Joy Ann Reid and the tyranny of technical expertise

Update

Oh, well. As Churchill didn’t quite say, “An occasional meal of one’s own words is part of a healthy, balanced diet.”

If you haven’t been following the current flap, here’s the quick version: Joy Ann Reid, an African-American Obama-Clinton liberal equally hated by Republicans and the Dirtbag Left, is under attack for homophobic material supposedly posted a decade ago on her now-defunct blog and found by her critics using the Wayback Machine, an Internet archive. She had previously been called out for – and apologized for – gay-baiting Charlie Crist, back when he was a closeted gay conservative Republican pushing anti-gay legislation. That sort of attack was much more common back then than it is now.

But Reid forcefully denies ever having written the material now in question. Apparently she found it on the Wayback Machine at the time of the Crist flap last December and immediately began to complain about it to the people who operate Wayback. She also hired a computer security expert who produced a report clearing her. She has since, according to her lawyer, made a complaint to the FBI, which apparently is investigating.

Against this, the operators of the Wayback Machine say that their operation couldn’t have been hacked, and that if instead Reid’s old blog was hacked that would have left traces that aren’t, in fact, visible. Not only the usual Breitbart/Greenwald suspects, but lots of people with no particular dog in this fight, are now acting as if the technical evidence is incontrovertible and that, therefore (1) Reid must be lying, and should lose her post at MSNBC because a journalist who lies can’t be relied on and (2) those who don’t believe Reid is lying are engaging in motivated reasoning, and are no better than global warming deniers. After all, how can you argue with technical facts, as asserted by technical experts?

I freely cop to having a prejudice here. I don’t know Reid other than as a Twitter presence. I never read her blog, and since I don’t have a TV set I haven’t seen her on MSNBC. I mostly agree with Reid’s views, and despise both her right-wing and bro-gressive critics. (Part of the back-story here: When Glenn Greenwald attacked another African-American liberal, Imani Gandy, saying that she would defend Barack Obama if he “raped a nun,” Reid supported Gandy.)  She is, I think, the only African-American woman with her own TV news show, and those who watch her say she’s a strong voice for all the things I believe in. So I hope both that she’s in the right in this dispute and that she prevails. That being the case, I’m certainly not immune to tribal emotion and motivated reasoning.

That said, there are two sets of substantive reasons why I’m not prepared to accept the purported evidence that Reid is lying.

First, technical experts are often both over-confident and over-believed.  I’m familiar with that in the courtroom setting, where one assertedly “scientific” technique after another – the polygraph “lie detector,” the early version of DNA matching, fingerprint identification by certified experts, bite analysis, fire analysis – has turned out to be either worthless or way over-sold. And in each case, the apparently scientific nature of the evidence, and the fact that it was too arcane for lay people to intelligently question it, gave it much more authority with juries than it deserved. Thousands (at least) of innocent people went to prison as a result. So when the Wayback gurus say, “No one could have fooled our magical device,” I tend to take their claim with a grain of salt, especially given that Reid has hired her own expert who says the opposite.

(Note: For Reid to be right, no one would have had to hack the Wayback Machine itself: I’m willing to accept, at least tentatively, expert assurance that doing so would have required national-level capacities. But if someone inserted phony posts on Reid’s blog – not hard to do with the blogging technology of the time – the Wayback Machine would have picked them up. If someone did that to this blog I might never notice; someone might insert today a post from a week ago, wait long enough for the Wayback Machine to archive it, and then take it down. The claim that no one could have done so without the fact of the insertion being visible doesn’t convince me at all.)

But all that is merely reason to think that the Wayback Machine isn’t infallible. There is also good – though not incontrovertible – affirmative evidence that  Reid did not write those posts.

* People who know Reid’s writing say the disputed posts don’t sound like her.
* The disputed posts have no comments, though the undisputed posts have many.
* Two reliable people I know – including Joan Walsh of The Nation, who was publishing some of Reid’s material – were reading her carefully at the time, and say both that they don’t remember any such thing and that they would certainly have noticed.
* Reid was a significant pro-Obama voice in 2008. If she’d been engaged in gay-baiting, it would have been to the advantage of Clinton supporters to call her out on it. No one did.
* No one has come forward to claim contemporary memory of those posts, though their offensive nature would have made them stand out to any gay person who read them. That sort of affront isn’t easily forgotten.
* No one has yet said anything suggesting that Reid has been less than veracious in the past. Like sexual harassers, fabulists are rarely one-time offenders. If Reid has a long and unbroken record of truth-telling, that’s a reason – again, not incontrovertible, but weighty – to believe she’s telling the truth now.
* Reid complained to the Wayback Machine operators about the posts in question before the current controversy. 
* She has also reported the alleged hacking to the FBI, which is investigating. That puts her in substantial legal jeopardy if she’s fibbing. (Ask Martha Stewart.)

Against this, all we have are ex cathedra pronouncements that the Wayback Machine technology is infallible and couldn’t possibly have picked up spurious posts. Color me unconvinced.

Note also that there are actual scholarly techniques for comparing texts of known authorship with texts of disputed authorship. Some of them are more “literary,” and go under the label “textual criticism.” Some are more quantitative, and go under the label “content analysis.” It might be worthwhile to have an expert in one of those fields look at Reid’s acknowledged writings and the disputed posts to offer an opinion about whether they were written by the same person.

But short of that, I regard Joan Walsh – a professional editor of established distinction, and deeply familiar with Reid’s style – as authoritative.  If she says, “I don’t believe Joy Ann Reid could have written those sentences” (as opposed to “I don’t believe she would have expressed those sentiments”) that’s an excellent reason not to join the rush to judgment against Reid.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

3 thoughts on “Joy Ann Reid and the tyranny of technical expertise”

  1. I don't know if she wrote that or not, though I tend to doubt it. I also don't think it would matter a whole lot if she did write it. If that's the only stupid thing she said concerning gay-ness in the past ten years, it's as outdated and irrelevant as Obama's opposition to gay marriage in the same timeframe.

  2. Come on man. She said it and now she is lying about what she said. You used to be sharper than this.

  3. OK – your update restored my faith in your sharpness.

    But, I must admit to having some problems with your term "bro-gressive". We have a critical rift that needs healing not being made wider.

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