Archive

May 25th, 2016

A world without facts

    You are about to read a newspaper article. Do you care whether all the facts in it are true? If so - what could convince you that they are or are not? A friend? A neutral website? Someone in authority?

    If you aren't really sure, then welcome to the world of fact-checking. In the past several years, as it has become easier to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories on the Internet, politically neutral fact-checking websites have sprung up in response. The Post itself created an early version, the "Fact Checker" column, led by Glenn Kessler, which awards up to four "Pinocchios" for dubious statements made by politicians from both political parties, depending on their level of outrageousness. Others include PolitiFact.com, FullFact.org in Britain, Chequeado in Argentina and StopFake.org in Ukraine.

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If a suit against you is dismissed, that's a win

    The Supreme Court's decision on attorneys' fees is not really about attorneys' fees. Behind the bland topic lies a deep and interesting philosophical question about the nature of a lawsuit, especially one brought on civil rights grounds: What counts as a win?

    The Supreme Court answered this question Thursday in a case called CRST Van Expedited v. EEOC. The case involved a $4 million award of fees that the trial court ordered the government to pay the trucking company's lawyers after the court dismissed more than 150 sex harassment claims brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the company.

    Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a court can order the government to pay a defendant's attorneys' fees if the defendant prevails in court and the claims were "frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless." The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the trucking company counted as the prevailing party in the dismissed lawsuits.

    You might think the question of who is a "prevailing party" sounds easy: Did you win in court or didn't you?

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This ed-reform trend is supposed to motivate students. Instead, it shames them.

    My third-graders tumbled into the classroom, and one child I'd especially been watching for - I need to protect her privacy, so I'll call her Janie - immediately noticed the two poster-size charts I'd hung low on the wall. Still wearing her jacket, she let her backpack drop to the floor and raised one finger to touch her name on the math achievement chart. Slowly, she traced the row of dots representing her scores for each state standard on the latest practice test. Red, red, yellow, red, green, red, red. Janie is a child capable of much drama, but that morning she just lowered her gaze to the floor and shuffled to her chair.

    In our test-mired public schools, those charts are known as data walls, and before I caved in and made some for my Northern Virginia classroom last spring, they'd been proliferating in schools across the country - an outgrowth of "data-driven instruction" and the scramble for test scores at all costs. Making data public, say advocates such as Boston Plan for Excellence, instills a "healthy competitive culture." But that's not what I saw in my classroom.

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When a 'speedy trial' includes a 14-month delay

    The Supreme Court has unanimously held that your right to a speedy trial doesn't cover a 14-month delay after conviction and before sentencing -- because after conviction, the trial is over. To reach this formalistic conclusion, the court had to invent a new legal category -- the "criminal justice process" -- and break it into three separate parts. But although the holding seems wrong to me, there's still a ray of hope for defendants who sit around waiting for sentencing: The justices left open the possibility that a different part of the Constitution might afford relief in a future case.

    Given the issue in the case, there's some irony in the fact that the court turned around the decision in the case, Betterman v. Montana, at lightning speed. The justices heard oral argument in the case on March 28 -- a turnaround of less than two months.

    But the speed did petitioner Brandon Betterman no favors. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for a unanimous court that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee didn't apply to anything that happens after conviction.

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The law mandates rape exams--but the right training to conduct them is just as vital

    As an emergency-room nurse in southwest Wisconsin, I sometimes received patients who had been sexually assaulted -- and I was expected to help conduct an exam to collect and preserve DNA evidence, though I didn't have the appropriate training. I would try to make sense out of the rape kit: a cardboard box packed with numerous envelopes holding a mess of long-handled swabs and slides. Instructions were printed on both sides of a sheet in type so small I could barely read it. Often, the doctor on call was as uncertain about what to do as I was and had only 10 or 15 minutes before needing to return to other emergency department duties. I felt inadequate to meet my patients' needs. And I was always worried: "What if I mess something up in the rape kit and ruin her court case?"

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Scientists should be careful with research on autism

    The road to medical understanding is pitted with confounding news headlines. Take one last week warning that women exposed to too much of the ubiquitous vitamins folate and B-12 during pregnancy face an increased risk of having an autistic child.

    The research, out of Johns Hopkins University, is part of a quest to unravel the causes of autism. The provocative folate finding is a valuable clue, but the way the university publicized it was not useful and potentially dangerous.

    For years, doctors have been urging women who are even thinking about getting pregnant to take folate in the form of folic acid supplements. In the United States, flour and other foods are fortified with folic acid as well. Getting too little is associated with serious and sometimes fatal birth defects. Furthermore, earlier studies showed that too little folate increased the risk for autism.

    Making matters more complicated, blood levels of folate depend on genes that influence folate metabolism.

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Donald Trump's boorish behavior is bad for all women, even if some don't mind it

    Last weekend, the New York Times detailed Donald Trump's misogynistic treatment of numerous women. Criticism was immediate.

    Trump's defenders got a boost Monday from Rowanne Brewer Lane, whose story about meeting Trump at a pool party at his Palm Beach, Florida, resort was featured in the first few paragraphs of the article. She'd told the Times about how Trump asked her to change into a bikini and then paraded her in front of other guests, but on "Fox and Friends," she disputed the reporters' characterization of this as "debasing."

    "[H]e never made me feel like I was being demeaned in any way. He never offended me in any way," she told the network, and went on to call Trump a gentleman.

    Case closed as far as the Trump camp is concerned. "She clearly doesn't feel like she was debased. So they have inserted their own opinion of how she felt, which is crazy," senior adviser Barry Bennett told Politico.

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Some politicians are impervious to fact-checking

    Perhaps the most frustrating question about Donald Trump's political success is why people keep voting for him even though his statements often don't withstand the most basic fact-checking. And it's not just Trump: The Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer appears to be successful in convincing voters that he's a moderate, conciliatory candidate though the press has written extensively about his history of extreme nationalist statements and leanings.

    Why are people so unwilling to accept factual rebuttals? Is it that, as Farhad Manjoo wrote in "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society," "the creeping partisanship has begun to distort our very perceptions about what is 'real' and what isn't"?

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Games people rig, by Bernie Sanders

    If Bernie Sanders and his supporters complained about other things the way they complain about the fairness of the Democratic presidential primary process:

    Chess: This game is rigged. The pawns get to move almost NOWHERE, whereas the QUEEN (DETECT ANY RESEMBLANCE HERE???) can just move wherever she likes with no apparent rhyme or reason. She's not a bishop or a rook. Why does she move like one? Also, the black pieces have to move second, which is TOTALLY unfair and needs to be looked into, unless I am playing with the white pieces today.

    Scrabble: I played exactly the same word as my opponent, using exactly the same letters, and received fewer points for it -- just because I wasn't on some pink square, which my opponent claimed gave you DOUBLE the points. Pretty sure that's the definition of rigged. Why would you just randomly have squares all over the board that counted for MORE or FEWER points when it's just the same words? Also my opponent had two BLANK tiles, which just got to be WHATEVER letters she wanted. This seems made-up. Milton Bradley are shills who are trying to prevent the revolution. Also, "BERN" is totally a word.

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Hillary's behavior on the brink

    In the wake of a mini-protest of Bernie Sanders supporters against the Nevada Democratic Party at its state convention in Las Vegas last weekend, Hillary Clinton in a CNN interview has essentially called on Sanders to rein them in.

    The protesters had engaged in some minor violence in a fight over delegate allocation to the July national party convention, reportedly throwing chairs and making personal threats against the state party chairwoman.

    Both sides overreacted, a reflection of the kind of tension that mounts as a presidential nomination nears its conclusion after months of intense competition. Clinton backers, including Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, called on both sides to cool their tempers, and President Obama through his press secretary has echoed her, saying he expected all parties to adhere to nonviolent behavior.

    A still-feisty Sanders, noting his recent string of state primary victories, called any criticism of his troops "nonsense" and vowed to press on to the end of the primary calendar next month, which includes delegate rich primaries in California and New Jersey.

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