Monday, August 13, 2007

Science : Journalism :: Science Fiction : Punditry

[I've been boring myself with this one all week, now it's your turn. On the plus side, it should be out of my head now.]

Even though I've been committing some half-assed versions of it lately, I'm not a big fan of science journalism. Or maybe that's not quite correct: I like the stuff in here when I read it, and the various popular science magazines can be OK for fields I'm unfamiliar with, even if one of them was once so foolish as to include my photo once (the last time I saw my name in print, I think). My occasional viewing of the NYT science section has revealed a general readability and even Will Saletan can occasionally be trenchant as he parrots it. And I like fantasizing about science too. No the problem is less what's written, and more the readers. I don't mind opening eyes and instilling a desire for greater understanding (again, I've enjoyed popularly styled reports recently in areas I was totally ignorant), and I'm all for inquiry, but it annoys me when dumb people read a breezy piece, with their own agendas on their backs like monkeys, and think they have it down. It annoys me even more when those people are influential.

I think it's John McG's fault that this came across my attention. According to the poster,

[a cited USA Today article] also contains some worthwhile comments on the danger of politicizing science, as well as in pretending that science can resolve contentious policy debates.
Yes, you have to beware of people using their credentials to forward political (or market) agendas, but science isn't something that bears the weight of opinion as obviously as everyone seems to think. Just because theories can be developed and institutionalized to a degree, it's rare that this stuff sifts through peer review for very long. It may take an extra convincing argument to sway the establishment, but at the end, science is interpretation of facts and measurements, while politics is interpretation of opinions. Ideally, opinions are grounded in facts, but they sure don't have to be.

Facts enrich opinions more than opinions enrich facts. You do have to be wary of the latter, whatever the source. Still, I wish I had more sources of science policy opinion.* When scientists write editorials they tend to be either dreadful (and USA Today and Volokh are right that the opinion is often more funding) or bombastic (which is more fun since there are a lot of earnest deniers out there, but I'm still glad I skipped Stephen Jay Gould deriding The Bell Curve at novel length). In the opposite case, when professional opinion writers get their hands on scientific points, it's nothing short of a train wreck. It's the worse with conservative pundits, because conservatism, by definition, is a set of opinions that's been reinforced for a while. The liberation from a justifying set of facts for those opinions may be a newer development in the movement. Certainly they're more crass than I remember as a kid.

[Is this what happened to economics? I had just finished mocking supply side theorists last night when it occurred to me that Milton Friedman shouldn't really be called a lightweight. I don't know if he can be blamed for skyrocketing the national debt in flush times, favoring short-term speculation over real investment, or a suspiciously self-serving policy of enriching the already rich, but whatever we have now also seems a far cry from Friedman's monetarism. Need to read more on that. Consider it an invitation to comment.] Even if they've got some intellectual bits distantly behind them, the cheerleaders of poorly fortified opinions generally (and wrongly) imagine themselves the first in line to reap the promised rewards of their insincerity. Cushy and undeserved jobs aside, I don't know if your average conservative hack is really of the ownership class, and less so their readers.

But what the fuck, they've no doubt mangled Thomas Jefferson and Sun Tzu just as badly as anyone else. Frustratingly, other fields have crept into their purview as well, ones that I actually know stuff about. Jonah Goldberg, no deep thinker he, and a frequent complainer about scientists' inability to accept simple rhetorical "truths", has opined that those clever can-do scientists are going to save us from an oil crunch, fersure. Evidently, everyone is as eager as he is to keep him in his pampered, dull sinecure. (If you need a goat on the liberal side of things, witness the slavering over stem cells.)

To add insult to insult, the opinion hacks are doing their damndest to ruin my beloved science speculation too. Glenn Reynolds (of AG Android fame, and also doing his damndest to delve the shallows) has made time blathering about the hypothetical technological singularity as though he'll be the first to be uploaded. As though we need to listen to a computerized pundit for all eternity. Roy Edroso makes me sad when he picks on these people, but just because goobers latch onto it, it doesn't mean that speculation can't be instructive too. Some people read that stuff and it inspires them to become scientists, or merely to look down new avenues of thought. Others find it justification for their own mediocrity. Sharpen up your facts to defend against them.


*For the record, m'man Archaeopteryx actually does it pretty well.

[Update: Doncha hate when you have to correct something dumb? I was a little breezy myself with the anti-supply-side mumbo-jumbo last night, and had to qualify it a lot this morning. So I go to the stat counter hoping no one was up in the wee hours reading my drivel, and lo, there were those rare and valued readers pulled in from foreign comments sections. Figures.]

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