The journalists and the "dissenters"

>> Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Over at Slate, Ron Rosenbaum has a typically lengthy piece about the duty of science journalists to cover dissent. His starting point is to note that two items in a recent Columbia Journalism Review seem to be in contradiction to one another: an editorial in the magazine discusses the importance of giving equal time to dissent, while a subsequent piece in the same issue deals with the responsibilities of journalists reporting on global warming issues, and the author's advice to give weight to the consensus opinion that anthropogenic global warming is occurring.

Rosenbaum has difficulties with the second item. He loves the editorial, agreeing wholeheartedly that journalists should cover dissent. But as for the second: relying largely on Popper and Kuhn, Rosenbaum writes:

... The history of science repeatedly shows a "consensus" being overturned by an unexpected truth that dissents from the consensus. Scientific truth has continued to evolve, often in unexpected ways, and scientific consensus always remains "falsifiable," to use Karl Popper's phrase, one any science reporter should be familiar with. All the more reason for reporting on scientific dissent, one would think. ...

In fact, the history of science frequently demonstrates that science proceeds when contradictory—dissenting—studies provoke more studies, encourage rethinking rather than being marginalized by "the consensus" or the "consistency" of previous reports.

Indeed, the century's foremost historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, believed... that science often proceeds by major unexpected shifts: Just when an old consensus congealed, new dissenting, contradictory reports heralded a "paradigm shift" that often ended up tossing the old "consensus" into the junk bin.

Of course, it can be argued that Kuhn is a critic of Popper, and there are critics of both who make solid cases that both scholars' understanding of how science works is shaky at best. Kuhn's theory of "paradigm shifts" within science is especially questionable, an explanation that looks better as a descriptive model from a distance than prescriptively from a contemporary standpoint--that is to say, when one looks at, say, the Galilean "revolution" narrowly and not closely, Galileo's work looks like a radical departure from the fold; but when one looks broadly and closely at what Galileo and other 16th century scientists were up to, one notices that Galileo's "revolution" was arguably a part of a large structure built by many artisans, many of whom made incremental additions to the data and methodology, a few of whom made the epic contributions that stand out so brilliantly when you don't get close enough to see the whole picture.

In similar fashion, Einstein certainly wasn't the "great dissenter" that pop culture has required him to be. Indeed, Einstein's work was tested and assimilated with extraordinary rapidity. Why? Because it had become quite clear that 19th century physics was fundamentally broken somewhere in the works. When the little patent clerk identified what was gummed up, all but a relatively few holdouts exclaimed, "Is that...? Yes! He found it!"

The bitch of it is, the real story is actually a pretty interesting one, full of exciting failures and brilliant successes. But it isn't a classic storyline, one where a plucky underdog or lone hero goes forth against the slings and arrows of adversity and triumphs against the odds, against the world. The conventional story would have Einstein sitting alone in his little room, scratching out figures on pieces of paper; it doesn't work, it doesn't work--and then in a "Eureka!" moment he's got it, he goes and presents it to the Elder Figures Of Physics and they scoff and mock until one young man with vision picks up Einstein's work and decides to test it during the next eclipse; he succeeds, the Elders go through apoplexy en route to grudging acceptance, and Einstein triumphantly becomes a hero who gets the rewards his fiercest critic ached for. That's a swell story, and it's all horseshit. The real story is one in which a whole lot of intelligent people all over the world are asking each other questions--via letters and journal articles--trying out experiments and scribbling on blackboards, and one especially brilliant member of the community, working as a patent clerk while applying for teaching positions, hacks some of the problems like any other intelligent person, with time and hard work. It's still a great story, but it requires some investment from the storyteller and the audience: there's some backtracking to explain what people thought in the 1880s, and dipping into Newton, and here's what was happening somewhere else while Einstein was in Berne, and you need to mention that--and it's not one bit the Campbellian monomyth.

But I may be getting a little far afield. The problem with Rosenbaum isn't really that he gives too much credit to Popper and/or Kuhn, whose insights were valuable and useful even when questionable and possibly wrong (Popper and Kuhn, indeed, may be better exemplars of the value of dissent than the usual suspects that Rosenbaum trots out to make his case).

The problem is that while Rosenbaum is right that dissent is good in science and in political debate alike, that doesn't mean that dissent is necessarily twice as good in politicized scientific debate. You see, the problem that we seem to be having quite a lot these days is that folks whose agenda isn't "dissent" but obfuscation and obstruction have chosen to use dissent as a cloak for what they're really up to. That is to say, there are a number of global warming critics who have as much interest in "debating" global warming as creationists intelligent design proponents crazy religious fundamentalists have in reasonably discussing current views on the origin of species. There are some anthropogenic global warming "dissenters" (not all of them, but a significant group) who have earned the quotes in that phrase: they are not concerned with scientific accuracy or sound policy nearly so much as they're concerned with maintaining the status quo for the benefit of existing business interests, or (in a few loud instances) simply with arguing (particularly with Al Gore, who they fault less for being sloppy with his data and arguments than they do for being a prominent member of the liberal intellectual elite).

This isn't to say anthropogenic global warming is or isn't occurring, or that there's no point in talking about it. But the attention to be given to dissenters on the subject ought to be based on the merits of their arguments and data and not on some stupefying sense of what ought to be fair or, worse yet, that a mound of horseshit might be concealing a pony somewhere. If an anthropogenic global warming critic is indeed engaging in dissent, marshalling accurate facts and figures in the service of truth, fine. But it doesn't follow from there that shills for Exxon-Mobile deserve the time'o'day, much less equal space in a newspaper article.

Real dissent, great. But manufactured "dissent" for the sole purpose of shit-stirring? No.

And surely Rosenbaum doesn't mean it, does he? Does he really think creationism should be given equal time in articles about paleontology? Flat-earthers equal time in the latest article about a satellite launch? If somebody who denies the germ theory of disease or a proponent of the notion that aliens built the pyramids dolls himself up as a "dissenter" from the medical or archaeological "establishment," do we now credit his views in the interest of fair debate and discussion about the subject?

One more point. Part of the problem with Rosenbaum's notion, of course, is that he's wrong in part because he's not wrong. There is something to be said for giving marginal ideas some time in case they might prove right or simply so they can be debunked in public. Only problem is that a newspaper is a cruddy place to try to do that. Part of this is because of the education and ability of the typical journalist, who usually knows more about writing on deadline than he does about specialized subjects like science (or law, medicine, technology, et al.). Part of this is because the general public lacks background for various reasons--even if the public is intelligent, it's frequently uninformed. And part of it is inherent to the newspaper format, which attempts to distill complicated subjects down to x number of column inches for a front-page headline and y number for a back-page feature.

By way of an illustration, a non-scientific book: if you look at the sidebar around the time this blog entry is being written, you should see an entry for Vincent Bugliosi's brilliant and thorough Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Bugliosi's project, in large part, is one of giving time to several of the major dissents to the consensus explanation of John Kennedy's murder (that a lone nut shot the President), and responding in turn to each one. The kind of project Rosenbaum might be thinking of when he talks about the importance of dissent and skepticism for the official narrative.

Bugliosi spent some twenty years writing the book.

The final result is 1,648 pages long and weighs five pounds.

Except it isn't really 1,648 pages long.

That's because it would have cost too much to print Bugliosi's footnotes and references.

So the book includes a CD-ROM with two PDF files on it.

The two PDF files are something like 800 pages each.

So the real length of Bugliosi's book, where he gives time to the skeptics and responds to them, is something like 3,200 pages or thereabouts. And one can still find fault with some of Bugliosi's replies to the skeptics, dissenters and critics, points where he just throws up his hands dismissively and replies to somebody's decades of research (well, "research," really) with a single, short, caustic sentence. Who can blame him? At some point, when you're spending two decades writing a book as a kind of hobby with no firm deadline, even then you get sick of the whole damn thing.

Point being, newspapers are ill-suited for debate, if debate is even what a self-styled critic is seeking. And if you have to encapsulate a complicated matter into a few paragraphs before tomorrow morning's paper goes to print, you're going to have to make choices about what to include and what to cut; choose wisely, and if someone's views are a waste of your time and the reader's, and just confuse things to boot, maybe they don't need to be in your article.

I sympathize with Rosenbaum's views. But I think he's mostly wrong.


Jeri Tuesday, August 12, 2008 at 11:30:00 PM EDT  


"or (in a few loud instances) simply with arguing (particularly with Al Gore, who they fault less for being sloppy with his data and arguments than they do for being a prominent member of the liberal intellectual elite)."

I live with that. Sigh.

John the Scientist Wednesday, August 13, 2008 at 11:05:00 AM EDT  

Well, I do fault Al Gore for being sloppy, or more accurately - selective, with his data.

There is a real story here, which is publication bias. I'll write something about that when I get time (maybe 2010).

But, the "dissent" stuff I see from science journalists is crap because they give equal time to the single crank who thinks that HIV does not cause AIDS, when if you interviewed 100 researchers, you'd only find 1 or two who agreed with that - and here's the key - their arguments would be sloppy and their fundamental biologic explanation for an alternative theory is lacking. The problem with Global Warming is the modeling, and critics are arguing about model inputs. That's quite a different issue. As you point out, the anti-evolutionists have no predictive theory that explains, for example, anti-bacterial resistance. Every theory has some holes in it. The real discussion is: how big are the holes?.

So, in most cases, "equal time" is misleading to the layman.

But the term "consensus" is meaningless in science without a discussion of how long the consensus has been held and what other predictions would need to be explained with an alternative theory. GW models don't predict anything accurately, they are not as linked in to other scientific predictions, making "consensus" on them closer to the previous consensus on the ether or phlogiston, rather than QM theory, which simultaneously explained the photoelectric effect, the ultraviolet catastrophe, and discrete spectral lines. They may be right, but them being wrong does not uproot a lot of other science.

Eric Wednesday, August 13, 2008 at 11:35:00 AM EDT  

John: what you point with regard to anthropogenic global warming may have merit, but I don't think it's where Rosenbaum is going. Nor do I think all of the AGW critics are approaching the matter as rationally or as well-informed as you are.

Rosenbaum, I think, would want to give the AGW equivalent of the AIDS crank equal time in the press because of the journalistic need to present both sides of a "policy debate." (I think we've both covered why that doesn't work.)

As for the AGW critics, there seem to be two types. The first type is the rational, scientific type who questions the models and data--these critics may be right or wrong, but they at least bring something to the table, and they help keep everybody on their game.

But there's a very loud and vocal crowd that seems to be motivated more by the politics. Some of them have a vested interest in the status quo--reduced emissions would cut into their profits by reducing demand for their products (e.g. the oil companies) or would increase expenses (e.g. manufacturing industries). And then there's an especially obnoxious group who are simply political contrarians, alluded to in the Al Gore comment: Al Gore could be attempting to rescue their children from a burning building, and they'd be furious that some damn liberal smarty-pants was trying to tell them what to do. ("If I want my child to die in a fire, that's my right as a parent, by God, and I don't need the 'nanny state' telling me how to raise my own kids!'") These people aren't responsible, nor are they smart, nor are they worth the time of day. They're entitled to express themselves, but there's no reason anyone ought to listen to it (meaning that there's no good reason for a journalist to write it down, a publisher to print it, or a reader to pay fifty cents for it at the corner newsstand).

For whatever it's worth--and I may have said this elsewehere, but I'll say it again--I tend to take a kind of Pascalian wager approach when it comes to anthropogenic global warming. AGW is either occurring or it isn't. If it is, and we do nothing, we've kind of fucked ourselves. If it isn't, but we act like it is, we'll have surely spent a godawful amount of money, but there will be incidental benefits that accrue from improved air quality, environmental decontamination, and some reduction of dependence on petrochemicals (the source of a great deal of political and environmental woe domestically and abroad). There are risks and costs to either course of action, but to me it seems fairly close to a simple dichotomy and the cost/benefit analysis simple and clear: acting like AGW is a real and present danger carries more benefit and less risk than the alternative, even if the science is wrong and AGW is not occurring.

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