Stats, Lies, and the NYT Magazine: Falwell U. isn't #1 in debating. Not even close.
Bruce Wilson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Mar 19, 2006 at 09:26:33 PM EST
Ed Brayton, author of Dispatches From The Culture Wars, has just written a scathing rebuttal to this weekend's New York Times Magazine treatment of the claim that Jerry Falwell's Liberty University Debating team is somehow "#1" or even better than average. Says Brayton: NOT.

Brayton's sendup is a muscular outing of the credulity mainstream media pays to claims by leaders of the Christian right. But, Brayton says the MSM "laps it up" likes "kittens". Perhaps. And, perhaps Brayton's a gentleman - I'll be blunt. The NYT Magazine has been gobbling up something less savory than milk or cream. Here's their claim:

The most interesting thing about modern Lynchburg is that Liberty consistently produces one of the nation's great collegiate debate programs.
[ NYT Magazine quote continued ] This season Liberty is closing in on an unprecedented sweep -- first place in the rankings in all three national college debate groups: the American Debate Association, the Cross Examination Debate Association and the National Debate Tournament.

Two men are responsible for this improbable success. One is Liberty's founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who has spared no effort to make his school into a national debate power. The other is the team's head coach, Brett O'Donnell.

That sounds all authoritative-like, y'know ? Like revealed truth. [ per the Grey Lady's stupendous reputation for great reporting on, say, the presence of WMD's in Iraq ? ]    

Says Brayton:

"Liberty University gets to be #1 ranked by sending lots and lots of novices and JV debaters to smaller regional tournaments, piling up points. But their varsity team is slightly above average at very best. No varsity team from Liberty has finished with a winning record at the National Debate Tournament (NDT) in the last 8 years....

When weighted for quality, matched against the top winning teams, Liberty's top team is ranked 111th with a 3-6 record against the top 25. In matchups against teams that "clear" at tournaments - meaning teams that qualify for the elimination rounds at tournaments - Liberty doesn't rank at all and is below 26% in wins against them. And when you actually do adjust for quality of competition, where does the Liberty team rank? How about 117th.

Despite this, they're all over the media claiming to be the best debate team in the country, "higher ranked than Harvard", and the media is lapping it up like a hungry kitten. [emphasis mine]

In short, Liberty University's approach resembles a common approach of many leaders on the Christian right : game the system.

If you want some historical background on how the Christian right games politics to the detriment of the Democratic process, here are two great examples:

How Southern Baptists Have Changed:
Dr. Bruce Prescott - one of the world's top authorities on the subject - writes details the Christian right's takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Taking over The GOP: Eyewitness to the event, Joan Bokaer details how Christian right theocratic insurgents have largely over the GOP and vanquished the the secular faction of the Republican Party.

The point of both these personal narratives, deeply felt, is something like this : the strategic thrust of those who have engineered the rise of the Christian right in modern America has little to nothing to do with concern for truth or the spirit of Democracy. It is mainly about the acquisition of power.

Truth is elsewhere.

Display: put it in March Madness terms that anyone can understand:

What Liberty University is doing is the rough equivalent of an NCAA program claiming they have the #1 basketball program in the country--based on the performance of their junior-varsity Division III team (which, against other Division III teams, they are doing quite well).

Meanwhile, in the stats that people actually look at (Division I, like what they televise on ESPN and sports bars are crowded for and people have their office pools for the Final Four based on), they're having to enter the NIT tournament with their senior varsity team to have a chance at getting in the Final Four and are still having their hineys handed to them by Gonzaga :3

(Okay.  I'm from Kentucky, where the three largest religions in the state are College Basketball, Southern Baptists, and (depending on where you are in the state) either Catholicism or various flavours of pentecostalism. :3  Of course I'm going to use a basketball metaphor :3)

Hopefully this gives you an idea of the level of fudging that Liberty U is doing with their stats.  (For those who aren't familiar with the whole Division I/Division II/Division III thing, quickie guide is at Wikipedia.  Basically think "JV" versus full varsity.)

It'd be similar to, say, U of L or UK claiming they had the best basketball program in the US by combining their men's and women's Div I stats and the JV division stats too.  (As it is, U of L didn't even make it to March Madness this year--first time in, oh gods, DECADES this has happened--thanks to a team literally chock full of freshmen, and UK got knocked out of the tourney (which they made it in by the very skin of their teeth) by UConn yesterday.)

What is probably much more accurate to say is that Liberty University is a decent JV team (which has far less rigorous standards), but in actual tourney competition they still get their hineys handed to them by the real champions of debate.

by dogemperor on Mon Mar 20, 2006 at 10:15:32 AM EST

Maybe it wasn't de-bating that Master Falwell's boys are number one at.  Yeah, I know, potty humor but if any group in this world are wankers, then these qualify.  The NYT bunch?  They're gullible suckers obviously.

by nofundy on Tue Mar 21, 2006 at 11:59:55 AM EST
The US press - beyond the days of yellow journalism  - used to be a somewhat skeptical lot. What happened ? Why is the NYT so willing now to gobble up this sort of offal ?

by Bruce Wilson on Wed Mar 29, 2006 at 10:28:51 PM EST

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