Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Rush to Judgement

A friend or acquaintance comes to you with a story of how badly he has been mistreated by someone—his employer, his girlfriend, a store, an airline. He expects you to agree with his complaint, take his side, despite the fact that you have not heard the other side of the argument and so, unless you happen to have some other source of information, have no way of knowing whether his side is correct. Your honest response would be to point that out—at which point he will get mad at you too.

Seen from a sufficiently cynical point of view the pattern makes sense. Agreeing with him makes him your ally, allies are useful, and the target of his attack is far away and, with any luck, will never know you have sided against him, her or it. Agreeing is also stupid if it does not occur to you that you have heard only one side of the story or if you have not yet learned how dangerous it is to reach conclusions on that basis,  dishonest if you have.

I was reminded of this particular recurrent irritation by recent news stories about a waitress who claimed to have been stiffed by a couple she served, given a note criticizing her (lesbian) life style in lieu of a tip. Her original account did not identify the couple, but it provided sufficient information for them to identify themselves—at which point they provided what looks like convincing evidence that she was lying, including the visa charge for their dinner, tip included. The most recent story I have seen includes comments by friends and former colleagues of the waitress reporting a history of minor lies designed to provoke sympathy on the basis of invented stories.

What struck me was not the behavior of the waitress but the behavior of the large number of people who took her side, including reporters who took the waitress's initial story as gospel, reporting it as something that happened, not as something someone claimed happened, despite no evidence beyond a digital image of what purported to be the check with note and without tip. Judging at least by reports, thousands of people on Facebook condemned the supposed behavior of the couple—with no evidence beyond the news stories—and many sent donations to the purported victim. 

Their behavior was stupid and unjust. The behavior of the reporters was also professional incompetence. 

One question about the story that nobody else seems to have commented on occurred to me. All of the reports describe the waitress as an ex-marine. She is also described as 22 years old, and the most recent story mentions "a day care center where she once worked." The minimum age of enlistment for the marines is 17. The usual terms of enlistment are for three to five years of active service. Marine corps training requires an additional three months. It is not impossible that someone could have enlisted at 17 on the shortest terms, left the corps at 20 and by 22 have worked first at a day care center and then at a restaurant, but the timing is sufficiently tight to be at least mildly suspicious, especially when combined with evidence that the person in question is a habitual liar. 

It would be nice to know if any of the reporters checked with the marine corps to make sure that "ex-marine" was not another fabrication.


jdgalt said...

The timing, at least, I can believe. It is standard practice in the Marines that if you enlist at age 17, your term expires on your 21st birthday.

Your take on the rest of the story agrees with what I've seen elsewhere.

transcendentape said...

Initial enlistment in the Marines, and all US forces that I am aware of, is for a term of 8 years. If you enlist while still in High School into the Delayed Entry Program, before the age of 18, then that time before you go to basic training is counted towards the eight years. You then serve your period of active duty, typically four or six years, though some MOSs may allow three or five years. Boot Camp and MCT (the follow on training for all non-infantry MOSs) counts towards that active duty time, as well as all schools required for your MOS. After your active duty enlistment is complete, you serve the remainder of the eight years in Inactive Reserve.

All this to say, her time in boot camp and all other training counts towards her active duty enlistment, and barring special circumstances, it is unusual for an active duty enlistment to consist of less than four years after your 18th birthday.

RP Long said...

I can't speak for others, but the reason I believe my friends when they tell me stories is because they have earned my trust. This is also why I am still likely to side with my friend, even after hearing both sides of the story. It has nothing to do with allegiance or stupidity. I choose friends based in part on their trustworthiness.

I make this point in order to enhance Prof. Friedman's argument against the media, not detract from it. The waitress surely did nothing for the media that would have demonstrated trustworthiness in advance of this one story. So the reporters failed to do their due diligence despite having no reason to justify skipping it. Except that they may have merely wanted an ally, like Prof. Friedman says.

Steve said...

You're half right: "Though a military spokesman confirmed Morales did serve in the Marines, he added, "There is no indication of combat service in Iraq or Afghanistan."

David Friedman said...


I did say "friend or acquaintance." And I wouldn't even claim that I limit my friendship to people who I trust in that sense. I would be surprised if a friend deliberately lied to me about such a situation, but not if he had, as people often have, a view heavily biased in his own favor.

geogavino said...

The last I read (in Gothamist), she was confirmed to have been in the Marine Corps, but lied about deployments (I see someone else already noted this). There are 4-year enlistment terms, but getting out earlier, even within the first year, for a variety of reasons is not uncommon.

I've found that lies and exaggerations about what one did in the military is very common. So common that I tend to view all claims about combat experience skeptically.

Regarding the acceptance of the receipt claims, it would seem that confirmation bias drives a lot of what we accept without verification and what we do not. Actual investigative reporting is more important than ever.

Robert Wenzel said...

"Waitress in anti-gay note dispute was dishonorably discharged from the Marines after she stopped showing up. "

Patri Friedman said...

What's the Hansonian equivalent to "politics is not about policy" here? I don't know how to be pithy, but "Complaints are not about proving objective facts" and "Agreement is not about belief".

You describe the perspective that agreement is about alliance as being highly cynical, but in everything I've read, it is the standard view that when someone vents to a friend about a bad experience, they are looking for support, a chance to feel heard, to feel like someone is on their side, and to feel understand. A person's emotional experiences are highly subjective, and most people most of the time when relating emotional events are trying to communicate their internal subjective experience, not to objectively communicate information about a sequence of events. As a result, having to prove to anyone (especially a friend) that one is correct about one's personal experience is actively unpleasant for most people, making them feel worse rather than better about the perceived mistreatment.

Explaining this is a standard part of many self-help books, which then describe how to listen without arguing or offering solutions (say, Chapter 2 of John Gray's 50 million copy bestseller).

Given this, it behooves us as listeners to take what we hear in these situations with a grain of salt and not to incorporate the literal details of what we heard into our model of the world with high confidence. Sharing our friend's emotional journey and seeing things from their point of view does not constitute belief that they are objectively right, simply a desire to help them feel better. Unfortunately, some people are so fond of this process that they abuse it by manufacturing mistreatment, as Morales did, but I think the solution is to not be friends with those people, not to play unsympathetic devil's advocate whenever your friends complain.

I think you have an obligation to be truthful when talking to a reporter, but according to your link, the story started with a Facebook post by Morales, so it looks like she misused this social medium by expressing herself in a (demonstrably) public forum the way she would when venting to a sympathetic friend in private. The reporters then failed to consider this or to fact-check, which seems foolish - after all, "stories that get a reporter's attention" strongly selects for "stories which are exaggerated".

But then again, it's not clear to me why the reporter should care about the truth. They get paid for pageviews via ads, not via bets on prediction markets, so they get rewarded for writing entertaining content, not being right. I'd love a news outlet in which the reporters had to bet on whether their stories would later be disproven, but that's not what most people want and it isn't what we have. Incentives matter.

Anonymous said...

It seems fairly clear that the reason this story was so loudly proclaimed is that it feeds an agenda that many want fed -- namely the persecution of the gay lifestyle. In this particular case, since the alleged perpetrators were effectively untrackable, this made for a great story. The perpetrators didn't get with the program -- they were supposed to stay quiet.
I don't know the truth of this story, it does smell bad. However, one thing worth mentioning is that the waitress may indeed have committed criminal fraud. She widely published a lie and received considerable pecuniary advantage from having done so.
I'm not a lawyer, but if she lied, she probably should send the money back.
I doubt the AG will be talking to her anytime soon.

susupply said...

The Grievance Industry is big business. Nothing new in this latest episode.

Anyone remember Anita Hill? She'd used the excuse of sexual harassment to explain away her professional failures for years. Then one day her former boss, Clarence Thomas, was nominated to the Supreme Court, one of her friends--a Yale Law School grad working as an unemployment 'judge' in California--remembered Anita's complaints and brought them to the attention of political activists opposing Thomas. Hilarious contradictions ensued.

The story against Thomas was obviously untrue, and he squeaked by to confirmation. Polls at the time showed that roughly 2/3 of the people believed him, and not her. Polls taken a few years later reversed those numbers.

The same phenomenon is present with George Zimmerman.

Anonymous said...

It seems that David's concerns over her "Marine Corps Service" are valid. Apparently she was dishonorably discharged after "she stopped showing up."
I'm not a military person, but I didn't think you could just "stop showing up" to the military. Nonetheless, apparently that is what she did.
She also has a history or other victimology.

ErisGuy said...

A reporter’s job is to report; that is, to pass along what the reporter is told. That’s why the term “investigative reporter” had to be invented: to describe the handful of reporters who cursorily attempt to discover if the information passed to them is accurate.*

It’s really too much to ask that reporters investigate trivial stories.

Consider reporters whose beat is highly technical, e.g., economics, science, engineering. Any checking is likely limited to informal peer review, that is, asking other economists, scientists, or engineers if something can be true (not is true). No reporter will repeat an experiment to verify a press release or paper.

The idea that journalism should be like verifiable is a unfortunate fiction of the 20th century.

Austin said...

It looks like her story is bunk: