New Post on Dangerous Intersection

I've put up a new post on Dangerous Intersection, "The traditional media is dying".

This is an open thread. Comments and discussion are welcome.

May 14, 2008, 8:14 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink8 comments
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TV Review: Planet Earth

I recently finished watching Planet Earth, the award-winning BBC nature documentary series narrated by David Attenborough. As its title implies, Planet Earth is an effort of considerable ambition: the filmmakers set out to produce a series that would provide a survey of our world's natural grandeur and biodiversity. To a remarkable extent, I think they succeeded. Of course the full richness of Earth's biosphere could not be exhaustively chronicled, but this series touches on many of the high points. It sweeps across every region of the planet, documenting our world's remaining wildernesses and some of the more important species that live in them, in the process filming things that have never been caught on camera before. In its scientific breadth and scope, in the beauty it depicts, and in the reasons it gives us both to fear, and more importantly, to hope, Planet Earth compares favorably to Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

The series consists of eleven episodes, each of which chronicles a different type of ecosystem flourishing on our planet. Over the course of the series, we're taken from icy tundra and boreal forest to tropical jungle, from the rich shallow seas to the blackness of the ocean abyss, from soaring mountains to desolate deserts to the eerie dark worlds of the cave systems beneath the planet's surface. Each episode is fifty minutes, plus a ten-minute ending segment called "Planet Earth Diaries" that shows how some of the more difficult-to-obtain shots were filmed - a nice touch that gives one appreciation for the truly heroic dedication of the photographers who traveled to some of the most remote, wild areas of the planet, braving all manner of harsh and grueling conditions, and worked in some cases for weeks on end just to catch a few moments of action on film. Three additional episodes, collectively titled Planet Earth: The Future, make the case for conservation using footage from the series and interviews with prominent advocates for the environment.

But the focus of the show, as I said, is on the breathtaking natural beauty of our planet and the wonderful, intricate tree of life that flourishes upon it. I couldn't do justice to all the high points in this one post, but here are a few that particularly stood out to me:

The one caveat I would offer is that Planet Earth is a nature documentary, which means most of the sequences are of animals doing what animals normally do in the wild. If you're the kind of person who finds that boring, you'll probably be bored by this as well. There are plenty of hair-raising moments, but the purpose of the show is not to keep viewers constantly on the edge of their seat. Personally, I found it a spectacular glimpse of some of the Earth's last remaining places of wild beauty. If that description appeals to you, then I can safely say that you'll love Planet Earth, and I would definitely recommend it.

March 31, 2008, 11:15 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink17 comments
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The Keyhole

For much of human history, information was a rare and precious commodity. In pre-literate societies, the collected wisdom of the tribe - when the rains come, when is the best time to plant crops, what plants are best for illness - was passed down in oral format, requiring much diligent work of recitation and memorization. If the only person who knew something died in an accident, that bit of information was lost.

When writing was invented, the situation improved somewhat. Now important facts could be written down in books, and information could be passed even between people who had never met. When a person died, their knowledge did not have to die with them. Even so, the intensive labor involved in copying books ensured that they remained rare, and mostly the property of the rich. In any case, with writing came censorship, as churches and secular authorities sought to forbid people from possessing or reading books deemed to be dangerous. The most infamous example was the Catholic church's Index of Forbidden Books, which was richly stocked with the writings of history's greatest poets, philosophers and essayists. A glimpse into one historical episode shows how far the church would go in suppressing anything suspected to lead to heresy:

Of the principals, four were condemned to imprisonment for life. Ten others, priests and clerics, who had obstinately refused to retract their errors, after being publicly degraded, were delivered to the secular authority and suffered the penalty of death by fire. Five years later (1215) the writings of Aristotle, which had been distorted by the sectaries in support of their heresy, were forbidden to be read either in public or in private.

(Even today, it's worth noting, the official Catholic position is that the Index "retains its moral force" - this according to the man who is currently pope.)

After the invention of writing, the next most significant invention was the printing press. By turning transcription into a rapid, exact process, it led to an explosion of readily accessible printed material - the first true means of mass communication. The effects on society were profound. Not only did the printing press play a major role in breaking down the censorship of the Catholic church - its role in the distribution of Martin Luther's writing was an important cause of the Protestant Reformation - but it also helped to give rise to the Scientific Revolution and the Renaissance, as natural philosophers for the first time could publish and share their work far and wide.

In our time, we have seen the rise of the Internet, the successor to Gutenberg's press. The Internet has made copying an even more rapid process - effortlessly creating thousands of copies in seconds - and has lowered the barriers to free speech even more, as any individual can now effectively broadcast a message to the entire world. Recognizing the danger they face from free speech, totalitarian states have sought to censor the Internet, but with little success. (As John Gilmore said, "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.")

Throughout history, the technological trend has been toward faster, more accurate and more accessible copying of information. There can be no doubt that this trend will only accelerate, and that is a good thing. Fast, easy copying takes power away from the elites and distributes it among all people. On a global scale, it is no longer realistically possible to suppress any idea. We now truly have a democratic marketplace of ideas: anyone can speak their mind to the world, and if their ideas have merit, others will be able to adopt them and put them into practice.

There's just one thing I find lamentable in all this. Although the human capacity to create information has grown exponentially, our ability to absorb information has not. We still have no tools for uptake that were not also possessed by our Stone Age ancestors (with the possible exception of reading). As the amount of accessible information grows steadily, there's an ever-greater risk that the information important to us will be lost in the crush. There's a vast world of knowledge out there, but for all our ability to comprehend it, we might as well be peering at it through a keyhole.

A person who reads at the extraordinary pace of one book each week might be able to read three thousand books in a lifetime. By contrast, 375,000 new books were published in English in 2004 alone. And that's not even to consider all the journals, periodicals, and everything on the Internet.

There was a memorable scene in Carl Sagan's Cosmos set in the New York Public Library. In it, the camera pans around the interior of the library, showing the multitude of shelves full of books. Sagan, standing on an upper gallery, then walks the few steps from one end of one bookshelf to the other. That comparatively small shelf, he says, holds as many books as a person could read in a lifetime. Yet the library has so many more. Clearly, we have to know which are the right books to read.

The frustration caused by our inability to know everything is understandable. But while the crush makes it ever harder to find the right books, it also means that there are more good books to be found, ever more jewels in the rough that contain crucial insights about our world. Only a trickle of knowledge may flow through the keyhole - but if we know where to look, even that small trickle can enlighten us far more than any of our ancestors ever dreamed.

March 30, 2008, 9:47 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink21 comments
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New Post on Dangerous Intersection

I've written a new post on Dangerous Intersection, "John McCain bribes the media; the media accepts". Here's an excerpt:

In some of my previous posts both here on Dangerous Intersection and on Daylight Atheism, I’ve done my best to call attention to the corrupt, degraded state of most of today’s major news-gathering organizations. But a story I read today is truly the most astonishing example yet - both in the way the mainstream media has totally abandoned basic principles of journalistic ethics and integrity, and in the way they brazenly flaunt that behavior.

Last weekend, U.S. presidential candidate John McCain invited reporters to his vacation home in Arizona for a barbecue. McCain’s aides and staffers explained that the weekend was intended as a “social event” - i.e., no questions about McCain’s campaign strategy, voting record, or political positions - and was therefore off the record. When some reporters objected, McCain’s staff agreed that the weekend would be on the record after all, but only on the condition that reporters brought no audio or video recording equipment. The reporters meekly acceded to this, and that was the extent of our brave press corps’ journalistic heroism.

To see more, click through and read the rest.

March 11, 2008, 7:44 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink13 comments
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Daylight Atheism in the News

I wasn't going to post today, but I was going through my Google news alerts and what do I find:

The Daylight Atheism author states, "Over the past several years, I have observed to my dismay the forces of militant religious fundamentalism gaining in strength, both in my home country, the United States of America, and worldwide. This ominous development, driven by those who are dedicated enemies of all the progress and enlightenment that has been achieved over the past several centuries, threatens the liberty and happiness of all people everywhere. As a result, I have been compelled to grow more involved in political causes to help oppose it. We need as many voices as possible calling attention to the evil of the religious right and shining the light of scrutiny on their true goals. Only by doing so can we hope to stop them, and I hope to play some small part in that."

This brief article appeared in the Navasota Examiner, which printed a howler of a column back in December wondering if America's separation of church and state was meant to punish Christianity for the Inquisition, and fretting that the atheist cabal which apparently controls our country now is about to ban the celebration of Christmas. In "The Real Enemies of Christmas", I gave the column's author, Joy Stephenson, a brief lesson in American history and encouraged readers to write in to correct her faulty understanding. Evidently some of you took me up on that, and evidently, Joy Stephenson's bosses at the Examiner are just as blinkered and ignorant as she is.

The letters sent in which were reprinted in my comment thread were very reasonable and polite, but the Examiner's Evalynn Christiansen immediately takes a tone of huffy dismissal, gasping in shock that we dare to disagree with her:

These atheists have declared themselves intellectually superior to all who do not hold their beliefs. That sounds like hypocrisy to me.

In the first place, if disagreeing with someone amounts to declaring yourself their intellectual superior, then one can only assume that Christians must consider themselves the intellectual superiors of everyone who believes differently. I doubt most believers actually feel that way, but it's a direct consequence of this columnist's own logic - which, as usual, she selectively applies only to people she dislikes, with no thought to how the same reasoning would affect her own position.

Second, Christiansen apparently doesn't know what the word "hypocrite" means. Hypocrisy means speaking for one position and acting to support a different one. We atheists are clear and consistent: we advocate free speech, religious neutrality in government, and the use of reason - but since she doesn't like that, she evidently gropes for the first term of insult that comes to mind and then throws it out without thought for its relevance.

Joy Stephenson writes witty op-ed pieces with her audience in mind and was really "preaching to the choir" with this one.

Joy is a delight to read. Keep it up!

Keep what up? Making foolish errors based on a pervasive misunderstanding of America's laws and history? It's notable that Christiansen doesn't even respond to the corrections sent to her, nor does she acknowledge that her columnist was in any way mistaken. She just insults the letter writers, assumes that by doing this she's dealt with their criticisms, and then cheers on her laughably uninformed colleague.

To finish her column, Christiansen announces that most of her paper's subscribers "believe in Christian values" - as if that somehow excused their getting the facts so outrageously wrong. Like many believers, she assumes that her religion should be exempt from criticism and that everyone else should treat her pronouncements with unquestioning assent. Perhaps we need to show her the error of that way of thinking. Here's a link to send a letter to the editor. Anyone care to join me in giving this paper another volley?

January 10, 2008, 8:36 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink31 comments
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New Post on Dangerous Intersection

I have a new post up on Dangerous Intersection, "How the mainstream media has failed us". The post is about an essay by John Hockenberry, an award-winning reporter and former correspondent for NBC's Dateline, that's a devastating indictment of the standard operating practices of network TV news.

January 8, 2008, 8:57 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments
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New Post on Dangerous Intersection

For those of you who are interested in this sort of thing, I have a new post up on Dangerous Intersection, "Joe Klein is not a journalist".

November 29, 2007, 8:54 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink3 comments
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Book Review: The Assault on Reason

Summary: A blistering, brilliant counterattack on the forces that have conspired to undermine American democracy.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's The Assault on Reason is a passionate, scathing book that paints a clear picture of where America has gone wrong. Our democracy is far from dead, but as events of recent years have shown, it is ill - perhaps gravely so. The appalling levels of ignorance of basic scientific and political facts among the voting public; our heedless and disastrous rush into war with Iraq; a political class that considers voter consent something to be bought and sold; a shallow, sensationalist for-profit media; an increasingly corrupt, secretive and authoritarian government - all of these are symptoms indicating that something has gone fundamentally wrong with the process of rational deliberation that America's founders considered to be necessary for the long-term health of our democracy. Simply put, facts, logic and reason no longer play the crucial role in our national conversation that they once did. What has gone wrong, and how can we fix it? These are the questions that Gore takes up and attempts to answer.

In the opening chapters of his book, Gore identifies one factor as playing a major, central role in this decay. His choice may be surprising to some readers, but I think he builds a strong case for it: not religion, not conservative politics, not excessively wealthy and self-interested corporations, but television.

Television is not the chief villain behind the assault on reason because it panders to the public with frivolous, titillating spectacle (although it does do that, and Gore does castigate it appropriately; this must be the first book ever written by an American vice president that contains the phrase "Britney and KFed"). Instead, there is a more fundamental problem: unlike print and the Internet, television is a time- and space-limited medium with high barriers to entry, making it in its essence a medium of the rich and powerful. It is not a place where people can have a two-way conversation; rather, it turns people into passive receivers of information, unable to respond as they see fit. Worse, television is not a meritocracy. One's ability to participate in the medium is not based on the merit of one's ideas, but rather on how much money one can afford to spend to purchase airtime for them.

The overwhelming reliance on television as a source of information means that the average elected official's most pressing task is raising money to purchase the thirty-second TV advertisements that have become the major means of communicating with constituents. Again, this has diminished the meritocracy of ideas and in its place raised up a system where excessive flattery and attention to the wealthy have become a politician's primary requirement for remaining in office.

With television has come advertising, which has resulted in the growth of a system where the effort to convince people through reason and evidence has taken a backseat to discovering the most effective means of manipulating them. This is what Gore calls "the manufacture of consent", and though it began as a commercial effort, it has spread into politics. Unlike print, television can present vivid, visceral images that bypass the faculties of reasoning and trigger emotional responses - especially fearful responses - far more directly, overwhelming the faculties of deliberation.

The creation of a silenced, disconnected public whose consent can be manufactured for a price has led directly to the destructive rise of conservative politics. This movement is summed up by its standard-bearer, George W. Bush, whom history will without a doubt judge as one of America's worst presidents of all time. In a set of searing chapters, Gore lists the sins of the Bush administration: their obsessively secretive nature that deprives the public of information it needs to make reasoned decisions; their systemic and sustained campaign of deception to drum up support for their agenda; their disregard for evidence and expertise whenever those things clashed with the decisions they had already arrived at; the authorization of torture and deliberate attempts to create legal ambiguity surrounding the treatment of prisoners; and their authoritarian view of unlimited executive power which leads Bush to conclude that he has the right to seize and imprison American citizens indefinitely without trial, to wiretap and search without warrants, to preemptively attack any country he decides may become a threat, or to disregard inconvenient laws via "signing statements".

I was pleasantly surprised by the fierceness of Gore's critique, which is one of the most comprehensive indictments of the Bush administration I've ever seen. After all this time, it seems he's finally grasped the tactics being used against the progressive movement and what is at stake. His call for a rebirth of reason in politics and a return to evidence-based argument is dead on target, and it was a refreshing change to see a politician speak out with such candor, away from the sterile and overscripted world of campaigning. There are a few awkward passages and parts of the book that could have stood some more editing (in particular, his occasional references to religion as a motivation for progressive action felt clumsy and forced). But overall, this was a stellar book, argued with clarity and passion, and Gore's diagnosis of the problem cannot be denied. Manufactured consent and stifling mass media are poisoning our democracy, and to counter it, we badly need a return to reason and a willingness to embrace a principle of decision-making based on facts and evidence.

July 20, 2007, 6:41 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink15 comments
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The Golden Mean

When the history of our era is written, there is much that will be said about the failures of traditional, mainstream media organizations. One of the most disappointing is the media's ritualized exaltation of "balance", which in practice means giving equal time and attention to both sides of a debate regardless of whether one side's views are more in agreement with the facts. I wrote about the harmful effects of this ignorant and lazy practice last year, in "The Illusion of Balance".

There is an equally pernicious corollary to this which the media also frequently puts on display. This corollary is to believe that when there is a debate, the actual truth is always somewhere in the middle - as if the correct position on any topic could always be found by taking the average of the two most extreme positions. The media too often acts as if "moderation" and "centrism" are always better than passion and strongly held opinions - as though a person's being "extremist" is a good reason to reject their views, regardless of whether those views are rational or correct. As Glenn Greenwald puts it in his usual brilliant style:

Not only do they believe in nothing, they think that a Belief in Nothing is a mark of sophistication and wisdom. Those who believe in things too much — who display political passion or who take their convictions and ideals seriously... are either naive or, worse, are the crazy, irrational, loudmouth masses and radicals who disrupt the elevated, measured world of the high-level, dispassionate Beltway sophisticates.... They are interested in, even obsessed with, every aspect of the political process except for deeply held political beliefs — the only part that really matters or that has any real worth.

(A good example of this tendency in a slightly different context is the Guardian's Mark Vernon, who writes on Comment is Free that we should shun debates between theists and atheists because those debates "forc[e] people to take sides". Heaven forbid!)

As a counter to this insipid relativism, it can be observed that moderation and compromise are not always the correct course of action. Sometimes, there is a debate and the extremists are right. Consider these examples:

When Great Britain's colonies in the New World were struggling with the oppression of a distant, dictatorial ruler and a burdensome tax scheme, who was right - the dangerous, zealous extremists who argued that the colonists should rebel completely against King George and create a completely new republic, or the sober, responsible moderates who felt that we should reconcile with the king, accept his divine authority and just ask him nicely to treat us better?

"Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not YET sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour; a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom."

—Thomas Paine, Common Sense, an influential 1776 pamphlet arguing that the American colonies should declare independence

When slavery divided the United States and the country was burning on the brink of civil war, who was right - the wild-eyed abolitionist fanatics who thought that slavery should be ended completely and all slaves should be set free, or the cool-headed, wise statesmen who felt that the best compromise was to ensure an equal number of free states and states that permitted the slavery of human beings?

"I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD."

—William Lloyd Garrison, inaugural editorial in the anti-slavery journal The Liberator, 1 January 1831

When Jim Crow laws and de jure segregation divided American citizens into two classes of people, and people of African descent were fighting for liberty, who was right - the irrational, hysterical partisans like Martin Luther King Jr. who felt that acts of civil disobedience would startle the nation out of its apathy, or the sober, responsible religious leaders who felt that breaking the law, even if done peacefully, was an extreme and irresponsible course of action that would reflect poorly on the entire movement?

"But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.' Was not Amos an extremist for justice: 'Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.' Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: 'I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.' Was not Martin Luther an extremist: 'Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.' And John Bunyan: 'I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.' And Abraham Lincoln: 'This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.' And Thomas Jefferson: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...' So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"

—Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963

And more recently: When George W. Bush and the Republican Party was advocating preemptive war against Iraq based on the threat of its supposed WMD programs, who was right - the extremist, cut-and-run liberals who said there was no good evidence of such a program and preemptive war was a dangerous, irresponsible policy, or the moderate, mainstream statesmen who advocated full-scale war based on a series of speculations and suppositions, just to be safe?

"While bipartisanship is a worthy goal, and symbols have their value, this resolution sacrifices far too much in the name of symbolism and compromise. As long as this president goes unchecked by Congress, our troops will remain needlessly at risk, and our national security will be compromised. This resolution fails to check the president, or to change his disastrous Iraq policy. It essentially authorizes the failed strategy that the American people rejected in November. For the sake of our troops, and for our national security, Congress should take real, binding steps to challenge the president's policy and bring our troops out of Iraq."

—Senator Russ Feingold on an anti-war "compromise" resolution, 2 February 2007

May 30, 2007, 7:19 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink39 comments
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The Illusion of Balance

The founding fathers of the United States of America wrote freedom of the press into the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights. As their own quotes and records show, they did this because they felt that a free, independent press was one of the most vital checks on the power of government, and the only way to impart to ordinary citizens the information they need to be responsible decision-makers in a democracy such as ours.

In the United States of America today, the press has failed that trust.

Much could be written, and has been written, about the way that the press has steadily become more and more deeply intertwined with the rich and the powerful, until their interests align with those entrenched powers and not with the common people they are supposed to be informing. Much could be written about the way in which the press credulously accepted the current administration's rationales for war without asking the questions that would have exposed their fraud. Much could be written about their preference for sensationalism and spectacle over facts and context. However, in this post, I intend to discuss a more insidious and possibly even more pernicious tendency of the modern establishment media: their widespread belief that every point of view they present, no matter how qualified or well-respected, must be "balanced" by presenting the opposing view on equal terms, and that no point of view must ever be called wrong, discredited, or unsupported by the evidence.

Here is an instructive example from the April 1999 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Cancer therapy pained her family...and didn't work. The article concerns the sad story of an area woman who died of breast cancer at the age of 39 after refusing effective, conventional medical treatment in favor of implausible, ineffective, and scientifically unsupported "alternative" therapies:

Davis... adopted a rigorous 13-hour-a-day treatment plan called Gerson Therapy. The therapy - based on a combination of diet, exercise and coffee enemas - is controversial. Doctors in California warned Davis against relying exclusively on the alternative treatments.

"Controversial"? The only thing this article could find to say about therapy that involved treating malignant breast cancer by receiving coffee enemas and eating a pound of carrots per day is that it is "controversial"? I will say what this paper would not: such a treatment blatantly ignores everything we know about how cancer is caused and how it can be cured; is utterly unsupported by any scientific evidence; is advocated only by quacks; and may well end up costing the lives of any people who rely on it exclusively, as this poor woman did, because it does not work. Although the title of this article, at least, points out the failure of this treatment in the specific case, the article itself studiously avoids commitment to a general conclusion, instead seeking refuge in the limp label "controversial".

I have experienced the effects of this policy for myself. On one occasion last year, I read an article in my local newspaper credulously touting a chiropractic back massager that was claimed to be able to treat carpal tunnel syndrome and asthma, among other conditions. This article did not provide even a shred of skeptical balance, and aside from promoting these quack notions, added nonsensical claims such as that this technology was used by NASA to test the integrity of heat-resistant tiles on spacecraft (and that has what to do with curing asthma, exactly?).

I wrote to the reporter to complain, and she responded in a way that made it clear she had no idea what the problem was. Her response basically boiled down to saying that there was a "controversy" among doctors as to whether back-adjustment techniques worked for treating problems that have nothing to do with the back, it wasn't proven that this device was not efficacious, and how did I really know it didn't work, anyway? In this case, not only did the illusion of balance give undeserved attention to quackery, it served as a convenient excuse for a reporter who had no knowledge of medical science to write about this device without having to go to the trouble to check up on its claims for herself.

As with many evils, the road to this particular hell was paved with good intentions. This illusion of balance arose from a desire for journalistic integrity and objectivity, to ensure that readers had a chance to view all sides of an argument so that they could decide for themselves. This, in and of itself, is a noble goal. The problem is that journalists are being taught that their articles must be balanced even when the facts are not balanced. The result is a situation where objectivity is taken to its most ludicrous extreme, where all points of view must be treated as equally valid regardless of whether that is what the evidence supports.

Other observers have noticed this trend. For example, former vice president Al Gore lambasted the media's surrender to spin in a 2001 lecture series at Columbia's journalism school:

Gore's first lecture engaged objectivity itself, challenging the journalistic trope that fairness resides in controversy and an article has to represent all sides -- no matter how marginal -- equally. Instead, Gore argued that the journalistic impulse to exalt even the most fringe views to parity in order to furnish opposing perspectives is harmful to basic accuracy. This didn't sit well with more than a few of the wannabe reporters in the class, many of whom were aghast at the suggestion that the media should attempt to actually mediate between truth and spin.

And Chris Mooney, himself a reporter (but one of the good ones!), writes in his book The Republican War on Science about a 2004 paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change. Despite a broad consensus among practicing climate scientists that global warming is real and is caused by human activity, this study surveyed over 600 articles published in several major newspapers between 1988 and 2002 and found that over 50% gave equal credence to the industry view that global warming is simply the result of natural climate fluctuations (a conclusion, by the by, that is not supported by any peer-reviewed publications). Nowhere could the illusion of balance be more obvious.

This lazy and credulous reporting harms society at large because it deprives people of the context they need to make an informed decision. There are many groups who do not need to prevail outright in public debate, but can achieve their goals simply by muddying the waters and creating a widespread perception of controversy and confusion: for example, creationists who call for "teaching the controversy", or industry groups, such as tobacco companies or petroleum lobbies, seeking to avoid regulation by asserting that the evidence is not strong enough to support action. In seeking to create "balance", the media has played right into their hands. As Mooney puts it, "many journalists reporting on science issues fall easy prey to sophisticated public relations campaigns" (p.252).

What will it take to cut through this illusion of balance and restore true objectivity that pays heed to facts and not just to opinions? It will require reporters to know something about their subject matter and evaluate the evidence in order to draw an informed and accurate conclusion, rather than taking the lazy route of pasting together quotes from two opposing sides into a context-free and uninformative "he said/she said"-type article. It will require reporters to identify minority opinions as such and mainstream opinions as such, to contrast views that attract scientific support with those that do not, and to accurately convey to their readers what the state of the art is and what consensus has been reached by qualified experts. It will require reporters to inform their readers when there is a genuine controversy over some issue and when there is nothing but a phony controversy drummed up by ideologues and zealots. In short, it will take a media whose aim is truly to get at the heart of a matter and find the truth, not the complacent and detached media we have today that is content to uncritically repeat spin. There are already some good reporters out there, true journalists who are not afraid to tell it like it is - we can hope that the rest will in time learn to follow their example.

June 27, 2006, 6:11 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink26 comments
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