It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Consequences for getting it wrong?

Wouldn't it be nice if there were consequences for a journalist garbling a story?

"MIT scientists baffled by global warming theory, contradicts scientific data"

In the pre-Web 2.0 days, this would have gotten no notice, but now it's getting "Dugg" up. The story reads in part:
The two lead authors of a paper published in this week's Geophysical Review Letters, Matthew Rigby and Ronald Prinn, the TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science, state that as a result of the increase, several million tons of new methane is present in the atmosphere.

Methane accounts for roughly one-fifth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, though its effect is 25x greater than that of carbon dioxide. Its impact on global warming comes from the reflection of the sun's light back to the Earth (like a greenhouse).
Ah. So what with the 25x greater effect, its effect must be 25 x greater, right? Or should that only be 5x greater, since it's only "one fifth of greenhouse gases". Or should it be 1/5th, because the factor of 25 is already accounted for? (Hint, that last one is closest, but what was that about water vapor?)

Open loop systems fail.

This is what all those free-marketeers, in their narrow little way, are trying to tell us. If journalists get no correction for getting things wrong, they will continue to get things wrong, and the public will continue to be confused. Feeling themselves barraged by streams of contradictory nonsense, what choice to they have but to "go with their gut"?

The throwaway article in an (I suspect) not especially important tech website is getting passed around, based on the reporter's deep understanding and coherent explanation of the story, right? Or perhaps it is because of the conclusion:
One thing does seem very clear, however; science is only beginning to get a handle on the big picture of global warming. Findings like these tell us it's too early to know for sure if man's impact is affecting things at the political cry of "alarming rates." We may simply be going through another natural cycle of warmer and colder times - one that's been observed through a scientific analysis of the Earth to be naturally occuring [sic] for hundreds of thousands of years.
No need to blame that crap on the innocent researchers. Just one more writer writing about something he doesn't know as if he does. Just one more tiny bit of intellectual poison, that's all, just a little bit more. Yummm. Open wide...

Update: Watt's Up runs with it.


rustintable said...

Hi Michael.

I hunted you down from Digg. Don't worry I'm not crazy I am just very happy that an actual expert bothered to comment on Digg.

I just have a bit of advice for you which you may or may not find useful. Comming from a guy who has a lot of experiance aurguing with average people(you try to find a better way to descibe them).

BTW here is my blog Im a software engineer.

Here are afew things ive learned about Digg.

-Keep the comments simple and short and clear you are not really aurguing with the person to whom you are replying but rather you are commenting for the benifit of thoes who may be mislead by a commenter.

-Don't stress out or take anything personally just pick up a daily routine of counterting a few comments each day for a few minutes.

-Don't stop. I have seen huge shifts in public opinion based on what happens on sites like Digg. I think this is an important hobby. They say the Rationalism of anchient Greece died because the educated did not bother to communicate to the populous(or so say Carle Sagan).

-And keep in mind that you will read comments that seem extreamly stupid. You will think all I have to do is to explain myself more carefully. That I have learned is wrong. Youll just confuse matters more and your oponant will use that to their advantage because all they want is to confuse people.

-Finally enjoy it. This is good for you. You may not want to talk to large heards of stupid people. You might feel its a waste of time since they give nothing of value back. But as we study them and learn more about what makes them tick scientifically will will arrive at a formula for educating the masses and this would be a very great thing and it is an interesting problem.

Sorry if I sound crazy but that just my two cents.

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks rust, but if you look around these parts you'll see that you are preaching to the choir.

See especially this article and the comments to it.

I've been at this strange game since 1993 or so. Experience does count for something.

It feels strange commenting on Digg though. I realize that I am mostly among high school kids and underclassmen who like to vent at each other. It would be nice if people would allow a sliver of respect to actual domain knowledge but somehow in places like Digg that doesn't happen.

It's a problem with the internet. It seems like young people don't expect anything better than this. Hate to come on all geezery, but I swear, back in the day, people really would say "you have a point on this but consider that", and not so much "anyone who disagrees with me is a liar and a neo-barbarian and ..."

On a blog you can control what shows up. The really stupid stuff gets flushed, and something like a conversation can emerge.

Have a look around, and stick around if you like. Also check my blogroll: several real climatologists are blogging these days.

I encourage you to keep taking the worst trolls on. Just understand that it gets to be a low payoff activity after a while.

Count Iblis said...

Agenda driven journalists can get away with this because a large part of the public is not well educated in science.

Another thing is that the way the journalist writes is acceptable when the topic is politics (e.g. it is ok. for McCain to misrepresent Obama's tax plans). So, even if it later transpires that this story was misleading, people will not even feel deceived.

Hank Roberts said...

At least the commenters in the thread there are holding up well. Several people point out that the story on the website didn't give the cite, people had to hunt for it); people found the original press release, and read it. And then they point out the original story just made up stuff, claiming bogus stuff not said by the researchers or by MIT _in_ the press release.

Pretty good example of people going beyond claims -- making the effort.

And I liked this comment fairly far down in the long reply thread:

Stand back! I'm going to try science...
Oct 31, 2008 13:21
Confirmation bias: selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs.

It's interesting that people who have previously dismissed "theories" of things like evolution and global warming have suddenly had their faith in science restored by a single finding that they (mistakenly) believe supports their beliefs. Science is not a bandwagon.

Bill Nye