Sunday, March 15, 2009

Dealing with Falsehood Online

You read a newspaper or magazine and notice that it says something that is not true. Unless the statement is libelous and you are the victim, your only practical recourse is to write a letter to the editor which they may or may not print. That means that when such publications publish falsehoods they can usually, if they choose, prevent their readers from discovering the fact. Convert the magazine to a blog and the letter to a moderated comment and things look very much the same.

But they are not—as I hope to demonstrate in this post.

Not long ago, browsing the web, I came across an article on a libertarian blog. The blog is called "Classically Liberal Student," the article was signed "CLS." Its subject was the Atlas Foundation which, CLS argued, had been becoming more conservative and less libertarian under pressure from a conservative source of funding. To support the claim, he offered examples of purportedly anti-libertarian organizations that Atlas had funded. One was an organization in New Zealand that received money from Atlas, about which CLS wrote:

Maxim was explicitly anti-free market and attacked Milton Friedman when he died. Maxim said Friedman was "simplistic" and said he ignored the "social good". They say that "the individualist view, espoused by Friedman" is just as wrong as the collectivist view mainly because it ignores the desire of theocrats like Maxim to impose Christian morality by the force of law.

For obvious reasons that caught my eye, so I clicked on the link—and discovered that what CLS said was not true. The article was not an attack, it did not contain the word "simplistic," and it did not say that the individualist view is just as wrong as the collectivist view. It also said nothing about the desirability of imposing Christian morality by the force of law. Its central argument was that while the individual freedom Milton Friedman had worked for was a good thing, it was not, by itself, sufficient to produce positive social outcomes—that also required free individuals to act with a conscience, concerned with the common good of society. That claim is not inconsistent with libertarianism.

In my judgment, it would require an extraordinarily biased reader to get from what the Maxim article said to what CLS claimed it said—readers are invited to check that claim for themselves. Whether or not that is true, a purported quote that is not in the text being quoted is not a misinterpretation. It is a falsehood. What the article actually said was not that Milton Friedman was "simplistic" but that "economists like Friedman invariably approach problems with a simplified view of the world… ." That, of course, is true--of economics and of many other sciences.

Checking some of the other claims CLS made, I found further misrepresentations, so posted a comment to the blog (scroll down to near the bottom of the comments) pointing them out. Eventually it appeared, as did a response by CLS. As best I could tell, he agreed that the text from Maxim that he had linked to did not entirely fit what he said it about it and speculated that perhaps it had been changed in the two years since it was written. He explained that "when the article was originally published I wrote an article about it and quoted from it. When I mentioned it, in an article about something far bigger, I quoted my original." He provided a link to what was apparently his original article, written some two years earlier.

Comparing quotes in the earlier CLS article with the text that the later one linked to led me to suspect that there were two different essays along similar lines published by Maxim, one in November of 2006 and one in December, a suspicion I have now confirmed. But unfortunately for the explanation CLS offered, the material I was complaining about was not quoted from his earlier article. Among other differences, his earlier article did not contain the (bogus) quote of the word "simplistic.".

I pointed that out and got a response asking why, if he misquoted Maxim, he linked to them and complaining that I was beating a dead horse.

It's possible that CLS wrote a description of the Maxim article based on his memory of something he had read more than two years earlier and posted it with a link to what was supposed to be the article he was attacking, after glancing at the article he was linking to in order to find something to quote from it; that would explain one real but out of context quote that is in the Maxim article and is in neither the earlier Maxim article nor the earlier CLS article. Alternatively, he read the later Maxim article, wildly misrepresented it, and then tried to defend his misrepresentation against my criticism by claiming—falsely—that it was quoted from his earlier article referring to a different Maxim article.

I wrote another comment. As of several days later, it has not appeared. Presumably CLS has decided that, so far as he is concerned, the argument is over.

{Since this was originally posted, additional comments by me and CLS have appeared on the CLS blog, in part in response to this post}

Posting an inaccurate description of something someone else wrote based on your memory of what you read two years ago is, to put it mildly, irresponsible journalism. That is especially true for an attack, since one's memory is likely to improve the evidence against the target over the intervening years.

Failing to correct a demonstrable falsehood after it is pointed out is more than irresponsible, it is dishonest.

The owner of a blog can control what appears on it, but he has much less control over the information reaching his readers than does the editor of a magazine or newspaper. Hence this post. Given that CLS and I are both libertarians, it is likely that some of his readers are also my readers. They should be warned that, on the evidence of this incident, he is careless about the truth of what he writes. Having discovered that he posted falsehoods he is reluctant to admit them and unwilling to correct them. Any facts he alleges should therefor be viewed with scepticism until they have been independently verified.

CLS is, of course, welcome to respond in the comment section of this blog—which, save for removing spam when I notice it, is not moderated.

For the convenience of anyone who wants to work through the tangle for himself, here are all the links:

"Friedman, freedom and the legacy of libertarianism," Nov 26 2006, Maxim Institute.

"Kiwi Christianists offer anti-eulogy to Friedman," CLS, Nov 23, 2006.
Friedman's take on freedom, Steve Thomas, 12 December 2006, Maxim Institute
Comments on the above, including comments by me and responses by CLS.
The one confusing thing about the time sequence is that CLS seems to have responded to the first Maxim piece several days before it was published. It's clear, however, comparing the quotations in his Nov 23 piece with the text of the Maxim Nov 26 piece, that the latter is what is being quoted. My guess is that either one of the pieces got misdated or the Maxim piece was posted, slightly revised, and reposted with a later date.
[Later note]
Presumably in reaction to my comments, CLS has now added at the bottom of the Feb 19 piece a note:
"For the full context of what we wrote about Maxim and their "eulogy" for Milton Friedman, go here."
The link is to the earlier CLS piece.
He has not, however, corrected any of the misstatements in the current piece. Nor has he informed current readers of his blog that a post they read several weeks ago contained assertions he now knows are false.

I happened to be rereading this post recently (10/31/17) and tried following the links. All the ones I tried no longer worked, so I checked the CLS blog. The "Conservative money corrupts libertarian thinking" post does not appear to be there any more. I searched the next few months of the blog for "Friedman" in order to see if there were any references to either the original post or my criticisms of it and found nothing.

So it looks as though the author, to his credit, has removed a post that said things that were not true. To his discredit, he does not seem to have done anything to tell the people who read that post that what they read was not true and he has apparently eliminated, on his blog, the evidence that he first said things that were not true and then declined to admit it.

As always, he is welcome to correct in a comment here any errors in my account of his blog.


Anonymous said...

Somehow, without a reference to the World of Warcraft, I just can't bring myself to read this post.

deleted said...

Hi David,

Maxim in my mind are a mixed back. They are basically a right wing Christian think tank, with a load of money. Some of their research is very good, but always has its Christian moralistic element to it, which does detract from their support of free market/libertarian principles.

I'd say CLS has it right - judging from past experiences with Maxim during my uni days (including the bankrolling of one student union presidancy campaign).

They do do some pretty good research, but are inherantly conservative, and have definately been in favor of using the force of law to support Christian morality when it suits them (Civil Unions would be a good example, anothe would be the NZ Votes roadshows which aim to push primary christian viewpoints to the general public in each election) these things won't obviously be on the website, and would be considered more subjective opinion rather than objective fact.

You would expect Maxim to come out strongly against say prostitution law reform, drug liberalisation, abortion law etc.

David Friedman said...

In response to MikeE ...

I'm not really interested in whether CLS is correct in his judgement of either Maxim or Atlas, although I can see that other people would be. I'm not interacting with them but with him.

I am interested in the fact that CLS posts things that are not true, and when it is pointed out that they are not true he posts an explanation which is also not true.

It cannot be the case that, as he claims, his recent description of the Maxim piece was quoted from, or even based on, his older description, because the two are quoting from two different Maxim pieces.

If this isn't clear, you may want to reread my post--after putting it up I succeeded in locating the earlier of the two Maxim pieces and have revised my post to include that information.

The bottom line is that I have no reason to believe anything CLS says, which makes him useless to me--and, I think, to anyone else who bothers to work through this particular exchange--as a source of information. I know he is careless, I know he is unwilling correct his errors, and I now have reason to believe--his explanation in the comments--that he deliberately lies.

Anonymous said...

it is likely that some of his readers are also my readers.

Yes, I am, and your comment convinced me to drop him from my aggregator - though only because, scanning back over old entries, I found nothing that made me think I would miss him.

Anonymous said...

I'm not convinced that dealing with falsehoods (or alleged falsehoods) online is all that different from newspapers or magazines - or not in the way you suggest. If the editor of one publication wouldn't print your letters, you could still complain about it in some other little magazine or pamphlet, possibly one you edited yourself. This has always been done. Admittedly, the readership of the various publications may not always have overlapped strongly, but that's true with online blogs too. In this case I had previously never come across either of the blogs or organisations you mentioned.

I suppose it is easier for readers to check up for themselves online, but it's also easier for bloggers to falsify the evidence, for example by altering their archives.

Mike Huben said...

I think xkcd described our common complaint, David.

Duty Calls

Anonymous said...

"You read a newspaper or magazine and notice that it says something that is not true ... your only practical recourse is to write a letter to the editor which they may or may not print."

This is generally only true at the largest newspapers. I used to work as a reporter for a medium-circulation daily newspaper. My phone number and email address were published along with everything I wrote. You will find that this is true of most small or medium papers.

Readers could - and frequently did - call me to discuss what I had written. Sometimes that led to the paper printing a correction. I would say that this is far more accountability than many blogs offer.

Troy Camplin said...

Well, feel free to come by my blog and point out any and all mistakes I may make. I'm more interested in truth and facts than in being "right."

Robert W. Franson said...

There's definitely an important general problem here. Especially before the printing press, many-tongued-rumor was hard to refute because it multiplied almost tracelessly, mutated unpredictably, and was very elusive to catch and refute or outshout. In the Age of Print, it became easier to locate the source of printed error and print a counter-assertion. The Internet may be drenching us in viral rumor once again, errors multiplying beyond recall. I presume mechanisms of commenting / verifying / filtering / censoring will continue to evolve, for good or ill.

I just today noticed a quotation from a review of mine, taken out of context and wildly misdated to boot. Nothing as important as the Milton Friedman issue, so not worth pursuing, but still annoying.

Of course, the difficulties of chasing assertion with refutation applies to true as well as false assertions. Truth will out, as they say, and we may hope.