Unacceptable: NYT's 'Correction' to Op-ed Writer's Incurably False 'Wall Street Psychopaths' Op-Ed

The New York Times apparently wants us to believe that it has done its journalistic duty by issuing a "correction," the text of which will follow the jump, to an especially odious May 12 op-ed ("Fables of Wealth") written by William Deresiewicz.

The author, who describes himself as "An essayist, critic and the author of 'A Jane Austen Education,'" originally claimed, as quoted at the Media Research Center's TimesWatch, that "A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are 'clinical psychopaths' ... (The proportion at large is 1 percent.)." Uh, not exactly (bolds are mine throughout this post):


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 20, 2012

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.

As the "correction" notes, the op-ed is still there. Two points: 1) It shouldn't be, and 2) The Times appears not to regret publishing an egregiously dishonest item.

The op-ed shouldn't still be there because its linchpin is a study of "corporate professionals," not of "people who work on Wall Street." As John Grohol at Psych Central (HT to John Hinderaker at Powerline) has noted, Deresiewicz almost definitely failed to take even the most basic steps to verify what (in my view) he must have seen as too good to check. Also note a quite salient but overlooked characteristic of the 203 "professionals":

... many journalists and reporters nowadays just rely on professionals to make a claim, and don’t ever challenge or bother to verify the claim. I’m not sure why this is, but it seems to be the new defacto standard.

But this claim — a 1000 percent increase in a specific population — should’ve raised red flags everywhere. Such a huge discrepancy should be easy to verify in the scientific literature, since it screams, “This is an important finding!”

Hare did indeed co-author a paper that examined “corporate psychopathy,” with colleagues Paul Babiak and Craig Neumann (2010). It did not look at the financial services industry specifically. The research used a sample that consisted of 203 corporate professionals from 7 different companies, selected by their companies to participate in management development programs from all areas of industry.

Holy moly, these people were in "management development programs," and weren't really in charge of anything yet!

How in the world do you start with a study showing that 4% of a narrow group of 203 management development trainees might be psychopaths, turn them all into financial services professionals, transform all of them into "those who work on Wall Street," and increase the psychopathic frequency from 4% to 10%?

The 203 people involved didn't even represent a mixture of "corporate professionals"; there were all of one specific type. What's more, another claim Deresiewicz linked -- that "Another study concluded that the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and break the law" -- goes to a page which doesn't describe the extent of the differences in each area. A "Supporting Information" page relating to the study appears to indicate that its sample sizes were also quite small.

The bottom line is that Deresiewicz based his screed on nothing of substance while pretending that he was loaded with it. The "correction" at the Times doesn't even begin to address those matters, which really indicates that the op-ed is incurable, and that it should have been taken down as soon as its incurability was recognized.

The Times's total lack of expressed regret is especially reprehensible. Even if Deresiewicz's dreck gets taken down at this late date, serious damage to rational public discussion has already been done, as TimesWatch's Clay Waters noted:

As of Monday afternoon it was the paper's second-most read and e-mailed story (behind a more substantive Times magazine cover story on diagnosing children as psychopaths), as liberal readers ironically used tools honed and perfected by capitalists to spread a tale -- published by a capitalist organization, the New York Times Company, with revenues of $2.3 billion in 2011 -- of the utter wickedness of capitalists.

So untold hordes of readers and email recipients now believe a lie, thanks to William Deresiewicz and the Times, which knows it's a lie and doesn't seem the least bit sorry about having spread it. It's reasonable to wonder if they aren't actually quite pleased with themselves.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.


Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.