Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The inanity of the New York Times

I don't usually comment on sports, and I can't say I very much care whether Roger Clemens has or has not used steroids, but this article by Katie Thomas in today's New York Time, "Nonverbal Actions Add to Clemens's Story", is really something special:
From his parched, pursed lips to the jut of his shoulders, Roger Clemens was holding something back, three body-language analysts who watched him over the past two days said Monday.

“There’s more to the story,” said Janine Driver, a body-language consultant who trains law enforcement officers in truth detection. “There are several probing points that lead me to believe that he’s not going to be completely truthful.”

Now first off, can you imagine the Times asking "body-language consultants" to analyze a speech by Dick Cheney or George W. Bush? Or to analyze Colin Powell's infamous presentation to the United Nations on the eve of the Iraq war? (As a side note, the White House website that hosts the transcript of Powell's speech -- which has since been thoroughly debunked-- has for a headline "Iraq: Denial and Deception". No comment necessary.)
The answer is, "of course not." An establishment newspaper like the Times, which itself was extremely influential in building public support for the war in Iraq, would never think to critique the body language of a member of the political establishment like they would a Major League Baseball player. Clemens, who certainly isn't the most sympathetic of characters, is a safe target for the Times' choice of analysis, while a respected figure like Colin Powell is not.

But there's also another reason why the "paper of record" would never apply the type of "analysis" they put Clemens through to a member of the political establishment, as the Times reveals later in the story:
In the “60 Minutes” interview, for example, the analysts noticed that Clemens swallowed hard, looked down, and licked and pursed his lips when answering questions — all signs, they said, that he might not have been telling the truth. “That’s indicative of deception, that’s indicative of stress,” said Joe Navarro, a retired F.B.I. agent who trains intelligence officers and employees for banks and insurance companies. Navarro has also written a book about how to tell whether someone is bluffing in poker.

Nevertheless, Navarro warned against concluding that Clemens was lying. Even the most skilled body-language experts are right in only about half of all cases, he said, and investigators often study body language to decide when to dig deeper. It is not evidence that someone has committed wrongdoing; Clemens might have been showing stress from defending against potentially career-killing allegations. “He clearly shows signs of distress, but we don’t know why he’s being distressed,” Navarro said. [emphasis mine]

In other words, body-language analysis is more or less a fraud. Any type of analysis that is only right in "about half of all cases" is no better than mere intuition (though the CIA may still be jealous of that success rate). Nevertheless, it's perfectly acceptable to apply said analysis to someone like Roger Clemens, who most people view as being "guilty" of having used steroids. Applying it to President Bush or Condoleeza Rice? Not so much.

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