On bullsh*t and science journalism

April 24, 2009

Reading Mike the Mad Biologist quote Julian Sanchez on the asymmetrical advantage of bullshit says a lot about what it’s like to be a science journalist. Sanchez notes first how easy it is for a creationist or anyone else peddling a bad argument to make a serious sounding or intuitively appealing claim.

The rebuttal, by contrast, may require explaining a whole series of preliminary concepts before it’s really possible to explain why the talking point is wrong. So the setup is “snappy, intuitively appealing argument without obvious problems” vs. “rebuttal I probably don’t have time to read, let alone analyze closely.”

Does JR understand all the technical details of the sh*t JR writes about? F*ck no. Not as a rule, anyway. What I do is familiarize myself with some specialized terms as best I can, run them through the logic mill and then use expert judgment to weight the importance of the conclusions. A big part of my job is triangulating that expert judgment, which partly involves feeling out whether people are feeding me a line or not. I’ll admit, sometimes I probably get hosed.

I’m obviously ranting at myself here, but basically, if you don’t sometimes defer to experts on complicated issues, you are probably overestimating your own epistemology. Like Sanchez says:

Indeed, in such cases, trying to evaluate the arguments on their merits will tend to lead to an erroneous conclusion more often than simply trying to gauge the credibility of the various disputants. The problem, of course, is gauging your own competence level well enough to know when to assess arguments and when to assess arguers.

I think of Objectivists fetishizing pithy Latin summations of logical discourse, one of which allows you to deflect someone’s point by accusing them of the dreaded Appeal to Authority. Well, to articulate the unspoken premise there, appeals to authority are perfectly fine if the authority has expert knowledge you don’t. As Wikipedia confirms. Induction and deduction are different, people! 

Can you tell I’m grumpy at myself for not having bothered to sort through the whole string theory fuss until now, when it’s over and done with? It’s easy to say string theory — or climate change, or evolution — is bullshit. It’s another thing entirely to be able to weight the facts for yourself. And don’t even get me started on conflating facts with values.

Harumph.

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4 Responses to “On bullsh*t and science journalism”


  1. I like that bit about your job being triangulating between experts. That said, you know who the enemy of truth is, as often as it’s journalists like you and I? Editors. Because, think about it – they’re not the ones who have a personal connection to sources. Their only job, if they see it this way, is to punch things up. That’s a recipe for distortion.

  2. JR Minkel Says:

    Well, to complicate that a bit, it’s an editor’s job to serve as a proxy for the readership. That can be done in a pandering way or a thoughtful way. A good editor will trust your judgment but will also pull you out of the hole of wonky minutiae that might obscure the bottom line. And hopefully you and the editor have already agreed on a meaningful angle to the story, so the bottom line should be an informative one.


  3. [...] would do more good for women if she could strip away the bullshit. These two bits encapsulate the danger: In real life, [Oprah] has almost nothing in common with [...]


  4. [...] This is partly why so many journalists resort to doing the bare minimum: reproducing press releases. Many journalists will telephone or e-mail one of the main contributors given on the press release to ask a few supplementary questions; but there is rarely the time or the expertise to go into the full story of how an item of research came to be, and how it fits into the bigger picture. [Related: On bullsh-t and science journalism] [...]


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