Two New York Times stories questioned after central numbers don’t add up


by Craig Silverman

Two recent New York Times articles included significant numerical errors that elicited howls of protest from readers and critics.

In each case, the wrong number was core to the story’s central thesis, leading some to suggest the entire article should have been retracted or completely altered.

Both mistakes highlight how mistaken numbers, once revealed, can become the story, rather than the article itself.

First error: Wall Street psychopaths

On May 12, the Times published an opinion article, “Capitalists and Other Psychopaths,” that stated, “A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are ‘clinical psychopaths’ and that they exhibit an ‘unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.’ ”

In the Daily Beast, Edward Jay Epstein tracked the origin of the claim to a report in The Week about the work of Canadian forensic psychologist Robert Hare. That piece had based its report on an article in CFA Magazine.

A game of telephone fools the Times” read the headline on a Columbia Journalism Review piece about the error. Sounds about right. Ryan Chittum added more detail:

In other words, the Times’s false information was sourced from The Week, which sourced it, via aggregated posts at master aggregators Business Insider and Huffington Post, from CFA Institutemagazine which sourced it, erroneously, from “Studies conducted by Canadian forensic psychologist Robert Hare.”

Even worse, he noted, the 10 percent figure had been called out as fake two months prior to the Times piece.

“The problem here is that Hare never conducted a clinical study of the financial-service industry, and never presented evidence that 10 percent of its members were psychopaths,” Epstein wrote.

Yet this phantom number spread like wildfire, ending up in a very prominent place in a Times opinion piece.

The Times responded with a correction:

An opinion essay on May 13 about ethics and capitalism misstated the findings of a 2010 study on psychopathy in corporations. The study found that 4 percent of a sample of 203 corporate professionals met a clinical threshold for being described as psychopaths, not that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are clinical psychopaths. In addition, the study, in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, was not based on a representative sample; the authors of the study say that the 4 percent figure cannot be generalized to the larger population of corporate managers and executives.

There’s a lot of detail — meaning big things being corrected — in the above.

First, obviously, 10 percent shrinks to four percent. Very notable.

But that new number comes with a major hedge. The correction explains that this weak four percent stat isn’t even specific to Wall Street workers. These are general “corporate professionals.” The Wall Street angle is no longer accurate.

In his piece about the error, Epstein quotes Ryan Holiday, author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator,” as saying, “Headline-grabbing trend manufacturing such as this now dominates the pseudo-news cycle on the Web.”

That’s one take. Another is that this mistake, and its path to the Times op-ed, shows the way a claim, once published in one media outlet, can replicate itself in other reports. It also shows why relying on other media outlets for the purposes of sourcing and fact checking can be a risky proposition.

In the end, the result is an op-ed that at the very least lost one major data point in its argument. What remains is a viewpoint without a compelling stat to back it up. Does that negate the opinion? Or just make make it less persuasive?

Second error: Student debt

Also on May 12, the Times published a long story about student debt in America. It was part of special series, and it too included a significant numerical error. Here’s the correction:

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