Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

The best of the week’s news by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Mistakes in Scientific Studies Surge

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported a shocking statistic about scientific research. The number of published studies is up 44% since 2001, but the rate of retractions increased fifteen-fold during the same period.

Reporter Gautam Naik writes:

Just 22 retraction notices appeared in 2001, but 139 in 2006 and 339 last year. Through seven months of this year, there have been 210, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science, an index of 11,600 peer-reviewed journals world-wide.

In a sign of the times, a blog called “Retraction Watch” has popped up to monitor the flow.

Science is based on trust, and most researchers accept findings published in peer-reviewed journals. The studies spur others to embark on related avenues of research, so if one paper is later found to be tainted, an entire edifice of work comes into doubt. Millions of dollars’ worth of private and government funding may go to waste, and, in the case of medical science, patients can be put at risk.

A seemingly impressive study can influence how doctors treat their patients, where investors put their money, and what scientists decide to study next. Naik shows how a shoddy or fradulent study can have consequences that reverberate far beyond the ivory tower.

Citizen Journalists Capture Rage of London Riots

By Tom Watson

The violent riots in areas of London and other cities in the UK have rightly shocked observers because they are so widespread and, seemingly, sprang from nowhere. And while some news organizations have noted (and perhaps overplayed) the role of mobile technology and social media by gangs of rioters to call out their numbers and assemble in certain locations, I think the use of networks in reporting on the spread of violence and destruction is actually more interesting.

The riots are the perfect laboratory for semi-pro and citizen reporters. They spring up quickly in widely dispersed areas (including other cities like Liverpool and Manchester), offer strong images of fast-moving violence, and - quite frankly - stretch beyond the abilities of professional news organizations to cover. In some ways, following mobile pics uploaded to or twitpic brings you a much deeper, more accurate view of these roving gangs than, say, the coverage on the BBC.

Consider some of the excellent “riot maps” that sprung up, usually laid over Google maps and providing an up-to-minute view of where violent incidents were taking place around London. James Cridland, who runs, a free media resource, put together a working riot map that quickly gained international attention.…

Another map created tags based on tweets that carried both a UK postal code and the #londonriots hashtag.

And social media “location” startup quickly created a searchable riot map of London.

At, Cridland wrote a thoughtful post on what he’d learned about the reliability of fast-breaking news sources as a “citizen journalist” chronicling the riots. Some lessons: news media aren’t always reliable … but neither are myriad Twitter reports. Checking sources matters, and doubling back to correct errors remains a news-gathering basic.

To me, the smartest outlets in Britain used the knowledge they’ve gathered over the past few years about social media to take advantage of citizen reporting when the riots broke. The Guardian, for example, regularly reported via Twitter and amplified posts and pictures there. And NPR’s Andy Carvin, who has become a cyber-celebrity in the news biz for his incisive “anchorman” role on Twitter in places of conflict, again provided high-level curation and aggregation on the micro-blogging platform.

Perhaps most heartening was the lightning-quick organizing of Londoners using social media around cleaning up after the riots - using both the #riotcleanup tag, Facebook, and the @RiotCleanup Twitter page.

As the organizers posted: “This is not about the riots. This is about the clean up - Londoners who care, coming together to engender a sense of community.”

So Close Yet So Far: Wisconsin Democrats Shatter Recall Record But Fail to Retake the State Senate

Democratic hopes of retaking the Wisconsin State Senate were dashed in Tuesday’s recall election. The Democrats, backed by organized labor, successfully recalled two Republican senators but failed to unseat four others. In order to retake the Senate, Democrats would have had to win three recalls yesterday and save two Democratic senators from recall next week.

Historically speaking, two recalls in one day is unprecedented. Only 13 U.S. state legislators have ever been recalled and voters have never recalled more than two representatives in a single year. On Tuesday, Wisconsin voters recalled as many legislators in one day as they’d recalled in last 80 years.

Most recall races are strictly local affairs, but the recall fight in Wisconsin was a counterattack against a state-level agenda, an agenda that other governors and state legislators are trying to replicate across the country.

Scott Walker did not campaign on a promise to eliminate collective bargaining for public sector workers, but that’s what he did. Republicans control both the State Assembly and the State Senate, so, once elected, Walker had broad power to enact his previously unspoken agenda.

Yesterday’s attempt to recall Walker’s allies en masse was the latest in a series of bold and creative assaults on the Walker agenda. In February, the Democratic state senators fled the state to stop Walker from passing his anti-collective bargaining bill by denying a quorum in the Senate.

While the senators were in exile in Illinois, tens of thousands of anti-Walker, pro-union protesters converged on the state capital. One day in early March, 150,000 braved freezing temperatures to hold one of the largest pro-labor demonstrations in American history. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post won a Sidney Award for his coverage of these protests.

After a three-week standoff, Walker and his allies used procedural tricks to pass the bill without the absent senators, but the fight continued in the courts. Walker’s opponents scored some early victories in the lower court and the implementation of the law was delayed. Hoping to tip the balance of power on the State Supreme Court, which would ultimately hear challenges to Walker’s law, progressives backed challenger JoAnn Kloppenburg against incumbent David Prosser. Kloppenburg lost. In June, the deeply divided court reinstated Walker’s law.

Sargent summed up yesterday’s results as follows:

Yesterday unions and Democrats fell just short of victory in Wisconsin, winning two of six races to recall GOP state senators, in a battle that had unexpectedly emerged as ground zero in a national class war, partly over the fate of organized labor. There’s no way to sugar-coat it: Unions and Dems failed in their objective as they defined it, which was to take back the state senate, put the brakes on Scott Walker’s agenda, and let the nation know that elected officials daring to roll back public employee bargaining rights would face dire electoral consequences.

But nonetheless, what they failed to accomplish does not diminish what they did successfully accomplish. The fact that all these recall elections happened at all was itself a genuine achievement.

The struggle in Wisconsin is often portrayed as a clash of well-matched opponents–Democrats vs. Republicans or Big Labor vs. Big Business. In fact, the Democrats and their allies have been waging an irregular war against a much more powerful opponent. The Republicans control every branch of state government.

In each skirmish, the Democrats and their allies have faced long odds and achieved far more than anyone in the political establishment would have predicted. The anti-Walker forces have proven implacable, even in defeat. Their resiliance proves that public sector workers are not the easy targets that Republicans assumed they would be.

Insurgents can’t expect to rout their enemy in any single decisive battle. If they win, they win by wearing down their opponents over time. 

[Photo credit: Sue Peacock, Creative Commons. Madison, WI, March, 2011.]

Kroll Handicaps Tomorrow's Recall Elections in Wisconsin

On Tuesday, Wisconsinites will decide the political fate of six Republican state senators who backed Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union agenda. In order to regain the majority in the state senate, and check Republican power in Wisconsin, Democrats must recall three out of six GOP legislators tomorrow and successfully defend two Democratic legislators against recall votes next week.

Knock out three, hold two. Sounds manageable, right? However, as Craig Gilbert notes at the Journal, U.S. voters have never recalled more than two state legislators in the same year in the entire history of recalls. Only 13 state legislators have ever been recalled, period. There are 16 legislators facing recall in Wisconsin right now. Then again, Gilbert notes, the Wisconsin race is unprecedented in many respects. This is the first time a state-level recall battle has become a national referendum. Money and media attention are pouring in from across the country. 

Andy Kroll of Mother Jones has assembled an invaluable election-eve cheat sheet, based on publicly available polling data and interviews with progressive insiders. By Kroll’s count, the Democrats have a clear lead in two races, the Republican is ahead in another, and three more are still too close to call.

This is uncharted territory. Anything could happen.

Fake News, Real Union: Onion News Network Writers Join WGAE

Writers for the Onion News Network announced this week that they had joined the Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO and negotiated their first contract with ONN management.

The agreement will cover the second season of the show, which will begin airing on the Independent Film Channel on September 30.

The agreement calls for minimum compensation increases and health and pension contributions, retroactive to the start of writing earlier this summer. The producers also agreed to hire more writers and add extra writing weeks to the schedule.

The contract is a landmark. Until this agreement was reached, the Onion News Network was the last live-action scripted comedy show to employ non-union writers.

“Writing comedy is hard and time consuming work which makes Guild membership all the more important,” WGAE Director of Communications Elana Levin told the Hillman Blog, “Having more comedy writers in the Guild is beneficial to the working standards for all comedy writers regardless of where they work.”

Over 70 WGAE members from major New York-based comedy shows signed a letter of support on behalf of the ONN writers and hundreds of Guild members emailed the ONN producers.

The ONN writers stood together and won real improvements,” WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson said in a statement.  “We welcome them into the WGAE and we look forward to a productive relationship with the company.”


Video: "Vilnius Mayor A. Zuokas Fights Illegally Parked Cars with Tank"

The Mayor of the City of Vilnius, Arturas Zuokas, a self-proclaimed “militant cyclist,” is sick and tired of drivers parking their luxury cars in his city’s bike lanes. So, he teamed up with a Swedish TV show to create what may be the greatest PSA in the history of media.

“In the past few days, expensive cars have been illegally parked in almost the exact same place - a Rolls Royce and a Ferrari. What should the city do about drivers who think they are above the law? It seems like a tank is the best solution,” says the mayor.

To underscore the threat, His Worship jumps into an armored vehicle and crushes an illegally parked blue Mercedes. The shocked owner emerges to find his car flattened. The mayor shakes his hand and says, “Next time, park legally.”

Whereupon the mayor sweeps up the broken glass with a push broom, gets on his bike, and carries on down the freshly cleared bike lane.

Politifact is going to deduct points because this ad features an armored personnel carrier and not a tank, but who cares?


Ikea Workers Vote to Unionize in Viriginia

Last week, workers at an Ikea-owned furniture plant in Danville, Va voted overwhelmingly to join the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). The unionization vote passed by a margin of 221-69, despite the best efforts of an anti-union consulting company.

The organizing drive, which was fought as much in the international media as on the factory floor, successfully highlighted the contradictions between Ikea’s gleaming global brand and its treatment of workers in a remote U.S. town.

Nathaniel Popper of the Los Angeles Times won the April Sidney Award for his story about the grim working conditions and rising tensions between workers and management at the plant. Workers complained of eliminated raises, the frenzied pace of work, and punishing amounts of mandatory overtime. Six African American employees had filed discrimination complaints with the EEOC.

A majority of workers had signed cards indicating their interest in joining a union and the company hired the notorious anti-union consulting company Jackson Lewis to derail the organizing drive, Popper reported.

Popper noted that, while the tensions at the Danville plant were still a sleeper story in the United States, they were front page news in Sweden, a heavily unionized country where Ikea is regarded as a symbol of humane Swedish values. 

“It’s ironic that Ikea looks on the U.S. and Danville the way that most people in the U.S. look at Mexico,” Bill Street who was trying to organize Danville for the machinists told Popper.

Popper later explained in our Q&A Backstory that he was drawn to the story because of the study in contrasts. Ikea is a global brand that holds itself up as a good corporate citizen, yet it set up shop in the isolated community of Danville to pay lower wages to a non-union workforce.

In Sweden, workers earn $19 an hour and accrue 5 weeks of government-mandated paid vacation a year, while full-time Danville workers, who assemble similar bookshelves and tables, start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days per year, 8 of which must be taken at a time of the company’s choosing. When the story ran, a third of Danville’s workforce were temporary workers who earned even less and received no benefits.

In a follow-up piece in June, Popper reported that Ikea had ended the Danville plant’s heavy reliance on temporary workers under pressure from the pro-union advocacy group American Rights at Work. 

Comedy Central’s The Daily Show ran with the Ikea-as-colonist meme. “Sweden is everything America used to be – dominant, arrogant and so much more beautiful – while America has become Sweden’s Mexico,” according to the segment’s tagline. I’d guess that half the Daily Show’s audience watched that segment from the relative comfort of an Ikea couch. Talk about bringing the message home.

I emailed Popper to ask how the IAM organizers won, in spite of the anti-union drive. He argued that the decisive factors were Ikea’s sensitivity to bad publicity coupled with complacency on the part of management at Swedwood, as the Ikea-owned Danville plant is known:

I got the sense that the public spotlight made Ikea nervous. They wanted to resolve the situation and were hesitant to do anything that could have caused more public embarrassment. They did not try to prolong the election battle – or do any number of other things that companies do when they want to keep unions out. That probably made it much easier for the union to get its case across to the employees.  That said, the local Swedwood management also seemed to think that workers were not interested in unionizing (as Ken Brown said in [this] NPR piece). So perhaps they thought they didn’t need to do much.

Now that the union has been recognized, the next step will be for the IAM to represent the workers at the bargaining table and, hopefully, negotiate their first contract.

Judge Orders Release of Nixon Watergate Testimony

A federal judge has ordered the public release of Richard Nixon’s secret grand jury testimony about Watergate. Nixon was grilled for two days in June of 1975, 10 months after he resigned from office. He was the first former U.S. president to testify before a grand jury.

Historians believe that Nixon’s grand jury testimony will shed light on the president’s involvement in the Watergate burglary and subsequent coverup. It was reported at the time that Nixon was questioned about the notorious 18½-minute gap in the Oval Office tapes, a $100,000 campaign contribution from reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, and other as-yet-unsolved mysteries of Watergate.

Thirty-six years after the testimony, and 17 years after Nixon’s death, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth decided that the unusual historical value of the 297-page transcript justifies a rare exception to grand jury secrecy. This isn’t the first time a court has ordered the unsealing of grand jury testimony of exceptional historical interest. For example, courts released grand jury testimony from the Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg cases.

The special circumstances presented here – namely, undisputed historical interest in the requested records – far outweigh the need to maintain the secrecy of the records,” Lamberth wrote. “The Court is confident that disclosure will greatly benefit the public and its understanding of Watergate without compromising the tradition and objectives of grand jury secrecy.”

Nixon’s testimony won’t be released immediately because the government still has the option to appeal.

Don't Sweat On My Leg And Tell Me It's Raining: Conservative Pundits Deny Heatwave

Global warming deniers have graduated from denying climate change to denying the weather, Jess Zimmerman reports on GristList:

Rush Limbaugh says “almost no temperature records were broken” during the recent heat wave, and Newsbusters writer Noel Sheppard says there were “only 34 new all-time daily temperature records set.” Only 34? Why, that’s barely a record-breaking heat wave at all! Except for the fact that a) 34 records is nothing to sneeze at and b) by “34,” Sheppard means “somewhere between 70 and 7,612.”

“All-time daily record” is not a thing, but there are daily records and all-time records. Daily records compare the max and min temperatures that day to the same date in previous years. All-time records compare the max and min temperatures that day to every day in every year ever. And July set 70 all-time maximum and 175 all-time minimum records (which are maybe more important). That’s leaving out the daily and monthly records completely; when you add those in, it’s over 7,000. Sheppard’s number isn’t even in the ballpark.

Denying the weather takes some serious chutzpah. Climate is the average of weather patterns over the long term. It’s an abstraction. A determined denier can easily obfuscate by shifting the terms of debate.  The weather is what’s happening right now. We’re experiencing it. Meteorologists are measuring it with great precision and keeping meticulous records. The fact that the U.S. summer of 2011 is a scorcher is not up for debate.

As Zimmerman notes, one bout of extreme weather doesn’t necessarily indicate climate change. Since the climate is the average, one blistering heatwave could just be a blip on the curve of a generally stable climate. However, as Limbaugh remarked, these daily max and daily min records are shattered every year. Indeed many are. If, year after year, each day tends to be warmer than that same day last year, that’s what we’d call a warming trend. 

Drugging Teen Inmates in Louisiana

Incarcerated youths in Louisiana are being dosed with powerful antipsychotic drugs even though they haven’t been diagnosed with the major mental illnesses that these drugs are usually prescribed to treat, Matt Davis reports in The Lens.

Davis’s old school, data-driven investigative report raises troubling questions about the juvenile justice system in Louisiana. First, are young inmates being medicated for social control, as opposed to medical need? Second, are inmates with genuine mental health issues getting appropriate care?

Watch an interview with Davis about his story on WVUE FOX 8 News.