One yearTwoThreeFour years ago today, I started this site with the following statement: “An attorney should always put a statement of the questions presented at the very beginning of any brief unless the rules forbid it.” In that opening post, I tried to map an approach that would guide content then unwritten.
My goal has been to try to ask real questions, not leading or rhetorical ones, in an attempt to reveal something about what underlies our assumptions, ideas, and viewpoints. I’ve tried to at least imply a question in every post, and where I did not, my approach was to put forth a position that invited responsive comments, of which the site received many. Things have slowed down here a bit in the past year, but with
nearly 3,500over 9,700nearly 1417,000 views in the first yeartwothreefour years, I still think we’re off to a good start.
Thank you for your readership and feedback.
A study making headlines today purports to conclude that Oreo cookies are “just as addictive as cocaine.” If a scientific study showed that a popular snack food had the addictive properties of a narcotic substance, popular press headlines would be appropriate. The study in question plainly does not support that conclusion, however.
The researchers conducted the study as follows:
On one side of a maze, they would give hungry rats Oreos and on the other, they would give them a control – in this case, rice cakes. . . . Then, they would give the rats the option of spending time on either side of the maze and measure how long they would spend on the side where they were typically fed Oreos.
. . .
They compared the results of the Oreo and rice cake test with results from rats that were given an injection of cocaine or morphine, known addictive substances, on one side of the maze and a shot of saline on the other. Professor Schroeder is licensed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to purchase and use controlled substances for research.
The research showed the rats conditioned with Oreos spent as much time on the “drug” side of the maze as the rats conditioned with cocaine or morphine.
From these two independent tests, it only seems possible to draw two independent conclusions: 1) rats like Oreos more than rice cakes, and 2) rats like cocaine or morphine more than saline. Plainly, because the testing did not directly compare Oreos and cocaine, it would be inappropriate to draw a conclusion that directly compares Oreos and cocaine.
From these two, independent tests, we do not know whether rats prefer Oreos in equal measure, for example, to cocaine. One seemingly easy way to find out would have been to ask them directly to choose between Oreos and cocaine, and it is strange that the researchers did not conduct such a test.
The testing conducted also appears to conflate preferentiality with addictiveness. Establishing that “hungry rats” consistently prefer one type of food over another does not necessarily mean that they are addicted to the preferred food option. The addictive force in a person would seem to be stronger than and fundamentally different from a mere preferential force; indeed, the power of addiction is that it can compel a being to act against its preferences in order to serve the addiction.
All we know from this research is that hungry rats would rather eat Oreos than rice cakes, not that the Oreos were “addicting” in a non-colloquial sense. A behavioral test for Oreos’ addictive properties might be whether rats choose Oreos over other, equally or more desirable food, or whether they eat Oreos even when they are not hungry, or otherwise consume Oreos to their detriment.
Addiction surely has a neurological component as well, but again, the difference between preference (or pleasure) and addiction (or need) would seem to be important. In follow-up research, one of the student-researchers conducted some neurological testing:
They used immunohistochemistry to measure the expression of a protein called c-Fos, a marker of neuronal activation, in the nucleus accumbens, or the brain’s “pleasure center.”
“It basically tells us how many cells were turned on in a specific region of the brain in response to the drugs or Oreos,” said Schroeder.
They found that the Oreos activated significantly more neurons than cocaine or morphine.
“This correlated well with our behavioral results and lends support to the hypothesis that high-fat/ high-sugar foods are addictive,” said Schroeder.
That we derive more pleasure from consuming Oreos than from consuming cocaine or morphine is interesting, but it does not necessarily mean that consuming Oreos creates the pervasive neurological shift that constitutes addiction. (This is probably why the researchers only describe a “correlat[ion]” on this point.)
As someone without formal neuroscience training, my assessment of this study and the conclusions drawn from it certainly may be incorrect, but my criticism seems obvious, appropriate, and easily addressed (and remedied, if necessary). I do not mean to suggest that this Connecticut College group is the only scientific research team susceptible to this critique, as the popular science news contains plenty of examples. Maybe something that seems obvious– Why not compare Oreos and cocaine directly?– to a lay reader like me would never occur to the trained researchers because it is not a scientifically relevant inquiry. If the scientific community wants to present its work to a popular audience, however, it should shed the thin veneer of social justice concerns, which the Connecticut College group attempted to apply, and focus on addressing that audience’s natural curiosities, which are particularly likely to arise in response to sensational headlines like “Oreos as ‘addictive as cocaine.’“
The growth of media and communication technology has provided us with greater volumes of utterances from more people than ever before. It is easy to capture the unfiltered, unvarnished thoughts of a broader portion of society. With emphases on access and immediacy, people are publishing more of their regrettable opinions, jests, thoughts, and other statements that upset members of their audience.
Setting aside an evaluation of the person-by-person authenticity of the widespread responses to off-color jokes, for example, the speakers’ apologetic responses to the reaction to these increasingly frequent statements have settled into a pattern that merits brief examination.
A recent instance of this now-reflexive call and response came earlier this month. MMA fighter and media personality Chael Sonnen was on Fox Sports Live, new sports network Fox Sports 1′s version of ESPN’s SportsCenter, to discuss boxer Floyd Mayweather’s match against Canelo Alvarez. Criticizing the perceived quality of Mayweather’s recent opponents, Sonnen said:
I’ve never seen anybody in the history of America get so rich and so famous off of having complete wimps throwing punch at their faces. I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, “Well, it’s happened before, what about Rihanna?”
Video of the segment is available here.
Sonnen’s inartful, imperfect analogy between Mayweather, who happened to have served jail time for domestic abuse, and Rihanna, a pop singer and a domestic abuse victim, triggered the issuance of an apology from the network before Sonnen’s remarks could blossom into a larger controversy:
FOX Sports regrets the comments Chael Sonnen made during last night’s edition of FOX Sports Live. They were an inappropriate attempt at humor that Sonnen acknowledges shouldn’t have been made and he apologizes to anyone who may have been offended by his remarks.
This cycle– statement, reaction, apology– has become both rote and swift in American media culture, to the point where a) the reaction phase no longer is a necessary way station before the apology, and b) the apology itself has become formulaic, always addressed to “anyone who may have been offended.”
The ubiquitous and seemingly harmless addendum about “anyone who may have been offended” is, at best, counterproductive. First, while the phrase usually comes at the end of the “apology,” blunting and qualifying what otherwise might simply be, “I’m sorry,” it actually indicates a limited, defined audience for the “apology.” Rather than allowing for a statement that could be simultaneously broader and more direct, this phrase shifts the attention and onus from the person who made the original statement to those people upset by the remark and whose sensibilities ostensibly necessitated the apologetic charade. This linguistic shift then draws negative attention to these supposedly overly sensitive people, who, it then will be said, must be members of the “P.C. police,” seeking nothing more than the suppression of free speech and the enforcement of antiquated moral values.
Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, the phrase renders the apologetic nature of the statement, because it refuses to acknowledge that even one person actually upset by the statement exists; at best, it is a conditional apology. A conditional apology is no apology at all, particularly where the apology’s recipients are not equally able to engage in dialogue with the apology’s issuer.
To remedy these deficiencies, in reverse order: 1) change “anyone” to “those” and “may have been” to “were,” so that the apology is addressed to “those who were offended” and the focus remains on the person apologizing, and 2) remove the phrase altogether. “I’m sorry for saying what I said” works just fine on its own.
Tyler Perry = Garrison Keillor—
(@CatoTN) July 28, 2013
If I had been spending less of my recent news-reading time on sports, I might’ve known the name of Charlie LeDuff, a newspaper journalist who won a Pulizer Prize as a staff writer with the New York Times and authored two other books before he decided to return to his native Detroit and take a job as a reporter for the Detroit News.
LeDuff’s latest book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, is a first-person tale that begins with his return to his home town and his start with the News. His core thesis is that the story of Detroit, with its glorious rise and massive collapse, is the story of America. Detroit’s rise may have been more glorious than many cities, and its collapse more massive than all of them, but it was a leader of a national trend on the way up, and, LeDuff believes, it’s a coal-mine canary for the rest of us on the way down.
While LeDuff’s basic premise is a rejection of Detroit exceptionalism, it is difficult to ignore how exceptionally bad conditions are in the Motor City.
Once the nation’s richest city, Detroit is now its poorest. It is the country’s illiteracy and dropout capital, where children must leave their books at school and bring toilet paper from home. It is the unemployment capital, where half the adult population does not work at a consistent job. There are firemen with no boots, cops with no cars, teachers with no pencils, city council members with telephones tapped by the FBI, and too many grandmothers with no tears left to give.
A newly hired autoworker will earn $14 an hour. This, adjusted for inflation, is three cents less than what Henry Ford was paying in 1914 when he announced the $5 day. And, of course, Ford isn’t hiring.
Charlie LeDuff, Detroit: An American Autopsy, 5-6 (The Penguin Press 2013). “Murder capital, arson capital, poverty capital, unemployment capital, illiteracy capital, foreclosure capital, segregation capital, mayoral scandal capital . . . .” Id. at 70.
There’s more: “Detroit has the ignominious distinction of being the only American city to have been occupied by the United States army three times.” Id. at 43. It’s also the only American city that has had a population of over one million people (1.9 million in the 1950s) and subsequently contracted to below one million (fewer than 700,000 today). Id. at 45. Today, there are enough vacant lots to hold a city the size of Manhattan and San Francisco combined. Id. at 5. A substantial proportion of Detroit’s buildings are vacant, 62,000 of which are homes. Id. at 53. That the city filed for bankruptcy protection last week is the least surprising data point of all.
This book is hardly all data and statistics, though. There is a reason LeDuff is an award-winning journalist: he is good at finding stories, and he is good at telling stories. The stories here are public and personal: political corruption, the deaths of family members, severely underfunded public safety departments, underemployed siblings, arson as popular entertainment, marriage problems, a frozen body in an abandoned building, professional problems, death, and ancestry.
LeDuff has the ability to tell deeply personal stories at a fast pace. The book moves along quickly, even as the stench of civic and human death– mixed with the humorous, the heartwarming, and the raw, to be sure– mounts. While I’m becoming convinced that the only worthy use of the word “gonzo” in the journalistic setting is as shorthand for “Hunter S. Thompson,” I also think LeDuff is the best we’ve got in that space anymore, minus the smack-induced imaginations and partisanship (cf. Charles Pierce), and plus some red wine and a bit more focus and organization. Even if LeDuff sounds a little extreme at times, his voice is authentic, and the extremity of the reality he’s sharing certainly warrants some extremity on his part.
(After initially thinking I was unfamiliar with LeDuff, I later realized I knew of him from such events as the first, and only, “I ♥ the D” Golf Invitational, in which he golfs the length of the city, telling the stories he encounters along the way. It makes for good video, which is what LeDuff is doing since leaving the News for a local network news affiliate. Much of his video reportage is available here.)
I want to write that Detroit is a must-read for everyone, but there’s a simpler concluding admonition: ignore this book at your own peril. It’s compelling, informative, and entertaining, and I’m not sure we can ask much more of literature, particularly of the nonfiction variety.
As the Supreme Court’s term winds down, the Court has begun releasing its opinions in some of the term’s more controversial cases. Yesterday, it issued its unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, in Assoc. for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 569 U.S. ___ (2013), in which it held that naturally occurring DNA is a product of nature and cannot be patented, but that synthetic DNA is patent eligible.
While the Court’s decision was unanimous, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote separately, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment of the Court’s opinion, to add the following:
I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its opinion except Part I-A and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology. I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief. It suffices for me to affirm, having studied the opinions below and the expert briefs presented here, that the portion of DNA isolated from its natural state sought to be patented is identical to that portion of the DNA in its natural state; and that complimentary DNA (cDNA) is a synthetic creation not normally present in nature.
Myriad Genetics, 569 U.S. at ___ (Scalia, J., concurring).
Part I-A of the Court’s opinion, which Scalia would not join, is an introductory section, which begins, “Genes form the basis for hereditary traits in living organisms.” Id. From there, it sets out, over the course of four paragraphs, some background facts about DNA and genetic science.
Many might consider Part I-A to be “high-school-level stuff,” leading to the Gawker headline, “Antonin Scalia Does Not Believe In Molecular Biology.” After all, he did write that he was “unable to affirm those details [contained in Part I-A] on my own knowledge or even my own belief.” But is that what he really meant?
The next sentence is telling: “It suffices for me to affirm, having studied the opinions below and the expert briefs presented here, that . . . .” The first clause, “It suffices for me to affirm,” evidences Scalia’s view that Part I-A is superfluous. “High-school-level stuff.” Not necessary to be included in the Court’s conclusion. Pointing out that the majority opinion contains some fluff does not seem like a reason to file a separate concurrence, however brief, though.
The second clause is more interesting: “. . . having studied the opinions below and the expert briefs presented here . . . .” It is that clause, I think, that illustrates the purpose of Scalia’s separate concurrence. His mission appears to be one of resisting the Court’s engaging in its own fact finding.
The general rule is that the determination of facts in a case is something that happens at trial; once a case goes up on appeal, there is no opportunity to introduce additional evidence. Further, and subject only to narrow exception, neither trial courts nor appellate courts should be conducting their own factual investigations or presenting evidence of their own determination in a case. What Scalia appears to be doing with his concurrence in Myriad Genetics is reminding the Court, sitting as an appellate court, that the material that it may consider in rendering its opinion generally is limited to “the opinions below and the expert briefs presented here.” The factual information contained in Part I-A of the majority opinion, however elementary, had not been previously introduced in the case (we can assume).
Scalia has made this same point as recently as the City of Arlington v. FCC case earlier this term. There, Scalia wrote the majority opinion. In the first footnote, after he introduced one of the parties, he wrote:
This is not a typographical error. CTIA–The Wireless Association was the name of the petitioner. CTIA is presumably an (unpronounceable) acronym, but even the organization’s website does not say what it stands for. That secret, known only to wireless-service-provider insiders, we will not disclose here.
City of Arlington, 569 U.S. ___, n. 1 (2013). Some called this footnote “really dumb” and “silly.” I think it is petty, but I also think it is getting at the same point he was pressing in his Myriad Genetics concurrence: the Court’s review of factual information pertinent to a case before it generally is limited to the information the parties present to it. The converse provides a basic lesson for litigants: be sure to present a court with all of the information it needs to reach a ruling.
Granted, neither Myriad Genetics nor City of Arlington raised an issue of judicial factfinding that affected the merits of those cases. Perhaps Scalia simply saw a safe opportunity to make a point of technical judicial minutiae. Perhaps he simply was being a stick in the mud. Both possibilities seem equally likely. A third possibility, suggested by a comment on the Gawker post, is that Scalia’s Myriad Genetics concurrence was an exercise in humility, “a confession that there are some things ol’ Antonin just doesn’t know.” To say the least, such a confession would seem out of character for Scalia.
The decline of traditional journalistic media is well documented. In recent years, newspapers like the Ann Arbor News and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News have shuttered their doors. In order to survive, some papers, such as Detroit’s Free Press and News, have merged to varying degrees. Other regional papers, like the Tennessean, are shells of journalistic operations, mere AP repeaters after laying off batches of reporters. Some national papers– including the Wall Street Journal and New York Times– have gone to paid online platforms.
We have been told that the internet would be able to replace traditional print media, but experience suggests we have yet to realize that future. Web-based writers largely are concerned with reactions and opinions, and actual reportage appears have to decreased across the board, with foreign and local beats particularly suffering.
One outlet, Grand Rapids’ The Rapidian, is advancing the news media banner in the twenty-first century, though, and it is doing so through a hyperlocal, citizen-driven approach. The idea is to have a community’s members conduct actual reporting and create original content tied to the issues affecting that community and the happenings within it. The online-only newspaper seeks to capture the diversity of happenings and perspectives across the community’s varying neighborhoods– indeed, The Rapidian organizes content both by subject area and place-rooted bureaus– in a rigorous manner by providing training from experienced journalists and writers. This journalistic training, in turn, deepens residents’ connections to their community by providing them with tools to become more engaged community members.
It is easy to see why Grand Rapidians would want to support The Rapidian, a deeply engaged news source that is growing and developing along with a revitalized city that is doing the same thing, particularly when the city’s familiar news source, The Grand Rapids Press, is doing the opposite. (To its credit, MLive, the media group that now operates what remains of The Press and a number of other, formerly independent Michigan newspapers, has been a public, financial supporter of The Rapidian.)
It also should be easy to see why those who do not live in Grand Rapids nevertheless should want to support The Rapidian. Few communities currently have a dynamic, locally focused outlet like The Rapidian, but many, I suspect, would like and benefit from one of their own. The long-term solution, of course, is for members of these communities to create their own hyperlocal news source. (Anyone involved* with The Rapidian certainly would emphasize the “long-term” nature of that solution, I suspect.) The short-term solution is for members of these communities to support The Rapidian. The Rapidian is a national leader in this concept and a possible model for hyperlocal news media in other communities, and as such, its continued success makes it more likely that communities outside Grand Rapids will be able to follow its lead and develop their own versions. Thus, no matter where you live, if you have an interest in participatory locally focused news and media that works in the twenty-first century, you have an interest in supporting The Rapidian. You can do so here today.
* Disclosure: I am a former member of the board of directors of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, the umbrella media organization that serves the city through numerous channels, and of which The Rapidian is a part.