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, September 5, 2009

On Developing Better Immunity to Bullshit

I have been gearing up to present an engineer's model of climate change forever. It will be quite a project.

In brief,  a well engineered system is a sort of circulatory system, a "closed loop" where anything that might get out of line has corrective mechanisms built in. Those corrections, though, require effective communication channels between the sensors, the actuators, and the control system.

It seems that most of our problems nowadays have something to do with noise in the communication channels.

When we look at the linkage between society and climate we see communication channels that involve solid but counterintuitive information. The chief disciplines of bullshit, i.e., law, politics and advertising, have developed a culture that is very good at misdirection, to the point where the best information not only doesn't win out, arguably truth is at a disadvantage.

The problem is very clearly about the noise in the communication channels, and so the engineer's analogy is the "filter". Often you hear about "filtering" in discussions about making better use of the internet, a conversation that is now in some circles getting the peculiar name "curation" by analogy to the job of a museum director, I guess. But this analogy is appropriate for the arts, not the sciences. We don't seek someone with highly developed tastes helping us to direct our attentions.

In matters of fact rather than of taste, we seek powerful mechanisms for weeding out bullshit. (Organizing the non-bullshit is also a huge problem, but it seems to me crucial to clean the stock before sorting it.)

In contemplating this I find myself moving away from an engineering model and toward a biological one. The immune system is charged with distinguishing between "self" and "not-self"; too many false positives and too many false negatives both lead to pathologies. It functions using a large number of autonomous units that behave, in aggregate, differently toward truth and non-truth.

In fact, political enthusiasts offer us a model. Their units, their white blood cells, are enthusiasts for their position. They troll the net for evidence and argument corroborating their opinion and select and share it, providing reinforcement for each other and steeling themselves for battle against the opposition.

(The befuddled US press, still living in a world where political parties were relatively connected to a sane democratic process, are falling off a cliff in offering echoes of the two resultant streams of essentially worthless noise.)

The immune system we need is more subtle, selecting on validity rather than political implication. It seems to me that it can neither fall to experts acting alone (who are overwhelmed by the scale of the noise) nor to amateurs acting alone (who are prey to the bullshit) but will require some organizational structure.

Images: feedback diagram: ; white blood cells at an infection site: CEMRF (microscopy) at University of Iowa


Hank Roberts said...

climatesight said...

Michael, I've really noticed the difference in your posts since you read Greg Craven!

Credibility. Again. It always comes back to that, doesn't it?

Michael Tobis said...

It's a long running theme, CS. I wander among them. Sometimes I even make a little progress.

keith said...


You continue to be perplexed and rankled by journalism's seemingly antiquated function. (I'm guessing that one of journalism's cliches, "Speaking truth to power," is not one you subscribe to.)

Have you ever considered that journalism's imperfect craft merely mirrors the imperfect democracy it thrives in?

Michael Tobis said...

Keith, I think that is exactly what I said.

The ghost of Edward R Murrow is still lurking around, though. I believe he is suggesting that journalism might do something better than simply capitulating to the insanity.

If you see any mainstream journalism speaking truth to power rather than clinging to false symmetry, please point it out. The examples are far too rare.

keith said...


First let's make a distinction so we don't lump everything together. Investigative journalism, which still exists, does actually "speak truth to power." The two-year old web venture, Pro Publica, is testament to this.

I suspect that your beef is with daily reporting. Correct?

Now, to help me understand how journalism can better cover global warming, perhaps you can diagnose a story I just read in New Scientist by Fred Pearce. It paints a pretty complicated picture of climate change, what with natural variability and imperfect models making for an even more confusing picture of climatic trends. Here's the story:

Pearce is a well respected science journalist, reporting here on a recent gathering of top climate scientists.

Did he get the story right? Is there false symmetry? If you were the journalist covering this event, what would your story include that Pearce's omits?

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

"The two-year old web venture, Pro Publica, is testament to this."

Actually, it shows that MT is right. Why is it necessary to come up with a 2-year-old startup just to "speak truth to power"? What happened to "speaking truth to power" with the established news brands?

-- bi

Michael Tobis said...

I am making an important point here about how we should all collectively organize ourselves against bullshit, and all you seem to care about is your prefessional pride.

Look, journalism IS NOT DOING THE JOB. Whether individual articles are or aren't justifiable, bullshit is thriving to an unprecedented degree.

In the present thread, that's all I really want to say about it. I'm struggling for an alternative grass roots organization that will serve the purpose that one might expect the press to do, which the contemporary US press apparently is helpless to do.

Brad DeLong captures the complaint nicely just today here

That said, the Pearce story in New Scientist is emphatically part of the problem, not because it is equivocal about climate change, but because it is utterly confused about it. Failing to understand the phenomenology, Pearce sheds precisely zero light for the reader about the nature of what is known and what is debated.

The reader is left with the impression of a bunch of know-nothings scratching their chins. The reporter who can get no further than that needs to take on another beat.

Meanwhile, we have a very large problem to solve.

Hank Roberts said...

Fred Pearce's Arctic news is from last December -- that's "preliminary" all right, but he should've noticed what's changed since -- updated news wouldn't have fit his "oh noes nobody knows" theme.

Seems to me he's pointing out what the Quakers, who came up with "speak truth to power" originally
say about its misuse -- it can be a denial of responsibility for using one's own power (in Pearce's case as a journalist -- he has power to explain well; teaching the controversy pretends he's powerless.)

--- excerpt follows ----

“Speak truth to power” is a powerful exhortation, but like many powerful phrases, it has become overused. It has become a cliché we use to take the place of thought.
Especially as a cliché the phrase deserves examination .... Neither the tactics we employ to challenge institutionalized power, nor the way we customarily talk about institutions suggests that we believe Truth and Power can ever genuinely come together....
... what Sartre called “bad
faith,” which he defines as pretending we are the helpless
victims of circumstance instead of taking responsibility for
our choices and our actions.

---- end excerpt ---

keith said...


You're reading into my motivation. I'm not defending my professional pride. I know well that journalism has its shortcomings. (See Iraq war for for obvious and tragic example.)

I just happen to believe that your expectations of journalists are unreasonable. You seem to think it falls on journalism's collective shoulders to rescue humanity from imminent climate catastrophe. Or you at least hoped so at one time.

But now that you've apparently given up that hope, I'm asking you or any of your readers to demonstrate an alternative means of communication for the daily reporting of climate-related news.

Forget about long-form magazine stories or investigative pieces. Those are different beasts. Let's stick to the guts of daily journalism--the reporting of events, meetings, research findings, et al. That's the cog in the wheel.

I doubt your grassroots effort will supplant the reach and influence of the mainstream media on this front. Nonetheless I welcome whatever innovation you can bring to climate change journalism. In the meantime, if you'd like to help make us poor wretches part of the solution (as opposed to being "part of the problem), show us how it's done.

I'd like to see a blog out there that actually stops bitching about journalism and starts showing us how to do a better job. Criticism is easy and lazy. I can find a story I don't like everyday and carp about it.

Perhaps the best way to do this is to set up a parallel universe journalism web site, where someone like yourself writes up an alternative story to Pearce's. (I had high hopes that Grist would do this back in the day...but that's not going to happen now.)

At least then you and so many other climate advocates could constructively channel all that antipathy towards the press.

skanky said...

A snapshot of the state of journalism, with a UK focus:

Michael Tobis said...

"I just happen to believe that your expectations of journalists are unreasonable. You seem to think it falls on journalism's collective shoulders to rescue humanity from imminent climate catastrophe."

Not at all. I do expect it falls to journalism to convey factual information effectively and in a self-correcting way. If that cannot be done, then the concept of democracy seems utterly incapable of working. And if journalists can't do it, amateurs must rise to the occasion.

There are many potential points of failure in climate policy other than public ignorance and confusion. But after a quarter century of a fairly clear scientific picture, the press still haven't the slightest grip on the outlines of the problem, so it's little wonder the public doesn't.

Yes, perhaps it was an unrealistic expectation. Or perhaps the press needed to develop new methods and rise to the challenge. I don't know.

I do know this. Somebody had better rise to the challenge, because it sure isn't going away.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

"if you'd like to help make us poor wretches part of the solution (as opposed to being 'part of the problem'), show us how it's done."

keith, if you expect other people to work out the solution for you in full and present it to you on a silver platter, while you just continue doing your old thing...

...then you're definitely not part of the solution.

As MT said, we don't know what the One True Solution is. And I think it'll be nice if journalists can also participate in coming up with a solution to the problem of excessive climate denialist noise in the press.

But if you want to be part of the solution, then you should take an active part in it.

* * *

"Forget about long-form magazine stories or investigative pieces. Those are different beasts. Let's stick to the guts of daily journalism--the reporting of events, meetings, research findings, et al. That's the cog in the wheel."

OK. I don't get this. What's the big reason that daily journalism can't be done like investigative journalism? Why should reporters suddenly become stenographers just because they're doing boring "daily reporting" rather than exciting "investigative pieces"?

Take one single example. The Fort Worth Star Telegram calls the Heartland Institute "a Chicago-based conservative research organization". Won't it be better if they can say that the Heartland Institute is "a Chicago-based conservative organization which promotes ACORN conspiracy theories and thinks that Obama is promoting global warming to further his secret wealth redistribution agenda" -- which is perfectly factual? What's stopping reporters from being more investigative when it comes to writing daily news pieces?

-- bi

Steve Bloom said...

I notice that in the context of the recent Van Jones imbroglio, the mainstream press didn't hesitate to paint ANSWER (proponents of the 9/11 petition Jones signed) as nutters. Heartland and others on the right get a relative pass. Heck, she ended up looking like an idiot, but look at all the play Orly Taitz got for her "birther" crap.

Dano said...

Exactly, Steve.



Anna Haynes said...

re Keith's
> I'm asking you or any of your readers to demonstrate an alternative means of communication for the daily reporting of climate-related news.

How about a weekly syndicated column, available free of charge, vetted by reputable climate scientists, explaining climate change, its scale and significance, and answering Qs from readers?

Do you think papers would be willing to run the column?