Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

False Equivalencies

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Several recent posts have touched on false equivalency, perhaps the most persistent, pernicious mistake perpetrated by the press. Although the post Color Commentary was undertook partially in jest, on political issues, the typical media formula is to present a Republican and a Democrat, let them both have their say, and leave it at that. The problem is this is socially or politically equitable, but has absolutely nothing to do with veracity and accuracy. As The Bullshit Matrix explored, anyone who lies with some cleverness has an advantage in most political arenas, because the press typically won't call them on it. It would be impolite, the correction can be attacked as partisan, and it might cost the reporter a source or two. In such an environment, the truth can easily be muddied or obscured. The public may also labor under the assumption that "surely the Vice President wouldn't lie about such an important matter!" Alternatively, a cynical viewer might say, "all politicians are liars!" which is another pernicious form of false equivalency. Not all participants are equally honorable, honest or accurate. If the press does not fact-check, it does a grave service to their viewers/readers, and abets liars and bullshitters.

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." As I've seen others note, if speaker one comes on and says 2+2=4, and speaker two, a hack, says 2+2=8, the press' default approach is to suggest 2+2=6. Issues exist where there are simply legitimate differences of opinion or where judgment is ultimately subjective. However, on factual matters, that's not the case. On matters of science in particular, there's no reason not to say 2+2=4, or at the very least explain that the overwhelming number of scientist hold that 2+2=4 (and if necessary, why that's the case).

The national discourse on global warming and man-made climate change may have improved in the past couple years, but it remains badly skewed. The debate has not centered on Democrats and Republicans arguing about what to do about global warming, a legitimate policy issue. Instead, the conflict has been between reality and fantasy, with many Republicans simply denying empirical facts, much as tobacco executives used to say that no scientific proof existed to show that cigarettes were harmful to one's health.

In the New York Review of Books piece "The Threat to the Planet," (7/13/06) James Hansen reviewed three books on climate change as well as the film An Inconvenient Truth (one of the books was by Al Gore, written to accompany the film). Hansen is described as "Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University's Earth Institute." Highly informative, Hansen's piece also offers this insight into media coverage (emphasis mine):

Why are the same scientists and political forces that succeeded in controlling the threat to the ozone layer now failing miserably to deal with the global warming crisis? Though we depend on fossil fuels far more than we ever did on CFCs, there is plenty of blame to go around. Scientists present the facts about climate change clinically, failing to stress that business-as-usual will transform the planet. The press and television, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus concerning global warming, give equal time to fringe "contrarians" supported by the fossil fuel industry. Special interest groups mount effective disinformation campaigns to sow doubt about the reality of global warming. The government appears to be strongly influenced by special interests, or otherwise confused and distracted, and it has failed to provide leadership. The public is understandably confused or uninterested.

I used to spread the blame uniformly until, when I was about to appear on public television, the producer informed me that the program "must" also include a "contrarian" who would take issue with claims of global warming. Presenting such a view, he told me, was a common practice in commercial television as well as radio and newspapers. Supporters of public TV or advertisers, with their own special interests, require "balance" as a price for their continued financial support. Gore's book reveals that while more than half of the recent newspaper articles on climate change have given equal weight to such contrarian views, virtually none of the scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals have questioned the consensus that emissions from human activities cause global warming. As a result, even when the scientific evidence is clear, technical nit-picking by contrarians leaves the public with the false impression that there is still great scientific uncertainty about the reality and causes of climate change.

The executive and legislative branches of the US government seek excuses to justify their inaction. The President, despite conclusive reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences, welcomes contrary advice from Michael Crichton, a science fiction writer. Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, describes global warming as "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" and has used aggressive tactics, including a lawsuit to suppress a federally funded report on climate change, to threaten and intimidate scientists.

Policies favoring the short-term profits of energy companies and other special interests are cast by many politicians as being in the best economic interests of the country. They take no account of the mounting costs of environmental damage and of the future costs of maintaining the supply of fossil fuels. Leaders with a long-term vision would place greater value on developing more efficient energy technology and sources of clean energy. Rather than subsidizing fossil fuels, the government should provide incentives for fossil-fuel companies to develop other kinds of energy.

Hansen describes a classic case of powerful interests opposing policies that would benefit the country as a whole. Part of the problem relates to Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber's enduring concern about news programs' strong preference for using think tank pundits with a political agenda as opposed to academicians and scientists, who are typically more honest and focused on facts. It's a classic hack-wonk divide. On important, complex issues such as global warming, it's especially crucial that media outlets present the public true experts versus hacks. However, Hansen further describes news programs essentially being bullied into misleading the public in the name of "balance." This is a failure of courage and integrity. News programs don't need to play the game this way. Even if they are forced by those on high to present a contrarian, they can choose the framing, for instance pointing out that James Dobson is not a scientist and has no training in environmental matters, or that Bjorn Lomberg is an outlier, a scientist who disagrees with 10,000 other scientists on this issue or what not. An essential part of reporting is not only reporting facts, or soliciting opinions, but giving viewers the necessary context to properly judge facts and opinions for themselves.

CNN has used an approach that deals with some of these problems. The Situation Room on 8/24/06 presented an extended segment on Emergency Plan B. First to speak was Dr. Sanjay Gupta, their Senior Medical Correspondent, who explained that the drug prevents 90% of pregnancies if taken within 72 hours, and also explained how this actually works:

Now, the drug works one of two ways. First, it can stop ovulation or, second, if the egg has been fertilized, it increases the chance it won't attach to the uterus. Now, if the egg is already attached to the uterus, the pregnancy will not be affected. Now, critics have claimed it's tantamount to abortion. Proponents reject that and blame the three years it took to get it approved on political, not medical concerns.

Wolf Blitzer then kicked things to Congressional Correspondent Andrea Koppel, followed by White House Correspondent Elaine Quijano, who between them broke down the political landscape surrounding the drug. The program then moved to many other issues, but later returned to Emergency Plan B and stem cell research with a discussion segment featuring two men Blitzer had previously referred to as "experts":

BLITZER: Joining us now in our "Strategy Session," radio talk show host Bill Press and CNN political analyst, former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts.

In this Plan B decision, the morning-after contraception pill, in effect, Hillary Clinton came out with a strong statement: "While we urge the FDA to revisit placing age restrictions on the sale of Plan B, it is real progress that millions of American women will now have increased access to emergency contraception."

Women 18 and older can just go in and buy the pill. Seventeen- year-olds and under have to get a doctor's note.

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well...

(LAUGHTER)

WATTS: ... Wolf, I don't know what is the difference in, you know, harming the child the night or the day after. I still don't think that changes the debate. Those...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: You think this is abortion?

WATTS: I do. I think -- I still don't think it changes the debate one bit.

I think those who are opposed to abortion are going to be opposed to this. Those who support abortion, they will like this decision, as -- as Senator Clinton said. It's abortion the day after.

So, it doesn't change the debate any. And I do. I agree that the FDA has made a huge mistake in this ruling.

BLITZER: The other side, Wendy Wright of Concerned Women of -- For America, says, "The FDA's irresponsible action today takes those rights out of a parent's hands and gives them to ill-intentioned perpetrators."

Clearly, they're very unhappy with this FDA decision.

BILL PRESS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, you know, that's too bad, Wolf. I think this is a major breakthrough for American women.

And, J.C., it's hypocritical to be against abortion and to be against Plan B. We heard Sanjay Gupta, who knows more about this than you and I do, at the top of the show, say, if a woman is already pregnant, this does nothing. This is not an abortion pill. It's a contraceptive pill. It has been used safely by European women for years. It has been held up in this year only for -- in this country only for political reasons.

And what this pill is going to result in is fewer unwanted pregnancies and fewer abortions, which I thought -- is certainly my goal -- I thought was your goal, too.

WATTS: Well, it's ironic, Wolf, that we say it's a contraceptive, but you take it the morning after.

PRESS: So what?

(LAUGHTER)

PRESS: You take one pill the day before. You can take one the morning after.

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: It's a medical breakthrough.

WATTS: The morning after.

PRESS: It's a contraceptive.

WATTS: It's...

PRESS: And it's not funny.

WATTS: It...

PRESS: Three-and-a-half -- no.

WATTS: Bill, the bottom line is...

PRESS: It's...

WATTS: ... your mind is not going to be changed by this decision. Nor -- and nor is mine.

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: I believe it's abortion. I believe it takes the life of a -- you don't. So...

PRESS: No, but I...

WATTS: ... that's the issue.

PRESS: ... would hope...

WATTS: That's the issue.

PRESS: But I would hope people who have strong beliefs would listen to the experts and listen to the facts.

As Sanjay said, three -- and he's the medical expert here, not you, not me -- three-and-a-half million unwanted pregnancies in this country. One-half of them could be eliminated because of this pill. I would think you would say...

BLITZER: All right.

PRESS: ... it's about time.

WATTS: But you want to listen...

BLITZER: All right.

WATTS: ... to the experts on abortion, but you don't want to listen to the experts on the war that says that evil people are trying to kill us.

BLITZER: All right.

WATTS: But you don't want to do anything about that.

Can "I'm rubber, you're glue" be far behind? Digby made a post of this painful exchange. (Digby also highlighted a great comment in the post thread: "Yesterday, they said life begins with conception. Today, they say life begins with intercourse. Tomorrow, they will tell us life begins with dinner and a movie.")

CNN did a good job by letting their doctor speak first, and also by laying out the political context of the drug before going to the political debate. This allowed for a hack-free zone for a good stretch, and is a wise approach — establish the facts first, then let the political folks argue about their significance.

However, CNN could have done several things better. Perhaps they could have asked Dr. Gupta to speak at greater length about the difference between an abortifacient such as RU-486 and forms of contraception such as Emergency Plan B. The "debate" segment probably shouldn't have come so far after the science segment. Blitzer definitely should not have introduced Watts and Press as "experts." While Press seems to have some common sense, Watts comes off as an idiot, and is certainly no "expert" on this subject. Most importantly, CNN could have hired a smarter conservative pundit. Is Watts really the best they could do? Did conservative cheer him on when they saw him, or did only a small minority of them do so? Having a conservative on cushions CNN from complaints of bias, but is the general public well served by a discussion of this caliber?

Molly Ivins summed up this dynamic perfectly back in 1987 (emphasis mine):

The American press has always had a tendency to assume the truth must lie exactly halfway between any two opposing points of view. Thus, if the press present the man who says Hitler is an ogre and the man who says Hitler is a prince, it believes it has done the full measure of its duty.

This tendency has been aggravated in recent years by a noticeable trend to substitute people who speak from a right-wing ideological perspective for those who know something about a given subject. Thus we see, night after night, on MacNeil/Lehrer or Nightline, people who don't know jack-shit about Iran or Nicarauga or arms control, but who are ready to tear up the peapatrch in defense of the proposition that Ronald Reagan is a Great Leader beset by com-symps. They have nothing to off in the way of facts or insight; they are presented as a way of keeping the networks from being charged with bias by people who are themselves replete with bias and resistant to fact. The justification for putting them on the air is that "they represent a point of view."

The odd thing about these television discussions designed to "get all sides of the issue" is that they do not feature a spectrum of people with different views on reality:

Rather, they frequently give us a face-off between those who see reality and those who have missed it entirely. In the name of objectivity, we are getting fantasyland.

Ivins was always great at calling bullshit. Perhaps in The Situation Room incident, it was obvious to viewers from the framing provided on the issue that Watts was an idiot. A pundit inadvertently invalidating his own bogus position certainly has some value — but most hacks seek to muddy the waters, and they often succeed. Not all ideas are created equal, and while different points of view should be presented — on issues where that's applicable — there is really no value in presenting a false equivalency between an informed opinion and a completely uninformed one. J.C. Watts was not on The Situation Room because he was an "expert" on Emergency Plan B, he was on because he was a Republican. Ideally, the viewer should be allowed to decide issues for him or herself, but the news program does need to provide the context to aid the viewer in forming an informed opinion. When it comes to empirical fact, there shouldn't be equal time for stupid people.

The sad reality is that, for many people, "the truth" is socially rather than empirically determined. For instance, an ugly peer pressure on global warming pervades the Republican side of the congressional aisle, so deeply entrenched it resembles Omertà. A recent Yale poll finds that 83% of Americans say global warming is a serious problem. In contrast (via Digby's good post Faith Based Straight Jacket), Jonathan Chait reports:

Only 13% of [congressional] Republicans agreed that global warming has been proved. As the evidence for global warming gets stronger, Republicans are actually getting more skeptical. Al Gore's recent congressional testimony on the subject, and the chilly reception he received from GOP members, suggest the discouraging conclusion that skepticism on global warming is hardening into party dogma. Like the notion that tax cuts are always good or that President Bush is a brave war leader, it's something you almost have to believe if you're an elected Republican.

(Think Progress has a nice chart on the breakdown.)

Denying global warming has become a kind of shibboleth for Republicans. Perhaps most frightening is this article (via Howard Kurtz) from Gannett News Service that reports (emphasis mine):

WASHINGTON -- House Republican Leader John Boehner would have appointed Rep. Wayne Gilchrest to the bipartisan Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming -- but only if the Maryland Republican would say humans are not causing climate change, Gilchrest said.

"I said, 'John, I can't do that,' " Gilchrest, R-1st-Md., said in an interview. "He said, 'Come on. Do me a favor. I want to help you here.' "


Gilchrest didn't make the committee. Neither did other Republican moderates or science-minded members, whose guidance centrist GOP members usually seek on the issue. Republican moderates, called the Tuesday Group, invited Boehner to this week's meeting to push for different representation.

[...]

"Roy Blunt said he didn't think there was enough evidence to suggest that humans are causing global warming," Gilchrest said. "Right there, holy cow, there's like 9,000 scientists to three on that one."

What a bizarre, frightening situation, where membership in the club, or at least leadership, is contingent on the denial of objective reality. For some Republicans, it's doubtless an act. Take Philip Cooney, the energy industry lobbyist turned chief of staff for Bush's Council on Environmental Quality turned Exxon-Mobil employee. Speaking before Congress, Cooney admitted to changing climate reports to better fit Bush's corporate-pleasing policies. Furthermore, he did so with direction from Cheney's office. In sharp contrast to this calculated manipulation, consider the scene created by some other Republicans on Capitol Hill when Al Gore visited, as captured by Dana Milbank:

Al Gore, star of an Academy Award-winning film, was in town for a double feature on Capitol Hill yesterday. But instead of giving another screening of "An Inconvenient Truth," the former vice president found himself playing the Clarence Darrow character in "Inherit the Wind."

"You're not just off a little -- you're totally wrong," Joe Barton (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the former vice president at a hearing on global warming yesterday morning.

"One scientist is quoted as saying, 'This is shrill alarmism,' " said Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.). The reviews only grew more savage when Gore crossed over to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in the afternoon for a second hearing. "You've been so extreme in some of your expressions that you're losing some of your own people," announced Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the committee's ranking Republican and the man who has called man-made global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

Inhofe informed Gore that scientists are "radically at odds with your claims." Displaying a photograph of icicles in Buffalo, Inhofe demanded: "How come you guys never seem to notice it when it gets cold? . . . Where is global warming when you really need it?"

Invoking the Scopes Monkey Trial (fictionalized as Inherit the Wind) actually fails to capture the full extremity of Inhofe's views, since at least Williams Jennings Bryan was relying on the Bible, whereas Inhofe merely plums the depths of his own lunacy. But how should the press handle such a situation? How should they handle idiots such as Inhofe, or people who believe that a jar of peanut butter disproves those uppity "evolutionists"? Milbank succeeds in crafting a good, informative piece by accurately describing Inhofe's own statements with a wry tone. However, outside The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, this sort of on-target critique tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Yet don't the people of Oklahoma deserve to know that their senator is a raving loon? Shouldn't every statement by Inhofe on global warming in the press be accompanied by something akin to a Surgeon's General's warning? "Warning: Ingesting Senator Inhofe's Beliefs is Hazardous to Your Intelligence"...? Inhofe's beliefs go beyond the eccentricities of Strom Thurmond referring to a microphone as "the machine," or the embarrassing cluelessness of Ted Stevens regulating the internet when he thinks it's a series of pneumatic tubes. Obviously, Inhofe's opinions matter not due to their merit or his knowledge, but because of his power. He's dangerous because of his position, and because in the political arena he's aggressively promoting his batshit crazy Weltanschauung.

It's a problem for the country that one of its senators is crazy (well, more than one), but it's a far bigger problem that many people don't know he's crazy, and the media bears a large part of the blame for this. As Bob Somerby reports at the Daily Howler, the public will be subjected to outlier scientists who claim that Mars is warming and that this disproves man-made climate change on Earth. The public will also have to deal with obfuscation from the likes of Fox News' conservative Brit Hume (emphasis in original):

KONDRACKE (3/21/07): Now, I have read the New York Times piece and I reread the New York Times piece, and basically what is says was that there disputes about certain facts in the Gore case. And one or them—one significant one—is this question of how high the sea level rise and it's not, it isn't insignificant. However, as to the question of a consensus, I mean the—Gore appeared before the American Geophysical Union and got a standing ovation.

HUME (exasperated, as always): Mort—

KONDRACKE: Just a second! The head of the National Academy of Science—today, I talked to him—pointed me in the direction of testimony that he's delivered before Congress, which says that there is an overwhelming consensus among his colleagues, and he is an earth scientist, that global warming is a fact, that man is responsible for it and that the sun is not responsible. There's been a lot of study—

HUME: But Mort, is—doesn't—isn't what, isn't scientific consensus what you turn to when you don't have scientific fact?

KONDRACKE: No.

HUME: In other words, you haven't established it?

KONDRACKE: No. No, the—

HUME: Well, is this scientific fact?

KONDRACKE: Look, how are we supposed to determine what scientific fact is—

HUME: Mort, that's what the scientific method is for. Let me move on to Nina, just to get her—

KONDRACKE: You get thousands of scientists and if they all agree—if 90 percent—

HUME: That's not science, Mort, that's a vote. That's an election.

After invoking the scientific method, Hume tries to dismiss the overwhelming findings of scientists as a matter of a "vote" based solely on opinion. As Somerby observes, this sort of blather is "less important when [it] happens on Fox. It’s more important when the New York Times does it" (and as Somerby shows in this series of posts, The New York Times sadly does similar things as well, most of all in the error-laden article Kondracke cites).

Global warming is a complex issue, and even an intelligent journalist may have difficulty explaining it (or an intelligent viewer may struggle to understand it all). The same will be true for many medical and scientific issues. That's one thing. However, the key problem on journalists' part is not a failure of knowledge, but a failure of nerve. Why else would the National Journal's James Barnes duck several questions from C-Span callers, and respond to one who doubted global warming even existed by saying: "As we see, global warming—there’s two views of this subject. It’s a hotly debated issue." As Somerby remarks:

Yes, we found it depressing to watch such perfect nonsense ignored by a major mainstream “journalist”—by a “journalist” who kept insisting that these callers’ howling ignorance shows that there are two sides to this story. It was depressing to see these citizens make the good-faith effort of calling C-SPAN, only to be blown off in this manner. (How are they supposed to know that what they’re being told elsewhere is wrong?) It was depressing to think of all the other C-SPAN viewers, who weren’t being told that these callers’ statements were delusions, built on well-crafted lies.

But later, we found our spirits restored as we realized what a gem this session had been. This session showed us the shape of the age. We saw the soul of a millionaire “mainstream press corps”—a millionaire group in in-action.

What is the ongoing shape of the age? Here’s what happened in Monday’s session—in that small, perfect gem:

Three voters’ heads had been filled with nonsense by the work of the talk-show right. And when they called a major mainstream “journalist,” he refused to challenge or correct their misstatements. He refused to tell these voters that their heads had been filled full of mush. He refused to perform the basic function viewers thought he was there to perform.

But then, this has been the shape of the age at least since the early 90s. The right-wing bullsh*t machine churns out silly, wild tales—and mainstream scribes pretend not to notice. Or they recite the nonsense themselves, in the manner described by Paul Waldman in that brilliant statement last Wednesday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/07). Yes, this has been the shape of our age—and now, the press corps’ refusal to function even extends to basic matters of science. This practice has rarely been put on more brilliant display than Barnes did on C-SPAN this week.

Somerby's frustration is all too understandable. Why the hell was Barnes responding the way he did? His was an overly polite social response, not an honest journalistic one. There may be two political reactions to the factual story, but the factual story itself does not have two sides, even if scientists are debating details or the best responses to the situation. This isn't polite cocktail hour, where it's only good manners not to offend someone needlessly. But the public has an important need here, and it is going unfulfilled. Why couldn't Barnes have demonstrated the matter-of-fact attitude of an archeologist quoted by The New York Times about the lack of scientific proof that Moses parted the Red Sea, who said:

"If they get upset, I don’t care," Dr. Hawass said. "This is my career as an archaeologist. I should tell them the truth. If the people are upset, that is not my problem."

Dr. Hawass would never make it on Fox News. But then, the honest, scholar-wonk approach doesn't seem that popular elsewhere, either.

False equivalencies spring up in a great deal of political coverage, and they're generally much more subtle than whether or not global warming exists. Ideally, scientific and medical issues would only be covered as scientific and medical issues, but for global warming, Emergency Plan B and many other subjects, there's a political component to the story that can demand attention. However, "he said-she said" should not be allowed to infect the reporting on the science itself. If most media outlets still aren't willing to stand up for objective reality on clear-cut issues such as whether humankind is causing significant climate change, what's the chance they'll fight for nuanced but important distinctions elsewhere?

The scientists are doing their part. Hansen suggests that they become more media-savvy, which is a point well-taken, but on their primary task, investigating and reporting on science, they seem to be performing admirably. Some politicians are global warming deniers, but other public figures such as Al Gore are certainly doing more than their fair share of work on this issue. The hacks will not be struck down by conscience as if by lightning on this or any other issue. This means the real issue is the media. Will they have the courage to be accurate? Will they report the facts? If they feature a global warming denier, will they at least put him or her in some context for the viewer, or will they yet again present a false equivalency? It's sad we even need to ask this of them, but as George Orwell said, "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."

Update: Welcome, C&L readers, and thanks again to Mike's Blog Roundup! I've also corrected "Somersby" to "Somerby." Thanks to jcasey!

19 comments:

jcasey said...

Nice job on this Batocchio. One minor item of correction: The Daily Howler is Somerby (not Somersby--that was a movie with Richard Gere. But on more substantial matters, the idea that one ought to be "balanced" in all matters is a silly one. Some people won't even read things they perceive as not "balanced" (for the reasons I think Ivins noticed.

Anonymous said...

I really liked this post, thanks. I am an abortion-rights supporter but I have to say the bit about Plan B is itself misleading. What would have made the CNN show fair to the viewer would be to show:
- many religious people define conception at the moment the egg and sperm join
- that whether or not the egg has been fertilized, Plan B will prevent implantation
- so if the egg was fertilized and it was lost from the woman's body, was a "human life" lost?

Many would say yes, that Plan B is essentially creating a miscarriage if the egg has been fertilized because it prevented implantation of a fertilized egg.

So the guy on the "right" wasn't being crazy. It just depends on the definitions one is using for what counts as "life".

To me the whole discussion has been warped by the false question "when does life begin?" To me, this is like asking "When does flour and water become bread?" I would say that from the moment of fertilization forward, it gradually becomes more of a person and so acquires more and more rights to protection independent of the mother.

quixote said...

(@anonymous: always a good idea to define your terms. Nobody's arguing about when life began. That was way back with the first primitive cell. The discussion is about *human* life, which is a much more metaphysical problem, involving as it does a definition of what is human. Good luck to all of us on that one.)

I wanted to comment about the coverage of scientific facts. The points you raise are all well taken, but I think one thing is missing. Scientists themselves create a (small?) part of the problem by insisting on speaking their own language instead of ordinary English.

Sure, we're all speaking English, but, like Twain said, we're divided by a common language. In science-speak, there are no truths, just probabilities. The law of gravity is an assemblage of data points with a very high probability of correctly predicting the next observed data point. In ordinary English, gravity is a damn fact.

When scientists talk to the media, they continue to talk about "high probabilities" and "likelihood" and the whole nine yards. The other scientists would laugh at them if they didn't. (I'm a biologist. Believe me, I know whereof I speak on this one!) (It might also explain Kondracke's reluctance to say, "Yes, it's a fact." He's been talking to too many scientists.) The viewers are hearing, "This might be right, just like it *might* rain on Saturday."

And then, when some JC Watts comes on and acts the Compleat Clothhead, the sciencespeak that came before makes it more plausible that his is a "point of view." After all, in ordinary English, if something is a mere probability, then other explanations are possible.

Anonymous said...

Very nice piece, about a very troubling issue.

Batocchio said...

Jcasey — Thanks for the correction. D'oh! Should have caught that one. I've updated the post. Actually, I never saw Sommersby, just the original film in high school French class, The Return of Martin Guerre.

Anonymous @ 8:49 — I agree CNN could have been more precise. I'm not an expert on Emergency Plan B, and didn't want to get too sidetracked for this post (which is why I debated including that section), but it's an appropriate subject for the comments or further posts! Actually, the FDA website has since updated its language:

How does Plan B work?

Plan B works like a birth control pill to prevent pregnancy mainly by stopping the release of an egg from the ovary. It is possible that Plan B may also work by preventing fertilization of an egg (the uniting of sperm with the egg) or by preventing attachment (implantation) to the uterus (womb), which usually occurs beginning 7 days after release of an egg from the ovary. Plan B will not do anything to a fertilized egg already attached to the uterus. The pregnancy will continue.


The drug manufacturers also make the point that Plan B "is not RU-486 (the abortion pill); it will not work if you are already pregnant." It only works within a very narrow time frame, roughly 3 days, but the sooner, the more effective. In any case, all the credible current literature I've found says it's uncertain whether or not Plan B "prevents implantation" or even "prevents fertilization." And every medical definition of "miscarriage" I can find speaks of a fetus or embryo, not a fertilized egg. Then there's what happens to eggs during a normal menstrual cycle. (As to "fetus rights," there are none, and it's the mother's choice — although that's a whole other discussion.)

Here's the key issues for me. J.C. Watts is not an expert on this subject (neither is Press, but at least he comes off as reasonable because he references what the doctor's said). Watts also refuses to acknowledge a defining feature of Plan B — it does not affect pregnant women. Strictly in terms of a good debate or discussion, that's bad. You have one of the participants either arguing in bad faith or refusing to acknowledge a central fact. As I wrote in the post, Watts is on because he's a conservative Republican, not because he's an expert. If CNN wants to bring on a knowledgeable doctor to discuss that Plan B doesn't affect a pregnant woman, that it doesn't affect a fetus, embryo or even an attached/implanted fertilized egg, but it may affect implantation of a fertilized egg or fertilization of the egg in the first place, okay. Plan B is classified as an emergency contraceptive. Contraceptives prevent fertilization of an egg by various means, so objecting to Plan B because it may prevent fertilization makes no sense unless one just opposes the legality of any contraceptives. Really, the only logical objection to Plan B is that it may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterine wall, that human life/pregnancy begins at fertilization, not implantation or later, and this specific possible feature is so qualitatively different from other forms of contraception it means women should be prevented from having the choice to use Plan B. If a panelist can acknowledge all those distinctions in some manner, fine. But I don't see how presenting Watts as an "expert" and elevating his uninformed opinion helps the public. I don't see him saying, "Hmm, if Plan B doesn't affect pregnant women, perhaps I'm missing something." It's not as if he's asking, "Why is it considered a contraceptive if it's taken after intercourse? I thought all contraceptives had to be used before or during," in which case a doctor or knowledgeable person could explain the gaps in Watt's understanding of human reproductive biology. That explanation could be valuable to the public, just as it could be valuable for someone knowledgeable to respond to the question, "I keep hearing about global warming, but this was a really cold winter. What's up with that?"

Reproductive rights can be an emotional issue for some people. The same is true for evolution for the creationist crowd. It's of course appropriate or even necessary for CNN to try to address those social dynamics in some way. People have a right to their opinions and feelings, but that doesn't mean they're all equally informed on the medicine or science of an issue. I fully expect that members of the public will confuse Plan B with RU-486 — I was when I first heard of it, because there's also been a battle over RU-486 — and that's why it's important to make the distinction. Let's be honest. Watts is a social conservative. He wants abortion to be illegal. He may oppose the legality of contraception as well, in which case, I wish he'd just say so. A logical objection to Plan B would be on extremely narrow grounds, and if one supports reproductive freedom those grounds are moot. It really makes no sense to oppose Emergency Plan B outside an agenda of social control, specifically aimed at women. Watts is certainly no expert on Plan B, but I think the bigger problem isn't that he's ignorant, it's that he's dishonest about his political agenda. The bigger issue is that when the media promotes people who don't know what they're talking about, who don't care, who are deliberately trying to muddy the issue or who outright lie, it doesn't serve the public.

Quixote — you raise a good point I've heard others make as well, and I think you're speaking directly to Hansen's concerns about scientists becoming more media savvy. That Twain line is a good one. Doctors and scientists like to be precise, with many qualifiers, and generally admit there's a possibility (however infinitesimal) that they may be wrong. When they speak of the "Theory of Evolution," it's a scientific theory, but in common parlance it's fact. Climate change deniers and creationists always try to exploit this.

(Whenever I hear someone try to dismiss someone's knowledgeable opinion with, "Well, that's just your opinion," I always think, "No, that's an informed opinion," supported by evidence, logic, good arguments, and so on. Again, it's wise to be kind in the social context of a party or whatnot, but it doesn't help America or the world when our national discourse is obtuse or averse to stating empirical facts.)

daphne said...

Nice analysis. I live to read about the psychology of politics. I think it's called addressing the subtext.

SpinyNorman said...

Thank you so much for explaining this horrible logic fracture so completely.

I've been raging for many years now that the MSM's idea of "balance" meant that all they had to have was two talking heads disagreeing with each other, and that is so disingenuous and intellectually dishonest that it makes both my head and my heart hurt.

That any seemingly competent journalists could consider both a scientific expert and a partisan religious figure equivalent experts on the subject of a scientific matter simply baffles me.

That journalists are using politically connected serial lying shills as "experts" to counter a story is absolutely unacceptable.

Hopefully the broadsheets' most recent trend of dropping the more intellectually irrelevant "pundits" (i.e. Coulter) will carry over into television news, because the next time I see Pat Robertson arguing constitutional law, I am likely to put a boot into my tv.

Anonymous said...

This is such a hopelessly bad example it hurts my head. False Equivalencies only exist when the debate is about something other than the underlying facts. Such as a debate about what to do to solve the problem of endemic poverty. Both sides agree there is poverty, but they are debating what is to be done. Then you can have these sort of equivalencies. But with the global warming issue it is totally different. There is no such thing as a settled consensus in science. Consensus is a political term. The very object of science is to question and prove and disprove and continue to question and continue to debate. This is much more complicated than saying one side says 2+2=4 and the other says 2+2=8. That is a little intellectually shallow. What is more accurately going on is one side is saying 2+2=4 and 2x2=4 so if 3+3=6 then 3x3 must also equal 6. Those of us who are real environmentalists and see the real dangers that man is creating in the world are opposed to this sort of sensational manipulation of the facts. All we're saying is we'll grant you the first two but your conclusions are a little off. There are real problems such as commercial hunting of species into extinction, pollution of drinking water, erosion due to land over-use, air quality problems, and en mass deforestation that all take a back seat to this very political and not so scientific snake oil job. The debate about global warming is only over in the UN and in the media. The real scientists continue to study it and the people who really care about the earth continue to push for the attention and money that this crap gets to go to solving real problems. Open discourse and debate is never a bad thing. The only person who would want to close a debate before it starts is one who doesn't have the truth on his side. The trouble with this sort of intellectual elitism who decides which facts are "settled?" That is the whole point of the debate and to take it away by saying "no you have to acknowledge I am right to even partake in this conversation" is weak-minded and fearful. A person and a cause that really has the truth will never shy away from a debate or an open discourse on the issues. James Hansen is a kook who has been preaching the end of the world for decades. Most of what goes on in the global warming movement is simply an "appeal to authority" with no real facts around it, just flawed computer models and a failed politicians work of fiction that passed as a documentary. The earth hasn't warmed for a decade. Period. The earth is important and what we do to it is important and the only way to really make a difference instead just appearing to care about a cause is to get to the truth. Who is more correct the 52 (that's right only 52) scientists who were on the committee of the IPCC who wrote the summary of their report or the 32,000 scientists who signed an Oregon university petition saying they don't believe catastrophic anthropogenic global warming exists (some of whom were contributors to the IPCC paper and were not happy with the way their data was manipulated)? This argument about false equivalencies, while valid in some cases is also the tool of the weak-minded and fearful in other cases and should be treated with proper skepticism. Remember to think for yourself and question everything, even the stuff with which you agree.

Batocchio said...

Anonymous, did you bother to actually read the post, and follow the links, particularly the Hansen piece? You forward a rather novel (if not contrary) conception of false equivalency, and your claim that "There is no such thing as a settled consensus in science" is parsing at the most generous. Your view of Hansen is in the minority - that's fine, but please don't pretend that you somehow represent anything close to a consensus opinion, or that consensus on the issue itself doesn't exist. Whether climate change is occurring and whether humanity adds to it are not hot questions in the scientific community. Instead, the questions center on how bad the situation is, the rate of change, what to do about it, and so on. You seem to agree for a few sentences, but then veer elsewhere. The dominant views in the Republican party are some combination of a) global warming doesn't exist b) humans play no role, or their role is completely unclear, and c) it's completely unclear what to do about any of it. That's hardly contributing to an honest or fact-based debate, which is the larger issue. You don't substantially address that dynamic - treating two views as equally valid, regardless of empirical facts and the bad faith of actors - which is a major flaw in our media. There's a reason why petroleum-funded AEI offered $10,000 last year for scientists who would refute climate change. And no citations for your environmental claims? I'd be interested you see try to pitch your views over at a site such as Pharyngula. Let me know how it goes.

Anonymous said...

Batocchio - I think you missed the point entirely. The point is the idea of a false equivalency can exist but it can also be used as a shield to avoid real debate on an issue. I prefer to find intelligent people who disagree with me and can spur debate and challenge my ideas. I get the impression that you surround yourself with people who agree with you so you probably don't see a debate in the scientific community, but I assure you there is one. The number of scientists on either side is completely irrelevant. What matters is the facts in the debate. The claim of a false equivalency in the global warming debate only brings up a myriad of other critical thinking errors such as the appeal to numbers and the appeal to authority. But your constant belittling of only republicans is starting to give the impression that you are not a critical independent thinker, but rather one who tries to use those ideas against people who simply disagree with you. Personally I find Republicans and Democrats to be hopelessly delusional. Policy and image is more important to both parties than real results and pragmatic approaches. The idea that man has absolutely no impact on the environment is just as silly as the one that says there is some impending doom that requires us to go back to living in the stone age. Or the idea that special interests only fund one side of that very wasteful debate is also silly. There are billions of dollars on both sides of that. Bush himself gave more money to the "pro" side of the debate, tax payer money mind you, than any oil company has ever given a think tank. Enron was a leading "green" company. Perhaps I wasn't clear and no I didn't cite my sources on the "skepticism" but alas this is all the time I am willing to give to this in my busy day. There are a number of web sites who don't share your viewpoint but are supported by very knowledgeable and high standing scientists. Perhaps you could read "The Deniers" or really take the time to learn about both sides instead of just sticking to your guns. How much of your "knowledge" is from first hand accounts and research? How much is from reading the studies behind the headlines and not just the headlines? That is an honest question not sarcasm. If you are a meteorological scientist I would certainly listen to you with more earnest. But honestly it gets discouraging to share that data with "true believers" when it is discounted so easily as being "falsely equivalent." If there was a feeling that an open exchange of ideas could enrich both of our knowledge on the topic then I might be more willing, but for now I will not take the time to cite where my skepticism comes from as I feel it will do no good and is not worth the investment. But I digress, back to the point. The claim of "false equivalency in the global warming issue is actually the two critical thinking errors I pointed out above. Take Stephen Hawking for example. No body doubts his intelligence or his incredible contributions to the physics community. He is an open supporter of the idea of AGW. Did he really take a break from formulating his Unifying Theory of Everything to study arctic ice and the effects of CO2 in the atmosphere? Did I miss that study? Or is he just a person with an opinion on global warming and using his reputation as proof that its true is just a false appeal to authority? Appeal to numbers is what a scientific “consensus” is by definition. There could be 100 scientists in a room and 99 of them could say “a” and 1 could say “b.” There would then be a scientific consensus that “a” is true. But that number is meaningless without the data to back it up. Science is not a democracy. The fact that 99 scientists believe “a” is true doesn’t make it true. If the one scientist who supports “b” has the proof and the data and the first hand information to back up theory “b” then theory “b” is true even though it is against the scientific consensus in the room. Thus the statement that consensus is a political term and not a scientific one. This debate sticks around because the “believers” won’t have it. Instead of calmly inviting the critics and skeptics to an open forum and debate and exchange of ideas they stifle it at every turn. They turn to the appeal to authority the appeal to numbers and the inaccurate claims of false equivalency to try to avoid the debate all together. “The debate is over, the science is settled!” Really? Can you refer me that debate because I missed it. Is there a video or a transcript of that debate I just couldn’t find in my research? When was there ever a time when conflicting theories on climate change were openly discussed and studied at length? Was it in the 70’s when the scientific consensus was that we are bringing on a man-made ice age? Was that when the debate occurred? The trouble is people won’t let the debate happen because they are not open minded critical thinkers who want to let the truth come out through a vigorous exchange of ideas. They are passionate believers who have their own agenda and are such elitists that they think it is a waste of time to even listen to someone who might dare to disagree with them. As for the 6th grade "dare" to express my ideas on Phyrangula, I did look at it and the first post is a much better example of a false equivalency. It talked about evolution vs intelligent design. That is a much better example because it is not science vs science and fact vs fact it is science vs religion. That is a much better example because if there is any debate in the scientific community about evolution I doubt that those debates include any studies that show proof that an omniscient being created the earth in 7 days approximately 4000 years ago. That is religious beliefs vs the leading scientific theories. Apples and oranges. A much better example. I do question his article though. I am not a christian but I do know that all faiths do not take the Bible literally. In some odd twist of history the catholics in particular teach scientific theories on this in their schools. So I don't know that his theory that evolution proves the bible is "wrong" is accurate. For some it simply proves or for others it confirms the Bible is not literal. I'm not putting forth that I represent anything except my own thoughts. That is something most people can't claim. Most people just recycle other peoples' thoughts. Hansen's paper is riddled with inaccuracies and exaggerators but if you want to take it at face value then good for you. The survey of peer reviewed papers that revealed no papers challenging AGW has been laughably discredited. But you wouldn't know that because you are a believer not a thinker. Michael Crichton is just called a science fiction writer and there is no mention that he was a graduate of Harvard Medical School and was well educated on the topics on which he chose to speak. The context that fanatics like Hansen calls for is only the context that supports his view. How about the context the nature is not cooperating with AGW theories by warming or that while arctic ice was receding (it is now growing at a record pace) antarctic ice was setting size records. That's right global warming forgot about the bottom half of the globe. Or the context that like most things that involve rich and powerful people global warming political theory is much more about money and power than it is about saving the planet? I challenge and am skeptical of all things. There is too much misinformation out there for an intelligent person to do anything else. But you are right I didn't express my ideas clearly and perhaps I am still formulating them. My problem with this is who says what facts are irrelevant? Who makes that determination? Why does it need to be made. If you really have the truth and are right then why can't you debate it openly? Your AIE example is weak at best. All last year there was a $500,000 dollar prize for any scientist who could prove global warming offered by Junkscience.com and there wasnt' a single entry. There is an open challenge to debate Al Gore and he won't do it. We can both find other sites and other people who support opposing viewpoints. My point was that global warming was a bad example for this topic. There are much better topics. In addition to the one I mentioned above I learned about another one after some "events" in my community. Did you know that there is not a single reputable animal organization that really works with dogs and knows about dogs that advocates banning pit bulls. So in that debate, ban them or don't, it really is dog experts on one side and "concerned citizens" who don't know anything about dogs on another. So that is also a better example of giving undue credit and weight to a side of a debate. If we only listened to the experts in that case, there would be no pit bull bans anywhere. But again, with global warming the issue isn't numbers and consensus. Its facts and proof. So that is a bad example.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps my mistake was the perception of this blog. A friend of mine recommended it as a source for my ongoing interest in the use of critical thinking in modern media and communications. I came to this entry with the understanding that was what it was. But from the condescending tone of your response to me and the obvious one sided-ness of your comments the mistake was mine. I apologize for assuming I could learn here and improve my critical thinking skills and have respectful, intelligent conversation with people who don't agree with me and could challenge me. I was misinformed about the blog and I apologize.

Batocchio said...

Anonymous, thanks for a more detailed comment. But wow, talk about missing the point or at least cross-talking. I'm quite fond of spirited debate and discussion. However, I take commentators more seriously when:

1) They actually read the post and address its main points, don't ignore salient points, and don't mischaracterize either type, however unintentionally, or make uncharitable assumptions about my views. (Climate change appears to be your bugbear, and you seem to have missed several points of agreement and the overall framework.)

2) They're reasonably polite. Points of contention are natural and healthy. Honest, constructive criticism is good. But while you're right I was brusque in my first response, I find it hard to believe you're oblivious to how "condescending" all three of your comments have been. You're free to take issue with my tone in return, but seriously, what sort of response do you expect given your approach? That approach is not what comes to mind when I think of open discourse and debate. You are a guest here. See also #1.

3) They leave a name or a consistent pseudonym. Also, if the person has his or her own blog, it makes it less likely he or she is yet another troll or crank leaving a drive-by comment on an old post. Links to support a point of contention aren’t bad, either.

I'll assume given the length and detail of your follow-up, you're sincere. But to recap, you kicked this off with an anonymous comment on a post I wrote in April 2007, and while you make quite a few interesting points and claims in your comments, you started by essentially saying, 'you're wrong, and you're not open-minded unless you agree with my contrary views for which I provide no citations or links.' Add in your tone and the bevy of what I suppose could be considered personal attacks (more so in your second and third comments, though), and it's hardly the model of persuasion. I have to wonder, is this how you'd start a discussion with someone you'd just met in real life? Seriously, is this your ideal of open debate and "respectful, intelligent conversation"? If you seem to ignore key elements of my post, don't give me something to read over on supposed factual disputes, and open without a spirit of camaraderie or what have you, exactly how much is there to engage you on, for either style or substance?

Moving on - your best point is about appeals to authority, especially in fields such as science. Your other key point seems to be that you feel I have misjudged the degree of scientific consensus on global warming, climate change and related issues. Fine. Additionally, you're arguing that due to that lack of consensus, climate change is a poor example to use to illustrate the media's love for false equivalencies. Again, fine.

If your main goal is debate the science in detail, you're better off with Pharyngula and a number of other excellent science blogs with large and active communities. I appreciate you citing "The Deniers" so I have a better gauge of where you stand.

False Equivalencies – If you read over the post, you'll see I cite a number of examples where I see this occurring, and climate change is but one. While my presentation of climate change is certainly a fair subject of discussion, it's not the only issue considered, and the discussion of Inhofe, Cooney, and Boehner is more about their approach to the issue than the issue itself. You're free to feel the subject undermines the post overall. All I'm really saying is that the public is ill-served when an uninformed and/or bad faith person is presented as credible, or as credible as someone who is informed and speaking in good faith. Even in those circumstances, viewers would ideally be given enough framework and fact-checking to come to their own conclusions in an informed way. There's plenty of room for improvement there. For instance, in this past election, it was common for media figures to decry "negative" ads, but less common for them to discuss the ads' accuracy and their qualitative differences. (For another example, some media outlets are still claiming there's a debate about whether water-boarding is torture or not, without providing the important context of historical views, the U.S. legal view prior to 2001, the views of torture victims and SERE instructors, who exactly is claiming it's not torture, and so on. But that's a longer discussion.)

For instance, regarding climate change, you agree that it exists but apparently hold that it's far less severe, advanced, rapid or however you wish to put it than Hansen and other 'kooks' hold. Fine – we have a point of agreement and a point of contention somewhere in there, although far less disagreement than I believe you think, and you're free to clarify or expound your views further. Similarly, with science and empirical data, there are undisputed facts and disputed facts, and there are sometimes competing views and interpretations of even undisputed facts. The great thing about the scientific method is that it's constantly progressing, revising, and making corrections (at least ideally). And on climate change, I'd rather hear from scientists (preferably who are decent speakers) or a good science reporter than from Inhofe, Press or Watts on climate change. Inhofe's stance is primarily ideological, not scientific. And Philip Cooney's stance was based on politics, not science. Changing government science reports was not done in good faith. I don't think elevating either of them helps the cause of "the deniers" much. The criteria for the selection of guests on a show remains a key issue. I think it'd be interesting to hear a scientist who's studied the subject explain why he or she holds that the public conception of global warming is massively overblown, and here's why. Here's the data. Here's why other people are saying [X] and here's what they're missing. But we don't normally even get that much. We get politicians or think tank pundits. Even on scientific matters, rather than a exploration of the empirical data, or perhaps a view and concurring and contrary views on the empirical data, we generally get empiricism versus politics if that much. The overall result is often the same he said-she said mush that plagues too much reporting.

If you want to leave a link or two for me to read, I'll try to check them out. Again, if you want to debate the science in depth, you're better off elsewhere. And if you find nothing to fault in the tone, substance or approach of your previous three comments, then I'm definitely wasting my time, and you're also better off elsewhere. Thanks.

Batocchio said...

Oh, there's also Gristmill's How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic, which covers a wide variety of arguments ranging from the loony to the more serious, including several entries addressing the "consensus" argument. Grist for the mill indeed.

Anonymous said...

Well I will certainly go with your theme of de-escalation.

I did look over my first post and it was inappropriate. In my haste I did not take into account that there was no established rapport and I did not check myself properly. In the next posts I was just reactive.

I didn't address the main point of your post because I didn't have an issue with it. I just had an issue with global warming as an example. And yes the volume of information in my head made the response too broad and ill-focused.

I feel like the idea of a "false equivalency" should be used sparingly even though it is a sound argument when warranted. It is a major thing to completely discount one side of a debate. It can be arrogant and demeaning and more times than not it is elitist action taken by people whose passion out-strips their facts. If used inappropriately it is just a weak-minded way to avoid a debate at all. It is much easier to just discount everything the opposing side thinks than it is to confront and disprove it. That seems to be the common response by everyone when experts are brought up to refute the chicken little hysteria. Rather than addressing the facts and issues they have, the opposition just discounts them as outliers or "in the pocket of big business." That is so weak and does no body any favors. Everybody gets their money from somebody and there are billions of dollars in research grants given to scientists on both sides of the debate who are willing to toe their respective lines. The idea that one side is more "purely" motivated than the other is both ludicrous and irrelevant. Facts are facts despite the "consensus" behind or opposed to them. "Science" has become so politicized both sides have reason to be less than honest, but to assert that one side is just irrelevant is ridiculous. While I find the science behind this very interesting and compelling I will not waste your time with much of it as I don't see it as central to my point. There are enough scientists that make this an issue that needs to be respected and looked at so we can get to the truth and not to a special interest agenda. This is a poor cite as it is second hand info, but my archives are not on this computer: http://www.enterstageright.com/archive/articles/0508/0508gwpetition.htm Just to show that there are more than just 3 guys who don't believe in this stuff. Obviously this petition is not untouchable and I do take issue with someone who would argue against a consensus...with a bigger consensus; but the point is there is still valid debate on the topic despite both sides best efforts to say there shouldn't be. (http://www.desmogblog.com/flawed-oregon-petition-rises-again)

Our culture has a long tradition of doom saying and Malthusian warnings of over-consumption and resource depletion and yet the sky has not fallen and we are not starving. Of course I believe the climate is changing, when has it not been? When in the history of the earth has there ever been a static climate and if there ever was, was that the perfect climate? Are we at the perfect climate now? Many more people die from cold than from heat and more crops can be grown when the temperate areas are bigger so should we try to warm things? Can we? I just think these are some of the many fundamental questions that have not been adequately addressed and should be before we even get to the science. False equivalency can work when you are dealing with apples and oranges, when you are dealing with pros vs amateurs or science vs religion or something like that. But when it is scientist vs scientist and facts vs facts and one political agenda vs another, then to claim false equivalency becomes a tool to avoid debate. As I discussed before when it is a level playing field like science vs science the only way to arrive at the false equivalency idea is to use the false appeals to authority and to numbers. When the debate is about the facts, who decides when one side is just irrelevant? Who is that smart? It would take a great deal of infallibility and that is a risk that is not needed to be taken if both sides of the debate are allowed to let their proof speak for itself.

I do of course agree with you that the public is not served when misinformed and manipulated by the press. The only fact I'm sure of when I read something from the media is that it probably didn't really happen like that. But a claim for false equivalency can be misinforming and manipulative as well. Falsely asserting that there is no debate is just as bad as falsely asserting that there is one.

More so than just global warming my big issue is what you discussed and that is the manipulation of the public. But my biggest issue is manipulation of the public through fear and that is where the continuity of my ideas stayed only with me and were not clear on the post. Global warming fear-mongering is very manipulative. It becomes more and more obvious that "cooler" rational heads are not wanted in the "debate" that is also not wanted. And one of the ways to avoid rational thoughtful discussion on the issue is to completely discount the other side. And to digress further this path of fear and manipulation has far reaching affects. It lets us completely take the focus off the debate and create a false ultimatum. Save the world now or you'll die!! There's no time for you to think it through and really consider the economic impacts of the proposed solutions and how it will affect the poorest among us! Now, now, now! And still further digression, (sorry this is way off but just to demonstrate my scope of concern with the media is way bigger than global warming) when this pattern becomes common, which it is, then it can be applied to any contentious issue, such as something completely unscientific like gay marriage. We can't take the time to talk about the fact that these are two human beings and regardless of your moral leanings they need to find a way to live together and share wealth and have insurance and be able to visit each other in the hospital and finding that solution is actually beneficial to society and cheaper to tax payers. It becomes about fear and the destruction of the family and decline of values and everything else besides what the debate is really about; besides what the real need is that needs to be addressed.

Now that I am completely off the original topic, that is why it seemed so over-broad. We each had completely different spheres of thought that happened to intersect at this issue.

Like I said above I didn't address your other examples because I thought they were fine. I just thought that not only was global warming a poor one but in many ways it is exactly what you said you were against.

So I do apologize for not being more aware of my tone and I appreciate your de-escalation.

Batocchio said...

Fair enough, Anonymous, and that's pretty classy of you, in all sincerity. Apologies for adding to the scrum at all myself.

The Gristmill links do give much more detail on climate change, and I found it interesting to look through them. I'm not a meteorologist nor an expert on the subject, and don't pretend to be. I do try to read up and research a bit on the issue, as with other issues. I do think with the majority of scientists, though, there's a fair assumption that their opinions have some empirical basis, especially if they can explain what that is - which is often not the case with politicians.

I agree with you about fear being a concern. My main criticism of An Inconvenient Truth, actually, was that the flooding animations didn't say "this could happen by 2275 if we don't do [X]," for example, or say, "so and so believes that this will happen by [year] if we don't cut emissions by [X], while other guy thinks [Y]." I don't remember a year being mentioned, and it seemed too vague for me. There's legitimate debates about how bad things are and such, and what to do, and personally, I'm most focused on practical and proactive steps on a smaller scale.

I hear you on invoking "false equivalency," too often as well, and we can certainly disagree whether I misapplied it in this specific case, but I'd say my main concern is that false equivalencies by the media generally squelch that more open debate we both seem to want.

Anyway, haha, this subject's probably played out a bit, yes? Thanks for stopping by and explaining yourself further, peace, and have a good week.

ab said...

I have seen that site and find it interesting if not contradictory at times much like the skeptic sites. 10 years of cooling is not a trend but 100 years is? In the big picture, Really? Sure we predicted cooling but that didn't catch on so it didn't count, but now we're serious. More storms in the Atlantic means global warming, but a cooling Antarctica is a local phenomenon. Both sides are so sure of themselves and so contentious its funny to look at them pull completely separate conclusions out of the same data. It just pretty convenient when you have a hypothesis that can't be proven wrong. If it gets warm, global warming, cool..you guessed it global warming. More heat in Europe, global warming, more cool in Asia, global warming. Flood - global warming. Drought - global warming. They can't lose, its perfect. And in 30 years when the earth doesn't come to a fiery end it won't be because nothing was ever going to happen, it will be because we all became so aware of the problem and started reducing our carbon footprint. Occam's Razor would contend otherwise.

ab said...

oh and here's a name for you

Batocchio said...

Haha. Fair enough on both comments.

BTW, you might enjoy checking out The Non Sequitur, Obsidian Wings, Crooked Timber, Hullabaloo, Glenn Greenwald and No Comment, all on my blogroll. Not all admit comments, but they're some of the more intellectual sites out there, and a few have really good communities with great debates in the threads. There's also making your own blog (blogspot and some other sites are free) if you really want to cut loose. Cheers.

ab said...

Thank you, I appreciate it. I like to joke that I am an Extreme Moderate. A fierce independent if you will. I have found that most discussion sites are either left or right and rather than identify with similarities many of the participants just see the differences. I'm too liberal for the right and to conservative for the left. The middle is lonely. Particularly in politics. I remain cautiously hopeful about the new admin and I am also appreciative of how this conversation turned out. If I ever get anything going I'll let you know. Thank you.