Journalists and Rocket Scientists

In 1920, Robert Goddard was conducting experiments with rockets. In an editorial, The New York Times sneered at Goddard’s work and particularly at the idea that a rocket could function in a vacuum:

That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react – to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.

In 1969…the year of the Apollo moon mission…the NYT finally got around to issuing a correction for their 1920 mistake.

What is noteworthy about the original editorial is not just the ignorance, but the arrogance and the outright nastiness. As the AstronauticsNow post points out, “The enlightened newspaper not only ridiculed the idea that rocket propulsion would work in vacuum but it questioned the integrity and professionalism of Goddard.” The post goes on to say that “The sensationalism and merciless attack by the New York Times and other newspapers left a profound impression on Robert Goddard who became secretive about his work (to detriment of development of rocketry in the United States)…”

It appears that some of the attributes of the NYT which make it so untrustworthy and unlovable today are actually cultural characteristics of long standing.

Worth keeping in mind when reading NYT analyses of Climategate.

26 thoughts on “Journalists and Rocket Scientists”

  1. Powerline has a hilarious post today about the NYT’s credibility:

    “… Rasmussen surveyed likely voters with respect to two pundits, Paul Krugman and John Fund. He found, not surprisingly, that neither is well known to the general public. Krugman scores exactly even, 22 percent favorable and 22 percent unfavorable, with 55 percent knowing nothing about him. Of those who know who Krugman is, 4 percent view him “very favorably” and 6 percent “very unfavorably.” Fund is even less well known; his favorables/unfavorables are 12/22. (My guess is that most of those 22 percent either had Fund confused with someone else or were just reacting to the sound of his name.)

    Here’s the interesting part: in a separate survey, when Krugman was identified as “New York Times columnist Paul Krugman,” his numbers plummeted to 25 percent favorable and 37 percent unfavorable. Moreover, his “very unfavorable” percentage more than tripled to 20 percent. On the other hand, when Fund was identified as a Wall Street Journal columnist, the opposite happened: his favorable/unfavorable percentages flipped to 34/20. All of which suggests that the public has pretty well caught on to the Times, which, as Rasmussen notes, was viewed favorably by only 24 percent in a 2008 survey …”

  2. It’s a pretty standard complaint – in some quarters – that the anonymity of the internet breeds incivility. Reading articles and commentary from the past sort of disproves that thesis, imo. I mean, we may be more rude, these days, but I don’t see why the rudeness is not a function of cruder societal standards brought onto the net, rather than the net making everyone so very cruel and awful. Or, it’s a combination of the two….

  3. “It’s a pretty standard complaint – in some quarters – that the anonymity of the internet breeds incivility. ”

    if only harry reid was just a loon in his pjs

  4. Goddard’s PhD probably didn’t meet the Times’ standards. California always checks credentials carefully especially if the holder of the PhD is writing regulations that can cripple an industry.

    Members of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) have taken to the media to request that the board suspend the truck rule, which would require exhaust filter retrofits and engine upgrades starting in 2011 and the replacement of pre-2010 model engines between 2012 to 2022.

    CARB members Ron Roberts and Dr. John Telles allege that CARB had tried to cover up that the lead scientist and coordinator of the research used to justify the new emissions rules, had lied about holding a Ph.D. in statistics.

    Hien T. Tran’s Ph.D. was the mail-order version, according to local media reports, and senior CARB officials were aware that his falsified credentials before voting on the truck retrofit legislation.

    California, leading the nation again.

  5. I’m reading an interesting book on knowledge and this quote seem appropriate to this story:

    “Dogmatism…in the present age as in former times, is the greatest of the mental obstacles to human happiness.” Lord Russell

    The “herd” is in complete control these days, and the NYTs is leading the way. George Patton said, “If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking.” Would submit that many don’t even bother; because thinking require effort. We celebrate celebrity over the cerebral…and have for much too long.

  6. Concerning the quote about goddard, I remember that quote from a documentary I saw on Von Braun on the history channel. The first portion was all about goddard and his work, and then later Von Braun was asked about rocketry and said something like “I just did what goddard did and made it bigger.” (of course that is a horrible paraphrase.)

    It’s a travesty that he’s not a household name.

    As for incivility, I would agree with onparkstreets is correct and incorrect.

    In life, in the right environment I can toss out some of the most vulgar language and phrases you ever heard, but I only do that within the presence of people who aren’t offended by such language. If someone outside of that group that isn’t offended by that humor or that crass honesty, I don’t do it.

    You don’t have that option on the net, so selective grouping, is replaced with annonymity since anyone named kilgore trout can eavesdrop on a conversation held by a select group because there is no such thing as a select group in most places. Many sites with comments open allows for anonymity to allow for it, just so that that select grouping isn’t harmed by some scumbag snitch sneaking in and spying on what is a good hearted “roast” style exchange of humor.

  7. “You don’t have that option on the net, so selective grouping, is replaced with anonymity”

    I agree with both onparkstreet and douglas.

    I just wonder where we draw the line when we refer to the net and life as separated instances of ourselves. When are living “life”? Why is the net not “life”?

  8. The Solution Is Simple – Dunning-Kruger Effect

    Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill, and do not recognize their true inadequacy. Thay fail to recognize genuine skill in others.

    The unskilled overrate their own ability as above average. The highly-skilled underrate their abilities, often below the self-rating of the unskilled.

    Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, because competent individuals wrongly assume that others are also competent. The incompetent misjudges himself, whereas the highly competent misjudges others.
    – –
    Bertrand Russell:
    The stupid are cocksure, and the intelligent are full of doubt.
    Most people would rather die than think. In fact, they do so.

  9. The issue of competent people judging newspapers brings up the Murray Gell Mann Amnesia effect.

    “Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

    — Michael Crichton

  10. So, a long time ago, a newspaper was imprudent, foolish even, in its analysis of a technical issue. Fair enough, I thought. Happens all the time. But as I read on, I learned that the message I was intended to get from this little tidbit is not that people are imperfect but that the imperfection of group of people mostly long dead should redound on exclusively on one group of people, those that happen to work for the same company as those who made the mistake, 89 years ago.

    What an interesting choice.

    Seems to me one might have also chose to highlight that people that don’t know what they are talking about have never been shy about talking, despite their manifest ignorance and that this trait of humanity is pervasive and not particular to folks working in a particular building.

    But the analysis that was offered, and most of the cheer leading seen in the comments above, made me think of another generality of humans: they tend to see what they want to see.

  11. The NYT hasn’t learned anything in 89 years-they are more arrogant than ever show, and their judgment of what news is pretty pathetic. The mystery is you never know on what page,if any,the front page story will appear.

  12. PeteC…

    1)There *is* such a thing as institutional culture. If an organization is extremely arrogant in year N, the odds are pretty good that it will also be extremely arrogant in year N+1.

    2)High-prestige organizations that have been around for a long time, such as the NYT, tend to believe that people should show them respect because of their past accomplishments. If past accomplishments should be entered on the positive side of the current ledger, then it is reasonable to enter past failures on the negative side.

    3)There are plenty of errors & omission’s in *current* NYT coverage, as regularly pointed out in various blogs.

  13. Pete Copeland would make a good point if it weren’t for the fact that the spirit of Walter Duranty is alive and well in the newsrooms of the New York Times. Indeed, the people there now are so similar in ethics and in political persuasion that last I checked they were still claiming Duranty’s Pulitzer for whitewashing the communist genocide under Stalin. They screen their employees for ideology before letting them write anything. Since the ideology they promote is a failed one by any objective standard they tend to employ people who are not very bright or competent and who cannot think in a critical manner.

    None of this is surprising. The New York Times has always been a partisan, tabloid rag. It is just that no one could prove it until the internet came of age. Now everyone wants to get their revenge for being lied to for so many years. That too is human nature.

  14. Cultures perpetuate themselves unless forcibly disintegrated. Until quite recently, the New York Times was a stellar success as a business, which means that its leaders get to perpetuate their own values and perspectives by choosing their successors. Its only when things go wrong that a business looks for new leadership or is acquired by another institution whose then imposes its own culture.

    Normally, arrogance of the kind that typifies the Times, would be highly destructive, but operating in a information monopoly as long as it has, there was simply no way to know whether they were talking out of their asses or not. In Goddard’s case, the very esoteric nature of his work made him vulnerable to the hacks at the Times.

    That was then, this is now. The Times is a dinosaur and the only realistic course is to dismember the business and sell off its assets–the most valuable of which, paradoxically, is the name.

  15. There is an attitude that if a mental, social and moral inferior has the ignorant gall to intrude among his betters, of course he should be peremptorily squelched; such squelching is one of the prerogatives or duties that come with superiority.

    That such an attitude poisons objective discussion is immaterial to the self-styled squelcher. It is “known” which topics are worthy of serious discussion and which are irrelevant or crackpot.

    Reinforcement of that superior attitude is part of the product that the NYT et al sell.

  16. Well,they can’t be called the Newspaper of Record anymore-their niche would be as an American “Guardian”. There should be enough KoolAde drinkers to support that.

  17. Perhaps worst of all, the NYT assertion promoted a falsehood that lasted for decades.

    Back circa 1973 a friend of mine related a discussion with a man he met on his summer job.

    The guy said that rockets could never exceed the speed of light because they could not get going fast enough while in the atmosphere when they had something for the exhaust to push against without at first burning up due to air friction.

    This was in 1973. We landed men on the Moon in 1969.

    So the idea put forth by the NYT literally outlasted the Apollo program. And so it will be with Global Warming. The gullible and ignorant will believe it long after it is disproven

  18. Pete, it isn’t just that they “made a mistake on a technical issue”. What they did, in effect was tantamount to arguing that 2 + 2 = 5, and then sneering at an accomplished mathematician who says it doesn’t. It was, as an anonymous poster above says, evidence of the institutional culture which later produced and published Walter Duranty.

    Further, the NYT editorial pretty much killed Goddard’s funding. Imagine what he could have done if he had had a team like von Braun’s behind him.

  19. As an anthropology major I can say that there is definitely such a thing as institutional culture, even to the extent expressed as, “You can always tell a Stanford man, but you can’t tell ’em much.” They exist, and even reproduce.

  20. Hey,

    I didn’t mean there isn’t such a thing as institutional culture. No, just that the institution in this case is better termed “Journalism” and not the NYT. Particularly when it comes to the discussion of science. The original post and many subsequent comments seem to single out the NYT but it’s not the WSJ that has had a weekly Science section, which has done a commendable job in fostering an interest in things scientific.

    Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines but the flavor of the OP seems to me to be that the NYT made a big mistake a long time ago, the NYT is today a liberal paper, therefore, don’t trust liberals cause they can’t get there facts straight (well, at least not 89 years ago). OK, but the further implications seems to be that folks who aren’t the NYT (i.e., non-liberals) really can be trusted. If you want, I can give you pretty a detailed discussion of the horrible scholarship found in one of George Will’s columns a few years ago in which he argued that scientists don’t know what they are doing. He doesn’t have a PhD in geoscience; I do. I can tell you the many ways in which he was wrong about basics and misrepresented the record. Based on the logic of the OP, conservatives can’t be trusted.

    Institutional culture is a real thing but the particular manifestation we need to be concerned about here is the culture of folks who decided to be journalism majors in school, and therefore stayed away from really learning about science and technology but now think they are ready to portray the ideas and accomplishments of science to the general public. It happens at least as often at FOX News as it does at the NYT.

  21. oh, and another thing: If you want to point out the shortcomings of any institution, it’s a pretty cheap shot to go back 89 years. How can the folks at NYT defend against stuff that happened long before they were born?

    Do you want to be responsible for every stupid thing your grandfather ever said?

    If you want to show the world what kind of bozos they have at the NYT, concentrate on today’s bozos.

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