Thursday, 13 January 2011

Facts are overrated anyway

This blog was started to share my thoughts on science, rationality and why they are continuously attacked. Today I am convinced intra-personal psychological processes create the caustic responses from humans that are confronted with scientific conclusions which contradict their ideology.

Even before I began writing this blog I was not impressed by what journalists produce. Knowing a little about medicine I was repeatedly surprised by the either outdated, incomplete, or even incorrect articles I read covering medicine. When I became a resident I was taught how to read, and write, articles. In every hospital I worked we would discuss two articles from medical journals -i.e. NEJM, JAMA, Annals of Internal Medicine, BMJ, Intensive Care Medicine, et cetera- on a weekly basis. By talking about the strenghts, and weaknesses, of the article this has increased my critical thinking skills. Undoubtedly one of the reasons this ritual is part of hospital life.

Unfortunately this is not part of journalist school. As such I wonder how this may influence the viability of nonsensical ideas in society. The type of journalism media currently practice does the general public a disservice by making the "fair-and-balanced"-fallacy a popular point of view. This doctrine increases the dumbing down of society, which has given us numerous absurd opinions. Also, the need for celebrities to engage in misinforming the public has devastating effects. Terri Judd, for The Independent, writes about these effects and on how the public sees manufactroversies. To illustrate the spread of the "I-refuse-to-adequately-inform"-virus, within the media, below are stories covering different topics that fall within the "facts-are-to-be-treated-as-opinions"-category.

Regarding vaccines:
Just recently there was a concerted effort to counter the misinformation being spread by the infectious-disease-promotion-movement. It was hugely successful. So much so that today radiostations have been enlisted to help keep us scared of science. One wonders how effective the fearmongerers would be without the complicit media wich refused to point out the numerous, and huge, inaccuracies being presented as facts. A review by David Gorski of:
two — count ‘em, two! — books taking a skeptical, science-based look at vaccines and, in particular, the anti-vaccine movement.
can be found here. Astonishingly, even after Brian Deer in a leading medical journal concluded the father of the current infectious-disease-promotion-movement, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, made up the article which started the recent anti-vaccination scare journalists refuse to discard the "fair-and-balanced"-doctrine. As Cyril Washbrook, for MediaSpy, reminds us:
As Ben Goldacre notes in a well-known critique of the media's reporting on the issue, the so-called "quality" press stood shoulder-to-shoulder alongside trashy tabloids in peddling fears that lacked a credible basis.
What does the Serious Reporter do?:
But even now, purportedly respectable media outlets continue to trot out their post-modernist, we-shall-never-adjudicate routine, showing that the lessons have not been learned. Step forward, CNN.
A now-retracted British study that linked autism to childhood vaccines is an "elaborate fraud," according to a medical journal - a charge the physician behind the study vigorously denies.
Note the immediate establishment of the basic heuristic: one person says the study is a fraud, the other person says it isn't. Unsurprisingly, the entire article proceeds along these very lines. Wakefield says it's a smear campaign; the BMJ says it's a genuine exposé. Wakefield says Deer has been paid off; Deer says he's independent.
There is no sign journalists realise that informing one's audience about the veracity of claims, not merely reporting the claims themselves, is what journalism should be about.

Regarding the placebo-effect:
We all have heard of the placebo-effect. A recent study suggests we underestimate the power of the placebo. According to what has been reported in the media it works even when patients are aware they are taking fake medicine. Predictably, the popular press has not been sceptical enough, as Orac points out.
I don't have a huge problem with the study. After all, it's a pilot study. The biggest problem I have is with how the study is being sold to the press, as though it were evidence that placebo effects can really be triggered without at least some degree of deception. It shows nothing of the sort.
More on this by PalMD and David Gorski.

Evolution is not science:
Once Darwin irked the religious with his theory their response has been: attack, attack, and attack. The reason for this is clearly their fear science might prove The Bible is not The Truth. One can imagine religion being shown to be nothing more than mythology. The horror. There was initially the Scopes trial and recently through slight of hand, introducing the sciency sounding reincarnation of creationism: Intelligent Design. Despite the fact ID has been shown to violate the basics of science they keep claiming this is proof of an Evil Atheist-plot to take over the world. Surely, the media have come to the rescue by promoting, and continuing, the teach-the-controversy-fallacy. Still, I am waiting for journalists to use this argument to report on the Holocaust-controversy, and the Flat-Earth-controversy.

Regarding global warming:
Despite the fact the science is settled ideologues keep telling us AGW is a hoax. An example of inadequate reporting is Climategate. This purportedly showed a conspiracy of scientists to keep The Truth from us. A fact journalists felt compelled to share with us. After it became abundantly clear this was not the case, and the scientific method was exonerated, the media could not be bothered to share that with us. At least, not with the same zeal, and headlines, as the alleged corruption. 

War of Terror:
The breakdown of journalistic standards became painfully apparent when the Bush administration was allowed to make the wildest accusations towards Iraq. Worse, the media themselves were the main purveyors of misinformation. Even today, while those claims have turned out to be unsupported by the then available evidence, the media are incapable of learning from that experience. Like Saddam then both Iran and Julian Assange are now The Biggest Threat In The World. Again, no questions are asked to counter that premise.

Political discourse in the US:
For decades it has been bon ton in the US, and it is spreading beyond its borders, to use the most antagonistic and inflammatory ways of discussing topics. It is called freedom of speech. In short, use ad hominems and never relevant arguments. Politicians, and newsmedia, have engaged in sharp descriptions of individuals. After Obama became President of the US the Republicans, their ministry of truth, and other supporters have used terms like traitors, terrorists, un-american (and much more) to describe members of the Democratic Party. Then, this week, a Democrat was shot. In light of the recent rhetoric by the political Right some have suggested a correlation with the toxic political climate. While it is difficult to prove any causality one has to be blind to ignore the possibility. In the words of Mike the Mad Biologist:
As I've said before, words do have meaning. Words should have meaning: if they don't, then do us all a favor and shut up. I believe Representative Trent Franks. I believe them when Rush Limbaugh and his millions of regular listeners believe we're the problem. And the anti-abortion movement has shown what happens when people post cross-hairs over people's names.
So let's not be so concerned with civility, but instead demand honesty and accuracy. That will serve us far better.
He also discusses a NYT article, by Matt Bai, on the shooting which employs the usual "but-both-sides-do-it"-meme.
........, John Cole succinctly sums it all up:
And then my personal favorite: "He was just crazy!" No shit. You have to be crazy to walk into a crowd of people and start spraying bullets, killing a bunch of elderly people and a little kid. That is crazy.
The point we have been trying to make for the last couple of years is that Republicans need to stop whipping up crazy people with violent political rhetoric. This is really not a hard concept to follow. There are crazy people out there. Stop egging them on.
The problem Bai has is that, if you report the obvious story--Republicans have been engaged in eliminationist and exclusionary rhetoric that has some of the hallmarks of fascism--there's nothing new there. It doesn't establish you as a 'contrary' thinker who comes up with devastating counterintuitive insights. But if you can 'establish' (even though you actually can't) that the Left does it too, then you have something different to say.
Another comment on the incident is made by We Beasties:
There's been plenty of talk about the violent rhetoric that's been spewed for the last 2 years, and many have blamed talk radio, Sarah Palin's map with cross-hairs over congressional districts (including congresswoman Giffords') and the like, and I don't have much to add on that front. There's been no direct connection, and there may never be, but I find it hard to believe that this atmosphere of violent hatred had nothing to do with this gunman's actions.
If you are wondering how this relates to my criticism on journalism I refer you to the fact-free, and at times delusional, opining by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and many others which contributed to this climate. In all fairness, yes: they are not journalists but propagandists. Responding to the "the-guy-must-be-crazy"-view, by David Brooks, We Beasties notes:
Vaughan Bell has a devastating critique of this sort of thinking in Slate, noting that the most complete scientific research on the effects of mental illness show very little increase in risk of violent behavior.
More on mental health and violence can be found here.

Wikileaks exposes journalists as not doing their jobs:
As I noted before without the massive failure of journalism we would not have Wikileaks. Their recent disclosures appear to be based on Bradley Manning, who allegedly confessed to a total stranger, Adrian Lamo. His newfound friend then turned informant, and contacted Wired. Note the curious treatment he recieves while he is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. This tellingly has led the U.N. to start an investigation.

To aid those favouring all sorts of conspiracies Wired refuses to confirm, or deny, the ever changing narrative being told by Adrian Lamo. Kept hidden from us, by Wired, is how he met Manning and what his relationship is with journalist Poulsen, quoth Greenwald:
That's what so much "journalism" now is:  a means of shielding secrets from the public -- usually to protect friends and the agendas of "sources" to ensure further access.  Ironically, it is that very mentality -- the Cult of Secrecy that American journalism has become -- that gave rise to the need for WikiLeaks in the first place.
He concludes:
The chat logs that Wired has but is withholding -- and about which they are refusing to comment -- are newsworthy in the extreme.  They cannot but shed substantial light on what really happened here, on the bizarre series of events and claims for which there is little evidence and much cause for doubt.  I expect government officials to shield the truth from the public and to conceal key evidence and facts.  But those who claim to be journalists should not be aiding in that effort.  Wired is doing exactly that.
Totally unsuspected the media in general also fail to tell about Wikileaks without incorporating copious amounts of inaccurate statements. How journalists, in this story, have become the voice of the Obama administration's PR-department is described by Greenwald. Of course, Wikileaks does things real journalists never do, they endanger lifes, or this is what we are being told. Therefore we should not be afraid of governments limiting free speech for the real media, who never publish secret information. Strangely enough The NYT itself is now endangering National Security with a new article. In the words of Greenwald:
In The New York Times today, Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins expose very sensitive classified government secrets -- and not just routine secrets, but high-level, imminent planning for American covert military action in a foreign country.
He rhetorically asks:
The question that emerges from all of this is obvious, but also critical for those who believe Wikileaks and Julian Assange should be prosecuted for the classified information they have published: should the NYT editors and reporters who just spilled America's secrets to the world be criminally prosecuted as well?  After all, WikiLeaks has only exposed past conduct, and never -- like the NYT just did -- published imminent covert military plans.  Moreover, WikiLeaks has never published "top secret" material, unlike what the NYT has done many times in the past (the NSA program, the SWIFT banking program) and what they quite possibly did here as well.
Just to remind us of what we have learned because of Dah Evil Wikileaks, which Real Journalists failed to uncover, read this, this, this, and this.

With the above in mind, combined with the numerous examples I left out, what I notice about journalism today is that it does not matter what you are writing about, to be seen as a Serious Reporter the following characteristics are mandatory:
  1. There are always two sides to a story, 
  2. In the absence of any dispute pretend there is one, and present any discredited view as if the topic is still debated: failing to point out opposing opinions is a tell-tale sign of bias, hence point 1,
  3. Never point out any incorrect statements, or factual inaccuracies, by the parties involved: that would be taking sides, 
  4. Never reveal anything that damages those in power, i.e. see the hounding of anybody even remotely linked to Wikileaks. Limit your reporting to nefarious pawns and your career is a guaranteed success. 
  5. Never explicitly admit error on your part,
  6. A source is anyone who shares information with you, regardles of its veracity or factual accuracy,
  7. Expertise, or lack thereof, should not influence your decision to use a source, i.e. expert opinion is equivalent to that from laymen, and celebrities, which have studied at the University of Google,
  8. A priori you are required to keep the identity of a source, and any possible conflict of interest on their and your part, from the public. Especially when it turns out your source willfully lied to you in order to advance a political agenda,  
  9. Should you feel overly generous you might include ad hominems, straw men, and other invaluable arguments to get rid of those annoying people trying to steer the article/interview into a more rational position.
Concluding, the abysmal state of reporting is not limited to scientific manufactroversies. As long as journalism school teaches the above characteristics there will be the need for organisations that understand the adagium Serious Reporters find tedious and outdated:
is this a reasonable representation of the facts (NB: opinions do not equal facts) involved, and am I merely reporting a story, or is my reporting the story? In other words, is this a realistic portrayal of the facts involved and can it be supported by independent reliable sources?
Are the media to blame for all that is evil? No, but their habit of having propaganda pose as news is certainly not helping us in making informed decisions, i.e. should I vaccinate, or who do I vote for, does The Law look backward? Those on Planet Reality need to keep pointing out that they sure act like willful footsoldiers in the War on Reason and Sanity.

Update: Nice reading tip on "making mistakes," by We Beasties, for non-journalists too. Also, amended post slightly.

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