Friday, February 13, 2015

A snapshot of the left-right fight over science

At The Federalist, David Harsanyi has a list: "Here Are The ‘Science’ Questions Reporters Should Ask Politicians." The piece is in keeping with a theme voiced by many conservatives that the recent questioning of Scott Walker about evolution was tendentious "gotcha" journalism (which it was), and that liberal/progressive journalists and politicians who hector the right about science are often ill-informed about science themselves (which is true).

I've written (a lot) about skewed science on left and right, and concluded provisionally that there's plenty wrong with the left on this score and--at the present time--even more wrong with the right. To glean some of both side's deficiencies, I recommend scrolling through recent tweets by Harsanyi's Federalist colleague Sean M. Davis, who responded to journalists' derision of Walker by pressing them about what they know about punctuated equilibrium and other topics involving evolution. Fair enough--but: Davis's amusing screed also included some statements that are misleading at best:
Me: Macroevolution is commonly defined as evolution at or above the species level, and there is debate about questions such as whether the mechanisms of microevolution (change within species) are sufficient by themselves to account for change of one species to another, and the relative importance of the mechanisms. Complicated, certainly. Controversial? Only if one means the details of how macroevolution happens. That it happens--more specifically, that  new species arise from earlier ones-- is not controversial within the scientific community. At all. Davis's implication that there is some raging scientific debate about the existence of speciation is false. Plus, using the distinction between micro- and macroevolution spuriously is a tactic from the creationist playbook.

Me:  I never went to j-school, but I have written about both the multiverse and evolution on many occasions. And to the best of my knowledge, Davis's claim here, that multiverse theories developed because of problems with Darwinian gradualism, is false. I say "to the best of my knowledge" because there's no way to rule out that some scientist somewhere may have thought along such lines, but if so that certainly was not typical of how ideas about the multiverse arose.

In saying this, let me make clear that I think one motivation--among others--for receptiveness to the multiverse (the idea that there are many universes) was to bat away a particular strand of thinking that the laws of physics give evidence of an intelligent "fine tuning." There were other and I suspect more important motivations, particularly that theories of cosmic inflation (and also cosmological natural selection) inherently imply that the creation of new universes would happen more than once; there's no clear reason why the needed conditions wouldn't happen again and again.

But even agreeing (as I do) that some scientists like the idea of a multiverse because it weakens certain claims for design, let me be clear that the claims in question are not those of Darwinian gradualism but rather those of fine-tuning (e.g., that life could not have evolved if say the strength of gravity or mass of the proton were slightly different). Importantly, the more fine-tuning in physics you have, the less reason you have to doubt that biological evolution would occur. Fine-tuning means a life-friendly universe, whereas standard creationist/Intelligent Design arguments against evolution rely, implicitly or explicitly, on the idea that the universe is not life-friendly enough for biological evolution to occur. If you're someone who (a) wants evolution to be true and (b) is worried that gradualism is improbable, positing a multiverse is at best a change in subject.

Sean M. Davis's statements about macroevolution being controversial, and about the multiverse being a response to Darwinian gradualism's improbability, suggest a weak grasp of evolution and cosmology alike, and that his perspectives on these matters are heavily influenced by creationist/Intelligent Design critiques from far outside the scientific mainstream.

Now, as I mentioned at the outset, David Harsanyi has a list of questions for politicians. Their import, I think, is that Democratic politicians will stumble over these, out of ignorance and/or a desire to not offend the liberal base by stating scientific facts that the base doesn't know or doesn't want to accept. But if the point is to denounce tendentious questions by giving examples of some, Harsanyi certainly has done so. For example:

Is nuclear power the safest energy in the world? According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, around 70 percent of scientists support nuclear power development because it is. Yet large number of liberals oppose and stand in the way of science.
Me: No. The linked poll asks whether scientists support nuclear power, not whether it's the "safest" source of energy. It would be difficult to make a scientific case that nuclear is "safest" compared to say solar or windpower (birds notwithstanding), but far more plausible to say that nuclear is or with proper regulation can be a good idea, given its risks and benefits.

The Harsanyi list is filled with questions that make little sense. Do you believe carbon dioxide is detrimental to human existence? fails to acknowledge the obvious distinction between something being detrimental in a general, let alone absolute, sense and something being detrimental at certain levels or in certain ways; it also blurs whether something is detrimental in a direct way or indirectly. But I am not entirely clear whether Harsanyi thinks Democratic politicians would stumble because these questions are so probing or because the questions are so dumb (or both). I find the questions more dumb than probing.

I'm all for pointing out when liberal/progressive/Democratic pundits and politicians purport to be "sciencey" without foundation. But in doing so, conservative writers should have a firmer grasp of the subjects they're talking about than is evident in the Harsanyi/Davis responses to the Walker kerfluffle.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Advice on (not) being a journalist

In an excellent post at Bloomberg View, journalist Megan McArdle offers some career advice, under the paradoxical headline: "You Want Advice? Don't Ask Journalists." She comes down largely on Felix Salmon's dour side versus Ezra Klein's upbeat one in a debate over whether young people today should go into journalism. McArdle:
So when kids who are passionate about writing ask me how they can get a job doing this thing that they love, I don't tell them to follow their bliss; I tell them there are a lot of things they can love. I loved building computer networks. I loved business school. This is a fantastic job, and believe me, I count my lucky stars every day that I have it. But there are a lot of fascinating things in the world. Go get a job doing something in an industry that is not struggling so hard to get people to pay for their products. 
And if you find, in the end, that you have to write, you will be a better writer for actually knowing something about an industry other than the production and consumption of white papers. One of the biggest weaknesses of modern journalism, and modern politics, is that none of the people in them have any idea what it is like to work for a regular company. Organizations are very different from the inside than the outside, in ways that are not obvious to you until you've lived through a couple of executive bloodlettings and experienced the high-stakes tedium of the annual budget process. If you want to report on the military or global development or poverty programs or health care, go work for that industry and come back with some actual knowledge that you did not gain from earnestly asking insiders how they do their jobs. You'll not only be a better reporter, but you'll also have something to fall back on if your outlet folds.
Me: I could not agree more with the above. In fact, even before journalism's plague of financial difficulties in the past decade, it would have been good advice to spend at least some time immersing yourself in some industry or field other than journalism, so as to develop expertise that, besides its own merits, would also improve any journalism you might do at some point in writing about that area.

Not that being an expert outside of journalism is any guarantee against producing awful journalism even about one's area of expertise. I was genuinely shocked the other day by another Bloomberg View post, this one by economist Noah Smith, that went on at length based on a confusion of "billion" with "trillion" and thus made hash out of what could have been a cogent critique of something Rand Paul had said about the Fed. Smith's piece, now minus the Emily Litella paragraphs, is here.

As I wrote recently, I've been working lately on expanding my knowledge of math. One reason for this is that I want to be able to write more capably about math-related topics and about math itself, a vast field that in my view deserves more and better journalistic coverage than it tends to get. If I were giving advice to a young person considering a journalism career, I would include a suggestion that he or she get exposure to some technical subjects, and so know something journalism types don't tend to know.