Posted tagged ‘Huffington Post’

Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Read HuffPost “Science”

December 11, 2009


I confess that I have an instant gag reflex to the work of any author who permits this kind of bio line attach to his/her name:

Robert Lanza, MD is considered one of the leading scientists in the world.”

But that’s only a symptom of the real problem here.  As are such telling but on one level superficial errors like mistaking the physical unit for energy.*  (It’s joules, not watts, as Lanza repeatedly mistakes.  Watts are units of power:  one watt equals one joule/second.)

There is a critique (demolishment) of Lanza’s “argument” for the nonexistence of death (sic!) that’s pretty easy to construct, of course.  The mush of badly garbled physics and windy speculation on the true nature of time and so on makes both a familiar and plenty broad target.  See this post and thread from PZ Myers.

Rather than recapitulate that hive-tome, (and not to anticipate any physicist with time on her/his hands who can more powerfully than I eviscerate the quantum-and-mulitverse nonsense purveyed by the handwaving Dr. Lanza) I just want to pick up on the implications of the kinds of rhetoric described above.

That is:  this is typical of one of the ways in which scientific illiteracy infects culture — not in the outright denial of obvious truths, but in the appropriation of the language of science to mask idiocy.

You see this often in blunt ways.  In Sarah Palin’s now infamous WaPo op ed. on climate change and the notorious emails, she “writes”*

What’s more, the documents show that there was no real consensus even within the CRU crowd. Some scientists had strong doubts about the accuracy of estimates of temperatures from centuries ago, estimates used to back claims that more recent temperatures are rising at an alarming rate….

…before concluding that

“Without trustworthy science and with so much at stake, Americans should be wary about what comes out of this politicized conference.”

Palin’s willed misrepresentation of the emails themselves have been well documented…see this for the latest general response to the really damaging deliberate mischaracterization of what those emails do and don’t tell you about climate change, and see this and this for specific rejoinder to Palin’s op-ed.

But the key here is “her”* choice of language.  “Consensus.”  “Accuracy of estimates.” “Trustworthy science.”  “She”* is asserting a claim of reason here, of the use of the very tools that really trustworthy scientists would employ.

It’s obvious why “she”* does so.  Anthropogenic climate change is the object of specifically scientific inquiry, and unless the claims of scientific knowledge from within that inquiry can be denied in their own frame of reference, those who wish to keep their own oxen ungored would be forced back onto the six year old’s argument:  “don’t wanna.”

It’s clever too.  As the tobacco hacks once noted, the product here is doubt — specifically doubt about what is and isn’t known, to what level of confidence.  Given the provisional nature of most scientific claims, that’s a pretty easy product to manufacture, as the tobacco companies did for decades, and as climate denialists and creationists have managed to do for the last many years.

But at least there is the possibility of correction here.  When the enemies of science argue in the language of science, they are on our turf, and, with effort, it is at least possible to demolish their claims.  In cases where time is of the essence, as in climate issues, that may be cold (hot) comfort — and certainly those of us, like my family, who have lost beloveds to RJ Reynolds (Pall Mall Reds, specifically), the decades of delay won by false claims of  uncertainty are unforgivable.  But still, we’re in with a chance when we fight on home ground.

Stuff like Lanza’s, though is more insidious, if less directly dangerous.  Here is someone asserting not the limits or errors of science, but its expansiveness.  He uses words that sound technical-ish — that “20 watt fountain of energy that is operating in the brain.”  (No, I did not make that up.)

He references grand sounding ideas:  “One well-known aspect of quantum physics is that certain observations cannot be predicted absolutely.”

He talks about specific experiments:  “Consider an experiment that was recently published in the journal Science showing that scientists could retroactively change something that had happened in the past. Particles had to decide how to behave when they hit a beam splitter.” (That this is a drastic mistatement of what’s going on in what I infer is the experiment under discussion (there is no reference) can be glimpsed in this account).

And so on.  The point isn’t that Lanza gets lots of stuff wrong — though that’s material as to why this piece is a crock — but that he weaves his woo in language designed to persuade a reasonably trusting reader that this “leading scientist” really knows stuff, that this pseudoscientific mush is actually embedded in a real and significant research program.

And the damage done there is, I think, obvious.  There is a lot of long term damage to the public’s ability to make sense of our expanding understanding of the material world that doesn’t came from people saying specific things that ain’t so — a la the divine Ms. Palin* — but from the confusion about what science is at all that comes from stuff like this.

Lanza is a man in pain. His speculation on the nonexistence of death occurs in the context of the loss of his sister not long after her marriage.  That’s a horrible tragedy to endure, and I condemn no one for seeking solace in that context.

But the truly human trope of seeking meaning in seemingly random disaster is not in itself a reliable source of general claims about the universe.  And when Lanza turs his private grief into a public and  general claims, he does so in ways that both damage his own authority as a scientist (leading or not) and — more important — he directly and significantly damages his readers’ ability to understand what science does and does not do.

The other culprit here, more culpable in my view, is Lanza’s mouthpiece, his venue.  The Huffington Post wants to be a web-center of cultural discourse.  In its ambition it seems to have decided that science can be covered like its media/gossip page.  Fun stuff is more important than real stuff.  I give Lanza, if not a pass, at least sympathy in his pursuit of some formulation that will make his loss (and perhaps his own fear of mortality) more tolerable.

The HuffPo crew?  Not so much

*I confess to some doubt as to whether the temporary governor actually writes that which is published under her name.


William Hope, “A photograph of a group gathered at a seance. ” 1920.

Benjamin West, “Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky,” ca. 1816