Tuesday, 10 November 2009

What is "Fair and Balanced?"

During my life I developed the need to be adequately informed on many subjects. Therefore I read as much as I can on those topics. My main interests are broadly speaking biology, literature, medicine, politics and technology.  On top of that I try and visit blogs I consider highly sceptical towards manufactured controversies. Based on that, and on my personal experience, I cannot help but wonder whether those involved are insufficiently informed or willfully blind.

In later posts I will discuss violating the "we are all entitled to our own opinion but not to our own facts"-doctrine in more detail, as it relates to several so-called controversies. Some examples, as preview, are:

Medicine vs. Quackery:
It is not uncommon for people to adhere to all sorts of alternative medicine. In general I respect people's right to choose any therapy they feel best suits them. Unfortunately they are often "converted" by advocates that claim the most outlandish and inherently unscientific nonsense about -among other things- cancer, homeopathy and vaccinations. Much of that has already, and repeatedly, been disproven, but unfortunately that in itself is used as evidence of the global conspiracy to suppress those inconvenient facts that endanger the medical community's hegemony. Supporters of alternative medicine are so absorded in their beliefs, and so resistent to reality, that they behave like religious zealots. That is: being opposed to evidence based medicine is the new "True Faith."  Confronted with the possibility that spending time with fake "health care providers" may cause a belated diagnosis and therapy, or even result in withholding a required medical intervention, I have mixed feelings towards how to deal with this form of misinformation. Bottom line is: if it endangers the life of individuals it moves from deluded advise into criminal territory.
Evolution vs. Intelligent Design:
For decades evolution has been considered settled science, although it might conflict with religious dogma. The faithful have invented strategies, for ideological reasons alone, to get rid of this theory. Creationism was intended as "balance" but was soon replaced with Intelligent Design. Many supporting the "teach the controversy"-meme do not know (that information has escaped them) that at several levels ID cannot be considered science.
Roughly speaking to be science something has to have:  a) a theory: some sort of explanation for what we see -i.e. germ theory-, b) this theory has to be supported by experiment: through some sort of test we must be able show that our explanation is compatible with what we observe, c) we then subject ourselves to peer review: by writing down a "recipe" others are able to replicate our experiment and comment on it. After our theory cannot be falsified -i.e. shown to be false- d) this theory is accepted as "scientific fact." e) This scientific theory can only be refuted, or augmented, by a new theory that is required to also adhere to these points.
ID fails on all levels. First, it is not an explanation for the world around us. It merely states that science, at present, does not have all the answers. Ergo, a creator (god - who else) exists. Second, there is no known experiment in which this "intelligence" can be shown. Third, no peer review article has ever been published. Failing all this ID proponents argue that we should not judge it by the same standards as other forms of science. In other words: I am lousy at tennis and to compensate I should be allowed to use my hands and feet, and only for me no ball will be called "out." Of course, nobody would call this behaviour "playing tennis." By the same token we should not call actions that need a different book of rules science. By definition under the scientific method everybody, regardless of the topic, has to play by the same rules.
Also, ID proponents excell in debating tricks they use to muddy the water. Despite their vehement, and very vocal, objections a court of law has established that ID is religion posing as science.
Real Life Threatening Events vs. War on Terror Demagoguery:
We were told that the attacks of 9-11 were something new, there was a new kind of war and that if we did not intervene the world would be destroyed. Amazingly, hysteria took hold of our planet resulting in many silly and often counterproductive, if not previously illegal, actions that are known today as the "War on Terror." Strangely enough, were we to look in a more factual manner, leaving hyperbole and fearmongering behind us, we might discover much of the WoT is based upon non-existing, or by governments created, risks.
First, terrorism was not invented on 9-11. Many people had already died before that day because of the R.A.F., the I.R.A., F.A.R.C., E.T.A, to name but a few. Despite that knowledge people told us to forget about historical events and accept this attack as a novel concept: terrorism. Confronted with this we are told that terrorism itself is not new, but that as global organisation, operating like multinationals such as Shell and Microsoft, Al-Qaeda totally changed terrorism. This ignores the fact that Al Qaeda, before and after 9-11, never was a multinational-like organisation. At best it consists of a conglomerate of seperate entities with their own disputes and goals. The notion there exists an international movement with one goal, and one supreme leader (Osama bin Laden), has repeatedly been disproven by investigations: i.e. the attacks in London and Madrid.
Second, even accepting the premise, there is such a worldwide organisation, does not negate the fact that at best terrorism kills a few thousand people annually. If we look into the causes of death within the U.S. to ascertain the actual, as opposed to the perceived, risk for someone in the U.S. to die in 2006, in general terrorism presents a negligable threat. These figures show that a total of 2,426,264 people died in that year. Of these the following are the top killers in absolute numbers: heart disease 631,636, cancer 559,888, cerebrovascular diseases 137,119, accidents 121,599, diabetes 72,449, influenza and pneumonia 56,326, gun violence 30,000. To put this in perspective: terrorism has claimed about 3,000 lives in the U.S., including the christian anti-abortion killers, in the preceding ten years! Globally speaking the prevalence (total number of cases within the world population) of big preventable killers is: cardiovascular (17.5 million in 2005), hunger (9.7 million children < age 5 in 2006), injuries ( 2.6 million in people aged 10—24 in 2004), HIV/AIDS (2 million in 2007), tuberculosis (1.75 million in 2007), malaria (881,000 in 2006) measles (197,000 in 2007),  et cetera. Oddly enough, eventhough we could easily save millions of lifes each year if we tackled these conditions with the same vigour and hysteria, nobody sees the need to scare us by reporting on them, or by demanding new laws, or spending extra money.
Third, for whatever reason, even suggesting terrorism might not be haphazard but may be related to something else is by definition a no-go area. The best example is Israel. Regardless of how many times it is established Israel is violating international law, the mere fact their opponent (du jour) is doing the same absolves Israel from any responsibility to adhere to the law.
Fourth, more and more the use of the term terrorism is an example of doublespeak. it has an ever expanding, and never consistent, definition, that without exception conforms to our self-interests.

Journalism vs. Propaganda:
Most newsarticles, and programs I watch, appear to be suffering from the same shortcoming. The notion that to be "Fair and Balanced," i.e. truly objective, a journalist must only present both sides, with equal time, to any debate. Or, to use Glenn Greenwald's description, journalists function as stenographers. On the surface this sounds like responsible reporting. Looking into this principle more closely reveals a disturbing way of thinking that equates facts with opinion. Or, to put it differently, communis opinio on "objective reporting" is that confronted with facts and opinion it is not a journalist's job to determine what is what, "we report, you decide."  Also, pertinent information is not infrequently, yet always coincidentally, omitted and therefore absent from the story. Immediately the unsuspecting reader/viewer notices that this attitude deprives us of what should be the principal goal for any journalist: removing distractions, misrepresentations and propaganda in order to accurately report what happens in the world around us. To me it is neither fair, nor balanced, to report fabricated stories, or artificial controversies -i.e. evolution, global warming, vaccination, the shape of the earth, the holocaust, whether HIV causes AIDS, et cetera- as if there is any significant scientific debate between proponents and denialists of a certain subject. This way the newsmedia confuse us and, intentionally or not, legitimise refuting the scientific method, as principal mode of acquiring knowledge, while promoting crankscience.
With this in mind I feel less than optimistic towards our ability as species to rise above ideological constraints and start discussing in a more realistic (read: rational) way: i.e. based upon facts and adhering to the scientific principle.

A summary of the madness can be found on a flowchart from Lounge of the Lab Lemming:

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