Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Fact check: Josh Marshall on James Woolsey

Political punditry may not be noted for its high intellectual standards, but you would think a prominent commentator such as Josh Marshall, editor of TalkingPointsMemo, would be able to offer some substantiation for a negative claim he made about a public figure. Here was Marshall on March 26, in his post "The Cruz Troika" about three foreign policy experts that Cruz "trusts most." (What exactly Cruz's relationship with these guys is was left vague.) After writing about Elliot Abrams and John Bolton, Marshall went on to say this about former CIA director James Woolsey:
After the respected neoconservative and the clownish warmonger you have a guy who might simply be certifiable: former CIA Director James Woolsey, perhaps the champion at being the biggest purveyor crap in the lead up to the Iraq War, which is saying something because the competition is intense. He may be the only former high level official still holding on to Saddam Hussein being the mastermind of 9/11.
Me: I was intrigued by that, and wanted to know what exactly Woolsey had said, and when. So I asked Marshall via Twitter.

And he answered:

So I did some searching around, finding that Woolsey had written a foreword to Mylroie's book "Study of Revenge." The foreword is dated 9/27/01, which is a few weeks after 9/11, and in it Woolsey obliquely suggests the possibility that Iraq may have been behind 9/11, noting that this becomes more plausible if "time proves that Laurie Mylroie is right about what happened in 1993" (i.e. that Saddam was behind the first World Trade Center bombing).

Given the foreword's hedged wording and even more so its long-ago timing, it clearly fell far short of substantiating Marshall's claim, so I tweeted him again.

That was four days ago, and I'm still waiting for a reply. Meanwhile, in my searching, I also found that Marshall in 2004 was castigating Woolsey thus:
Amazing. Jim Woolsey is on Lou Dobbs show, as I write. He continues to press the Iraq-al Qaida link, suggests only that it's not clear Saddam 'ordered' the 9/11 attacks (my recollection, I haven't seen the transcript yet), and goes on to accuse Clarke of being crazy or thoroughly lacking in credibility because he accuses Woolsey, Laurie Mylroie and others of saying what they have in fact been saying for years. A through-the-looking-glass performance.
Me: I looked up the transcript and here is the Woolsey interview (click to enlarge):

Me: Notice that this is a few years after Woolsey wrote the foreword to Mylroie's book, and Woolsey is still not saying that Saddam was the mastermind of 9/11. Nothing I have found that is more recent comes any closer to backing Marshall's claim about Woolsey's persistence in his alleged position.

So, as it stands, I have not found substantiation that Woolsey is "still holding on to Saddam Hussein being the mastermind of 9/11" and I have not found that an effort to "look up his work with Laurie Mylroie" leads to such substantiation. If evidence backing Marshall's claim exists, he should produce it. If Marshall can't do so, he should run a correction and apology.

For the record, I have no connection to Woolsey and no firm opinions about him. Also, I don't like Ted Cruz and would want neither him nor Lou Dobbs to be president of the United States.

UPDATE 5/1/15: More than a month later, Marshall has not put forward any substantiation. I'm pleased to see, though, that Googling james woolsey josh marshall gets this result:

Monday, March 2, 2015

How I became interested in math decades after studying it [updated and moved to top]

I've recently taken a strong interest in math, a subject in which I was not a particularly distinguished student decades ago. Math is highly relevant to many economic and science topics I've covered as a journalist; and has become a growing political issue involving how it should be taught (or in some misguided arguments, whether it's really much needed); and it's a personal issue for those of us with school-age children. I've come to a growing sense of all of that, as well as of what a fascinating, fast-changing, extensive, profound and, I think, socially under-appreciated field math is in itself.

A key factor in inspiring this outlook was an excellent book I recently read, Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, by Edward Frenkel. I've been in touch with Frenkel and hope to write about his views soon in a professional capacity. Another factor was reading the Simons Foundation's magazine Quanta, which provides much absorbing coverage of math and its diverse intersections with science.

Moreover, we live in the time of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. I've now taken Jo Boaler's online course "How to Learn Math: For Students," which I found interesting and helpful, and have signed up for Keith Devlin's "Introduction to Mathematical Thinking." While I surely will not be making a mid-career shift to mathematician, I do hope to become progressively better at thinking and writing about topics in and around math. I have nothing to lose except the sour and befuddled feeling that I took away from calculus long ago.
Originally posted 1/20/15.

UPDATE 3/2/15: My interview with Frenkel, geared for an audience of financial advisors, is in Research magazine: "How Math Will Shape Wall Street's Future."

Also, now that I'm a few weeks into Keith Devlin's "Introduction to Mathematical Thinking" course, I can confirm that it's extremely interesting and will not be the last math MOOC I take.

UPDATE: More on Devlin's course here, and a bad idea noted here.