Monday, May 15, 2006

Errors of fact

I just got back from having dinner with my mother and my sister at a local Perkins restaurant. In the booth next to us four young adults argued good-naturedly amongst themselves about whether there are fifty-one or fifty-two states in the United States. Some of my friends will be pleased to know that I demonstrated remarkable restraint, held my tongue, and did not turn around and provide them with the correct answer. Others will be horrified to know that I let this group leave the restaurant believing that there are fifty-one states, with Puerto Rico slated to become the fifty-second. (The correct answer, as of this writing, is that there are only fifty states in the U.S.)

Random groups of twentysomethings I will let off the hook - their ignorance and misinformation will only lead to a slow decline and collapse of Western civilization. On the other hand, professors from Georgetown (a well-respected Jesuit university) who insist on making fools of themselves in public will get no such breaks from me.

I saw a "Comment and analysis" piece in the latest issue of New Scientist by Francis Slakey called "How to kick the habit". (This is a restricted-access article, so non-subscribers will only be able to access the first few paragraphs. Fortunately, someone has thoughtfully plagiarized the entire article - complete with errors - here.) According to the mini-bio at the end of the piece, "Francis Slakey is the Upjohn lecturer in physics and biology and co-director of the Program on Science in the Public Interest at Georgetown University, Washington DC." With credentials like that, any errors of fact incur my full wrath. And so I did something I have only ever done once before* - I wrote a letter to the editor of New Scientist:

I must note a few glaring errors made by Francis Slakey in his Comment and Analysis piece "How to kick the habit" ( New Scientist, 13 May 2006, page 21.) He states that Jimmy Carter "endorsed a 55 mph limit when upheaval in the Middle East led to a crisis in the 1970s." This may be technically true in the same sense that Jimmy Carter also endorsed a myriad of other already-existing laws and policies - since the national 55 mph highway speed limit was signed into law by Richard M. Nixon, who was President two places before Carter.

He goes on to say "The public groaned, and then kicked him out of office, along with the policy." While the first part of this statement is true, if overly simplistic, Carter served a full term in office. His unsuccessful re-election bid was the result a combination of factors unrelated to the national speed limit, including the ongoing Iranian hostage situation and an aggressive campaign by the charismatic Ronald Reagan. The national speed limit of 55 mph remained solidly in place for until 1986**, five years after Jimmy Carter left office, and remains in effect to this day on much of the U.S. highway system.
Slakey makes yet another error of historical fact: "President Carter achieved this in 1975 by passing a law..." This would have been difficult for President Carter to do in 1975, considering that he was not elected President until November 1976 and was not sworn in until January 1977. And to be pedantic about it, U.S. Presidents do not pass laws. That is the role of Congress.

For any academician to be so sloppy about the easily-verifiable facts of U.S. history is shameful. For these mistakes to be made by a Georgetown professor and co-director of the Program on Science in the Public Interest is even worse. Sadly, such errors only serve to undermine the credibility of his arguments.

Yeah. That'll show him. Better check your facts next time, buster. You've been warned.

*The only time I ever did this before was last week. So I may be turning into a letter-to-the-editor-of-New Scientist-writing crank.

**Sheesh. I wish I had proofread this better.


Betz said...

I am very proud of the restraint you showed when you did not correct the peeps in Perkins, erm, I wish you would do the same with me. LOL!
Also, I have yet another question from Ricky. "Is Mexico one of the States" (I believe the answer is no, but did not want to steer him wrong)

Anonymous said...

51 or 52 states? Well, there are 57 varieties of Heinz ketchup, right? So there have to be 57 states.

What you missed is they are referring to states of being. And while there are 50 political states, northern New Jersey and Southern New Jersey constitute different states of being, and ... oh never mind.

I despair for the future. I don't suppose you'd have asked them to check the flag and count the stars.

BTW, I really liked your letter about the G-Town professor.

What is often ignored in our partisan bickering is that Carter was merely following an economic system that both parties bought into wholeheartedly -- a modified form of Keynesian (sp?) economics.

While "history's greatest monster" may have had his faults, he was indeed not responsible for anything that happened in 1975 or really 1976.

BTW, the 55 MPH speed limit used to be my big cause. I was in Congressman Jim Howard's district> Rep. Howard is the dickhead who suggested making the 55 MPH permanent after the 1973 oil crisis was resolved. (that is, Nixon wanted a temp speed limit, Howard put forward the bill to make it permanent, and it passed, and millions of people suffered.

Once I got a call at home from Howard's re-election campaign.

"Would you support Rep. Howard?"

"Is he the congressman with the 55 MPH speed limit thing?"

"Yes, Congressman ..."

"Forget it. I wouldn't vote for him over Stalin." [Slam!]

Bill at industrialblog