Saturday, March 27, 2010

The two cultures

The phrase has lived on as a vague popular shorthand for the rift—a matter of incomprehension tinged with hostility—that has grown up between scientists and literary intellectuals reporters in the modern world.
Real Climate has both the contra and the really contra about coverage of climate issues and the pro, James Randerson defending the Guardian. Who amongst us can forget Leakgate, and Andy Revkin, although not donning the hair shirt is trying to make nice, and getting it, even when he is not getting it. And, of course, Michael Tobis, invented reporter concern blogging.

So, what's going on Eli asks?

Well, IEHO, there is a disjunction, but it's a strange one. Scientists can't figure out why reporters keep giving space to denialists who keep on burning them and, of course, the denialists keep on burning them and the reporters keep on taking it.


Adrian Cockcroft said...

Something seems to be missing from this sentence: "donning the hair shirt is , and getting it, "

Horatio Algeranon said...

Scientists can't figure out why reporters keep giving space to denialists who keep on burning them

Horatio would disagree just a bit.

Most scientists seem to have "figured out" that the primary problem is that false "balance" has become pervasive with science reporting in the US (as with reporting in general)

Scientists may be astonished when they see the NY Times quoting Christopher Monckton as a climate expert, but the real astonishment is not that the reporter is quoting the "other side", just that they chose a complete crackpot (who would call a Jewish climate activist a "Hitler youth") to represent the "alternative" (universe?) view.

What the scientists have yet to "figure out" is how best to deal with the false balance, other than to dispense* with the "middleman" (science reporter) entirely when trying to inform the public.

*Not literally, of course. Horatio is not suggesting the "concrete shoes/Hudson River" treatment for Revkin (Horatio could not carry the cement bags, even if he so desired)

guthrie said...

But most of the reporters are under pressure to produce x hundred or thousand words of entertaining drivel for the next newspaper, and given also the false balance problem, probaby don't even know they are contributing to the decline of the press. The rot really started getting worse in the 1990's, long before the internet took over as a news source, when the corporations started running newspapers as cash cows rather than as newspapers.

So basically our enemy here is not the reporters so much as the newspaper owners and their pawns the editors, who will continue to press for 'controversial' rubbish to fill the newspapers as long as there is no punishment for doing so and people keep buying the newspapers.

Robert Grumbine said...

The larger papers have always been run for cash. They've also always been run for the betterment of what the owner wanted -- look up Hearst and his papers, or McCormick and the Chicago Tribune. Murdoch is far from the first.

There was an odd period between the end of World War II and ... pick a date, say 1980. In that atypical span, there were still enough small papers around to provide alternative views. And still multiple large papers in any given large city. Plus, most importantly, journalists thought they were working on finding what was true and writing that up.

The thing that brought in the false balance goal was less the big papers being run for cash, and more that journalists got infected by postmodernism in school. In postmodernist view, there is no truth, just stories. Balance means telling 'both' stories, which in postmodernist viewpoint is as close to good as you can get.

all imho, of course.

guthrie said...

Penguindreams - indeed, but I wasn't going to go so far back as the 20's, and it was the specific after WW2 period that I was comparing things to, although in some ways in the 20's the abuse was much more obvious in those days, see for example beaverbrooks attacks on Trenchard.

I'm not so sure about the journalists being infected with post-modernism though, partly because nobody I've ever read has commented on it, including normal and campaigning journalists. It may however be much more of an american problem than a British one, which then spread over here without the original foundation of it. It would however be interesting to interrogate a journalist or three about it.

Horatio Algeranon said...

Here's one reporter (18 year old Caitlin Grey with Youth Radio) who is already well beyond most reporters in the US.

"Underneath a mask of seemingly benevolent requests for more discussion and viewpoints lie political, religious and corporate agendas that ultimately will hurt our nation's next generation, my generation. All it takes is one teacher to gloss over textbook science and overemphasize controversy, and more students will leave the classroom feeling confused about why polar ice caps are melting. These bills would let teachers get away with that. Open discussion" might sound like unicorns and rainbows, but underestimating the effects of climate change is going to bite our country in the butt - if not in time for today's lawmakers to notice, definitely by the time today's students are in charge of the country."
//end Caitlin Grey quote

Either many science (and other) reporters in the US never acquired the critical thinking skills (and common sense) that Grey already possesses at just 18, OR (what is far more likely), they have simply learned to keep their critical thinking at bay in pursuit of the the "higher good" of "balance".

One can only hope that Caitlin Grey will not follow that pattern.

Magnus said...

Well... In Sweden for the first time a few years ago the nr of PR Agencies are many more then the editor newsteams... Can't remember the source but much of what you see in media today are pitched by PR firms then re invented by other newspapers. Time is short and to get readers you need to be first and involve drama... and when the crap media have run it and angered the crowd the more sensible media also will run it...

Lets face it... to really get scientific questions lots of time is needed

Andy S said...

There was an article in Canada's Globe and Mail about declining journalistic standards.

“When journalism becomes nothing more than digital hits, the more provocative you are – often, the more obnoxious you are – the higher the hit count,” says Richard Gruneau, a Simon Fraser University professor who studies popular culture and media.

“In that sense, the system pressures you to become a dick. Who cares if what you say is good, let alone whether there is any truth in it or not? When everything becomes opinion, the most opinionated, most strident and least compromising ‘journalists' are the ones who rattle enough cages, or inspire enough like-minded devotees, to build the hit count.

“And if you can somehow get the people you piss off arguing with your devotees, then your hit count will really soar.”

Reporters keeping on taking it from denialists and others because that's what they get paid to do, get hit. The worst (I'm thinking about some at Canada's National Post and The Times) have become trolls and it may be time to stop feeding them by giving them the attention they crave.

Qu'ils crèvent la gueule ouverte! As the French delicately put it.

Horatio Algeranon said...

“When journalism becomes nothing more than digital hits, the more provocative you are – often, the more obnoxious you are – the higher the hit count,” says Richard Gruneau, a Simon Fraser University professor who studies popular culture and media.

That is undoubtedly what drives pundits like Sean Hannity and Anne Coulter, but much of the "balance" meme in journalism actually seems to be based on just the opposite: the desire not to be provocative.

namely, many reporters (and the organizations they belong to) do not not want to get attacked for "bias", so in order to avoid that, they bend over backwards to present "both sides" of every issue (even when there is really only one side: eg, the earth is round).

The irony is that in an effort to appear "unbiased" (by representing views on the other side that have nothing to do with the actual science), many reporters actually present a biased view of the science itself.

One thing about Caitlin Grey (linked to above) that stands out is that she is very upfront about being (in her own words) an "ardent environmentalist".

It is very rare for a reporter to make such an honest admission.

in fact most reporters would never do so because they are afraid that it would "taint" their science reporting and undermine their credibility.

They do not seem to understand that one can report accurately on science while maintaining a personal viewpoint

Let's face it, no one is completely "objective". Everyone has viewpoints , whether they admit it or not (eg, their own view that the IPCC most accurately represents the science).

Pretending otherwise -- ie, that one is somehow "above the fray" (that ones job is just to give all views and let people decide for themselves) is simply disingenuous.

The key is being honest enough to admit one's biases so that one's readers can take that into account if they so desire.

EliRabett said...

The postmodernists have taken over policy studies, for example, not to stir the feathers, Sarewitz and Nisbet. In that context, science, indeed facts, are only decorations for political arguments. This is actually a great fit with reporters, so the question becomes how to break the cycle. The great victory of the denialists and the post modernists has been to make the scientists cautious.

The attacks on Al Gore for any perceived exaggeration were the beginning of the problem, because the science folks all said, on the whole....., etc.

One has to be truthful, provocative and entertaining, and, oh yes, prepared to ridicule nonsense. The reply to Douglas et al., to McLean, de Freitas and Carter, took care of the science, but where are the press releases????

David B. Benson said...

The reporters are all aspiring to raise themselves and their papers to the level of the National Enquirer?

Anonymous said...

A bit off-topic, but in many ways a familiar story....


HONOLULU – Birthers beware: Hawaii may start ignoring your repeated requests for proof that President Barack Obama was born here.

As the state continues to receive e-mails seeking Obama's birth certificate, the state House Judiciary Committee heard a bill Tuesday permitting government officials to ignore people who won't give up.

"Sometimes we may be dealing with a cohort of people who believe lack of evidence is evidence of a conspiracy," said Lorrin Kim, chief of the Hawaii Department of Health's Office of Planning, Policy and Program Development.

So-called "birthers" claim Obama is ineligible to be president because, they argue, he was actually born outside the United States, and therefore doesn't meet a constitutional requirement for being president.

Hawaii Health Director Dr. Chiyome Fukino issued statements last year and in October 2008 saying that she's seen vital records that prove Obama is a natural-born American citizen.

But the state still gets between 10 and 20 e-mails seeking verification of Obama's birth each week, most of them from outside Hawaii, Kim said Tuesday.

A few of these requesters continue to pepper the Health Department with the same letters seeking the same information, even after they're told state law bars release of a certified birth certificate to anyone who does not have a tangible interest. Responding wastes time and money, Kim said.

Stephan Lewandowsky said...

Eli, this is OT but you may find it amusing:

Regards, Stephan Lewandowsky

Horatio Algeranon said...

"The great victory of the denialists and the post modernists has been to make the scientists cautious. "

The denialists have capitalized on the scientists' ordinary propensity to be cautious in their conclusions and statements (eg, the scientists standard inclusion of uncertainty and talk of need for further research)

The greatest victory of these folks would seem to be their success in playing up every cautious word uttered by scientists in order to create the atmosphere of FUD that currently envelops the public.

The campaign to emphasize "scientific uncertainty" to create "public uncertainty" (ie, doubt) has been extremely successful in the US, not least of all because most members of the public know so little about the scientific process and how "uncertainty" fits into that process.

Due at least in part to the FUD campaign, members of the public see "scientific uncertainty" as "Those scientists are not even sure themselves, so why should we trust anything they say? Especially after those emails..."

mike roddy said...

Good one, Horatio.

Revkin seems to be on his way to becoming an object of cult fascination, like his buddy Roger Pielke Jr.

We have tormented ourselves by trying to get in Andy's head over this: will he do anything for eyeballs? Does he think the reporter's creed is to be a neutral referee between Watts and Hansen? Is someone paying him?

My interpretation is the most charitable. Andy has not been able to figure out that Roger Pielke Jr. is an idiot. The conclusion about Andy's cognitive and journalistic abilities flows from that.