Saturday, March 12, 2011

Obviously Eli Has Torched a Nerve

Obviously Eli has torched a nerve with his polite inquiries about science journalism. Equally obviously there are a lot of people telling the journalists and their churnalist cousins, that journalism has a problem, and equally obviously, the recipients are in denial.

Now some, not Eli to be sure, although others would point out that Steve McIntyre comes to mind, would spend the rest of their lives, shall we say recapping all the nasty lies that some, not John Fleck to be sure, have been saying about him, and others would comment endlessly on the witches brew that the Tom Yulsman coven has cooked up. But, gentle readers, that is not Eli's way.

The current attempts to wash the issue from polite discussion is risible. Denial is not a river in Egypt. Defining the problem away by walling all the nonsense into the not journalism category is not even churnalism. So, as some, not Eli to be sure, have said, where does it go from here? Pecrhaps we need a . . . . .

UPDATE: Now that we have all decided that journalism is completely innocent and full of virtue (well a slight exaggeration), perhaps we will get off the kick that all scientists need to be sent to communications re-education camp?

Thought so.

Eli’s entire point was that if journalists are the master communicators, they should communicate, and as MT said, the fact that 1/3 to 1/2 the population believes in utter fables is a pretty good indication that something is not working. Moreover, the fact that fantasy rules in just about every area of human endeavor is a pretty good indication that the fault is not with the science part. What we have here folks is a failure to communicate.


badger badger badger said...

Sorry to repeat myself, but I think this comment, nay, mediation by thingsbreak bears reading, and is even more apropos here:

Belette said...

Just posting here to note that Scienceblogs is down at the moment, so I can't even read what I wrote much less stir up more trouble.

mike roddy said...

Someone needs to set up a monitoring service in order to call out all of the bad climate science coverage in mainstream media. CJR and SEJ appear to have abdicated, and maybe it's better to start fresh anyway.

There may be foundation money available for such an effort, since it would require several staffers to collect stories and evaluate them for accuracy. And yes, quoting charlatans like Watts and McIntyre for "balance" also qualifies as bad reporting of this issue. The monitoring service would have to be thorough, providing specific evidence pointing out flaws in all of the bad or misleading stories that appear daily.

Romm is pretty good here, and you and Grist dabble in it, but a more serious effort is needed. Unfortunately, for every good story here or on CP there are dozens of bad ones everywhere else. I'm open to suggestions on how to set up the infrastructure that will be required to pull this off. My knowledge is good enough for about 1/3 of the stories, but qualified scientists have to be on a full time staff.

If anyone is interested in helping make this happen, he can email me at

Martin Vermeer said...

The good thing about thingsbreak's comment is that he 'gets' the problem. Sadly, that is remarkable for something this obvious.

> qualified scientists have to be on a full time staff.

Full time may be a tall order. You'll also need folks that 'grok' journalism and the media landscape. And those two have to be talking together.

...and a lawyer...

Anonymous said...

scienceblogs has been "down" for me for a week..... having withdrawals.


J Bowers said...

I wonder if there's some kind of "Galileo by proxy" thing going on, where the journalist/editor knows they can boost readership by maintaining, courting, and/or publicising controversy. If the crankery is indisputably demonstrated to be bunk and rejected by all and sundry they get to say "Hey, I was only doing what everyone says I'm supposed to!" They still got the readership, though. But it's also a hedged bet where, if one crank turns out to be halfway right, they get to say "I backed that guy all along!"

In the meanwhile, some reading I came across...

* Wiki on False Balance
* Understanding Science - Beware of false balance: Are the views of the scientific community accurately portrayed?
* ABQ Journal News - Talking Dinosaurs and the False Balance Problem
Peak Energy - ABC Chairman Calls For False Balance
* Big Think - Analysis: Is the New "False Balance" Coverage of the Economic Impacts of Climate Change?
* Autism News Beat - Avoiding false balance, 60 Minutes nails con men

Perhaps, one day, some brave news outlet will openly declare they will no longer give equal time to experts, con artists, and/or the delusional on the basis of credibility. Someone has to do it, as it seems everyone's starting to get wise to the abuse. My money would be on The Guardian.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we need a IPCC PR and graphics team with experience working in the sciences to respond immediately to the faux journalism that is doing the rounds...

We also perhaps need MSM journalists to join a professional press council/association which requires them to have the appropriate qualifications, abide by certain standards and which has teeth to hold them accountable for misconduct should they not meet those standards. Failure to meet standards gets them fined and black listed. Mr. McIntyre is very pro engineering and they have professional standards/certification, so I'm sure that he will have no problem supporting a similar.

We do not need press councils which are comprised of journalists to pass judgement on each other. Experience has shown that that simply does not work, they are quite simply loathe to critique and call each other out for misconduct. The ones passing judgement have to be independent of the MSM.


EliRabett said...

Belette, please, if you want to stir up more trouble, just send Eli a note and he will post it. OTOH, on this side of the pond the bunnies see ScienceBlogs fine, so perhaps a note to Mr. Cameron is needed.

More quantum weirdness.

Martin Vermeer said...


the best journalists don't protect their sub-standard own. As don't the best scientists. Having journalists running this thing would have the merit of it being their own thing, with scientists (and lawyers) only in a supporting role.
But you do put your finger on a problem...

Russell said...

Now is the time for all good lagomorphs to swear allegiance to the IFC

The Inverse Fox Criterion was adduced at, and banned by WUWT last year:

You distort. We deride.

John said...

People believe some pretty weird things..

About half of Republicans think that Obama is not a US citizen, and the percentage reaches 60% among Tea Party activists.

According to a 2001 Gallup poll, about 45% of Americans believe that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." Another 37% believe that "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process",and 14% believe that "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process". [Thanks, Wikipedia!]

This is mainly an issue for U.S. fundamentalist Protestants. Liberal Protestants, Catholics, or Jews have no major problem with evolution.

Marion Delgado said...

From Unscientific America

And if you think politicians are bad, let's turn to the traditional news media, where attention to science is in steep decline. A 2008 analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that if you sit down to watch five hours of cable news, you will probably only see one minute's worth of coverage devoted to science and technology—compared with 10 minutes of celebrity and entertainment content, 12 minutes of accidents and disasters, and “26 minutes or more” of crime. From 1989 to 2005, meanwhile, the number of newspapers featuring weekly science or science-related sections shrank by nearly two-thirds, from 95 to 34. And since then both trends have continued or perhaps even accelerated: In 2008 the esteemed Washington Post killed its science page and CNN laid off its entire science, technology, and environment unit.

As a result of this upheaval, what we might broadly call science communication—the always problematic bridge between the experts and everybody else—is in a state of crisis. For even as business-driven cutbacks the “old” media are killing science content, the “new” media are probably hurting science as much as helping it. The Internet has simultaneously become the best and also the worst source of science information. Yes, you can find great science on the web; and yet you can also find the most stunning misrepresentations and distortions. Without the Internet, the modern anti-vaccination movement probably wouldn't exist, at least not in its current form. Jenny McCarthy, celebrity vaccine critic extraordinaire, is proud of her degree from the “University of Google.”

More generally, thanks to the Internet and ongoing changes in the traditional news industry, we increasingly live in an oversaturated media environment in which citizens happily pick and chose their own sources of information. This means they can simply avoid learning (or even hearing) anything meaningful about science unless they're already inclined to go looking for it—and most won't be. And they can shop online for “expertise” as easily as they can for Christmas gifts.

Steve Bloom said...

"the best journalists don't protect their sub-standard own"

Up to a point, Martin. Bear in mind that there's a network of personal relationships involved in addition to the natural tendency to circle the wagons, so e..g it's awfully hard to get one of his colleagues to criticize the crap that Andy Revkin frequently produces.

Further to Revkin, like Kloor much of his problem is due to his physical intuition about the science having become fixed ~10 years when things looked a lot more uncertain. As a consequence he tends to avoid or distort (usually via excessive "balancing") the increasing quantity of stories that point toward near-term danger.

(WV likes it!: "excel")

Steve Bloom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Bloom said...

Just to mention an idea I put forward over at JF's: The NAS, AG and/or AAAS should issue alerts to the media identifying and explaining the significance of key breaking climate news. Since it actually is hard for non-experts to tell the important from the obscure in all the climate-related press releases that go out, why not let's just cut to the chase and tell them?

Steve Bloom said...

Oh yes, anyone who thinks the "liberal" U.S. media establishment will be anything other than a tough nut to crack should take a lesson from the NPR Board's dismissal of its CEO without even bothering to view the uncut version of the video (ignoring the clear lesson of the Shirley Sherrod and ACORN video frauds, courtesy of the same producers). These are people who are going to think quoting Inhofe in climate stories makes for good balance.

Steve Bloom said...

Further to Marion's point, an advantage to my suggestion that the NAS/AGU/AAAS begin shepherding coverage is that inexperienced general assignment reporters will be able to produce acceptable stories from it. Yes, it's "channeling churnalism" as Eli might have it, but I truly can't think of anything else that would work.

ourchangingclimate said...


So the fact that 1/3 to 1/2 the population believes in utter fables and the fact that fantasy rules in just about every area of human endeavor are pretty good indications that the fault is not with the science part, but rather signifies a failure to communicate.

That would then mean the fault is not with climate science journalism, but with all science-related journalism? Hmm. That would suggest such a widespread fault with journalism that it almost rises to the level of a full blown conspiracy theory, no? I think something is missing here, though I appreciate that we’re both fulfilling our respective roles as whistleblower and devil’s advocate.

If large proportions of the public believe demonstrably silly things (such as young earth creationism or that the earth is the centre of the universe or that AGW is not happening), could that not be a sign that there’s something in human nature that makes them prone to believing silly (though comfortable) things? Humans may have big brains, but we’re by and large not very good at intuitively understanding things that we can’t directly observe (that probably wasn’t a highly needed survival skill during our evolution). Or is it something in our culture? Or the education system? Or a sign of decreasing IQ stemming from the secret ingredients big corporations put in our food? (just kidding)


ourchangingclimate said...

Uhm, I noticed that in my previous comment I was a little quick in equating "communcation" with "journalism".

J Bowers said...

Sir John Beddington was just interviewed on BBC news, and an expert panel (nuclear experts, academics, etc) that he arranged over the weekend concluded that even if a worst case scenario occurred it would be absolutely nothing resembling Chernobyl, with any radiation release lasting roughly an hour reaching around 500 metres up. Chernobyl lasted weeks or months, and reached tens of thousands of metres into the air.

J Bowers said...

Oops, wrong thread. Sorry Eli and John.

EliRabett said...

Bart, it is more an issue with journalism and blogs, really, as you say with communication and the balance between entertainment, propaganda and education. Journalism claims expertise in communication and therefore is a place where one could start. Public relations is quite happy to propagandize and entertain.

My grandfathers were born about about the time when the telephone was invented and universal literacy appeared in the West. Our means of communication have expanded a lot quicker than our capacity to deal with the stuff spewing out of the firehose. We have a systematic failure and the starting point is to recognize it. OTOH, McDonalds is everywhere and if you prefer coffee to cow, Starbucks

Steve Bloom said...

Bart, of course many people are predisposed to believe truly wacky stuff. Responsible media keep a lid on things by debunking or at least not repeating such material. In the U.S. just now, significant parts of the media are part of a propaganda machine aimed at reinforcing certain convenient falsehoods.

I thought it was very illuminating that John Fleck, the most responsible kind of journalist, just tried to argue (at his blog) that elite U.S. newspapers had behaved responsibly with regard to another of those memes, the health care "death panels," by publishing debunking articles at an early stage. It took me five minutes to prove him wrong using the example of the NY Times. Sure thay had published such an article, but then subsequent coverage reinforced the "death panel" meme.

As I also pointed out to him, running a debunking article and conforming future coverage to it still wouldn't be enough. What was needed was to call the politicians who first began promoting it what they are, which is liars, but of course the NYT is too polite to do that. One way this is justified at such outlets is by distinguishing coverage of a fact from coverage of political opinions about facts. And so it goes.

BTW, not long ago a smallish newspaper in Florida started something called PolitiFact devoted to properly debunking claims when they first hit the media at an early stage. That's great, but as I said to John the fact that there was a perceived need for such a thing is proof that the elite newspapers are failing at it.

BCC said...

mike roddy- does all the consolidation for you (with different ends in mind, of course). So the collection piece is taken care of.

So you just need a bot with minimal parsing skills that can map each article to the relevant Skeptical Science entry. Hire 3 (good) interns for the summer, and you're good to go!

Anonymous said...

News just in - Science Journalism Causes Global Warming.

'S true, I read it on the internets!11!!1

The Anonybilby