Science Journalism, or, at some point you just believe

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Ann Coulter saysJapan’s nuclear troubles are good news. This could be phrased as “Ann Coulter says something pseudo-provacative. It’s her job.”

Reading the article, I cringe , of course, for the researchers whose work she is overzealously extending at best. No one wants to be known as that guy who said nuclear meltdowns are the bomb.

But there’s another side to this that’s more disturbing than the traditional ‘mainstream media screws up science.’ Most Americans, regardless of their education level, will not be able to go to the source in this case. Even a nuclear physicist will likely have to take someone’s word for it. That person might not be Ann Coulter, but it will be someone used as a proxy for “reliable” information.

The obvious problem: how to decide what information comes from a reliable source? This sounds easy in some sense – I might be unable to tell you my criteria for reliability, but if you ask me which of two sources is more reliable, I can give you an opinion very quickly. But every person has a different (implicit) reliability filter. Thus different opinions arising out of the same set of facts. It’s not just that we apply the facts of a situation to our own internal reasoning model, but that we suppress or exaggerate each set of facts to reaffirm our worldview (e.g. “yeah, but… that came from Ann Coulter, and she’s full of shit”).

This all is known and pretty clear. But if you asked me why I thought her article was so horrendous, if I’m honest with myself it’s because it was written by Ann Coulter. Hence the issue.

There are two kinds of revisions to scientific knowledge: the first is when something is found to be obviously wrong. It’s changed. The second is where something is extended or generalized. An example is Special Relativity. Newtonian Mechanics still works great, except for near-light-speed velocities. Newton wasn’t wrong per se, he was just not as correct as Einstein. Great. But the problem is that learning special relativity is very time consuming. Add to that 50 other subjects. I’ll just believe, thanks.

At some point, I just take someone’s word for it. How do I know to trust them? They are professors at an elite institution. Why are they professors at elite institutions? Because people trust….oh. You get the point. I will not say that the pursuit of knowledge is futile. Far from it. But BIG THINGS that affect my life, like radiation, are more and more by necessity left to others to interpret.

Way back when, if WarLeader wanted to attack Village Number 2, I could reasonably assess whether this was smart. I might not be able to do anything about it, but I could at least form a reasonable opinion. Now, luckily, we can make decisions about 1000 times more things, from which electrical power source (!) to which medicine to use, only we can form less and less certain opinions regarding their effects.

I really want to blame Ann Coulter. But Ann Coulter is not the problem. Good science is.  

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8 Responses to Science Journalism, or, at some point you just believe

  1. Dan Dravot says:

    I’d actually give primitive man less credit than you do: He may have known a bit about the probable success of a raid on the neighbors, but on virtually everything else, he was stuck trusting the local medicine man’s Unified Theory of Giant Sky Turtles Making it Rain, or whatever.

    What has changed is that the information *we* take on faith isn’t guaranteed to be wrong.

  2. Pastabagel says:

    I think we all do this; it’s impossible not to. But it exists at a level much closer to science. Einstein discovered that E=mc^2. But he also said “God does not plat dice with the universe.” in the mind of the public, both statements are well known. But the first is a statement of science, delivered in the language of science, while the latter is a statement of a scientist about his perception of science throughout the lens of his religion. The former does not require us to make any conclusions about Einstein’scredibility the latter relies entirely on his credibility which in turn derives heavily from his fame and status as a public figure to have you perceive a statement about religion as a statement of science.

    Statements about science are not science, and they are subject to the same biases and agendas as statements by people about everything else.

    • Dirk Anger says:

      Actually, Einstein didn’t believe in God, he just believed that nature existed with a real order, and that if something looks random, you aren’t looking close enough.

      Turned out he was wrong about it, since when you look close enough you enter Quantum Physics and its ireducible randomness.

      It’s a good thing not to trust even one of the greatest scientists of all time, even when talking about science, if he’s not talking in the language of science (that is, as you say, making science).

      There was also that thing with the cosmologic constant where he admitted to have screwed up, only in recent years it seems to have been reintroduced as the only way to explain how the universe’s expansion is accelerating (it should be slowing down due to gravity)

  3. DataShade says:

    Was it Asmiov’s Foundation trilogy where he introduced a character who was a well-respected scholar, a famed diplomat and powerful politician, head of a wealthy bloodline, a man whom everyone loved and respected and deferred to? A man who, when the protagonists actually had to deal with him directly, turned out to be famous for reading old books and forgotten studies, and drawing new conclusions without ever even attempting to examine the primary sources, he just overwhelmed peer-reviewers with his piles of citations and his titles.

  4. Frozen says:

    I agree with the first comment. People have always been swayed by demagogues and easy answers. A lack of an accurate measure of reliability has been an issue throughout history.

    While there are definitely too many topics to check the facts on all of them, I would argue most of the population simply doesn’t bother to do so for any. How many people who read the Ann Coulter article actually looked up radiation hormesis?

    Ann Coulter isn’t the problem, it’s her audience (or a substantial portion thereof).

    • Dan Dravot says:

      The first comment didn’t mention demagogues or easy answers. 5,000 years ago, the best available information, provided by people with the best of motives doing their damnedest to figure things out, was almost pure garbage. Nowadays, on some subjects, it’s not pure garbage. On other subjects it is. This is the crucial point: There are things you and I believe on the best possible authority, solemn things which Good People all agree about, which are clueless and idiotic as a witchdoctor’s theory of rain.

      If you’re about to assure me that you’re immune because you’re not one of the people who disagree with you about politics, or because you’re on the same side of some overhyped cultural-signifier divide as all the people who aren’t on the other side — well, then, as TLS would say, This Is Meant for You.

  5. BHE says:

    We are overwhelmed by information and overwhelmed by choice. It makes it almost impossible to feel like you can make a rational decision about anything, be it a politician or a toothpaste. The amount of coping mechanisms we have invented to deal with this modern dilemma should be a subset of psychology in itself. Clearly though Arm & Hammer total whitening is the right move.

  6. whowashere says:

    I actually think the problem is a little different. Although of course I agree with your point, I think what’s ultimately true about this situation is that no one knows the extent of the damage or the dangers: the disastrous after effects of Chernobyl were deeply exacerbated by USSR cover up, although cancer rates among Hiroshima/Nagasaki survivors seem pretty unequivocal. But the problem isn’t that all we have to refute Anne Coulter is trusting someone else, the problem is the impulse to refute Anne Coulter. What the right in America has done so successfully for so many years is frame the debate. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, as long as you make a point whose opposite still fulfills your desires.

    In other words: Anne Coulter argues radiation is good, and everyone else has to throw full force behind “radiation is bad”, and when that becomes the battle line, it’s simply and obviously clear that she’s wrong, to everyone, pretty much. But then everyone excepts the thesis that this “argument” actually encapsulates: Nuclear power is an eminent threat to human health. If you don’t want energy reform policy, the best thing to argue is not that oil is good but rather, perversely, that “well, if we need to tack away from oil, we should except the inevitable destruction of life from all other forms of power as good.”

    The right have been masterful Hegelians of the media. They argue the antithesis whose thesis produces their desired synthesis.