Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Today's must-read ...

... Defining the Journalism vs. Blogging Debate, with a Science Reporting angle. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Where Internet kills the traditional media is in the lack of limits. Radio or TV will have a 2-minute summary, a newspaper will have a predetermined amount of space for it. This will tell you briefly What, Who, Where, When, How and perhaps even a little bit of Why, but cannot, by definition tell the whole story. If you are not interested, this is enough for you. If you are interested, or if you are suspicious of the source, you are left hanging and unsatisfied. But online, that short summary will provide a link to something that no other medium can afford to have: the entire transcript of the session, the entire video of the whole football game, full uncut interviews instead of brief quotes, further links to additional relevant information.
It is precisely because one can compare the information as reported with the primary sources of that information that the traditional media have come to seem far less reliable. They would do better to be brutally agnostic regarding the issues of the day and make sure every side of every argument is thoroughly aired.
This piece makes much of the Huffington Post. I think the author should look into Pajamas Media as well. Also, why eliminate what the blogger calls "pseudoscience, HIV denialist, New Age woo-mongers"? Why not just hire those "real science/nature/medicine reporters" and let readers make up their own minds based on the soundness of argument, data, etc.? I still think that free and open and full discussion of all points of view - without rancor or insult - is the best way to arrive at some measure of truth. I am suspicious whenever anybody wants to restrict access to any point of view. (Which was why, when I was editor of my college newspaper, I wanted to invite Gus Hall amd George Lincoln Rockwell to both write about an incident involving the American Communist Party and the American Nazi Party that took place in Philadelphia. My Jesuit preceptors overruled me, which was their prerogative. But I think people would have seen through both.)


  1. Dear Frank, I am sorry but it is not correct that a frank discussion seeing the point of view of HIV denialists, autism/vaccine people, et al. will lead to any scientific truth. Nor, sadly perhaps, is it the case that most people have any interest in examining screeds of data, or are able to weigh up highly technical arguments with no training of technique or the building blocks of earlier knowledge. Many of these anti-science people rely on good rhetoric and emotion, and many of them are better at communicating persuasively than scientists.

    "Hiring" - presupposes that there is a job to be hired into (look at all the advocacy websites, etc) and also that the people doing the hiring can judge.

    I don't fully get Bora's point from the quote here, as mainstream media and blogs regularly link to source material nowadays. But I am afraid a free and open discussion is not going to work, when many of those concerned have strong belief systems or other reasons for their stances, which have nothing to do with science or data.

  2. But don't you think, Maxine, that it is worse to suppress idiot views? I don't even know what New Age woo-mongers are, and I should think the HIV-denialist stuff ought to be easily refutable. And pseudoscience can range from the harmless - astrology - to the fatal - suicidal food fads. Of course, I'm presuming an audience of reasonably intelligent and educated people. My point is that if you're going to have someone advancing, for instance, the autism/vaccine line, you have to also open the floor to all those who know better. I think we tread upon dangerous ground, though, once we start trying to control the flow of information and opinion. If free and open discussion will not work, what will? Closed and controlled discussion? The risks inherent in the latter, I think, are far greater than those posed by the former. But it ain't so because I say so. Time, I suspect, for a free and open discussion.

  3. To step back a bit, I think democracy is the root of the issue. Combining broad public control of policy with issues that require expertise to properly understand is something we haven't come to grips with yet. We're still the same folks who farmed, fished and lived in little huts, counting on the King to make the bigger decisions. In general it seems the most reasonable approach usually wins out eventually - but often at great time and expense. Perhaps that's the price that must be paid for all citizens having a voice. (But then, don't we already pay for our citizens to be educated in order to avoid basic factual arguments?)

    As a real-world example, in my own area of nuclear energy public (mis)understanding of the relative dangers of radiation is a huge factor in cost, which is paid by all consumers of electricity. It has also lead to simplistic counter-arguments that are nearly as disingenuous, and knee-jerk dismissals of some concerns that may be legitimate. Fixed polarization has become the norm, versus thoughtful consideration and debate. How can this situation can be corrected?

    The only sure-fire way I see to solve this problem is for the alien overlords to arrive. Soon.

  4. Je pense que "the alien overlords" and "overlaidees" arrived many moonbeams ago; and, the result, quite simply, resides in the fact we are free to do as we are told. Nothing more, nothing less. Full stop.

    Guess who gets to be on top?

  5. Anonymous4:06 PM

    Frank, you really would not credit what is out there and the behaviour of these people. I definitely do not advocate censorship. No more do I advocate vilification, threats and intimidation because one does not agree with crazy views. And I also do not equate ability to craft a persuasive argument (eg Nigel Lawson) with scientific reality.

  6. I think sometimes in the public sphere there isn't a clear recognition of the difference between always debatable subjects and those that have a right answer that is fixed in time/space/math/repeatability rather than just belief. Access to health care, or the correct balance of taxation have no exact "right" answer and can be debated endlessly, but the earth being round or the fact that some bacteria strains become resistant to antibiotics can't really be debated anymore. Not everything is open to belief and interpretation if one wants to live in a modern world. On the other hand, much of modern science is statistical and based on always imperfect data, which leaves it open to reasonable criticism (via the scientific method). Unfortunately, to some this can imply that any criticism, even the silliest, is a valuable part of the process.

    Comedian Stephen Colbert has postulated the concept of "Wikiality" - that is: "together we can create a reality that we all agree on—the reality we just agreed on." The premise of wikiality is that reality is what the Wiki says it is. If enough people support a Wikipedia entry that the population of African Elephants has tripled in the last six months, then it must be true. While this concept does work if you're talking about things with no right answer (if we all think we have good health care, then we do), it seems there's a popular demand sometimes to extend it to things that have a fixed value independent of belief.

    I continue to scan the skies.

  7. Ah, I can only think and quote Bloom:

    "I am exhausted, abandoned, no more young. I stand, so to speak, with an unposted letter bearing the extra regulation fee before the too late box of the general postoffice of human life."

    Reality? A collective illusion we agree to agree exists. Is all. Nothing more. Never less. None of this exists since we only see the past. Scan the horizon; but, the ineluctable modality of the visible will bite you in the arse every time :).

    Maxine, I cannot say what you have so eloquently expressed any better; thus, I shall simply add you're so right, it's frightening. Perhaps the analogy of the difference between art and pornography's instructive, p'raps not; but, freedom of expression does not mean meandom in the queendom (nor kingdom). Never has, never will. We all agree to give up some elements of "freedom" in order to co-exist peacefully (which still doesn't happen, ISTM).

    But, well done, MaxineGrrl, M'Dear Darlin' One. There is abso-deffo a difference between censorship and a sinking sensible ship, IOW. I'm with you on the deck of life; and, in that spirit, I shall exercise my freedom of expression by knowing when to up-shut :).

  8. Hi Maxine,
    I certainly agree that clever argumentation is not enough (that is mere rhetoric anyway). And of course there is the question of why anyone would grant a forum to someone advocating ideas (a vaccine-autism connection, for instance) that are not only wrong, but dangerous. The editor of a publication not only is not obliged to publish anything anyone submits, it is assumed he exercises some judgment regarding it. My own view would be to be suspicious overall of a publication that gave space to nefarious views. God knows there are plenty of crazy ideas we could do without. I simply do not trust control of such to the political class.