Thursday, December 17, 2009


Accounting for Journalism

Let's compare a couple of pieces ... one from The Wall Street Journal's "Opinion Journal" webpage and one from National Public Radio's blog, 13.7: Cosmos and Culture.

First the WSJ piece, by James Taranto, who was a journalism major who never graduated, and who is complaining about "accountability journalism":

[T]he reason "science" no longer "wins" is that what often poses as science today is different from the real thing. To take an easy example, supposedly science-minded people often scoff at those who do not "believe in evolution." The problem with this is not that they are wrong to defend evolution, but that they mistake evolution, a scientific theory, for a belief system. When you demand adherence to a set of beliefs, you are no longer doing science but something that has the form, if not the substance, of religion.

Similarly, what is clearest from the University of East Anglia emails is that climate science has become more political than scientific. Researchers have been abusing the scientific process in order to produce support for an ideologically predetermined outcome.
And from the NPR site, by Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist, who is Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy Dartmouth College:

For the past decade, and to the bafflement of the vast majority of scientists, the science of global warming became a topic of political debate. In the name of the "fairness of considering all points of view" (there are obvious echoes of the intelligent-design debate here), the minority opinion of a few scientists was inflated beyond any measure of decency to represent a legitimate contrary opinion flushed with supporting data and the like. Nonsense.

As the thousands of scientists from around the world that contribute to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have argued through many different avenues of research and data gathering, global warming is not only a reality, but it is also caused by human action.
First of all, the few, supposedly "smoking gun," emails (out of thousands stolen from the University of East Anglia) do not show any such "abuse" of the scientific process. At worst, they show scientists struggling, sometimes clumsily, with the politicalization of their science by outsiders.

After all, independent scientists ... who have to spend large amounts of their time writing grant proposals just to fund a few graduate students and who can hardly match in resources the various mega-corporations, like the oil and coal companies and the power utilities, which fund most, if not all of the nay-sayers ... have no shared economic or other motive to conspire to "cook" the science ... unlike those corporations. In short, there is much more reason to accept Gleiser's account than Taranto's.

Nor would most scientists think of "believing" in evolution ... at most they "believe" that empiric evidence is the best evidence and the adherence to such evidence is the only demand they make.

Not, of course, that it has never been phrased that way by any scientist. After all, "belief" is a slippery word that is often used informally. It can mean everything from "a deep abiding faith in a particular religion" to "I believe I'll have another beer."

Taranto is turning the whole process on its head. It has been the opponents of the science of evolution who regularly label it as equivalent to "atheism" and the opponents of anthropogenic global warming who label it as a "religious belief." Pot, kettle, black.

The "accountability journalism" Taranto complains about is nothing more than saying that not all positions are equal. Flat Earth proponents don't deserve equal time or journalistic respect with astrophysicists; Holocaust deniers don't deserve equal time or journalistic respect with historians of WWII; and young-Earth creationists don't deserve equal time or journalistic respect with geologists and biologists. Nor do AGW deniers deserve equal time or journalistic respect with climatologists.

Unfortunately, Taranto and the others peddling "Climategate" either cannot see the difference or ascribe to a brand of journalism with no accountability at all.


Update: Taranto is showing some signs of rationality (scroll down to the section labeled "True Believers?"):

We certainly agree that neither Biblical creation nor "intelligent design" is worth taking seriously as an empirical proposition. Nonetheless, we stand behind our criticism of those who scoff at others for failing to "believe in evolution." Just as it is an error to put forward a religious doctrine as if it were a scientific theory, it is an error to speak of a scientific theory as if it were a religious doctrine--i.e., something to "believe in."
Of course, he is still playing semantic games citing to unnamed "science-minded people" who supposedly urge "belief" in evolution.

Gah! This kind of thing bugs me!
It's not a matter of science being a belief system (although there are those for whom - perhaps unintentionally - that may be accurate), it's a matter of having confidence in the scientific method and an understanding of science as a process - one that does a pretty good job of being self-corrective.
It's not belief that exposed bad science or hoaxes, it's other scientists.
The reason they call science a belief system and religion (besides projection) is that they cannot point to any sort of real-world motivation for scientists to engage in a "conspiracy" ... therefore, since they have to believe its a conspiracy or accept that their denial is irrational and based on their economic motives or (in a smaller number of cases) religious beliefs, they have to assign scientists an irrational motive.

It is, of course, amusing how these conservatives are so quick to dismiss science as religion when they spend so much time extolling the importance and wisdom of religion and urging it as a basis for public policy.
Taranto's fiddle with "belief" is just the creationist guff about 'Evolution is just a theory.': dishonest or ignorant, as if a word has only a single, narrow meaning.

Being rather slothful myself, I can see the attraction for journalists of the 'balance' approach. It's much easier to just parrot what you hear from 'the two sides of the issue' than to actually think about what you're reporting.

Being slothful, instead of being cogent myself I'll steal from Daniel Okrent: "The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true." and suggest that folk check out Dara O'Briain's bit about homeopaths in his stage show (which you can find for yourselves on Youtube - I can't do _all_ the work!), which is very funny and right on point.
I always say that I "accept the Theory of Evolution" (as the current best explanation of the variety of life we see around us). Belief is a word better used for emotionally charged concepts.

If a theory with more explanatory power came along, or the current theory was improved, I'd accept that instead. My emotions would not be upset.
Scientist for the most part have no education, no training, and no experience in dealing with the press. Then, when they look bad on television, cry WHAAAA! It so unfair. What other outcome would you expect?

Like a scientist, the press do their job in the manner they were trained. Like scientist, journalism has rules that it conducts it's business. But unlike science, facts, “the truth”, public opinion, editorial opinion all have place in each story. We can complain this is unfair, but we don't get a say in the rules. The one that sells the most newspapers did it right, and the one that sold the least did it wrong. We don't get a say in how they do their job.

Science lost the battle, because they came untrained, uneducated, expecting only to pull out the facts and figures and win. The battle is fought in 15 second and 2 minute sound bites. You can only call someone a denialist a few times and then you need a new sound bite. One side says, the earth has gotten hot and the earth has gotten cold lots of time, all before man ever walked on the earth. The other side we're done talking, the science speaks for itself, it's time for action. Science comes out the loser.

There are scientist that can talk to people and make them understand the most complex matters of science. But they are rare. We certainly don't train scientist public speaking skills. We don't teach them how to deal with the media. Then we don't understand why they look like fools on TV?

If science can't convince the person on the street that global warming is bad, which they have completely failed at, then it's irrelevant what the facts are. It's irrelevant what the truth is about some stolen email. The truth is, science lost the debate because it came unprepared to debate.
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