add superfluous race and gender elements, to get it more attention. Except that would be exploiting almost the same cognitive failure you’re condemning. So maybe you shouldn’t.

    Anyway, yes to this post. This sort of behavior is why we don’t get to have nice things. (Like efficiently administered public goods.)

  32. Mark V Anderson says:

    I buy the comment that the welfare drug statistics is must more likely incompetence and not purposeful manipulation. I think that most journalists are simply very low in numeracy. Think about the people that go to journalism school, and compare them to the geeky folks that are good with numbers. These are opposite types. There must be some numerate journalists, but I bet very few.

    Would the average journalist even understand Scott’s posting? Do most of them even know what false positives are? And for those that do, would they get that 0.12% positive results is outside a reasonable range when false positives are generally over 1%? Or as someone else pointed out, do most folks (journalists) just think of 1% and 0.12% as comparable because they are both small? Maybe I’m prejudiced because I’m one of those geeky numerate guys who instead struggles with literacy. But I think I’m right.

    Although it is also true that these results also got through because they are the politically correct results that journalists love to report. It’s just that few of these journalists really understand what they are reporting.

    • RCF says:

      There is a point at which incompetence becomes malice. If a journalist doesn’t understand the elements of a story, they can either consult someone who does, or find another line of work. If you aren’t qualified for a job, then it is unethical to stay in it.

  33. Char Aznable says:

    Is Jezebel the worst media outlet out there? I’m genuinely asking. I used to have a borderline irrational hate for Buzzfeed given their reliance on regurgitating memes and gifs to produce their most popular content but then I realized that they use their clickbait to fund actual news stuff. But Jezebel just seems to constantly be leading the plunge into either propagating fake clickbait news (“You won’t believe that this anonymous reddit poster tells a story of a mom bringing vagina cookies to a kindergarten class!”) or finding the most aggressive and offensive ways to present stories otherwise up to regular media standard (defining the welfare drug use story as “media standard” because so many other places reported on it).

    • Troy says:

      My impression of Jezebel is in general much the same as yours. But to their credit, they did admit they made a mistake about the UVA rape hoax, whereas most respectable journalistic outlets just quietly stopped talking about it.

      Possible explanation: Jezebel authors are more true believers than, say, NYT, and so when it becomes impossible to credibly deny that a story was a hoax, they are more embarrassed.

      • akira says:

        “Possible explanation: Jezebel authors are more true believers than, say, NYT, and so when it becomes impossible to credibly deny that a story was a hoax, they are more embarrassed.”

        Oh, I don’t know about that. Anyone can call out the execrable work done by Rolling Stone in its UVA reporting after it was utterly exposed by subsequent events. To signify intense in-group loyalty, you need to double down in the face of that exposure, see, e.g., Zerlina Maxwell’s op- ed in the Washington Post that we must automatically believe all claims by alleged rape victims (headline changed to generally believe after social media mockery, note URL).

  34. Dan Simon says:

    To a first approximation, journalism is a form of entertainment–the number of people who rely on it to give them a rigorously accurate account of highly relevant current events is negligibly small, and hence neglected. The drug-testing story exists because it entertains its readers–most of them, I suspect, because it’s amusing (“meanie puritans looking for evidence of degeneracy in poor people are foiled”) and because it caters to their existing prejudices. Its relationship to fact, let alone relevance to its audience’s lives, is quite beside the point.

    Likewise, the Brian Williams story is immensely amusing to American audiences, who love a “high-status celebrity brought low” story. It has the additional entertaining wrinkle of offering a peek behind the curtain, revealing TV journalism for the empty showmanship it is (“Brian Williams, distinguished journalist, is actually a BSing phony”). That’s why it was covered so heavily, irrespective of the seriousness or triviality of Williams’ fibs.

    As for which journalist did a worse job, and therefore deserved greater punishment, the answer is clear: the reporters who covered the Tennessee drug-testing story have kept their readers entertained and happy, whereas Williams has shattered the illusion of trustworthiness that kept NBC news viewers comfy and reassured for years. The former have therefore succeeded in their jobs, while the latter has now failed horribly at his.

  35. houseboatonstyx says:

    A parallel case of snowballing headlines, but without numbers.

    http://andrewrilstone.livejournal.com/214423.html

  36. Tina Trent says:

    This is an amazingly good article, Mr. Alexander. Beginning to end. As someone who spent 20 years doing service provision in poor populations — including administering touted anti-drug programs, I began to doubt the statistical tools some time around 1990. There was a big study on minority teens that asserted that these teens did far fewer drugs than white higher-income teens, and that study was used primarily by activists to encourage anger and outrage in kids whose real lives were deeply damaged by crack-smoking, absentee parents (no, it didn’t result in reduced services — nothing ever does). Everyone knew the stats were bull, but the were incorporated into self-esteem programs for really deprived youth (in lieu of teaching them real things) in very ugly ways.

    But I question your appraisal of Suboxone. I can only speak to this anecdotally, but I watched my friend’s husband sink into that culture, and it made him if anything more dangerous than the illegal scripts he was accessing. I’ve heard a few similar stories and no positive ones. I suspect that prescribing physicians are getting very rosy reports on Suboxone from their drug-seeking patients, and if we were to look beyond the subsequent research based on self-reporting by prescribing doctors — say to the actual parole violation records tracking a cohort of Oxy addicts given Suboxone, you would find all the problems inherent with Methadone — it’s an abused and addictive drug; it’s used to fill in between periods accessing other drugs, or traded with people who have court-ordered testing they need to surf, etc. Addicts are savvy enough to coordinate with each other, to postpone behavior to get clean tox screens, and so on.

    Take another look at the Suboxone research.

  37. Troy says:

    I have a suggestion for a later post in the series, “questioning whether unbelievable claims supposedly backed up by statistical studies are actually true”: the claim that criminalizing abortion does not lower abortion rates. I’ve seen a lot of progressives make this claim, and cite studies, e.g., comparing abortion rates in different countries. I haven’t waded through the studies enough to tell what’s really going on, but I am antecedently extremely skeptical that criminalizing abortion would not cut down on abortion rates at all, and so suspect that these studies are trading on other distinguishing factors between the countries where abortion is legal/illegal. I’d love to see Scott try to sort this one out.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      The de facto legality is what matters and it is hard to measure. If someone actually criminalized abortion, they probably want to reduce abortion and they would probably succeed, but we don’t see that happening very often. There are a lot more examples of legalizing abortion, but it might have happened de facto before de jure. For example, Spain allowed abortion on demand in 2010 and nothing happened. But that followed decades of liberalization. In 1997 it was loose enough that people stopped going to France. That was followed by 10 years of rapid increase and a plateau 2007-2010.

      Abortion is hardly unique in this, but it might be the worst.

    • MostlyRight says:

      It often comes down to definitions, apple to apple comparisions or the lack thereof, or simple biased assumptions inserted as facts. It’s similar to the argument during the health care debate that infant mortality rates in the US are horrible compared to other countries. My wife is in management in one of our country’s top children’s hospitals and took great interest in this claim. A bit of research into the studies showed that where infant mortality rates were better, it was usually because of a lower standard of definition of what an infant mortality was. In other words, a death counted as infant mortality here would often not be in that other country. Or, a country where late term abortions for potential birth defects or medical issues were more common would not count abortions as infant mortalities, but here where our health care industry has a better chance at saving these babies (but sometimes fail) they get counted against us here. We have preemies surviving as young as 24 weeks.

  38. nickshaw says:

    As one whose family was on welfare many moons ago, I can tell you with absolute certainty that welfare recipients are no less likely to be drug users than the general population and are, in fact, probably a few points higher on that scale.
    Anyone who thinks differently is an idiot with an agenda.

    • MostlyRight says:

      The more reliable studies listed in this article, my apparently lying eyes, and my several family members who serve the public as police officers seem to disagree, but whatever.

      • Agronomous says:

        MostlyRight: I think you misread nickshaw: he’s saying poor people are somewhat more likely to use drugs.

  39. ChristianKl says:

    How come Brian Williams is being dragged over the coals for lying in the media, but everyone who publishes these kinds of articles gets off scot-free?
    To me that affair looks like the didn’t want to state the true reason for suspending him but were seeking an excuse.

  40. 27chaos says:

    Reporter stuff: Lying is widely considered immoral, while negligent stupidity or bias is not. This is probably because many people are negligently stupid and biased but don’t want to be criticized for it. Of course, that invites us to consider why people consider lying immoral if lying is also prominent. I think that it’s because people can see the damage done by lying when they’re lied to by others, but the consequences of bias and stupidity are not directly obvious. Also, it’s harder to detect when someone is biased or stupid than to notice when someone’s words directly contradict reality.

  41. ChuckLong says:

    The list of Brian Williams “embellishments” has grown quite long since that story broke. I’m inclined to believe that he is simply a serial fabulist.

    As to why the people pushing the poor-people-use-drugs-at-an-unbelievably-lower-rate-than-non-poor-people don’t get fired, that’s easy: they are employed by agenda-driven outfits for whom making sound arguments against policies they oppose is simply not enough. They have to DESTROY those policies (as in, Jon Stewart DESTROYS [insert enemy of Progressives here]). It’s why they were hired in the first place. If they were reasonable and measured, they wouldn’t have that gig at Jezebel.

  42. MostlyRight says:

    “It’s a bad idea because quitting drugs is really hard and denying people benefits isn’t going to help.”

    Good article but too bad it ended with an unfounded statement like this that runs against common sense, which is just what the author was complaining about in the previous paragraphs. Just as the welfare recipients have an incentive to lie on a form to get their benefits, a solid drug testing program gives an incentive to quit drugs to get their benefits. And just as I would be less likely to give a homeless guy on the corner $5 if I knew he was a drug addict and likely to spend the money on his habit, as a taxpayer I’d like to know where my money is going. I won’t give a destitute addict uncle money unless I’m confident he’s made the change in his life to clean up…though I will try to get him moving in a direction to seek help. I’m all for helping the genuinely helpless. I’m also for helping those stuck in a rut of addiction who want help but are struggling to succeed. Beyond that, I have better ways to spend my dollars.

    • Liz Calkins says:

      The problem is that quitting drugs is often a long process that cannot be done in the short time span before a drug test, and may require professional resources beyond the means of someone poor enough to be on assistance.

      I mean, many drugs aren’t like tobacco where you can quit cold turkey and probably just be kinda miserable for a while but otherwise safe. Many can debilitate you during the quitting process if you don’t get professional treatment during it, and some drugs can even literally kill you with their withdrawal symptoms.

      So even if you do want to quit, you still pretty much have to lie anyway so you can continue being actually able to afford to live while you’re going through the process of quitting, let alone trying to be able to afford the treatment. And of course you have to then try to hide that you’re in the treatment program so they don’t take your benefits away once they find out you were using.

      I could understand if after testing positive for drug use, you were allowed to keep your benefits if you enrolled in and followed a fully-subsidized rehab program, but the vibe I get from this testing is not any such genuine desire to help, but a “boot the degenerates out” attitude.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        That is completely false. Alcohol and xanax withdrawal can kill, but nothing else. Nor is withdrawal debilitating. Nicotine is about the worst.

        • caryatis says:

          Right. People can and do stop doing all kinds of drugs without medical help. Even when withdrawal is dangerous, you can taper down. Now, it’s perfectly understandable that some people need or want help, but physical withdrawal symptoms are not the insuperable obstacle Liz suggests.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            http://www.addictionsandrecovery.org/withdrawal.htm

            And, as those pages note, even for those drugs which cause “lesser” debilitation symptoms, it can still knock you for a loop and require changing your life to find alternative methods of stress and take better care of yourself to avoid relapse.

            Which is rather difficult when poverty is often a high-stress situation that makes it hard to take care of yourself properly, and when being even slightly off your game can threaten things like low-wage work situations where you’re typically already considered easily disposable due to even the slightest screwup.

            I’m honestly feeling kind of sorry I stuck a toe into this blog after reading some of the attitudes here. Mr. Alexander seems like a nice fellow himself, but it seems that rationalism as a general thing is a rich snob’s club.

          • Deiseach says:

            You know what? The next time there’s one of those “brain hack” posts on here and you lot are going on about the illegal/illicit drugs and medications you ordered off the Internet and phooey that silly old FDA saying you can’t use this stuff, I’m going to remind you all of this post, this comment thread, and the attitudes that “if we’re paying good tax money to Poor People, we damn well get to tell them what they can and cannot consume recreationally and we damn well get to test them, threaten them with loss of benefits, and lecture them about their weak wills and bad choices”.

            I am particularly going to rub all your noses in it when you’re going on about your recreational drug use and how you were orbiting Saturn and learning all the secrets of the cosmos.

            Oh, but you’re not like those Poor People; you’re special people who don’t show any discernible deleterious signs of your chemical usage – even though you’re merrily messing around with your brain chemistry specifically to alter it – and employers or anyone else don’t have the right to lay down the law about what substances you do or don’t choose to consume.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            @Deiseach

            Thank you, I think that’s far better than I could have put any such sentiment. I’m not sure why we’re fighting for the deregulation of marijuana and other recreational drugs, but then act scandalized if poor people use them. Is it only a rich person’s deal?

            Actually, I hate the tendency to nanny poor people in general and waggle fingers if we do anything that’s not pure bare minimum survival. It’s not our job to be the “virtuous poor” living like ascetic monks simply because our employers pay jack, or we got old or ill or injured. We have the same right to and need for recreation and fun and relaxation as rich people do.

          • James Picone says:

            Are the legalise-all-the-drugs people the same people as the no-drugs-for-poor-people people? My model of politics predicts that only libertarians – including the kind of vaguely semi-libertarian ‘grey’ tribe that Scott talked about a while ago – go for legalise-all-the-drugs, whereas I’d expect no-drugs from general conservatives and especially from neoreactionaries.

            I think the strongest point of overlap would be grey tribe, but even then I’d expect it to be more along the lines of “we should be coming up with social structures and policies that incentivise people to not be on crack/heroin/methamphetamines, for example, this social structure or policy”, and they’d distinguish between something like meth and something like LSD on the basis of harms. Most of the people here are consequentialists, after all.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Liz Calkins February 16, 2015 at 10:27

            This blog seems to have a wide range of subject matter, age, and politics. On another topic, it would be students interested in Kant, Artificial Intelligence, and social skills for dating.

            The first posts on each entry seem to follow Scott’s essay closely and thoughtfully; after a day or two, the later comments phase toward a different set of people talking about some more common, recurring theme.

          • Ialdabaoth says:

            We have the same right to and need for recreation and fun and relaxation as rich people do.

            Need for? definitely. Right to? Society doesn’t tend to bear that out very consistently.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            @James Picone

            Ironically I’m anti-drug myself. I just realize that one, getting rid of drugs entirely or even mostly is almost certainly an impossible goal and so it’s almost certainly more productive to try to accommodate drug use in ways that mitigate the harmful aspects, and two, that it’s unjust to have double standards where we’re fine with rich people using but punish any poor people who do.

            As for incentivizing people to not use, in my experience it’s far more productive to address the reasons why people do certain things (of which distraction from hopelessness is only one of many possibilities, in the case of drug use) and provide healthier alternatives that fulfill those reasons, than it is to simply punish or bribe away the symptoms. You create a greater chance that the person’s actions will remain changed, as opposed to a relapse if the bribe/punishment ever disappears.

            @Ialdabaoth

            I meant “right to” in the linguistic sense that, for instance, we say that gay people should have the same “right to” marry that straight people do.

            We really need to get society as a whole to understand that entertainment and relaxation are just as vital to healthy survival as things like food and shelter are. Being poor does not magically turn you into someone who’s A-OK with watching paint dry on your off hours (or A-OK with not having any off hours in the first place).

          • keranih says:

            I don’t think the majority of the objection to “poor people using drugs” comes from “poor people don’t deserve the right to use drugs” but instead comes from a sense that no matter what one’s choice of recreation is, it offends the sense of justice of many people to force me to pay for your recreaction.

            Even more so, when widely accepted studies show that particular types of recreaction decrease employabilty and wage potiential of those using the drugs.

            In short, if drugs were only used by people who didn’t need to ‘borrow’ money from other people in order to pay for those drugs, and who remained gainfully employeed whilst using those drugs, we would not be having this conversation.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            @keranih

            Hence why I said that society needs to learn that recreation is a vital need for health and not an easily-given-up luxury.

            Seriously, I think in addition to the constant “live on a food stamp budget” stunts that politicians do, we need to start a new “live without any of the recreational/’luxury’ things we say poor people shouldn’t have” campaign to go with it. I want well-to-do people to actually try to live for a month or so without recreation of any kind that isn’t 100% free, and then get back to me on whether they still think they’re “luxuries” or not.

            Also, considering that 9/10 of benefits go to people who are elderly, children, or working — http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=3677 — (and most of the remaining 10% still goes to people who have worked, based on them receiving benefits you can only qualify for after working for a given length of time) AND things like SNAP, TANF, housing assistance all have work, training, and/or work search requirements, the “not gainfully employed” argument also falls very flat.

          • keranih says:

            @ Liz –

            I absolutely agree that ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ – but I find fault with your reasoning that drug use should be excused amongst welfare reciepients on two grounds:

            1) I do not agree that recreation need cost money in order to be useful to the person recreating. In fact, you have an extremely high burden of proof to amass before you can come close to convincing me that funds must be expended in order to make either social outings or independent pursuits enjoyable.

            2) The use of both legal drugs (alcohol and tobacco) and illegal ones are detrimental to the person who consumes them. What a person does with their own money is their concern, but while they are borrowing money from me to pay for food, housing, and clothing for their childern, I do not expect them to be wasting money on things that will hurt them, damage their health, hamper their ability to work, and get them into legal trouble.

            Again, once they are on their own feet and paying for whatever they use with their own money, it stops being my concern.

      • Deiseach says:

        if after testing positive for drug use, you were allowed to keep your benefits if you enrolled in and followed a fully-subsidized rehab program

        Liz, when I dug up the regulations for the Tennessee programme, that’s what it does: it’s (a) not ALL benefits applicants, just first-time applicants for the American version of Family Income Supplement/Lone Parent’s Allowance (b) it’s only IF you fail testing that you have to sign up to a rehab programme (c) the department steers you to such a programme and (d) while you’re on it and stick with it, you get to keep your benefits.

        Which is why it was not so horrible a programme as I thought it would be. But of course, when politicians or whomever want to make a point, they can abuse it: they can send press releases out about “cracking down on benefit fraud/kicking cheats off welfare” and discourage people who might otherwise be honest and ask for help.

        • Liz Calkins says:

          That is better than I thought, then, though I wish it applied to all other benefit recipients as well.

          I guess ironically I took the Republican politicians at face value that they were “kicking the cheats off welfare”.

          (Never mind that to me, the only way you qualify as a “fraud” or a “cheat” on welfare is if your income actually is above the limits to be eligible for it because you hid part of your income. As in, actual literal fraud.)

      • Princess Stargirl says:

        Nicotine is among the hardest drugs to quit. Possibly the hardest amoung commonly used drugs. The percentage of regular users who are addicted is by far the highest for nicotine. Over 70% of nicotine users are addicted.
        Almost all drugs are in the 15-30% range or they are non-addictive (LSD, etc).

  43. Pingback: A Few Headlines | The Common Room

  44. BarryOgg says:

    People who publish these kinds of articles may get off scot-free, but they sure ain’t getting off Scott-free.

  45. Who Wouldn't Want To Be Anon says:

    Scott, I think you are conflating “science” and “engineering” w.r.t. the false positive rate, but you do not provide a reference to your 1% claim for me to investigate.

    For the sake of argument, suppose you define a positive result as “the test returned a non zero value for micrograms per litter of the selected metabolic marker” and a false positive as “but the sample did not in fact contain any of that metabolic marker.” Bio chem is pretty messy so a false positive rate of 1% wouldn’t seem incredibly surprising.

    When turning the raw science into an actual testing regemine, however, those crazy engineers get to play it kind of fast and loose. They don’t care about all non zero test results, they just care about the ones they can claim are actual positive results with high confidence. And they can acheive arbitrarily high confidence levels with the magic phrase “for a sufficiently large value of epsilon.” Since the range of result has enough orders of magnitude to make an astronomer giddy, there is plenty of room to put in a threshold under which a result are indistinguishable the background radiation–err, a false positive.

  46. Luke Somers says:

    Interesting. I briefly looked through the Daily Kos comment thread on it, and there was some discussion of the… statistical weakness. Definitely claims that this shouldn’t be overstated.

    You brought up more points than any of them did, but they were poking in the right direction.

  47. Anish says:

    Taboo “drugs”

  48. Pingback: Lightning Round – 2015/02/18 | Free Northerner

  49. darb says:

    I live in Baltimore and the level of drug use is astronomical for welfare recipients. In 1,000,000 years, the evil ‘crats that run our city would never permit drug testing- it would expose their 50 year sham of an operation to deal with the poverty issue in general.

    Tennessee’s microscopic drug issues are not a real test of this policy. Any drug test/welfare requirement must involve all the old east Coast cities that have been ruled and ruined by the ‘crats over the last 6 decades.

    Regarding your absurd description of those who refuse to take the test- these are welfarist that are 100% drug positive and can’t abstain long enough to pass the test- “Moral Objections” ? What planet are you from ?

  50. Pingback: Open Thread And Link Farm: The Dress Is Bigger On The Inside Edition | Alas, a Blog

  51. Pingback: Links 2/18/15 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  52. Pierce Nichols says:

    As you pointed out at the top of the article, the false-positive rate for drug tests is between 1% and 5%. Therefore, a 2.6% positive rate is also entirely consistent with none of the tested population using illicit drugs.

    The study you linked to covers many different types of governmental assistance, and the footnotes state that drug use among people in families that receive Medicaid is substantially higher than among other subgroups. It’s also based on data that is now fifteen years old (1999 & 2000). I don’t think it’s at all legitimate to use it to predict current rates of drug abuse among welfare recipients — too many confounding factors.

    The homeless largely do not receive welfare or food stamps, so they are also irrelevant to the discussion of whether or not this policy is a good idea.

    And if you are poor enough that you are on welfare, $25 to $35 plus transportation to a drug testing center can be a remarkably steep hill to climb even though it’s almost nothing to you or me (or the folks making these laws). As far as I can tell, this is just red meat for the base and corporate welfare for drug testing companies.

  53. obamasux says:

    Obviously very few of you have had my experience, in my medical clinic, where welfare “clients” who are also on “disability” come in reeking of booze and pot, asking for narcotic prescriptions, and boldly telling me (and I quote) “I could work more than 20 hours a week, but I’d lose my disability.” The welfare state is scam which enslaves the productive to the nonproductive, for the EXCLUSIVE benefit of politicians and bureaucrats.