Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Scientific American's April Fool's Joke

What scares me so much about living here in the US right now, and dealing with all of the pseudo-religious hysteria is that when somebody tries to make a joke, it takes me way too long to get it.

Here's the brillant editors of Scientific American, from the latest issue's editorial:

"For years, helpful letter writers told us to stick to science. They pointed out that science and politics don't mix. They said we should be more balanced in our presentation of such issues as creationism, missile defense and global warming. We resisted their advice and pretended not to be stung by accusations that the magazine should be rennamed Unscientific America, or Scientific Unmamerican, or even Unscientific Unamerican. But... you were right, and we were wrong.

In retrospect, this magazine's coverage of so-called evolution has been hideously one-sided. For decades, we published articles in every issue that endorsed the ideas of Charles Darwin and his cronies.. Where were the answering articles presnting the powerful case for scientific creationsism? Why were we so unwilling to suggest that dinosaurs lived 6,000 years ago or that a cataclysmic flood carved the Grand Canyon?... As editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence.

Moreover, we shamefully mistreated the Intelligent Design (ID) theorists by lumping them in with creationists... ID theorists think that at unspecified times some unnamed superpowerful entity designed life, or maybe just some species, or maybe just some stuff in the cells. That's what makes ID a superior scientific theory: it doesn't get bogged down in the details.

Good journalism values balance above all else. We owe it to our readers to present everybody's ideas equally and not to ignore or discredit theories simply because they lack scientifically credible arguments or facts. Nor should we succumb to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or best-selling novelists do. Indeed, if politicians or special-interest groups say things that seem untrue or misleading, our duty as journalists is to quote them without comment or contradiction. To do otherwise would be elitist and therefore wrong. In that spirit, we will end the practice of expressing our own views in this space: an editorial page is no place for opinions.

Get ready for a new Scientific American. No more discussions of how sicence should inform policy. If the government commits blindly to building an anti-ICMB defense system that can't work as promised, that will waste tens of billions of taxpayer's dollars and imperil national security, you won't hear about it from us. If studies suggest that the administration's antipollution measures would actually increase the dangerous particulates that people breathe during the next two decades, that's not our concern. No more discussions of how policies affect science either - so what if the budget for the National Science Foundation is slashed? This magazine will be dedicated purely to science, fair and balanced science, and not just the science that scientists say is science. And it will start on April Fool's Day."

Cheeky scientists.

What I appreciate about this piece is that it reminds us of what the media was actually supposed to be for in the first place: to question all the bullshit coming out of the government's mouth, to dig past the sound bites that politicians give us and tell the entire story. I want the context. I want to understand how things work, and why we're at this point. I don't want my media parroting back at me press releases straight from the Pentagon.

The media's supposed to keep government honest. Now, increasingly, because of worries about ratings, about how to keep news "entertaining" we're getting media as entertainment and sound bites. I was listening to Fox news last night, and heard one of the "news" anchors refer to Terry Schiavo's husband as her "estranged husband," an interesting word choice considering the guy still hasn't divorced her after 15 years (I suppose the fact that he's in another relationship - after 15 years! - is enough to call him "estranged," cause he's not living the life of a monk), and seems really frickin' invested in this thing. There's a big family dynamic going on in that case that *nobody* is talking about, and I'd bet you a zillion dollars that he and the parents have a fascinating relationship in which they've never gotten along. Fox news also neatly edited out the fact that Shiavo's brain damaged was likely caused by bulima; watching them erase that and try to paint her life like a storybook instead of a real life was fascinating. We should be having some serious discussions about eating disorders and protecting men and women from getting brain damage and getting hospitalized in the first place. Prevention, people.

There was also very little in-depth analysis of what, exactly, it meant that the government was getting involved in what is, in fact, a private family affair. What does this mean for other Americans? What does it mean for Americans who want to be unplugged? Instead, Anderson Cooper ran a story about a woman who sort of came out of a coma she'd been in for 18 years and can now speak a few words - she doesn't ask questions, doesn't speak in full sentences, is still pretty totally paralyzed, and doesn't appear to have much in the way of true cognition, but she can say, "Hi Mom," and "Hi Dad," and so the argument was, I guess, that even if she'd wanted to die in such a state when she was cognizant enough to make such a decision, she shouldn't have been at any point during those 18 years because now her parents feel a lot better that she's around.

Um. How, exactly, would she have felt about that?

Guess it doesn't matter.

For the record, and I'll put it here: if I'm fucking brain dead, if my entire brain is full of spinal fluid and I'm reduced to an organic shell - fucking turn me off. I don't care if coming over to my hospital room and snapping your fingers in front of my face gives you a goodie-rush and makes you happy to have "me" around because I respond to external stimuli. If I'm a fruitloop, turn me off. If I'm in a coma, that's different, and give me and my brain some time to recover, but if my cranium is full of spinal fluid, shit, fuckers, let me fucking die with some fucking dignity. Don't drag me and my family business into the homes of 200 million Americans.

That said, the media's really starting to freak me out, and it's why I don't watch a lot of television. They just keep blaring these seemingly-random events around like they happened in a vaccuum, and there's no precedent. Nobody does their homework.

Journalists need to go back to school, and Americans need to work on regaining some interest in prolonging their attention spans. We wouldn't be so surprised when the shit went down, if we actually took the time to be informed, and to understand how everything's connected.

Bah, television.

5 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

If it's any consolation at all, there's a fair chance my graduate work will address exactly the issues of media (ir)responsibility that you're talking about here. Only a drop in the bucket, but hey, every little bit counts... 

Posted by Alec Austin

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post, and the last two paragraphs in particular are quite pertinent in terms of explaining just what is so very, very wrong with the Shiavo case, and the media in general lately.

I've been reading your blog for a while, and it's (to repeat adjectives) truly excellent and insightful. Cheers to you, and keep it up. 

Posted by Kate

Anonymous said...

Lots of stuff to work with here, right? And of course I'm on deadline so I'll make it fast & cheap.

1.) It can be determined thru any series of Turing tests that most of Congress is indeed brain dead.

2.) Most of the Repg caucus ARE fruitloops, and plenty of Dems are with them.

3.) Don't bother telling us what you want. Since when did this ever matter to this Congress? They know what you want, and will continue to ignore you and do what THE PARTY wants. If it's not fascism by the Southern Baptist Convention, they don't want to know about it. They just don't care very much about your wishes, advance directives or much of anything beyond their own power mongering. If that means killing you so be it. If it means 'saving' you from your spouse, kin or family, they'll do that too. See Stalinism for 200 pts. Alex. Ditto for the realm of Science and funding of same. Evolution is a curse word now, right? Same people did it. That'll be 'Lysenkoism' for 500 pt's.

4.) So it really does not matter what you do, your body will be conscripted into the next Holy War. One way or another. Count on it. 

Posted by VJ

Anonymous said...

First up, sorry for being a bloke. Shrug. Stuff happens.

Second up, thanks for putting this up so I could read it all. Unlike thier last diatribe (June 2002), SciAm didn't put the whole text up in public.

Third up, it's sad that it takes a joke to get them to ask serious questions. As you'll see, pseudo-religious hysteria suffuses both sides. I loathe "football team theology" where you're condemned not on merit but because you're on the wrong side.

The answers to SciAm's questions are: "Where were the answering articles presnting the powerful case for scientific creationism?"  SciAm won't publish them. SciAm's founding author, Rufus Porter, was a Creationist, and SciAm won't publish them - on religious and political grounds. Nor will any other magazine that values any appearance of scientific orthodoxy.

Consider what happened to Dr Richard Sternberg ( ) when he let an Intelligent Designer's paper slip past him (and three peer reviewer and a Council member), which was so raw that it even got a mention in the Wall Street Journal. There are many such tales. Robert V Gentry even had articles ripped from Arxiv on suspicion of heresy. Index Librorum Prohibitorum, anybody? Welcome back to the Dark Ages.

"Why were we so unwilling to suggest that dinosaurs lived 6,000 years ago"? Policy, pure and simple. Mary Higby Schweitzer [a woman! we're on topic again] recently found fresh flesh, bone structures, blood vessels etc in a 68 million year old fossilised T Rex bone in Montana. The news is sensational, in part because "it can't happen". Of course it can't. The 68 million years is a myth. And where's "Dinosaur Jack", Mary's supervisor in all of this? I'm guessing that her data is too close to heresy, so he's taken a step back in case anything splashes on himself.

"or that a cataclysmic flood carved the Grand Canyon?" Policy again. Religion. Materialism. That the canyon was carved by water, nobody contests, but if it was carved slowly, where are the sediments? The silt deposits at Pierce Ferry are not only too small, but the wrong type. The only situation which fits is if the canyon were carved essentially all in one horrendous rush, which carried most of the silt out to sea. Palouse Canyon was so formed in a couple of days, why not the Grand Canyon in a week or so? Perhaps as much as 50% of the world's sedimentary rock is turbidite - formed all in one go, in minutes or hours not megayears.

There is more than one set of religious idiots about. Materialists are just as bad as any other religion, given their druthers. Islam hands out ricketts and suicide bombing assignments, Catholicism burns anyone they don't like as "a witch", Materialism muffles any dissent and dismisses bulk unfairness as "evolution in action". Materialists like Stalin and Mao have murdered more people in the name of religion than all of the Inquisitions and Crusades rolled together.

Oddly enough, if you look deeply into the heart of the Catholic organisation, you'll discover that the most dedicated of Jesuits, with their Black Masses and all, are at heart Materialists too.

The answer is not to avoid religion, but to avoid being an idiot.  In some ways, that's much harder than going on a Jihad. Of any kind. 

Posted by Leon Brooks

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