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Let's Just Talk About The Weather

You can look to the Olympics to see records broken, or you can experience everyday excitement records set by 2012 global temperature highs, flooding episodes, Greenland ice melt, weather catastrophe insurance losses, and millions of people displaced by extreme weather and climate change. Everyone's worried about this, despite what you hear - even the media.

Climate Change Media Fail?

The poor besieged media. As newspaper income plunges, papers continue to lay-off local reporters, publishers contract workers who mine US databases while based in the Philippines, and armed robbers attack journalists who still have jobs - even in the US. Now this: The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Media Matters, Huffington Post Green, and others accuse the media of ignoring the link between climate change and weather catastrophes. Said Media Matters:

Life of Pi by Neil BabraIllustration by Neil Babra.
Used with permission.

"The major television and print outlets largely ignored climate change in their coverage of wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico and other Western states. All together, only 3 percent of the reports mentioned climate change..."

Huffington Post Green wrote:

"The media just might be starting to see the obvious link between climate change and extreme weather...Given the extreme weather we've been seeing lately, it's becoming (finally) clear to many journalists that we have a trend in our weather patterns"

It's true that many meteorologists don't believe human activity causes climate change. Perhaps it's a job-securing stance, since many work for large energy interests, although in 2010, three-quarters of meteorologists polled said they hesitate to talk of climate change because they fear "audience backlash".

Scientist Backlash

Also, let's not forget, scientists recently berated reporters who linked weather with climate change. And it was just 2005, when scientists were insisting people saying "climate change", not "global warming", because saying "global warming" could lead people to think that every time a snowstorm blew through there was no global warming. Reporters generally went along with this reasoning, which in the best case, added confusion and nuance in the face of tremendous anti-warming propaganda, and in any case, looked mightily like "doubt". Nevertheless, responsible reporters would stress after every hurricane, flood, or heat wave that no one event could be attributed "climate change". In July, 2010, for instance, Time wrote:

"Just as the record-breaking snowstorms of this past winter on East Coast didn't disprove climate change, a record-breaking heat wave doesn't seal the deal either. Weather and climate aren't the same thing. To use a World Cup analogy (which allows me to link to more Lego football, this time in German), it's as if the players on the soccer pitch represent the weather, and climate is the team manager."

If sports comparisons didn't click with you, a HuffPo reporter came up this:

"...think of weather as a one-night stand. Then climate would be raising the kid resulting from that night for the next two decades. One immediately leads to the other, but the two are completely different phenomenon. And that is why we have two distinct fields of study: meteorology and climatology."

Pick your analogy. As Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground summed it up when critiquing Al Gore's movie "The Inconvenient Truth": "I was glad to see that he didn't blame the heat wave on global warming--he merely said that more events of this nature will be likely in the future."

This is still the message, and it may seem clear as a cool autumn morning to you and me, but perhaps broadcasters, in their nightly frenzy of hair spraying, parka donning, and witness interviewing, view it as an unnecessary cluster of crazy-making detail and nuance. 30 second spots depend on very cut-and-dried events. Show yellow tape and police carrying evidence-bags. Say murder. Show smoke and flames. Say fire. Show devastating weather. Say global warming. No, say climate change. No, say it isn't necessarily climate change, but as scientists explain...

Worry For the Animals

So could we imagine this is why so many news shows default to saying "heat wave" while they turn the cameras on - zoo animals? For the past few years news shows have produced thousands of stories and pictures of tigers and sloths, elephants and porcupines cooling off in the heat -- cutely eating popsicles, playing in pools, and being attentively hosed down by zookeepers. Zoos make the incessant heat a selling point:



I suppose trying to get in cheaper by saying "global warming" would ruin the spirit of it. As the climate changes, one can find instructional videos on how to make "tiger popsicles" - frozen treats from various ingredients - real blood, real chicks, Gatorade, and water. All of this, plus more. Reporters who could focus our attention on impending calamities instead spin magical bedtime stories. As the Weather Channel reported recently:

"At the Houston Zoo a snow day offered heat relief for animals for the second summer in a row. TXU Energy provided the man-made snow while zoo keepers provided the fun by building snowmen for the elephants..."


Redefining Nonfiction

Where to turn for science? While snowmen for the elephants passes as news, Discovery Communications, "the world's #1 nonfiction media company", recently re-aired an Animal Planet show about mermaids so convincing in its nonfictioness that the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) first fielded a barrage "is it true?" phone calls, then felt compelled to issue a press release asserting that mermaids weren't real.

In response, Discovery Channel bloggers either defended the show as masterful theater "like the Blair Witch Project"; or baited readers: "The real question is, what do you believe?" Readers ate it up:

"I totally think this is real. not the magical mermaids we hear about from drunk sailors but the evolved kind. i am a christian and dont believe in the whole evolution thing, but what we have here is fact..."[sic]

The comment could be that of a child who won't let go of Santa (or someone aping a child), but theirs is an all-ages fantasy-reality mix-up. When adults experience derechos, or see walls of flame like nothing firemen have ever witnessed, they exclaim, "just like a movie!" When people hear about global cooling, or explorers "seeing mermaids" they want to own that "fact".

At Least This is Where we Focus our Despair

This summer's extreme weather hints that we're losing our cavalier climate wager. It's not only scientists who see the tangible repercussions of wantonly shoveling greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Frequently, people show open concern about climate change. More people scorned Animal Planet's "Mermaids, Body Found", than declared undying faith in mermaid evolution. Recently, even some industry paid denialist-researchers seemed compelled to acknowledge long documented anthropogenic warming.

Perhaps we're collectively realizing that although the need for action on climate change may be a tough pill to swallow, there's no escape. Blood popsicles aside, there's not much to see at the zoo on very hot days. Zookeepers say the heat makes the animals "tired in the afternoon". Polar bears and sea lions slip into pools, while other animals are "allowed to return to their 'backstage bedrooms' to cool off".

Hopefully, although we fret over every poll reporting people's unexplainable trust of meteorologists, the same polls show that more people trust scientists - 74% - than any other source.

Overall, it seems that people are eeking away from climate denialism, which is good, because in the end, climate doesn't care whether we *choose* to believe physics and chemistry. Sea level still rises when North Carolina politicians outlaw it. Oceans continue to heat up when those same politicians 'compromise' with a moratorium on current science that local headlines call "a blend of science". So escape, as you will be invited to, to prince and princess fairy tales, to lands inhabited by unicorns, mermaids, and talking tigers, or to soothing climate tall tales. But remember, that science, wondrous as it is, doesn't "blend" with fairy tales like a scoop of protein powder in a mango ice cream milkshake.



Thanks to Neil Babra, illustrator, writer, etc. for letting us use his illustration of "Life of Pi".

We read Yann Martel's magical book "The Life of Pi", on a train in India several years ago over a couple of sleepless nights. The movie, by director Ang Lee, will be released in November/December, 2012. The studio recently posted previews online.

We wrote about TXU in "TXU-Greenmail?"

We wrote about the hypocrisy of city officials who after a disaster denounce people who move into disaster prone areas, but before a disaster prevent precautionary measures like building moratoriums - for economic growth reasons, in FEMA and Disaster

We wrote about climate change awareness and communication in "Sea Change or Littoral Disaster?"; "Climate Change, Fueling the Debate", and many others.

We wrote about science TV programming in "Science Programming: Penguins and the Lethal Cannon"; and animals portrayed in media in Mongooses and Snakes - Combat Training; and "March On Penguins", and others.

Thanksgiving - Politicians, Recipes & Brussel Sprouts

We're big fans of Thanksgiving and usually try to write a post. This year we wanted to stick with our preferred genre and write about something undercovered or underloved in other media. In 2005 we wrote about that the myth that tryptophan causes post Thanksgiving meal sleepiness, a myth that is now pretty much a Thanksgiving Day media meme.


Image is from Wikipedia Commons, and is licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 (CC by-SA 3.0).

Happy Thanksgiving

We didn't want to write a Thanksgiving holiday-history story because whatever is not covered in 1st and 2nd grade is almost always politically freighted. Wanting to stay away from politics, we decided to write about food again. But ironically, we were inspired by politicians who, collectively deadlocked on all the really important issues, always manage to muster up recipes to share with reporters. What in this world isn't political, I guess?

We can't imagine where the recipe sharing inclinations came from. Is this a lingering tradition from times when churches, ladies groups, and neighborhood potluck groups all put out recipe books full of jello salads and Aunt So-and-so's meatloaf? Still, I can't imagine announcing that for tonight's dessert we'll be enjoying Rick Santorum's "Apple Tarte Tatin"!!

But it seems popular. Last week, for instance, Representative Nancy Pelosi shared her chocolate mousse recipe -- a Thanksgiving Day tradition in her home. It has 1 pound of dark chocolate, 8 ounces of butter, 8 eggs, 4 tablespoons of sugar and 1/2 a cup of heavy cream. She's thin, she's not eating too much of this. It's probably delicious -- The Hill has to whole recipe -- but you have to admit it's not exactly a heart-happy dessert. Michelle Obama would disapprove of this recipe, and the GOP would no doubt accuse Pelosi of excessive caloric spending. To model the antithetic thriftiness, I'm sure, Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio) told The Hill he was looking forward to his mother's turkey brine. He wouldn't give the publication the recipe.

What To Write

I don't know about turkey brine, so I looked on the Food Network, which has this. Turkey brine has peppercorns, allspice berries, salt, rosemary, sage, and other sundry spices and herbs, plus vinegar. Don't knock turkey brine, a whopping 3,603 people endorsed that Food Network recipe. Perhaps Mrs. Boehner's secret recipe is better, but I'd bet my party on 3,603 votes if I were going that way. Apparently one soaks their turkey in the brine before cooking. The whole process takes about 10 hours, so you have to be comfortable cooking on Congress-Time. Hopefully John's mom adds extra "sage" that is magically, surrealistically absorbed by anyone who eats/drinks the brine.

Speaking of sage and wisdom, North Carolina Congressman Howard Coble had a truly brain related recipe called, actually, "Brains N'Eggs", which he described as a can of "brains in gravy", "preferably" Rose Brand, with bacon grease and eggs. His mother served served him this "not at all unusual" breakfast, that alas it can't be found in Washington D.C., he reported.

What To Write

If your a politician, your recipe can send a message. Chocolate mousse would be a universal people-pleaser. Pork brains sends a different message, obviously it depends on what you're going for. Politicians also use recipes to remind people of their heritage, like Olympia Snowe's "Baklava". Others donate recipe's reminiscent of their state, Senator John Kerry's "Massachusetts Cranberry Bread" for instance. Some offer what I think of as anti-cooking, like former NY Congressman Sue Kelly's "microwave chicken": chicken, microwave, a bottle of your "favorite" salad dressing, and water.

Some long-serving productive politicians like former Senator Edward Kennedy never dished out recipes to the media. One Rockefeller gave out four. Others who were only very briefly in office must have entered with a recipe in hand, like Sarah Palin and her Alaska Crab Wrap Sandwich, which, if I weren't allergic to crab, I might like her best for.

Ignoring all good evidence, Californians ousted Governor Gray Davis in favor of Governor Schwarzenegger, who was obviously too busy with other household chores to write recipes for reporters. Davis got served up lemons and gave the press his Lemon Chicken recipe.

Happy Thanksgiving

So back to our unchosen subject. We're weary of pumpkin pie, we've done turkey, cranberries are all bogs and antioxidants, what's left? We could talk about the turkey dinner where they actually go and feed the turkeys? Hmmm...Brussels sprouts? The thing about Brussels sprouts is nobody writes about them because they're only slightly more popular, I wager, than canned pork brains scrambled with eggs and grease.

Nobody knows where Brussels sprouts originated, unlike the excellently documented domesticated turkey. Most people agree they don't come from Belgium but some say they're actually a centuries old source of "Flemish national pride". It seems like when it comes to Brussel Sprout's, everyone's making something up. A few say they originated in Rome where they were thought to make people smarter, or maybe they were popularized in WWI, or maybe they came to Louisiana when the French immigrated, or maybe they're the most disliked British vegetable...on and on.

But they are considered healthy for many reasons, like because they contain sulfoaphane and indole-3-carbinol and a lot of research finds they have anti-cancer properties.. They look pretty cool on the vine. And to eat? Curried? Roasted?

Best wishes to all and Happy Thanksgiving to those readers who have a holiday.

Secret Geoengineering? Says Who?

A recent Financial Times article reported on a £1.6 million geoengineering trial launched by SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection For Climate Engineering) at a British Science Festival. In "Trial Seeks to Hose Down Warming Climate", Clive Cookson describes how the company aimed to test the feasibility of cooling the planet by creating atmospheric conditions that simulate volcanic activity. Beyond the trial:

"A full-scale global cooling system would cost more than £5bn and take two decades to install, said Hugh Hunt of Cambridge university, another team member. It would require 10 to 20 gigantic balloons, each the size of Wembley stadium, attached to ships distributed in the world's oceans and pumping 10m tonnes a year of material into the stratosphere.""

Geoengineering - How Far Have We Really Come?

Interesting enough. We often hear of plans for geoengineering. Certainly weather modification has been around for so long that when a Texas licensing board in charge of approving projects convened recently, one member suggested that the technology was so routine the licensing board should disband. Although we know generally about cloud seeding and futuristic geoengineering, we don't often hear about experiments with some of the more sophisticated climate technologies, which makes the FT article interesting.

But also interesting, was a letter to the editor in response to the article, published by the FT a couple of days later (Sept. 15). In it, the President of an American aerospace company wrote that the "trial" reported by FT was old news. He explained that injecting particulate matter into the atmosphere has "been in full swing at it for nearly a decade...", and continued "Dozens of aerospace, defence and technical companies like ours have been advising into the initiative for many years. He explained:

"...[a] series of tests to create a polymerised and ionised mixture of certain metals, including aluminium, barium, thorium and selenium, among other contents, was perfected and tested in US facilities. A joint public-private operation, initially called "Cloverleaf", was operationalised and subsequently supported by US state and federal weather modification legislature.

Throughout the continental US, dozens of tanker and other aircraft are daily applying thousands of gallons of aerosol nano-particulates that serve several objectives, including the purported ability to reflect UV radiation. Similar operations are being conducted in Canada and parts of Europe.[emphasis ours]

What the actual secondary effects of this operation are, including human health impacts, are currently unknown or undisclosed. The Bristol university team may be wise to "hose down" those facts as well. In the meantime, anthropogenic climate impact is in this regard, quite real indeed."


Before the Financial Times boldly printed this editorial, people firmly relegated "Cloverleaf Operations" to conspiracy theory territory. True, thousands of YouTube videos devote bazillions of hours to documenting "chemtrails" streaked across blue skies -- often accompanied by music of the producer's choosing, making them no less boring.

And true, hosts of crackling talk radio shows tell audiences that their guests will "risk death" if they divulge a huge secret government chemical spraying operation, and then of course their guest divulges the secret.

A search for "chemtrails" on YouTube actually turns up 29,200 results. I have to say, I had no idea this was as big as it is -- have you heard of this chemtrail thing? It's easy to ignore, unless, say, as I have experienced, one or more of your previously rational friends goes through some weird mid-life crisis, and with testosterone flagging (my theory), veers off bizarrely denouncing the rational in favor of numerology, Mad Hatter utterings, and chemtrails. How else would you know, unless you read the Financial Times editorial section?

Fact or Fiction?

Of course some people -- the subset who espouse chemtrails and read the Financial Times editorials -- were elated: "PROOF!", they crowed on their blogs. But try to find one other mention of such a program in any other respected publication -- one whose mission isn't to divulge "scary secrets your government's hiding from you". Given this, the Financial Times editorial seems like a rather casual airing of the news -- and it is news.

It must be true, you say, it's the Financial Times! Many people attest that the FT and its sister publication The Economist do an above respectable job covering science. I really like both publications, but they both publish quite a few "science" articles that are more or less press releases for some company's pie in the sky technology that you've never heard of and will never hear of again. Yes, they have some in depth coverage of science, and sometimes feature British science establishment luminaries like Paul Nurse, but frankly I think their coverage of economics, yachts, and watches is better. The original article on the water aerosol trial was sort of in this in the sky technology vein. But the theme got way more interesting with the editorial.

Existent or Not Existent?

The editorial was written by Mr. Matt Andersson, who signed as the CEO of a Chicago company called Indigo Aerospace. Indigo Aerospace is not listed in Hoover's, so it's hard to guess how much money he makes "advising into the initiative". Or maybe he didn't really mean in his letter that his company was running geoengineering programs but more literally that companies "like his" were. Or maybe his company does advise such initiatives.

Being curious, I easily learned that Indigo Aerospace used to be incorporated in Illinois, where they reportedly consulted to Booz Allen Hamilton, known for its military and government business. But as of May, 2011, Illinois lists the Indigo Aerospace Inc. as "involuntarily dissolved". So then is the corporate entity for which he signed as CEO not in existence anymore? This unfortunately throws doubt on his whole Cloverleaf assertion (at least to us). But why be judgmental? FT wasn't.

But we unfortunately don't know if the FT editorial is credible. If we were the FT editorial team we would do a bit more checking into this story -- really. Now we can only wonder: Do governments drastically change weather patterns, ruin sunsets, and subject us to chemical experimentation, and is this so ho-hum that we only read about it on conspiracy theorist sites, on Ron Paul 2012's blog, and in the editorial section of the Financial Times? It's potentially very interesting news people, more please. Or is it a conspiracy theory, as contended by every state agency, military organization, scientist, urban legend site, and news publication -- except for the FT? Mildly interesting but worthwhile noting. What do you wager?

Autism and the Internet, Drugs, Television, Rain, the Victorian Era & the Media

New Scientists Who Don't Do Science

Every so often, actually with disturbing frequency, claims about the underlying cause of autism spring up like fungii in manure after a rain. It's practically required that claims of this genre be built on false premises or make invalid conclusions, like this week's link between internet use and autism. Oxford personality Baroness Susan Greenfield breathed life into this rumor in an interview with New Scientist, then defended herself by saying provocatively: "I point to an increase in the internet and I point to autism, that's all." But where's the evidence, and why is this stuff being published?

Greenfield's been popularizing science for decades, and recently popularizing science at the cost of science itself. In 2008 she warned the children's brains were being destroyed by technology in a book reviewed by the Times of UK:

"As it happens, her new book, ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, digresses all over the place in little flash floods of maddening provisos and second thoughts. It's as if she dictated it while bouncing on a trampoline, fixing an errant eyelash and sorting her fraught schedule on a BlackBerry."

Back in 2009, before the UK's Royal Institution fired Lady Greenfield, she argued that the total immersion in "screen technologies" was linked to a "three-fold increase in prescriptions for methylphenidate" (prescribed for attention deficit disorder). She told the paper that people were losing empathy and becoming dependent on "sanitized" screen dialogues. She also complained that packages of meat in supermarkets had replaced "killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat".

It's hard to criticize people who distort science without seeming to deride all science popularizes. Greenfield falls in the former camp as many people recognize. 254 people commented, on a recent Guardian article saying that the internet changes peoples brain:

  • "That's exactly what my mum said about reading 'The Beano' [A British Comic Strip]."

  • "I hear it gives you cancer as well""

Guardian readers know how to take a piss, but Oxford's Greenfield knows how to get publicity, so she's long engaged in trying to scare people about technology. To her latest, scientists online responded briskly, with vitriol, meaning that in terms of popularity, Greenfield had a field day. We've been following false arguments about autism for a few years, so we wanted to look more closely at how Greenfield's latest claim about the internet causing autism differs from the claim that some economist's claim that television caused autism, which we covered back in 2006. For one, back in 2006 they actual did research -- well, economics research.

But Who Needs To Do Research When They'll Print the Stuff You Make Up?

Greenfield ups the ante from her general technophobia of two years ago by appealing not just to fuddy-duddy technophobes but to all parents and their worst nightmares. One day the child seems fine, then something mysterious happens and the child is no longer themselves. What happened? Doctors and scientists have no clinically actionable idea. Greenfield knows.

Perhaps it makes life easier for some autism suffering families to attribute changes in their child to some outside agent. It's also common to say that a crime has been perpetrated by people from another state or town or country. We've seen autism blamed on vaccines, television, rain...Uncomplicated agents that can be controlled by parents are especially attractive - TV. But where's the evidence? When the New Scientist asked that, Greenfield replied:

"There's lots of evidence, for example, the recent paper "Microstructure abnormalities in adolescents with internet addiction disorder" in the journal PLoS One...There is an increase in people with autistic spectrum disorders. There are issues with happy-slapping, the rise in the appeal of Twitter - I think these show that people's attitude to each other and themselves is changing."

How nimbly she links computer use, with "internet addiction disorder" (IAD) that is not recognized by US psychiatrists, with brain change, with behaviors, and even with attitudes. But the paper didn't say anything about attitudes; didn't prove "addiction", didn't prove detrimental brain changes, didn't prove behavior changes.

Can You Compare the Cognition of Chinese 19 Year Olds Playing Games 12 Hours A Day To 1 Year Old Cooing Babies?

The PLoS One paper deserves more comment than I'm going to devote here. But though PLoS One depends on the community for peer review, and although this paper has over 11,000 views (14/08/11), not one person has peer-reviewed, or "rated" - the paper. Nevertheless, it's cited all over the internet as proof that "internet use" does bad stuff to the brain, it "shrinks it", "wrinkles it", "damages", "contracts", "re-wires" it... But the paper is not about "internet use". It's about on-line gaming.

The PLoS One authors write that the research is particularly important to China because unlike in the US, in China, IAD is recognized and often cited as a big problem. The Chinese vigorously treat the "disorder" with strict treatment regimens including until 2009 shock therapy.

The PLoS One authors used addiction criteria (i.e. "do you feel satisfied with Internet use if you increase your amount of online time?") and asked the subjects to estimate how long they had had the addiction. They then used brain imaging to show that brain changes correlated with self-reported duration of online game playing. There were 18 subjects, 12 males average age 19.5 years, and presumably 6 others (females?) who the authors do not characterize.

The subjects played online games 8-13 hours a day. I can't evaluate the data, I don't know enough about voxel based morphology. But I'm not surprised someone "playing online games" 8-13 hours a day, 6.5 days a week for 3 years is different than the controls, who were "on the internet" less than 2 hours a day. Likewise, I would expect a soldier engaged in street patrol in Afghanistan 10 hours a day, 6 days a week for three years to be different than someone who walked their dog around the block in sunny suburbia 3 days a week for the last month. (If I were in a joking mood I'd say that kids playing online games 13 hours a day 6 days a week must have extraordinary abilities to actually still be in college.)

Even if you believe in IAD, the authors acknowledge the study's limitations. They say they don't prove IAD caused changes; don't prove that the subjects brains weren't different to begin with; acknowledge the "IAD duration" measurements (self-assessment) are crude; and the data aren't rigorous to conclude negative changes.

None of these caveats slowed Greenfield, who cited this paper and linked it to all sorts of unrelated things like "Happy-slapping", an awful British fad. But there's nothing inherently sinister about using Twitter, or the internet - it's not related to autism. What makes a lot of her assertions puzzling is that Greenfield trained as a neuroscientist. Does she not know this stuff? In 2003, she mocked people who attributed anything to "scary technology." So why is she now popularizing the opposite message? Her PLoS One example is nothing more than pulling some study out of thin air and linking it to her own machinations about technology. Claims such as hers provide ripe fodder for quacks, crazies and zealotry.

How Does Technology Change Us? Research Shows Beneficial Effects in Online Gamers

Here's the second instance of "proof" Greenfield gives in the New Scientist interview, and note that again cites an academic paper and links it incongruously to her own made up stuff. She says:

"...A recent review by the cognitive scientist Daphne Bavelier in the high-impact journal Neuron1, in which she says that this is a given, the brain will change. She also reviews evidence showing there's a change in violence, distraction and addiction in children."

But the Bavelier et al review says something different. The scientists specifically warn that no research predictably links brain changes to behavior like violence, distraction or "internet addiction" to technology - TV, video games. The authors cite studies showing the research remains too confounding, as they say in their conclusions:

  • "the interpretation of these studies is not as straightforward as it appears at first glance"

  • most reports tabulate total hours rather than the more important content type, therefore are "inherently noisy and thus provide unreliable data."

  • technology use is "highly correlated with other factors that are strong predictors of poor behavioral outcomes, making it difficult to disentangle the true causes of the observations"

  • Perhaps "children who have attentional problems may very well be attracted to technology because of the constant variety of activities."

Bavelier et al stress that the effects are unpredictable, for instance "good technology" like the once ballyhooed Baby Einstein videos can turn out to have zero or negative effects. Conversely what is assumed to be "bad technology" can be good. They write:

"action video games, where avatars run about elaborate landscapes while eliminating enemies with well-placed shots, are often thought of as rather mindless by parents. However, a burgeoning literature indicates that playing action video games is associated with a number of enhancements in vision, attention, cognition, and motor control."

This point from Bavelier et al is quite interesting because it appears to contradict the general conclusions of the PLoS One authors we cited above concerning online gamers -- assuming the study subjects played comparable games. Exploring these different results is potentially more interesting than a rhetorical sleight of hand tossing a science study citation in to falsely bolster gobbledygook.

To wit, the studies Greenfield uses don't support her points. That technology's effects are still unpredictable is widely acknowledged. Greenfield herself used to promote a computer program called MindFit which claimed to improve mental ability. The game didn't work. But it also didn't make kids pick up knives and murder each other. It's hard to understand Greenfield's motivation for denouncing technology as anything other than provocation.

Greenfield says: "It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations." But "hard to see" isn't science. A "brain", is not a "mind", nor is it "behavior", nor an "attitude". That's not to say brains don't change, or that technology couldn't affect us. Brains show changes during many activities, often temporarily. It's just to say that technology is not inherently, as she called it, "chilling".

I Point to Television and I Point to Picnics, To Family Dinners, To Teens Doing Charity, To Children Building Sand Castles on Sunny Days

As she is now vilifying the internet as a physiological change agent, Greenfield previously claimed that television changes the brain deleteriously. Now she dismisses the notion. When New Scientist asked her: "What makes social networks and computer games any different from previous technologies and the fears they aroused?" she responded:

"The fact that people are spending most of their waking hours using them. When I was a kid, television was the centre of the home, rather like the Victorian piano was. It's a very different use of a television, when you're sitting around and enjoying it with others..."

Nice image, the innocent television, like the innocent Victorian piano. Happy family times of the Victorian Era, singing around the piano, food aplenty, spirits flowing, enlightened, goal oriented well adjusted children unhindered by repressive social situations. Oh wait, it wasn't always like that? We learn more about the good 'ole days by venturing dangerously out on the internet where you can find the following first hand accounts:

Isabella Read, 12 years old, coal-bearer, as told to Ashley's Mines Commission, 1842: "Works on mother's account, as father has been dead two years. Mother bides at home, she is troubled with bad breath, and is sair weak in her body from early labour. coaltub.jif "I am wrought with sister and brother, it is very sore work; cannot say how many rakes or journeys I make from pit's bottom to wall face and back, thinks about 30 or 25 on the average; the distance varies from 100 to 250 fathom. I carry about 1 cwt. and a quarter on my back; have to stoop much and creep through water, which is frequently up to the calves of my legs."

Sarah Gooder, 8 years old, trapper, as told to Ashley's Mines Commission, 1842: "I'm a trapper in the Gawber pit. It does not tire me, but I have to trap without a light and I'm scared. I go at four and sometimes half past three in the morning, and come out at five and half past. I never go to sleep. Sometimes I sing when I've light, but not in the dark; I dare not sing then. I don't like being in the pit. I am very sleepy when I go sometimes in the morning."

Greenfield's current glorification of TV defies the fact that TV has been roundly implicated for causing all sorts of unsocial behavior and not only by Greenfield before she changed her mind.

The Autism TV Link: "Why Not Tie it To Carrying Umbrellas?"

In 2006 Acronym Required used a study by economists linking autism and television to write a satirical ten step tutorial on how to publish bad science and get lots of media attention for it. The authors proved that a theories popularity, if brought to the attention of a non-critical media was independent of clearly stating no link between autism and television in your study. You didn't even need to be a scientist.

After reviewing those economists' work, Joseph Piven, director of the Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center at the University of North Carolina, weighed in on the autism television-watching idea, asking the Wall Street Journal "[W]hy not tie it to carrying umbrellas?" And so the researchers did! And in 2009, in "It's Back! The Rain Theory of Autism", we described how the same researcher group that blamed autism on televisions decided that it wasn't television causing autism, but rain.

The nice thing about making up "science" or just leveraging your status for narcissistic purposes, is that you can change, chameleon-like, at will. If your aim is to generate a headline in mainstream media rather than research, it doesn't matter what the science says. Most people don't remember headlines from one day to the next and they aren't that curious to dig further.

I believe a natural response to Greenfield's wild claims is humor and sarcasm, the same response the Guardian readers had. To Greenfield's latest foray, Carl Zimmer started an amusing twitter exchange with this: "I point to the increase in esophageal cancer and I point to The Brady Bunch. That's all. #greenfieldism".

A string of #greenfieldisms followed, like "@carlzimmer I point to Alzheimer's and I point to cheese doodles. That's all. #greenfieldism". (Of course this territory is risk ridden, because of the prevalence of actual real random "studies" like the one about mice who eat fast food and get Alzheimer's.)

When challenged, Greenfield didn't back down, instead she spewed forth with more analogies, like a clogged toilet if test-flushed. Asked for a response to the fact that there's not evidence claiming detrimental effects of technologies, she scoffed that you wouldn't see effects for 20 years. With just as absurd a distracting non-sequiter she once asked someone who challenged her on the technology-is-bad assertions if they denied smoking causes cancer.

Flexible "Theories" Make For Good Publicity for Scientists, For Newspapers...

I think it's cathartic, funny and educational to diffuse Greenfield's claims with humor. Wicked-fast coordinated Twitter de-bunking of such people is of course useful and could be made even more useful. Unfortunately the issues aren't always as simple as a Greenfieldism. And debunking the rhetoric of individuals seeking publicity on the backs of science is only one angle.

I think it's important to note that it wouldn't be news if there weren't ready and willing news outlets. The New Scientist printed all her assertions about links between technology, brain structure, autism, and behavior. BabiesLaptop.jpg They didn't ask questions. They didn't challenge. They didn't say: wait, isn't autism diagnosed at ages 2-4? Who's propping their 6 month old up in from on the computer to play war games? Why?

The Guardian, like most papers, publishes articles that range in quality. A Guardian comment on the 2009 article about Greenfield's theories, that called the article "absolute nonsense", and wrote I am surprised that the Guardian has published this..."sloppy journalism"..."absolute drivel", pulled in 160 "approve" votes, far more than any other comments. So even if readers hate the article, they'll still read it. Media succeeds because of advertising and hundreds of comments translates to how many hundreds of thousand of hits?

The media is quite capable of selective coverage. They ignore important scientific, political, and economic stories that they consider politically sensitive. But is anti-science coverage ever "censored"? Not if it can drive traffic, and sell ads - provide economic benefit to media outlets.

But to what extent can we accept this concession to the market if it gives us in return uncritical readers, uncritical patients, and uncritical citizens? Does it create an atmosphere amenable to medical quacks? Might it prime a population to be more receptive to political efforts to curb real free speech via social media technologies? Too bad so many potential critics (even bloggers) are involved with or depend on mainstream news outlets, which makes them understandably hesitant to bite the hand that feeds (or might feed) them.


1 Bavelier, D., Green, C.S., & Dye, M. (2010). Children, wired - for better and for worse. Neuron. 67, 692-701, Volume 67, Issue 5, 692-701, 9 September 2010 Copyright � 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.08.035

Acronym Required writes frequently on the diffusion and distortion of science in politics. We've written about individuals mixing religion with science, art with science, for instance here

Warner Herzog's latest movie, the highly rated "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" explores some cool cave paintings at the Cave of Chauvet-Pot-D'Arc in France. The ~30,000 year old paintings are significant archaeologically, geographically and culturally, and the movie does a great job of bringing the art of the restricted cave to a larger audience, albeit at times ponderously.

Some people will surely appreciate the mystical sometimes overwrought other-world importance Herzog brings to the cave finds. In the film's postscript, Herzog films some albino crocodiles that he describes as downstream from a nuclear power plant near the valley. The move perhaps encourages the audience to compare some dystopic nuclear future inhabited by spooky radioactive albino crocodiles crawling the land, to his vision of a beautiful pristine valley once populated by mammoths, bears, lions, rhinoceros and loin-clothed artistes.

Herzog seems to imbue the Aurignacian culture with the same mythical qualities that James Cameron gave to the fictional Na'vi of "Avatar", both are feted with dreamlike qualities these men seem to admire - wisdom, god-like eco-consciousness, and the capacity to appreciate (and produce) immense beauty. 1 Herzog makes a good film. But our ancestors of 30,000 years ago perhaps mastered the exquisite details of very large and dangerous beasts via many close and no doubt brutal encounters. Such encounters perhaps stirred memories that kept them up nights feverishly scratching very vivid animal portraits on cave walls with charcoal sticks. Is it too facile to point out that the art wasn't necessary created in the lush, happy tranquility of a remote French valley as viewed through modern man's eyes 30,000 years later?

At the end of the movie, Herzog tacks on some fictional "radioactive crocodiles". When interviewed by Stephen Colbert, Herzog said he wanted the audience to come with him on a "wild fantasy" that "illuminates". Without embellishment, he said, reality would be the Manhattan phone directory, 4 million entries, all correct. You would not know what anyone thinks, he said, or cries about...Therefore he's not "this kind of filmmaker". (Colbert invited him to party sometime.)

So the film seems a sort of 'up in smoke' melding of fact and fiction. The paintings are real, but with a fictional allegorical meta-framing. And the postscript crocodiles are in fact non-radioactive alligators, alligators imported from Louisiana, to a French Crocodile Farm where he filmed them. There are only about 20 albino alligators in the world apparently, because they are rare and genetically fragile. The two of Herzog's wild fantasy movie are usually used to attract tourists. Wild.


1 Added 06/11/11: Except now I learn Herzog more or less hated "Avatar", comparing it unflatteringly to yoga

Challenging Healthcare Reform - Hints of Outcomes from Campaign Snippets

Challenging the Healthcare Bill

A judge recently ruled that 19 states challenging the federal healthcare bill had grounds to bring it to court. Of course not all of these states are totally behind the suit. The Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, for instance, is a Republican who enrolled his state in the lawsuit. However, Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire is a Democrat who strongly supports Obama's healthcare bill.

The judge, a Reagan appointee, suggested in his decision that the federal government may have overstepped its authority. But of course, shouldn't we expect this? If a group of religious zealots can halt potentially life-saving embryonic stem cell research funded by federal grants by successfully claiming their non-existent research will be infringed by competing research, then perhaps anything might fly up the flagpole in the courts. And will this challenge fair even worse in the courts than in Congress?

How Will Reform Fare? "Snip...Go Up...No More...Pink Ribbons"

Most policy debates play out on the national stage, with politicians vying for personal political points by soundbiting appealing messages for big funders. Knowledge of the issues? Intelligent discussion? It exists, but often gets swallowed up in banal point parrying. The following is an exchange between Harry Reid, a Democrat and Senate majority leader from Nevada, and Sharron Angle, his Tea Party challenger and a "mean-girl", according to Maureen Dowd. Dowd reported an exchange, precipitated by Angle, who asserted that health insurers should not have to cover anything. Reid responded that it was important that mammograms and colonoscopies be covered:

"If you do colonoscopies," he said, "colon cancer does not come 'cause you snip off the things they find when they go up and -- no more."

"Well," Angle replied tartly, "pink ribbons are not going to make people have a better insurance plan."

Anyone looking for intelligence at that Las Vegas debate would be hard pressed to sift out anything coherent there. Will the courts do any better?

Why Can't We Be Friends? The Pepsi Wars.

The skirmish over at ScienceBlogs between PepsiCo and the science bloggers actually made me feel sorry for Pepsi.

Pass The Bong and the Aspartame

You have to admit, PepsiCo has had a tough month. First, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom banned Pepsi from vending machines, a move that elicited potshots from conservative DC paper The Washington Times, with the headline: "Pass The Pot Brownies, But Drop That Soda". Expounding on that clever cliche, WT wrote: "In the City by the Bay, it may soon be easier to get a pot-laced brownie than a can of Pepsi".

Oh yeah, nailed it! Hippies in the "City By The Bay" ("Frisco" to some) -- don dirty tie-dyed t-shirts to stand on corners flashing "peace" fingers, swaying to the music, flowers in their hair and THC soothing their psychedelics' addled nerves, else the badly parented long-haired youth are driving around in orange Volkswagon buses, pot smoke billowing out the windows - yup, The Washington Times really knows "The City By The Bay".1

The battle used to be between Pepsi and Coke. Coke would lose its big university or city contract to Pepsi, then Pepsi to Coke, back and forth. But this time, all soda was ousted, and no sooner was soda ejected from San Francisco city vending machines, then PepsiCo was yelled off ScienceBlogs.

SciBling Hospitality?

It must have been a confusing time for PepsiCo. ScienceBlog editors at first warmly courted PepsiCo, who titled their blog invitingly: "Food Frontiers". But they couldn't even pen a "Hello, World! Corn syrup is so good for you", before "SciBlings" (ScienceBlog bloggers) rose up en masse from their virginal science blog space and confronted the evil sugar-water mixer about their "stealth" advertising.

I wasn't there. But it's mid-July, pretty slow in science news, so I thought I'd Twitter all the anger and consternation, not to mention the mass exodus of SciBlingers. This I think, will entertain all the marketing gurus, dogs, porn stars, and some cool peeps who follow AcronymRequired. Unfortunately, before anyone could figure out whether to call it PepsiCoGate, Pepsigate, or Pepsicopalyse, Pepsi's Food Frontiers bloggers had skedaddled as if confronted by a battalion of helmeted storm troopers spraying plastic bullets and tear gas at their sit-in.

Safely back at, the Food Frontiers bloggers publicly reminisced about the "very candid feedback" and their "intent to embrace that conversation".

The regrouping bloggers from PepsiCo talked microbial stability, acidity, phosphorous content, obesity, and salt, vis-a-vis PepsiCo. And as promised, Pepsi engaged "that conversation", by answering the demands of SciBlingers who chased them out of their Special Science Space back into the World Wide Web. PepsiCo "embraced" the assault from SciBlingons when one Science Blog writer asked (none to politely):

"Does the material leave your own computer when you write a post, ever? I.e, pass in front of other people's eyes? Is there a standard workflow for producing a blog post that involves any kind of oversight or inspection?...The truth is that if you'all blogging researchers can only write approved copy, then the whole blog thing really is probably a bad idea".

To this, Pepsi responded promptly and sweetly: "Thanks Greg Laden" in a post they titled unambiguously: "The Posting Process on Food Frontiers".

But will such sugary pabulum engage ScienceBloggers? No. Only two people responded to the thoughtful PepsiCo post, and neither of them reciprocated by "embracing" the drink maker in the same way Pepsi wanted to embrace them.

I would have suggested that Food Frontiers could have been a little more in Sciblingers' faces - such as: "WTF is YOUR process -- why do so many ideas conflicting with your world view meet with such profane outbursts and bunkerbuster-style attacks? What are you, the Department of OK Blogs?" Now that, would be "engaging the conversation", sciblingy-like. Plus, summer is boring online and that would have really added some tinder to the whole thing. Instead we got this light, huggy-bubbly, PepsiCo marketing stuff.

Maybe the PepsiCo Food Frontiers bloggers were jittery, wan and weak from a diet of caffeine, phosphorous, sugar, water, and natural flavors. Or, possibly they were devouring cans of spinach voraciously and weight-training vigorously, but saving their vim and vigor for this week's attack on a more familiar foe -- CocaCola.

In the newish YouTube spot which may revive the Pepsi-Coke wars, the two opposing soft drink truck drivers meet in a diner and swap colas, "Why Can't We Be Friends?" by the band War, a 1970's song. As one driver drinks a soda, the other betrays him (can't tell you why). Then they get mad and crash through a window together. The Associated Press wrote:

"Analysts say people love the funny, spirited rivalry of the decades-old cola wars and the move will benefit both soda makers. That's good news for the $100 billion industry, which is seeing weak soft drink sales as shoppers switch to healthier juices and teas."

That's more like it, the funny, spirited, decades-old rivalry, like grandpa and his brother, just pining for the good 'ole days? See how it works Sciblingers? Friendly public rivalry.

Butlered off the Isle?

Of course, I don't really feel sorry for Pepsi. They have a nice new sepia toned 1970's ad and a brilliant business, patenting and selling corrosive sugar and water drinks. But soda's not so healthy for humans or the environment (as we've written in "Childhood Obesity, The American Way", or "Pop's Out Drug's are In", or "Coke: Teaching the World to Sing", or "Why So Fat? It's System Wide", or "Common Sense Foods in Schools""). And PepsiCo doesn't need us, they can always fall into the arms of Coke, or the loving the Cato Institute, or FOX, and many others.

Apparently there was more going on at ScienceBlogs than PepsiCo, there always is. I've read and mostly enjoyed ScienceBlogs since the inception. There weren't too many bloggers way back then and I've watched SB evolve with particular interest. So I get it. But Sciblingons! Sheesh! "Spirited rivalry" and gentle brawls people! Do you really need to beat them up, throw them off the island, bash their heads in, then drown them? What good are they too you then?

Just my opinion. I believe that ScienceBlogs has done wonders for getting others online writing about science. A ton of SB bloggers blog seriously about science, every day, good stuff. But some bloggers get increasingly spiteful as they vie for the attention that blogging compels, then use that attention to generate a certain brand of PR for SB. The level of conversation often spirals downward (there must be some entropy model that describes it). And that downward spiral seems infectious -- I've noticed Nature has been forging new ground lately in diluting their brand with some profane blogs also.

Pepsi's not the first one to feel SciBlingon wrath, though sleepy-hot July always gives these incidents an extra charge. Remember the Nature/Butler/PLoS fracas of July, 2008? It was similarly acrimonious with a familiar corporate/underdog theme.

These bloggers know their power, they say. But this is how SB looks from the outside, to me, an independent sometimes-blogger. Everyday science bloggy, bloggy, bloggedy, great - oh, too boring? Yawn? Then Boom, Smash, Bang, big tizzy over at ScienceBlogs over something, lots of media coverage. Repeat. For someone not in the thick of it, the episodic commotions tempt a plea for perspective.

I hope ScienceBlogs settles -- certainly finding eager writers shouldn't be a hurdle, and there are 60 left. I look forward to future writing from the diaspora. But I would also venture that it's complicated, messy business, this advertising stuff, this ethical boundaries stuff. It's pretty easy to inadvertently be seen as hypocritical trying to carve arbitrary ethical boundaries that suit your own very personal interests. As a minor, minor example, isn't most blogging just personal branding/advertising? But your brand is pure as the driven snow, whereas Pepsi's is marred by soda pop? Anyway, I'm not sure getting Pepsi off of ScienceBlogs, although certainly a "cause", was one worthy of the show or the arena.


1 Actually, in another "City By The Bay", they plan to grow pot by the acre, an unfortunately timed news story which you'd think would crush my defense. But then the city will tax it, hopefully so they can pay for a much needed police force. Complicated. Another story.

Old vs New Newsrooms, Sides of Maggots, and Lady Gaga

Gene Weingarten on the old "typical American newsroom" versus the "New Newsroom", in "Gene Weinharten Column mentions Lady Gaga" (via BoingBoing, via Joel Johnson).

Weingarten misses deadlines and creative headlines, but appreciates "the services of tens of thousands of fact-checking 'citizen journalists'", and "comments" -

"though they can seem a little jarring: spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity. It's as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots".

"New Journalism" is "confusing", with leagues of "multiplatform idea triage specialists", compared to the old days, when:

"On deadline, drunks with cigars wrote stories that were edited by constipated but knowledgeable people, then printed on paper by enormous machines operated by people with stupid hats and dirty faces."

There's more.

Gateway Drug News

In our break from blogging we learned about an unexplored benefit of writing about news. When we spend free time writing or interpreting news we care about, we interrupt a habit of seeking substantive news amongst the addictive trifle of mainstream media. Trash news is the bread and butter of media companies because apparently readers are addicted to piffle.


Case in point: At Reuters, often a fine outlet, readers devoured the piece "The Hills Are Alive With Haggis". Haggis, you ask? Indeed. Scots consume Haggis a dish made from the lung, liver and heart of a sheep, on Burns night - of course, with lots of whiskey.

An aside: The US banned haggis in 1989 because of the threat of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), but for some reason unexplored by Reuters, the US recently relaxed the ban. Richard Lochhead, the Scottish environmental secretary waxed ecstatic that Americans can now "sample our world-renowned national dish."

But Reuters did not cover the American ban of sheep innards because of BSE. Readers can only learn that "renowned" as it may be, many Scots don't know what haggis is and Brits are even more uninformed. As the report goes, one in five Brits thinks haggis is "an animal that roams the Highlands", another 18% think it's a Scottish instrument, and 4% think its a character from Harry Potter.

Circuses and More

Like the empty calories of cotton candy, apparently, the haggis story leaves readers hungry for more drivel. Because from "The Hills Are Alive With Haggis", they're unlikely to click on a story about the environmental crisis off the Louisiana coast or the implications of Greek financial crisis. No, says Reuters "after reading this article people will most likely read": "Police barred from penis enlargement", about Indonesian police candidate screening, that even I refuse to link to. Rather that exploring the BSE ban, they'll more likely read: "Circus comes to Turkmenistan again after long ban."

Just like any perilous addiction, it seems that reading banal news leads to reading even more rotten gibberish. Of course, as we've just inadvertently demonstrated, bloggers, once heralded as the saviors of news, are JUST AS PRONE to courting readers with the most scurrilous news they can drum up. But we do try to do better. (This post not included). We try to write about science.

News: Fit To Print or Print to Fit?

Twitter Changes Our Brains:

In "Cut This Story", Michael Kinsley writes that "newspaper articles are too long", whereas internet news stories "get to the point". In 1,809 words Kinsley calls out the vagaries and customs of print journalism, sniping at long articles filled with what he judges useless information. In one 1,456 word The New York Times story, the fluff surrounding the facts about the House Health Care Plan annoys him: "Fewer than half the words in this opening sentence are devoted to saying what happened", says Kinsley. He runs a tally of words he judges wasteful in various news articles: 1,2

"The quote is 11 words, while identifying Miller takes 10"..."Quote: 18 words; identification: 21 words"..."Quote: 16 words; identification, 19 words"..."The first 13 words of the piece with tired rhetoric"..."56 words spent allowing Jesse M. Brill to restate the author's point."

Is it a Twitter induced compulsion, first editing down to 140 characters, then getting stingy about words? As you can see, Kinsley's especially peeved about the use of quotes from experts, which he calls "unnecessary verbiage". He cites a NYT reporter who quotes compensation expert "Jesse M. Brill" -- a "total stranger". Reporters should just state their opinions, he says, instead of running them through proxy "experts", noting we only trust Brill because we trust the reporter, the editor, and the paper. In fact, we should cut out Brill, the "middleman", and other experts.

So then we'd be talk radio for readers?

Journalists tend to disagree with Kinsley. One Columbia Journalism Review writer argues that quotes from experts show a reporter has done their homework. Like Kinsley I have issues with experts, though I disagree with CJR's idealistic interpretation of their implementation. But "experts" serve many purposes, even if papers often deploy them egregiously.

As Kinsley points out, the use of experts often fails to ensure any reporting standard. But experts provide journalists with a dependable structure for stories, that they can file under deadline. Expert quotes in stories also give readers of varying opinions something to latch on to, which guarantees papers more subscriptions. One negative outcome of dependence on experts is that we're left subject to manipulation, experts can be used as tools by papers, lobbyists and politicians. But with careful attention to experts' backgrounds, smart readers can quickly understand the particular slant of the story. All to say that the use of experts doesn't waste newspaper space and it would be simplistic to conclude readers move online because articles are too long.

Balance of Evidence vs. Journalistic Balance

In our area of science and technology, journalists report the science in public policy stories like global warming and bisphenol A safety, with necessary journalistic traditions of "balance", "both sides", and statements from "experts". But most often they fail to relay important keystones to understanding science, like the more important "balance of evidence". For example, the balance of evidence supports global warming, although scientists disagree about some details and likely outcomes.

Furthermore, papers routinely identify policy advocates or lobbyists as "scientists" with dependable expertise because they hold a Ph.D., M.D., or other credential, but pay no heed to experts' affiliations or politics, which often provide the only meaningful information. Lobbyists in the global warming arena appear often in newspaper stories, although an opinion from Exxon-Mobil often doesn't offer credible science, rather an opinion as an "expert" on a certain policy preference.

In any area of science there is always valid disagreement, even when the preponderance of evidence tips to one high-level conclusion. But smaller disagreements don't necessarily make a "side" or provide "balance", except in the world of journalism. Journalistic balance seen through scientists' eyes often fails because it abandons accuracy and amplifies trivial opinions, seemingly on account of an editor who lacks the time or guts to report the balance of evidence.

The Cut-throat Non-buyer's Market

Kinsley writes that attributing journalists' opinions to "experts" is as useless as "legacy code" in software programs. However true that expert opinions sometimes fail to hit the mark, sometimes it's critical to leave legacy code in the program, and if we're using analogies, some introns, "non-coding" or "junk" regions of DNA sequence, turn out to be important. Similarly, in more ways than one, the use of experts quotes is also important.

Like many papers that serve(d) as community anchors, New York Times serves as more than a source of "news" or a collection of facts. Rather, readers see it as a faithful morning companion, a little arts and entertainment, some sports maybe, business. Faithfully, whenever some meme floats around, the Times picks it up and ferrets out an expert somewhere to tell you that yes, what you suspected/heard/rumored/hoped/feared is true. The paper grounds stories with quotes and uses experts of opposing views to give readers choices and validate those choices with authority.

Global warming may wipe out your vacation home, but the NYT won't feed you that news with your morning coffee without some "balance". Can't stand the idea of your seaside resort washing away? Don't worry, the NYT has an expert just for you. The right expert, no matter how unreliable, can soften what would otherwise be scary news. Faux conflict that drives scientists nuts about media coverage, reassures readers and reinforces the status quo.

Also to maintain expectations and satisfy readers, papers sometimes add flourish to stories that say nothing. Kinsley rakes through Times and Post articles about healthcare reform, mocking the "sweeping" this and "hard-fought" that. He chastises one author for including what he judges unnecessary quotes from Republicans who unsurprisingly oppose reform. Funny enough, but what else would the paper tell readers? "Congress struggled for months and ended up with a meaningless bill that won't go anywhere? Wake up and smell the coffee?"

And of course if you're 50% of the population who counts yourself as a Republican, you don't want Kinsley's stripped down version, the "duly reported fact that all but one [Republican] voted against [healthcare reform]". You want the paragraph Kinsley would delete, the one with a Republican citing their talking points on healthcare: "more taxes", "more spending". You're glad to read that a Republican "relentless criticized" the "Democrats' plan", because later in the day, you'll do the same, listeners willing. The NYT can't cut out these bits because it needs to assure whatever conservatives it can cling on to, that it's a good morning in America.

Andrew Cohen, of The Atlantic Monthly also takes exception to Kinsley's assessment of experts. Brill's expertise is valuable, he writes, as is his own (Cohen frequently serves as a legal expert), and "straight news articles should include analysis from experts like Brill" (and him). Speaking as a legal expert he enjoys both being quoted and knowing the politics of other quoted legal experts, his peers. His seems like a defense of the Times as the Facebook for middle-aged lawyers, which reinforces my point. The NYT is a comfortable gathering place where you can feel good about yourself. Republicans may call it a liberal rag, but they still get representation.

Happy readers, even ones with unjostled minds are valuable. There are other sources if readers want to bang their heads against walls with harsh, uninsulated facts, but the NYT needs subscribers.

Years of Magical Thinking

Keeping readers and selling news doesn't necessarily bode well for informed civilian participation, don't get me wrong. Watered-down science, politics, and economics news can obscure or belie urgency and misrepresent the grinding difficulty of policy-making.3 Of course talk-radio and TV networks do far more to manipulate and polarize citizens, and dumb down difficulty, but newspapers contribute to the problem.

The use of experts hit a nadir when the New York Times ran stories detailing WMD evidence used by the US to justify declaring war on Iraq. George W. Bush convinced Congress and a good part of the US population that Iraq had WMDs. The president is an "expert" we trust. The Times and their reporter Judith Miller helped justify the urgency of invasion by quoting other "unanimous government experts and Iraqi sources. High level government authorities in turn quoted the New York Times to wider audiences watching weekend talk shows. Miller's sources turned out to be unreliable, vaporware, if you want to continue with software analogies.

The WMD deception worked because we're practically hard-wired to depend on "experts" who feed us the bottom line on what to watch, wear, think, espouse, etc. The White House manipulated us via the Times, a trusted Times reporter, and some experts. Kinsley is right. The "experts" were merely middleman. But their presence in the story was critical to its persuasive power.

On the other hand, the presence of experts gives us valuable insight, even though readers often ignore it. Like footnotes in research and links in blogs, we can look up experts backgrounds to help us judge the quality of the story. Unfortunately, too few people do.

Rising out of "Comas and Coal Mines"

When Kinsley criticizes newspaper stories "written to accommodate readers who have just emerged from a coma or a coal mine", he ignores scads of fooled readers in our midst.

Maybe readers aren't emerging from in a coma, maybe they're stuck in a media trance. TV feeds people constant advertising about how their clothes will sparkle by switching detergents and how the loves of their lives will materialize if they drive the right car or sip the right cocoa. When fairies flit out of TV's morning cereals, a little bit of the brain pays attention (or atrophies, I'm not sure which), and over time we all start to believe the magic.

We buy lots of stuff because someone tells us it will solve out problems -- we buy and we bolster economies. But also 50% of Americans buy that global warming is a hoax. 50% believe that God created the earth a few thousand years ago. In staid, sensible Massachusetts half of voters believe that a Cosmo centerfold with a head of hair worthy of a Rograine ad will deliver them from their problems. And over 50% of Americans voted for an articulate capable president from Illinois, but now want to fire him because he didn't magical action figure they imagined. "Experts" in church, on TV, and in newspapers, spawn and encourage these beliefs.

The constant onslaught of fairy dust diminishes our attention span (Twitter-mind) and analytical abilities. Newspapers are the least worrisome of culprits. We don't vote for charismatic puffballs who drive pick-ups because of newspapers. But newspaper editors to swath the facts of stories with hoopla and hand waving to snap us out of our media trance, and momentarily hold our attention when, it's true, many people would rather be watching a cat video on YouTube. Too many facts too fast, maybe even the who, what, where, when how, would wreck our mood, so newspapers need to be cautious, need to slip the truth in judiciously.

Readers will turn online for many reasons. But it's not because the news is more concise, as Kinsley suggests, rather, because in addition to being convenient, immediate, and interactive, there's unlimited escapist distraction, and far less news, per glance, than in the Washington Post or New York Times.


(1) As of this week, Kinsley is not longer associated with the online business site to be launched by The Atlantic Monthly

(2) Not necessarily true. Some blog posts are very long, longer than ours. And why should they be short? It costs very little to extend a 2,000 word article into a 10,000 word article.

(3) A few years ago we wrote about the New York Times' weak coverage of former President Thabo Mbeki's policies on AIDS in South Africa. Despite unrelenting illness and death Mbeki denied science, and rejected medicines, while the Times served Americans softball platitudes about Mbeki's thought processes that reflected, rather than criticized, US foreign policy. We've also written extensively about mambypamby coverage of global warming" -- there are many other issues.

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