March 27, 2008

Another case study in irresponsible journalism

I'm putting this in a separate post, because it's too important to potentially get lost in the lengthy posts soon to follow. There is at least one more blatant howler in Jessica McBride's latest effort to justify her own falsehoods along with those of her partners in prevarication, the Coalition for America's Families.

But this time it's not just comical, it's pretty serious, and even I am not laughing. Recoiling in horror is the more appropriate reaction.

Apparently McBride has divided up the cases in which Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler participated according to calendar year, and has produced a set of colorful bar graphs. Who knows what the lengths of the bars are based on — she doesn't even come close to explaining how she analyzed each case, apart from muttering something about her "judgment calls," a frightening enough proposition in and of itself.

McBride contends she's spotted a downward trend in Butler's 'pro-criminality' that she noticed for 2007, as Butler's 2008 retention election became imminent.

I'm not sure that real statisticians would dare to identify as a trend in a sample of four where one of the samples is at minor variance with the other three, least of all where there exists little, if any, meaningful explanation as to how the raw figures informing the graphs were evaluated apart from McBride's own "judgment calls."

But we're talking about Jessica McBride here, not a statistician. Nevertheless, and based apparently upon her keenly independent and objective analytical powers, McBride alleges that Butler adjusted his approach to cases before the court with a view to his upcoming run to retain his seat on the bench:
Interestingly, Butler has become less inclined to side with criminal defendants' interests in 2007 to present, seemingly remaking himself for his campaign.
It's a pretty serious charge to make against a judge, and it may even be actionable. The clear inference is that Justice Butler deliberately deferred to his own personal and political ambitions in order to reach dispositions in cases before the Supreme Court.

Not personal and political ambitions exercised to reach the court, personal and political ambitions exercised while on the court, and while deciding cases between parties. Those are crucial distinctions, to which McBride should have allowed considerably more reflection before publishing.

No doubt the unsuccessful parties in the cases underlying that allegation would be most interested to get their hands on McBride's information.

Let me say it again: McBride's is an extremely serious charge to level against a sitting Justice of the State Supreme Court, and it may well even be actionable.

Fortunately for McBride, while the charge is serious, and almost unspeakably irresponsible without any proof of it — to put it mildly — it's absolutely impossible to take McBride seriously, although it's unclear whether that is an effective defense against a defamation action. Unless McBride's blog is parody, which is entirely possible.

A bit further along, immediately before the 2007 bar chart, McBride hoots:
And then, immediately after the chart,
(Note: You're reading it right. The court as a whole got less pro criminal)
Got that? Right after essentially accusing Justice Butler of some fairly profound professional and judicial impropriety, she apparently acknowledges that the same "trend" affected the entire court.

It's hard to believe, it truly is.

Perhaps someday somebody can explain to me why anyone in their right mind takes this person's "journalism" at face value, let alone trumpeting it uncritically in a major metropolitan daily newspaper and linked to by any self-respecting "blogger" for reasons other than perversely comic entertainment.

And did McBride the pretend statistician factor her conclusions to correct for Butler's declining inclination toward 'pro-criminality'?

Unlikely. What a complete and utter farce.


William Tyroler said...

McBride alleges that Butler adjusted his approach to cases before the court with a view to his upcoming run to retain his seat on the bench

I realize iT demolishes McBride's predetermined conclusion, but we might also wonder where she came up with the very notion. I don't myself claim to know, but it's at least plausible the idea germinated in a comment posted by Rick Esenberg at Mike Plaisted's blog:

... If you really wanted to do a public service, you could compare it to the percentages of other justices ands see how it changes as a justice approaches relection. (One of our former profs at MULS showed that justices vote less frequently with defendants just prior to having to stand for reelection.)

Whatever the origin of the idea, McBride now stands revealed as a partisan hack.

illusory tenant said...

I remember it well.