November 11, 2004

Good slashdot discussion on science as reported in the media

Slashdot discussion on Science and Journalism. The main problem to my mind is the inapplicability of the "two points of view" sort of standard. It's easy to find someone with a random opinion, but opposing viewpoints is not how (most) science is conducted. Add in the fact that the media can legally lie in the United States and you have quite a mess.

Lawrence Krauss has a nice piece in the NYT back in 1996 on the subject:

July 29, 1996
In Defense of Nonsense
By Lawrence Krauss

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Four months ago, when his Presidential campaign still seemed viable, Patrick Buchanan appeared on a national television program and argued in favor of creationism. This, by itself, is not so remarkable, given some of Mr. Buchanan's other views.

What seemed more significant, however, was that the same national media that questioned other Buchanan campaign planks like trade protectionism and limits on immigration did not produce a major article or editorial proclaiming the candidate's views on evolution to be simple nonsense.

Why is this the case? Could it be that the fallacies inherent in a strict creationist viewpoint are so self-evident that they were deemed not to deserve comment? I think not. Indeed, when a serious candidate for the highest office of the most powerful nation on earth holds such views you would think that this commentary would automatically become "newsworthy."

Rather, what seems to have taken hold is a growing hesitancy among both journalists and scholars to state openly that some viewpoints are not subject to debate: they are simply wrong. They might point out flaws, but journalists also feel great pressure to report on both sides of a "debate."

Part of the reason is that few journalists naturally feel comfortable enough on scientific matters to make pronouncements. But there is another good reason for such hesitancy. In a truly democratic society, one might argue, everything is open to debate.

Who has the authority to deem certain ideas incorrect or flawed? Indeed, appeal to authority is as much an anathema to scientists as it is to many on the academic left who worry about the authority of the "scientific establishment."

What is so wonderful about scientific truth, however, is that the authority which determines whether there can be debate or not does not reside in some fraternity of scientists; nor is it divine.

The authority rests with experiment.

It is perhaps the most immutable but most widely misunderstood property of modern science: a proposition can never be proved to be absolutely true. There can always be some experiment lurking around the corner to require alteration of any model of reality.

What is unequivocal, however, is falseness. A theory whose predictions fail the test of experiment is always wrong, period, end of story.

The earth isn't flat, because you can travel around it, period, end of story.

This misunderstanding is at the heart of much scholarly debate in recent months, including the amusing hoax that a New York University physicist, Alan Sokal, played at the expense of the editors of the journal Social Text. The postmodernist journal published a bogus article that Professor Sokal had written as a satire of some social science criticism of the nature of scientific knowledge.

It was aimed at those in the humanities who study the social context of science, but whom he argued could not discern empirically falsifiable models from meaningless nonsense.

The editors, on the other hand, argued that publication was based in part on their notion that the community of scholars depends on the goodwill of the participants -- namely they had assumed Professor Sokal had something to say.

They too have a point.

The great paranormal debunker and magician, the Amazing Randi, has shown time and again that earnest researchers can be duped by those who would have been willing to answer "yes" to the question "are you lying?" but who were never asked.

We must always be skeptical. Being skeptical, however does not get in the way of the search for objective truths.

It merely assists in the uncovering of falsehoods.

Another popular misunderstanding of the nature of truth and falsehood in modern science involves the speculative ideas which often appear at the frontiers of research.

For example, the science writer John Horgan has argued that such speculations are unrelated to the real world around us. But notions such as "superstrings" and "baby universes" are not akin to arguments about the number of angels on the head of a pin, much as they may bear a superficial resemblance.

They are merely the most recent straw men in a longstanding effort to get at the truth. They would not be taken seriously by anyone were it not for the belief that these notions, when properly understood, might in principle one day lead to either direct or indirect predictions which may be falsified by future experiments or else which may or may not explain existing data. The debate among physicists about the viability of these ideas is simply a debate among those who think the notions will be testable and those who suspect they won't.

No physicist I know has ever suggested that unprovable speculation will shine on its own merits, whether or not it can be taken literally, or that it is progress to come up with a theory which cannot be proved false.

Mr. Horgan is absolutely correct to suggest that this approach is impotent.

But his error is to confuse this process with what physicists actually do, and thereby demean the notion of scientific truth.

This whole issue might make for simply an amusing academic debate were it not for the potentially grave consequences for society at large.

If we are unwilling, unilaterally, to brand scientific nonsense as just that, regardless of whose sensibilities might be offended -- religious or otherwise -- then the whole notion of truth itself becomes blurred.

The need to present both sides of an issue is only necessary when there are two sides. When empirically verifiable falsehoods become instead subjects for debate, then nonsense associated with international conspiracy theories, holocaust denials and popular demagogues like Louis Farrakhan or Pat Robertson cannot effectively be rooted out.

When nonsense which can be empirically falsified is presented under a creationist guise as critical thinking, a controversy is created in our schools where none should exist. When the empirically falsifiable supposition that someone was not present at a murder when his DNA is found mixed with the blood of victims at the crime scene is not recognized as nonsense, murderers can go home free.

Nonsense masquerading as truth has been with us as long as records can date.

But the increasingly blatant nature of the nonsense uttered with impunity in public discourse is chilling.

Our democratic society is imperiled as much by this as any other single threat, regardless of whether the origins of the nonsense are religious fanaticism, simple ignorance or personal gain.

Perhaps the greatest single legacy our scientific heritage can bestow on us is a well-defined procedure for exposing nonsense.

We would all be wise to heed the advice passed on by Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times from 1935 to 1961: "I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out."

Posted by duver001 at November 11, 2004 6:23 PM