James Taranto performed an invaluable service from his Opinion Journal "Best of the Web" perch this week, revealing New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a notorious liberal crusader on various fronts, to be perhaps the most gullible of the paper's many liberal writers. (He's also suggested Mao Tse-Tung and Saddam Hussein weren't that bad.)
Taranto teed up Kristof with this example of corruption of the peer-review process in scientific research:
In 2002 and 2010, papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claimed that a pesticide called atrazine was causing sex changes in frogs. As a result the Environmental Protection Agency set up special panels to re-examine the product's safety. Both papers had the same editor, David Wake of the University of California, Berkeley, who is a colleague of the papers' lead author, Tyrone Hayes, also of Berkeley.
In keeping with National Academy of Sciences policy, Prof. Hayes preselected Prof. Wake as his editor. Both studies were published without a review of the data used to reach the finding. No one has been able to reproduce the results of either paper, including the EPA.... As the agency investigated, it couldn't even use those papers about atrazine's alleged effects because the research they were based on didn't meet the criteria for legitimate scientific work. The authors refused to hand over data that led them to their claimed results--which meant no one could run the same computer program and match their results.
Taranto remembered that a certain Times columnist had taken up the same report with certitude.
That sounded familiar. In a May 2012 column, the New York Times's Nicholas Kristof had written: "A widely used herbicide acts as a female hormone and feminizes male animals in the wild. Thus male frogs can have female organs, and some male fish actually produce eggs."
After pointing out "Kristof has done a good deal of worthwhile reporting on Third World human-rights abuses," Taranto added: "But there, too, he has sometimes proved to be gullible." He cited a Slate report showing that Kristof's reporting on sex slavery in Cambodia relied heavily on activists Somaly Mam and her protégé Long Pross. Pross claimed to have been kidnapped and tortured and sold to a brothel at the age of 13, where she had her right eye gouged out. But this summer Newsweek revealed that the worst parts of Pross's story had been fabricated – for one, she had actually lost the eye after undergoing surgery for a tumor.
Taranto wasn't done:
Similarly, in an April 2011 column Kristof had to distance himself from the work of Greg Mortenson, who runs a charity called the Central Asia Institute and whose memoir, "Three Cups of Tea," described his work building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mortenson had just been the subject of a "60 Minutes" exposé, as Kristof wrote:
Greg is accused of many offenses: misstating how he got started building schools; lying about a dramatic kidnapping; exaggerating how many schools he has built and operates; and using his charity, the Central Asia Institute, "as his personal A.T.M." The attorney general of Montana, where his charity is based, has opened an inquiry into the allegations.
Kristof withheld judgment at the time:
I don't know what to make of these accusations. Part of me wishes that all this journalistic energy had been directed instead to ferret out abuses by politicians who allocate government resources to campaign donors rather than to the neediest among us, but that's not a real answer. The critics have raised serious questions that deserve better answers: we need to hold school-builders accountable as well as fat cats.
Taranto found that acknowledgement revealing:
The conclusion is right, but Kristof's wish is revealing. Moral crusaders are especially vulnerable to confirmation bias, the tendency to be insufficiently rigorous about testing information that bolsters their preconceptions.
Taranto quoted Wall Street Journal op-ed author Hank Campbell in support of that thesis:
Absent rigorous peer review, we get the paper published in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Titled "Female hurricanes are deadlier than male hurricanes," it concluded that hurricanes with female names cause more deaths than male-named hurricanes--ostensibly because implicit sexism makes people take the storms with a woman's name less seriously. The work was debunked once its methods were examined, but not before it got attention nationwide.
Then Taranto delivered the coup de grace:
Among those who gave it uncritical attention was Nicholas Kristof, in his June 12 column.
A few more Kristof embarrassments, courtesy of the MRC's TimesWatch archive. Michelle Malkin ripped apart a Kristof column from December 2009, "Are We Going to Let John Die?," a remorseless tear-jerker that used a tragic health-care story to guilt-trip wavering Democrats into supporting Obama-care.
The short answer to Kristof's headline question? No.
Kristof explained that John Brodniak, a sawmill worker in Oregon, has hemangioma (an abnormal growth of blood vessels, causing spasms, memory loss, and painful headaches) but can't get treatment for it in Oregon.
Malkin lambasted Kristof for manipulative emotionalism, then did something Kristof apparently didn't -- made a phone call and found that Brodniak was in fact getting care. Malkin's withering response:
In other words, at the time Kristof's article was published this past Sunday, Brodniak was already being treated and cared for by some of the best neurologists in the country!....Brodniak, a man who already has government health insurance and is already being treated for his illness, is the New York Times's poster boy for why we need a new, massive nationalized health care system in order to cover and treat more people like Brodniak...who is already covered and being treated."
Perhaps most revolting was this October 2005 book review by Kristof of a biography of Chairman Mao, one of the most prolific killers of all time: "...my own sense is that Mao, however monstrous, also brought useful changes to China. And at times the authors seem so eager to destroy him that I wonder if they exclude exculpatory evidence....But Mao's legacy is not all bad. Land reform in China, like the land reform in Japan and Taiwan, helped lay the groundwork for prosperity today. The emancipation of women and end of child marriages moved China from one of the worst places in the world to be a girl to one where women have more equality than in, say, Japan or Korea...."
Tom Blumer pointed out on NewsBusters: "Thanks to China's one-child policy, 30-40 million more girls than boys have been aborted. And Nick Kristof has the gall to favorably comment on the status of women in China?"
And in July 2003, Kristof defended his opposition to invading Iraq (while advocating an invasion of Liberia) by suggesting Saddam Hussein wasn't that bad for a bad guy: "...Liberia presents a much more compelling case for intervention. The difference is not that Saddam slaughtered at most 1 percent of his population over the last 14 years, while Liberian warfare has killed more than 6 percent of its population so far." So a quarter-million body death toll for Saddam equals "at most" in Kristof's warped mindset.