Monday, May 21, 2007

Get the Facts!

I read a story by reporter Kim Barker in the Chicago Tribune yesterday. It started with an anecdote about a deployed Soldier going through a divorce during the four-month extension on his original one-year deployment. The implication, of course, is that the extension CAUSED the divorce, but that is not specifically stated. The article continues by mentioning three other pending divorces and various other “family” problems the Soldiers in his unit are experiencing.

The article goes on to discuss the reason for longer deployments, and asserts that these extensions will hurt Army retention and recruitment, possibly even leaving the all-volunteer Army “permanently damaged.” As evidence, it includes a mention of a Pentagon survey of over 1700 Soldiers and Marines: “A survey…said longer combat deployments could hurt troops' morale and mental health.”

That may all be true. Extended deployments may be causing broken families, reduced retention, problems in recruiting, lower morale, reduced Army effectiveness, and maybe even loss of hair and poor taste in neckties. I AM sure, however, that this so-called “news story” doesn’t provide any useful information to back up the hints, assertions, and innuendo.

For starters, a survey of troops is capturing their opinion on the subject. Unless the respondents were all military psychologists, psychiatrists, and chaplains, then their untrained, uninformed opinions are pretty much meaningless. I haven’t seen the wording of the actual questions the troops answered…but from the brief mention, it sounds much like asking 1700 United Auto Workers “Would increasing the work day to nine hours with no extra pay damage morale in your workplace?” Why don’t we have the numbers on USEFUL questions?

  • What is the divorce rate within the Army and Marine Corps now, as compared to seven years ago?
  • What is the military divorce rate as compared to the nation as a whole, both now and pre-9/11?
  • What is the military divorce rate compared to the divorce rate of other high-stress jobs, like air-traffic controller or police officer? Or compared to other jobs that involve family separation, like traveling salesman or long-haul truck driver? Again, both now and seven years ago?
  • What is the military divorce rate within six months before and after a deployment, as compared to within six months of a one-year unaccompanied assignment to Korea?
  • What is the Army-wide retention rate, then and now? How many troops are choosing to stay in? How many are reenlisting within a year or two after getting out?

Those would all be useful statistics in determining the damage that long deployments are doing to the force, and I suspect that all of them are available to a hard-working and moderately intelligent news reporter. They might even support the tone and implications of this editorial-masked-as-journalism – though my recollection of statistics in other reports doesn’t quite match up with that. But with no truly useful information, this story is a waste of newsprint or electrons.

I brought up this issue not to criticize Ms. Barker. Her news story seems to me to be fairly typical of journalism today – a heavy emphasis on anecdotes and emotional appeals, while minimalizing hard facts. Fortunately, I’ve found several resources that encourage critical thinking.

  • is the best resource I know to combat “I’ve heard…,” “They say…,” and “Everybody knows…” Mr. and Mrs. Mikkelson research rumors on nearly any subject, especially those that deluge your e-mail inbox. They depend on and link you to multiple and reliable sources to confirm or deny the truth behind the rumors – and when they can do neither, they tell you their best opinion, clearly identifying it as such.
  • Mythbusters is an extraordinarily entertaining TV show. Adam and Jamie are remarkably good at portraying themselves as overgrown kids with truly wonderful toys, up to and including a cement mixer full of explosives. But behind the explosions and laughs, they clearly demonstrate the key steps of the scientific method – propose a hypothesis, develop an experiment to test it, and keep an open mind about the results. They have debunked a lot of what “everyone knows,” and surprised themselves with things they were certain would never work. And besides, they usually manage to destroy something in a spectacular manner by the end of the show.
  • The Skeptics Society has a variety of publications – the two I’m most familiar with are the Skepticality podcast and the Skeptic e-newsletter. I’m a little behind on the podcast…I started with their archived episodes, and have only gotten as far as August 2005. At any rate, both of them include interviews, news items, book reviews, and other tidbits, with people such as Adam Savage (Mythbusters), James Randi (The Amazing Randi, debunker of psychics), and Michael Shermer (author of Why People Believe Weird Things and The Science of Good and Evil). They tend to focus on atheism/agnosticism vs. religion and spirituality, especially in areas like the Intelligent Design/Evolution debate, and “psychic phenomena.” So far, their underlying attitude is a bit too self-righteous and self-congratulatory for my taste, but the information and arguments they provide more than makes up for it.
  • NPR provides another useful podcast – Science Friday. These are recordings of the weekly radio show, presenting science news and headlines. The host, Ira Flatow, frequently brings in guests with differing viewpoints, providing a genteel debate that often serves to bring out more truth than a newsreader could manage alone. He also takes calls from surprisingly intellectual and well-informed listeners with often insightful questions – I assume the callers are well-screened, but the screening process does not appear to filter out reasoned disagreement.
  • Scott Adams writes The Dilbert Blog. It may not truly belong on this list, as I find some of his writings to have more certainty than the evidence supports. But he frequently comes up with brilliantly bizarre looks at current events that can make you think about them much harder than you normally might. He often proposes solutions to “unsolvable” problems (like the Middle East) that initially draw a dismissive laugh…but then cause you to struggle to find the flaw that makes them unworkable. Reading the “comments” sections will also show you dozens of examples of fuzzy thinking. Plus, of course, he’s frequently funny.
  • – This site, more than any other, inspired this blog entry. Affiliated with George Mason University, the Statistical Assessment Service analyzes news stories to identify bad science, misleading statistics, poor research, and deliberate misinformation. Reading the articles on the site has made me much more suspicious about the articles I read elsewhere…and that suspicion and skepticism enables me to more easily spot the missing facts. That, in my opinion, is a key skill for any would-be informed citizen.

As Robert Heinlein said in “Time Enough For Love” - “What are the facts? Again and again and again--what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what "the stars foretell," avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable "verdict of history"--what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!"

Even if the journalists won’t give them to you.

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