Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Fair and Balanced Culture, and Why Scientists Should Fight It

"Fair and Balanced". The phrase has become part of the lexicon. What started as mere propaganda (and highly effective propaganda at that) has seeped into the American consciousness. It appeals to our sense of fair play, our egalitarian roots, and to good pedagogy. A good scientist, or student, should examine all the evidence, not just a portion of it, not just "one side of the argument". However, the way this is popularized through the fair-and-balanced (F&B) media machine has left America with a very distorted and ineffective epistemology. This assumes there are always two, and only two, roughly equally evidenced positions to evaluate, on any issue, that they therefore deserve equal time on the stage, and most importantly, that it is a sign of bias if one's conclusions tend to side with one political party over the other.

Chris Mooney has an interesting paragraph in an article for The New Republic concerning scientists and their forays into politics which illustrates this point nicely:

In 1996, a group called Science Watch organized a system to rate members of Congress based on their science-related votes--precisely what any number of other interest groups on both sides of the aisle do, and unapologetically so. But, when the scorecard emerged, Democrats generally garnered considerably higher ratings than Republicans, leading--all too predictably--to charges of politicizing science. Once again, the science community retreated from political engagement; no further scorecards from Science Watch were forthcoming.

We see here the curse of the F&B mindset. Never mind the evidence, or the experience and wisdom of those drawing the conclusions, or the objectivity of the process, or their often complete disinterest in politics qua politics. If your ratings consistently favor one party, in this case the Democrats, you are biased against the Republicans, QED. I can only imagine the reaction of scientists from other parts of the world who don't even know what Republicans and Democrats are, upon being told they favor one over the other.

To make it more clear how absurd this is, and how deeply Orwellian the intellectual infection from the F&B mindset is, follow the logic to its conclusion. So the scientists rated all the politicians and the Democrats got higher ratings. This brought the charge of "politicizing science". So what result wouldn't qualify as politicizing science? Why, paying attention to the party's ratings and making sure they are equal overall. Perhaps this could be accomplished by normalizing the ratings by party. If the Republicans fall 1.2 points lower than the Democrats on average, then artificially add 1.2 points to the Republican scores to even it all up.

Thus, ignoring the politics and strictly rating according to the science is deemed politicizing science, whereas rigging the game so the political score is even is F&B. War is Peace, and Ignorance and Knowledge. How low we have sunk. Is it any wonder we cannot seem to make headway on any of the major problems facing our society?

Science Watch had the right idea, they just didn't follow through, and didn't stick to their scientific guns. The evidence is what it is, whether it agrees 100% of the time with Political Party X, or 50%, or zero. The scientists need to remind people that if a scientific organization clashes with Republicans on science, it's not that the scientists are biased against Republicanism, its that Republicanism is biased against science. And if the Republicans don't like being told this, then they can get with the scientific program and stop wasting so much time and resources denying well-established science. Ditto for any Democrats, or anyone else for that matter.

And the weapon of choice in such a battle is that favored by Thomas Jefferson:

"Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions."

James Inhofe should not be confronted with logic and evidence when he claims global warming is a hoax. If logic and evidence held sway, he'd not have uttered such nonsense in the first place. Laugh at him. Ridicule him. Make him feel like the fool he is. Ditto with people like Ann Coulter. When she and anyone like her starts that evolution-denying nonsense, laugh at her. Snicker to her face. When people get up in public forums and prattle on ignorantly about peanut butter or oranges or bananas, they need to hear the entire room burst out in laughter. It is clearly the only thing they will understand.

Scientists, and those who are scientifically knowledgeable, have an authority they aren't using, and it is high time that changed. The major issues of our day have strong scientific components, and there are many loudmouthed idiots who will resist science to the bitter end, which is what we will get if they win. Reality is not fair and balanced.

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