UPDATE: The public editor of The New York Times has responded to this post. Here's the link.
When something in the paper is wrong, The New York Times is supposed to correct it. Sometimes it is so eager to do so that its corrections border on the trivial. When an article in the Nov. 13 issue of the Times Magazine on rubber duckies referred to the Seiberling Rubber Company, the paper was careful to note, in last Sunday's magazine, that it should have been the Seiberling Latex Products Company. (The correction is also appended to the story online.)
Read on for a different example--egregious errors in a Times story, a highly unusual letter signed by 45 neuroscientists, and an inexplicable response from the Times.
Martin Lindstrom, who calls himself a branding consultant, wrote in an Oct. 1 op-ed that he did an experiment to "find out whether iPhones were really, truly addictive, no less so than alcohol, cocaine, shopping or video games." That's a tall order. He enlisted the help of a marketing company (red flag No. 1), and slid eight men and eight women (red flag No. 2--too few patients) into an fMRI scanner. They were exposed to audio and video of a ringing and vibrating iPhone (red flag No. 3--is he testing addiction to the phone, or the ring?). And he found all kinds of changes in the subjects' brains, including in the insular cortex. Red flag No. 4--and now I'm going to stop counting--this seemed not to be a very specific response.
Most science writers would see this as the flaky "science" that it is. But not the Times, even when people smarter than I pointed it out. Indeed, 45 neuroscientists, led by Russell Poldrack of the University of Texas, signed a letter to the Times saying, among other things, that "the kind of reasoning that Mr. Lindstrom uses is well known to be flawed, because there is rarely a one-to-one mapping between any brain region and a single mental state; insular cortex activity could reflect one or more of several psychological processes...
"We find it surprising that The Times would publish claims like this that lack scientific validity."
So do I. (And so does Neuron Culture blogger David Dobbs, who was much quicker to note this than I was.)
So how did the Times react to this unusual letter? It didn't. Nothing. It published only one of the authors' names, and linked to a website where the full list could be found. One can conclude that the Times is not concerned about publishing inaccurate reports; otherwise it would have responded with an editor's note or appended a correction to the op-ed.
Poldrack did a similar thing a few years ago, enlisting colleagues to sign a letter objecting to a Times op-ed on using brain scanners to draw conclusions about American voters. He's apparently some kind of troublemaker. (And we need more or those.)
Oh, and how did the Times respond to that earlier letter?
- Paul Raeburn
(Thanks to Hannah Waters, whose nice post on the evolution of grief led me back to this example.)