Blog 45. The flow of information and misinformation

The big headline above a 26 column-inch editorial says,

Climate change threat is overblown.

This is in the newspaper of the most science-centered town of the nation?  Well, some accounts claim Los Alamos has more science Ph.D.s per unit population than anywhere else.

As I said before, our society is infused with technology but the populace is scientifically illiterate.  Perhaps this results more from how we disseminate information than from ineducability of our public school students.  What’s going on?  How does the public become informed on the technical questions that become pigskins for political football?

The editorial in question was authored by the director of two organizations, Energy Makes America Great Inc. and Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy.  The by-line says these two organization “work to educate the public and influence policy makers regarding energy, its role in freedom, and the American way of life.”  In terms of climate change, these folks apparently want to defend the freedom to destroy the biosphere as we know it.  I wonder if that’s the American way of life?  A previous editorial by these same folks (well, same author, actually) extolled the virtues of hydraulic fracturing of petroleum wells (fracking), claiming that waste frack water can be made clean enough to drink.  Maybe it can, at enough cost, but does the petroleum industry ever do that?

The question is not whether this lobbyist and spin artist is technically right.  The question is whether Americans get this drivel every day and think it is valid technical information.

Is climate science wrong about polar melting, greenhouse gases, climate change, coral die-off, and ocean chemistry?  A few scientists doubt climate change.  A particular measurement (say the sea level of the Mediterranean) may yet show no change.  To present a “balanced” view, the press presents the doubters’ arguments as equal to those of the concerned scientists.  The press seems to ignore the continuing statements of the American Geophysical Union, the organization of some 63,000 earth scientists.  That’s more than a few.  But the spin artists paint with the brushes of the few.

So what’s the point?

In our complex social system, major rules grow from politics.  The politics is manipulated by manipulating the information, mixing it with belief and fear.  Each citizen must not only obtain the information, but must also separate the good info from the bad info.  That’s difficult when the valid info isn’t disseminated, suppressed because it is profitable and attention-getting to disseminate the spin instead.

And how do you get valid scientific information?

In the popular press, note the by-line of the author.  Is that person a technical expert, risking his own reputation on what he says?  Or is he a mouthpiece who mixes science, petroleum, and freedom?  Go to the news journals that abstract and report the original sources of the science itself.  For example, check Science News or Scientific American, or EOS, the weekly rag of the American Geophysical Union, or equivalent web pages.  And, above all, take action to condemn the spin artists.  Of course, an editor might not publish your rebuttal any more rapidly than he publishes mine, but you can express your concern in other ways.  Speak to where the power is; carry valid information or questions into places where it causes embarrassment.  Maybe cease your  subscription to any news outlet that offers repeated doses of pseudo-science without reference to all of the original data in peer-reviewed reports.  In simple terms, when integrity is missing, be intolerant.

3 thoughts on “Blog 45. The flow of information and misinformation

  1. Joyce A. Carlson ·

    The EOS journal you refer to here requires a subscription. Isn’t scientific information regarding climate change important enough to get out and widely dispersed that they should offer that for free as a service to save the planet? I wish you’d write them and let them know for us. What are some other resources–good, solid scientific resources that we could use to help us combat all this anti-science garbage on all sides besides Scientific American?

    • You are correct; the Wiley on-line library carrying the EOS newsletter indeed requires a subscription or payment for access. Being a life member of the American Geophysical Union, I happen to receive EOS weekly, providing me with a distillation of earth-science news. Some newer journals have open access. See, for example, However, research-level articles usually offer extreme technical detail without the broad context and summary desired by most readers. I don’t know where such a distillation is routinely available for free. As you remarked, Scientific American provides review articles of an entire subject (but not for free). Likewise Science News Magazine, and sometimes Popular Science, although the latter tends more toward the speculative and spectacular. In popular news, if the scientific issue affects either religion or economics (e.g. evolution or climate), I find the tenor of the reporting seems strongly influenced by the ownership of the media. My Blog 48 reflects that problem. If you discover a free source of reliable reporting covering scientific issues that affect society (other than my blog, of course), please let us all know. If I find it, I’ll report it in a blog.

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