Friday, October 1, 2010

A string theorists gets his ass handed to him

LuboŇ° Motl is a string theorist who was involved in the infamous "string wars" and a prodigious blogger. I had a debate with him on his blog about the aim of science journalism quite recently. Motl is a avowed conservative (and even more obnoxious than the average), global warming skeptic and champion of string theory. He has recently made a post regarding what he believes should be the role of science journalism in response to a Sean Carrol (also a string theorist and blogger) post. That post argued (in support of Ed Yong's article) that journalist should take an active role towards seeking scientific truth. Their goal, like the scientists they report on, should be to seek truth instead of just reporting whatever the scientists say.

Motl's response was overacting and ridiculous arguing that since journalists are too incompetent and lacking in resources to take sides in scientific disputes, they should just report whatever they are told. He relies on some pretty idiotic reasons for this claim such as anecdotal evidence of journalistic incompetence and the supposed intellectual limitations of journalists (based on a website which "converts" GRE scores to IQs). Of course, I agree with his low opinion of journalists' competency in their work but that obviously is not the issue. The issue is what should be the goal of science journalism and whether or not journalists at least have the capability to do that job (not whether most or the average can do it).

Motl doesn't seem to understand the basic mistake he is making: he assumes that all sides can be represented. The fact is that media space is a finite resource, limited by financial, energy, labor resources among journalists and public attention span, education and other cognitive resources in the public and that there is no way to represent all views due to these limitations. Some views will have to be left behind and not reported. Some views will be represented more than others and given more credibility. There's no way to avoid this. Journalists have a duty to only report those sources that are credible enough to warrant attention and give representative coverage and give credibility where its due. The only way to do that is by investigating the different sides of the story and gauging the plausibility of the sides with the available evidence. I responded with my views to his blog. Not surprisingly, Motl responds with the same irrational gibberish bordering on hysteria as usual. You can read the dialog here in the comments section.

I responded to his unfounded rants (replete with strawperson arguments and other fallacies) but he has not posted the responses. I'm not surprised as my responses completely demolishes his naive, and I would argue, fascist and extremely dangerous view of journalism. But since I have saved my responses all my posts are shown below including the ones he does not wish to display on his blog.

Nan said:
I'd never thought I defend a journalist but those advocates of truth-seeking in science journalism should be defended here. Granted, most science journalists are morons and consistently get the facts wrong or misleads the public.

On the other hand, your examples are in general, not appropriate. Of course the vast majority of journalists cannot decide the scientific merits of string theory and other complex problems. But there certainly are many kinds of issues they are or at least should be qualified to judge. Instances of scientific bias, of junk science or bad science which goes against a consensus, or instances of widely accepted misinterpretations of science, etc. That's what seems to be the kind of advocacy of a truth directed approach to science journalism Carrol is suggesting.

Not all science is good science and some are obviously bad science and a competent journalist (or even laymen) should be able to expose it as such. Cranks working at the margins of science often do so with obvious ulterior motivations or other bad reasons reasons even when they happen to be scientists. Financial, political, religious, psychological factors impact scientific integrity because scientists are also humans. A competent journalist should be able to discover many instances of scientific misconduct or bias or incompetence using the resources available to him or her.

So while controversial instances within science regarding complex matters are often outside of the scope of the resources available to journalists to make substantive criticisms and take informed sides, that's not always the case. In fact, a journalists most important job in scientific reporting may be to find the cases where there is relatively obvious bias/incompetence or the misreporting and common misconception regarding some scientific area and taking a stand. This can be done by reporting the landscape of current research in that area and offering the audience the reasons why a particular incorrect view is rejected (ID theory?). They do this with a goal towards truth. They do this with the *help* of the scientific community, by standing on the shoulders of giants, they have the resources to find the truth in many cases especially in the cases of exposing junk, biased, incompetent or misconstrued science. Many issues especially in medical or social science can be evaluated on their scientific merits using resources available to almost anyone.

Nobody is saying that journalists should do experiments etc to settle scientific controversies, including, I think, Carrol. Just that the journalist should be motivated and actively seek to find the truth, not just agree and report whatever he or she is told.

On the IQ issue of journalists, it's their educational resources that should be the issue, not their IQs.

Though I think it ironic that some of the least qualified people are the very people doing this terribly important job of bringing us the news, that doesn't mar the normative claim of Carrol and Yong that journalists *should* get the qualifications to do minimal scientific investigation and evaluation of the available data. Yes, most journalists are probably scientifically illiterate and innumerate but that is due to their lack of training in those areas. There is room for improvement there.

Besides, the data you used is from a website which uses combined GRE verbal and quantitative subtest scores. Adding raw scores like that is not very accurate to gauge intelligence simply for the fact (among others) that the two subtest are normed differently. A 700 verbal means something very different from a 700 quantitative. Due to where that norming falls on the GRE's subtests, liberal arts majors are at a decided disadvantage. You could even make a case that the verbal section is even more g-loaded than the quantitative section (because of the analogies section). Thus a deviational comparison is probably more appropriate. I once did such a comparison adding the z scores for fun and got something like

1. Physics majors
2. philosophy majors
3. math majors
4. comp science majors.
5. mechanical engineering majors

Also, be aware that the data is for those who take the GRE test, not those who have gotten their respective grad degrees. Many don't make it into grad school because they weren't accepted, etc. Many of the humanities grad departments are much more selective than the science and engineering departments (due to a lack of funding for liberal arts) in potential applicants.

Motl said:
NChen, our basic moral principles and our understandings of what is the truth and how it may be looked for are so dramatically incompatible that I don't think it's possible that we will ever agree on anything.

Hi Lubos,

I wouldn't say that they are moral principles that are at issue here; more like epistemic ones.

Motl said:
What does the consensus have to do with science or the truth? The journalists have no business to uncritically parrot a "consensus" or the official opinions of some institutions.

The consensus opinion of the scientific community is what the community considers to be true (and I think with good reason). Opinions that fall outside usually do so due to bias, incompetence, etc. Of course, that's not always the case and small minority views sometimes win out in the end and are eventually proven correct over the consensus but that is very rare.

Motl said:
The media overtaken by official institutions haven't led to anything good in the past. The tight Catholic Church's control over the communication 500 years ago or so delayed the scientific revolution by a century if not more so.

I'd probably agree with that and I never advocated for such “official institutions” to oversee either science or journalism. That would obviously be a bad idea.

Motl said:
In the modern Western society, the very kind of censorship of the scientific journalism that you have advocated has led to the support of the scientifically nonsensical hysterical waves about overpopulation, global warming, climate change, global climate disruption, and many other things that the institutions (and their mindless supporters) use to justify their thirst for more power.

What?! I never advocated censorship of anything. I advocated that journalist should

1. be more competent in science and 2. should seek the truth as opposed to just blindly report what people say. I think they have the resources to do that in many cases even in science though not in all cases. I think you have completely misunderstood my post.

Motl said:
These are no "unfortunate exceptions" in a system that otherwise work. These devastating and destructive pressures on science are pretty much the rule that follows from the dishonest standards for the science media that you defend - the framework in which you want to downgrade the journalists to uncritical parrots repeating and improving news according to the consensus of the most aggressive political movement of their era.

I think you've completely misunderstood my post. In fact, you seem to understand it in ways that are even opposite of what I intended. I think you've also misunderstood Carrol's views as well.

Motl said:
They don't have a clue about inflation, string theory, but they don't know much about the origin of species or healthy food, either. Any attempt to report something else than what the average readers would report (or find relevant) assuming their access to the same data is guaranteed to be a distortion in the longer run.

This is a blanket statement and false for all journalists. There are many science journalists who do know a thing or two about science. I simply said that all journalists should be scientifically literate and should seek the truth with what is available to them. But you seem to be against that and want them to parrot whatever is told them. I'm not sure how just by seeking the truth is making oneself an "activist".

Motl said:
You wrote: "Nobody is saying that journalists should do experiments etc to settle scientific controversies, including, I think, Carrol." Well, I surely am. Anyone who wants to "settle" empirical controversies has to do experiments (or careful theoretical work). That's my main point. If he doesn't do it, he simply cannot ever settle any controversies. Journalists can do experiments for free in their free time.

Surely you are not. Journalists cannot do those experiment because they will never have the training or equipment. But of course he can settle controversies. If a bunch of crank scientists say, e.g., that the LHC will produce small black holes which will destroy the earth and thus we should not fund such a project, a journalist does not have to do any experiments to find out the truth for him or herself. It's already there, been done. The consensus view among physicists (though I'm not a physicist but I do know that most will give you excellent reasons for why this view is absurd) is that the LHC will not cause any such disaster. Such an event is beyond what the science tells us is capable of happening. A journalist can and should find that out for himself and report it to the public why such doomsday worries are unfounded.

As for the GRE scores, all I did was subtract the respective scores of the majors from the mean and divide by the standard deviation to get the z-scores. I added the z-scores to get an additive z-score and compared them. A 700 on the verbal is far more impressive than a 700 on the quantitative subtest. It would be in the 97th percentile while a 700 on the quantitative is only in the 72nd percentile. But if you add the raw scores from the two subtests, a 700 is just a 700, no matter which subtest you get it from.

Motl said:
sorry, it's both an epistemic and moral gap that I see in between us. If someone is deliberately hiding some data that the other person would consider relevant, because of his position determined by a majority of a group or because of any other reason, then he is manipulating him, and I think it is a moral and not just epistemic defect to fool others.

That may be so but I have never advocated for “deliberately hiding data that the other person would consider relevant, because of his position determined by a majority of a group or because of any other reason”. I have no idea where you are getting this from. Maybe you have confused me with some other poster?

Motl said:
Not at all. If someone is a legitimate member of the scientific community, i.e. a scientist, then he is totally well aware of the fact that the scientific truth has nothing whatsoever to do with some majorities in polls. The scientific truth is completely independent of the humans, and if humans can get close to it, they get close to it by the amount, strength, relevance, and accuracy of the scientific arguments, not by forcing majorities to subscribe to something.

I think you have managed to say this one thing correctly. I agree that the scientific truth is “completely independent of humans.” But this has nothing whatsoever to do with what I and what Carrol and what Yong was advocating. So I think you have misunderstood what our claims are.

Motl said:
What you say may be true for political parties or advocacy groups but it is simply not true for the scientific community.

It's true of all the things above. I really think that (perhaps because of your English skills) that you have misread just about everything I mean to say. Though I think I have expressed clearly what I meant, I hope this post makes things clearer. You claim that I “advocate censorship of the statements, opinions, and findings that contradict the "scientific consensus".” Wrong. Can you quote where I alegedly said this? I simply said that the consensus is usually correct and for good reasons. I also said that that was sometimes not the case. The job of journalists should be to report why the consensus feels the way it does and why some contrary view is wrong. In other words, the journalists must give a representative overview based on where the evidence already falls. Their reporting must reflect what scientists actually say and not give obvious cranks for more than their fair share of publicity and credibility. They can only do this with a goal towards the truth. It seems that it is you that is advocating for a blind, and wholly unethical journalistic standard without such a goal. To say that journalists should only blindly accept and report whatever they are told is ridiculous and dangerous. It is fascism.

Blind acceptance by the ignorant journalistic masses is why there is so much public confusion these days regarding things like evolution. People think that the theory of evolution is controversial (“just a theory” meaning just an opinion) in biology when it is not. That's because journalist give cranks more than their fair share of time and credibility without looking into why mainstream biologists have rejected ID or creationists pseudoscience. No fair and accurate overview of the evidence for and against evolution is given, just blind testimony from whomever with a say in the matter.

On your advice, quackery like ID and creationism would be taught in schools along with the theory of eviolution. That's very dangerous and unethical. You are being agnostic about truth. I am being a realist. Journalists do have the capability, once they have been trained and scrutinized enough by the general public, experts, and their colleagues, to do competent reporting of science. They shouldn't just report whatever they are told.

Perhaps you will do better by reading more carefully what I have written or by asking someone (that learned English as a first language) what I meant.