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Thursday, February 10, 2005

Tools of the media

We can either castigate somebody for not doing enough or castigate someone else for doing something truly evil. The Peak Oil message board has had a running dialog on how best to report on borderline tinfoil-hat theories relating to oil depletion and possible U.S. conspiracies. Since I do not pretend to know all the vagaries of journalism, but do know a little about how science works, it's potentially instructive to understand how journalistic discoveries (quack or not) relate to scientific discoveries (quack or not).

threadbear wrote (in response to a previous post of mine duplicated here):

A text book definition of courage in the scientific and journalistic realm IS parting with your peers.
I understand what threadbare is trying to say, but in the science and engineering world peers take on importance in confirming theories and ideas. Peer-reviewed journals become the equivalent of serious fact checking. If you become too iconoclastic, people won't want to spend too much of their time on your work, thus you lose valuable criticism. The ultimate example of letdown occurred when the Cold-Fusion Energy dopes played their peer dupes like a violin, getting other scientistis to spend MILLIONS trying to duplicate their own questionable findings.

threadbear wrote :
True, Hubble. This is why it is beholden upon scientists and journalists who have paid their dues, pushed through to the top, to take a chance. It would be much easier for someone like David Corn and Amy Goodman to go out on a limb, than those struggling through the ranks. At the highest levels, when it is free of commercial conflict, journalism can afford to be more open and flexible, even if it has calcified elsewhere.
In the scientific world, the quack Fleischmann of Cold-Fusion fame fits threadbare's hypothesis to a T:
Bio: Martin Fleischmann ... attended Imperial College in London after the war (1947-1950), and later distinguished himself by achieving at age forty the professorial Chair in Electrochemistry at the University of Southampton. Fleischmann has been called a genuine Renaissance man with a reputation for brilliant and creative ideas -- not all of which pan out, but such is the nature of creativity. Surely, when one listens to or is in the presence of Martin Fleischmann, one feels that the image of an exceptional polymath fits him like a glove.

Since 1986, Fleischmann has been a Fellow of the Royal Society, an honor given only to the most distinguished of scientists. The author of over 200 scientific papers -- a number of them with Pons as collaborator -- and a number of portions of textbooks, Fleischmann won the Royal Society of Chemistry's medal for Electrochemistry and Thermodynamics in 1979. He was president of the International Society of Electrochemistry (1970-1972). In 1985 he was awarded the Palladium Medal (how appropriate!) by the U.S. Electrochemical Society.
So he reached the top. Unfortunately, he then proceeded to blow it BIG-TIME, and get tagged as the instigator of the biggest scientific scam of the last century.

The con-man also did not go through a real peer review cycle, preferring to use press conferences to announce his (and co-researcher Stanley Pons) findings. The truly sad part of this transgression is that, almost 15 years later, the U.S. military continues to consult with him.

What you see here is not any kind of parallel to Amy Goodman or David Corn, but a direct analogy to the work of Robert Novak. The tool Novak (a) builds up quite a reputation (deserved or not), then (b) makes a mess of things with questionable reporting on ambassador Joseph Wilson and his CIA wife, (c) is forever tarnished by those who know good journalism, (d) but continues to have a job.

Novak took a chance, failed miserably, but did not get spanked sufficiently, and the right-wing media gets further emboldened. Truly pathetic when you consider that this could happen in the context of "courageous" media tools reporting without peer-influencing fear on important energy issues.

Without dedicated peers, the media hears whatever they want and fears nothing.


Professor Blogger monkeygrinder said...

Tangent. I still remember when one of our local (Seattle) papers fired their ombudsmen.

The biggest sin of journalism these days is omission. The fact that our oceans have a 50$ chance of rising 13 feet by the end of next century should get at LEAST one day of headlines.

11:58 PM  
Professor Blogger monkeygrinder said...

make it 50 percent, and I'll double down the 50$

11:59 PM  

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