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

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Last Meta Posting

I am summarizing my thoughts about journalism, especially in the American context. I hope this will be the last in this vein for some time.

1) There really is a very deep problem in the way things operate. It's symptomatic that the healthiest part of journalism is sports journalism. It's almost as if the methods were ideally suited for team sport. Is that why politics has devolved into a team sport? A chicken and egg problem.

2) It's easiest to get attention by attacking somebody, but you don't make friends that way. It's easiest to get paid if you get attention. This drives writers and bloggers onto the teams. For various reasons, probably describable in game theory, two teams seems to be especially stable. This phenomenon appears in the general public. The extent to which it has been aided and abetted by journalistic practice is unclear, but probably significant.

Nothing guarantees that either cluster has a workable or coherent position.

3) The mainstream press tries to set itself up as an arbiter between the two sides that emerge. However, its sports mentality is so obvious that it itself has become a common theme. At election time, "let's focus on issues rather than the horse race" is a constant refrain, often followed by a dutiful and halfhearted listing of rhetorical battlegrounds that have emerged due to the strategic choice of the organized parties.

I got in trouble for joking about this last week, but relevant things that the public doesn't know (either as yet uncontroversial, or uncomfortable for both parties) are rarely examined. Presumably the business of journalism demands this: if there isn't already a controversy it doesn't pay to drum one up; if there is a controversy, it doesn't pay to settle it.

In what I consider the most crucial instance, the whole Club of Rome problem of sustainability vs growth, which should have been dominating public discourse over the last half century, is completely ignored in the press. Most scientists have occasion to spare a thought for it, and the more socially and politically conscious of us think of it as central. But the political horserace is conventionally largely about which party is more likely to "grow the economy". The parties don;t like it, the advertisers don't like it, and so there's little mention of this problem in the mainstream media, even though it really is the core question.

(Remarkably, among actually famous press folk, it's Iraq war cheerleader Tom Friedman who is out front on this issue. I don't quite know what make of that, except that the world is more complicated than people like to make out! But this is a broad brush article so I'll proceed anyway, ignoring exceptions like that. Thanks are due to Friedman for breaking the ice.)

4) The centrist position of the media is not affected by facts, but by who believes the facts. Because politics is viewed as a race, opinions are weighed and reported in proportion to how many people support them.

The main purpose they serve to their readership is to give people who don't have much time for politics, especially people who have to maintain business relationships with a wide variety of people, a safe haven, a way of expressing themselves that is least likely to irritate customers. Not coincidentally this serves the purposes of most advertisers in the media as well. Accordingly, the mainstream media effectively act as a source of friction on the mobility of public opinion, pulling opinion toward the center of gravity of existing opinion as they perceive it. The actual facts of the matter have little bearing on the position taken by the press.

5) There's no need for centrist blogs as the center is represented by the mainstream media. Blogs tend toward the idiosyncratic and uninfluential, but bloggers who think their writing is important enough to gain a readership strive either for entertainment value or to reinforce a partisan position.

6) What is largely missing in all of this is a market for fierce dedication to truth; truth at the expense of alliances, truth indifferent to popularity. The internet allows such truth to be published, and this is great progress, but such truth is rare. The internet also allows paranoid ravings of all stripes; such untruth is as common as dirt. The public is left no better off than before.

7) Most people underestimate the extent to which society is changing under the pressure of new circumstances. (Some of the ones who don't are being drummed into a dangerous paranoid frenzy, but that isn't my topic here: I'm still hopeful this will fail and in fact I can't imagine what Mr. Murdoch thinks he's achieving by it.) The media is utterly complicit in this complacency and seems determined to promote it.

In short, left and right, as promoted by the parties, and center, as promoted by the press is not adequate to the situation we face.

8) Science blogging is an extraordinary exception. It turns out that many people trained as scientists are extraordinary thinkers and writers. (A few people pick up the intellectual style as science reporters, but most don't.) And extraordinarily interesting and thought provoking stuff gets written in science blogs, stuff that is far more accessible than what is in the journals.

The approach of scientist bloggers is especially important in the light of the fact that our common problems are quantitative, physical, and tightly coupled to matters of science and engineering. So the question is not just whether science blogging or freelance journalism influenced by science blogging can adequately replace the science journalism that is disappearing (it seems likely that in many cases, it can), nor even whether some professionals can be supported in that role. (Not yet; it seems that most of the readership of science blogs are science bloggers.)

The question is whether a fourth way of looking at things can be promoted to the general public: a way that is not attached to left, right or center, but is attached to facts, principles, algorithms and tests. This is a very tall order, to be sure.

One thing people need to let go of is the idea that everybody's opinion counts equally. Democracy is not negotiable, but it is not a useful way of handling the discussion that leads up to the elections to suggest that everybody's understanding is equally valuable.

9) A business model for the fourth way is crucial. I can imagine bootstrapping a career as a freelancer, presuming I can learn from my recent mistakes. But I can't imagine bootstrapping a really viable fourth voice. Filtering, reputation mechanisms and editorial functions can't be provided by the individual writer, and adequate advertising and promotion can't be had either.

I have more to say about this; I am still looking for the right people to say it to.

10) For example, and on the turf of this blog, somebody needs to promote sensible responses to the climate problem to the public, something between green romanticism and hare-brained naysaying, something where CCS and nuclear power are the likeliest players. But the climate problem is only the first of many problems that we face now that we have essentially covered the planet with ourselves and our activities.

We need to be able to reason together, and not just with some common morality but with due respect for arithmetic too.

OK, I'm done with metajournalism for now. Back to the various topics at hand, I promise.


Dano said...

The GF and I are planning a paper on Community Forestry business models, and so the problem you describe is one of the subjects rattling around in my head, but for a different direction.

Anyway, I picked up a Review on social innovation, in part because of this article on 'Green Guilt' to see if it could inform my thoughts. Nonetheless, I thought this passage was timely for your efforts:

The voluntary carbon offset market gives consumers a way to pay for their sins of emissions. Yet many observers worry that, by allowing people to buy their way out of eco-guilt, the offset market may actually lead people to emit even more greenhouse gases, perhaps by encouraging them to take another flight, buy a bigger car, or build a larger house. In other words, they argue, consumers will purchase carbon offsets and keep polluting, just as Christians in the Middle Ages bought indulgences and kept transgressing.

as the source of such behavior is of the same origin you decry and are trying to resolve.

This Review likely will inform the GF's work more than mine, as I ask different questions, but I think it may ask a question or two that you might not have known you should ask (the entire periodical, not just the one arty).

Word Verification is unclear on my assertion, as it says 'perski'.



Arthur said...

On the reduction to two "teams" - the interesting example I'm a little familiar with is the factionalism that dominated Rome in its decline. The sides originated in sport - the chariot races. Don't have a reference handy right now (writing from my iphone here) but I believe there were several periods with more than two "teams", identified by colors, but they eventually reduced to two, and the populace divided themselves somewhat equally between the two, so the sides represented more than just racing teams, but large segments of the population, with political influence. The emperors were hardly chosen democratically, but nevertheless one faction or another was at times ascendant, and riots or other demonstrations by the opposing color became the fashion.

I suppose the alternatives are 1-party dictatorship or more chaotic multi-identity situations. The latter seems most real given natural human diversity, and certainly some nations seem to manage sustaining that sort of diversity. But there seems to be something powerfully driving towards the 2-party solution in the strongest nations like ancient Rome and the modern US. Modern media is only playing a bit role in the play of powerful forces here, I think.

On another point - CCS as part of the most realistic solution? Really?

Michael Tobis said...

Sure, why not? CCS, it depends whether this peak coal noise is real or not. I think not; while the best coal may be used up there's plenty of carbon-bearing crud around.

But there's plenty of room in aquifers and oil and natural gas deposits to contain and bind CO2, and while there is an energy cost, it doesn't appear to swamp the positive EROEI.

Actually, it hardly matters what we do; it will generate environmental opposition because it will have an enormous footprint. I might cynically suggest that the main thing that determines "greenness" is whether the plant is elsewhere.

Maybe the algae thing will work?

But if we ever decide to reverse course and draw down CO2, we need a place to put it. So maybe we need a backup in case Dr. Dyson's super-carbon-sucking-trees thing doesn't pan out. CCS in a broad sense anyway is what we need; underground injection is a good candidate.

And maybe the olivine thing will work.

But CCS and nuclear are the only alternatives already proven at scale.

Arthur said...

How is CCS proven at scale while wind power is not? Even solar photovoltaics added almost 6 GW capacity last year; how much CCS power was added to the world in 2008?

You read David Archer's book, right? Given the super-long tail for a good portion of our CO2 plug, even a 0.1% annual release rate of captured CO2 would be enough to make the long-term picture essentially no different from not even bothering with CCS in the first place.

The big question is whether we keep to the low end of fossil-fuel burning estimates, or burn essentially everything that can be taken out of the ground. If CCS permits us to burn *more* fossil fuels, then it's not a good thing for the long-run climate.

jg said...

Just catching up on my reading here. I'm grateful that you covered journalism to the extent that you have. Such a topic broadens the list a people who feel qualified to comment, and for me has lead to a number of rewarding conversations.

I'm also glad you stayed on the journalism beat long enough to post that humor about mathematicians solving a fire.


Michael Tobis said...

jg, thanks for hanging around.

Please email me; I can't figure out your email address.

(mtobis at gmail)