Outblogging the MSM

I belong to an internet group called the UCF, who started out as members of John Scalzi’s Wateveresque forum until an army of trolls came in and set up residence in that once-fine space. We gradually retreated to our own blogs and set up an online community for ourselves. Most of us are aspiring writers, all of us are science fiction fans, and we’re all a little goofy, but that’s about where the similarity ends. We run the political spectrum from socialist to me. There is a lawyer, a film and TV location manager, an administrative assistant at JPL, and editor for Linux Journal, several other IT professionals of various stripes, an architect, a marine biologist, and a former Navy Chief Warrant turned writer and woodworker, among others (oh yeah, and me, a chemist). Over time, I’ve come to regard all of them as friends, although I’ve only met two of them in meatspace.

We are the future of the internet: a self-selecting band spread over tremendous geography (from the UK to Pakistan) brought together by common interests, kept together by good will, who gradually developed our own bozo filter for the net. And we have one other quality in common: we don’t suffer fools gladly.

As evidence of this, one of our number has a regular feature on her blog called “’Tard of the Week”.  A while back, she brought my attention forcibly to the lawsuit against the Large Hadron Collider, the existence of which (the lawsuit not the collider) I had been blissfully ignorant. Her “’tard” was one “Dr.” Walter Wagner , and his idiocy upset me enough that I did a little digging into “Dr” Wagner. This resulted in a blog post called “Mixed Nuts”. I pointed out various irregularities in his claims of qualifications, and I suggest you read that piece before reading further in this one.

Wagner hisveryownself came by and dropped some snark. I dropped it right back, with the intent of “luring the tiger from the mountains” – getting him to make some outrageous claims about his background that I could point future defendants in his lawsuits to. I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. He made claims that upset a large number of my friends in the UCF, crossing from my area of expertise (academic and industrial science) into theirs: from radiation safety (Wagner claims a stint as the guy who checks the film badges at the X-ray department of a VA hospital makes him qualified to talk about LHC safety, and our Chief Warrant, also a military-qualified RSO, begs to differ) to law (our Public Defender differs quite forcefully with Wagner on whether holding a JD entitles one to call oneself “Dr.”). There are 102 comments on that post, but our resident marine biologist made a yeoman’s job of summarizing the sheer, incomprehensible stupid of it all. All I did was drop some more snark.

One thing even senior officers in the Navy fear to do is upset a Warrant. Wagner apparently does not have the sense of self-preservation that even echelons above reality do. Jim did a really nice job of looking at the psychology of “Dr.” Wagner, a beautiful piece that starts off with a naked guy running across a military airfield in Iceland and ends with questioning Wagner’s physics. Go on, go read it, I’ll still be here when you get back.

Eric, our Public Defender, however, was not one to rest on Jim’s laurels, and he kept digging. And digging. And eventually our friend Google brought the coup de grace. But there’s more. And Eric used it all to drop the hydrogen bomb on Wagner. If you haven’t read any other link in my post, go read Eric’s. Like Jim’s, that post is a thing of beauty. It shows just what a group of people with determination and complimentary skills can accomplish. It’s been linked by anti-crackpot sites, and Jim’s even been invited to write this whole mess up for a popular science publication. The UCF doesn’t suffer fools gladly, especially fools who waste our tax money and motivate death threats to Nobel laureates.

What floored us, though, is that, despite the extensive coverage over Wagner’s lawsuit in the press, no one had compiled all this information on Wagner. Where in the hell has investigative journalism gone, we wondered.

Now, when I Googled this mess after reading Janiece’s blog, it took me all of one search to come up with the actual court document that contains Wager’s claims about himself:

1.    I am a nuclear physicist with extensive training in the field.  I obtained my undergraduate degree in 1972 at Berkeley, California in the biological sciences with a physics minor, and graduate degree in 1978 in Sacramento, California in law.

He also claims to be a “Dr.” in every venue he can get on that won’t challenge him, such as Blogtalk Radio .

Does no one check sources anymore? Now I’m not going to beat on Jazz Shaw too badly for not verifying Wagner’s bona fides, but only because he is a subliterate moron who fulfills the MSM stereotype of the blogger who does not have the professional training to check his sources.

But surely the plethora of MSM stories did something to help deflate the ego of a man who claims to be a published scientist because he once wrote a letter to the editor to Scientific American. Right? Not really:

The exact same AP story was carried by both the USA Today and CNN:

One of the plaintiffs, Walter L. Wagner, a physicist and lawyer, said Wednesday CERN’s safety report, released June 20, “has several major flaws,” and his views on the risks of using the particle accelerator had not changed.

If you read Eric’s post, we’re not even sure he’s really a lawyer, and he sure as hell ain’t a physicist by any normal human being’s definition of the term.

But surely the Brits still do a better job at checking sources than those uncouth Americans:

Meanwhile Dr Walter Wagner, an American scientist who has been warning about the dangers of particle accelerators for 20 years, is awaiting a ruling on a lawsuit he filed a fortnight ago in his home state of Hawaii.

Nope. Daily Mail: epic fail.

Fox News? We report “facts” so loose you can’t decide:

That hasn’t stopped several people, including a former nuclear engineer from Hawaii and a German biochemist, from speaking out against the project.

Nuclear Engineer? Where the hell did that come from?

MSNBC?: another fail.

But the plaintiffs in the federal civil case – retired nuclear safety officer Walter Wagner and Spanish science writer Luis Sancho – voiced fears that the machine could create black holes or bits of exotic matter capable of destroying the earth.

Using the word “nuclear” puts Wagner one step closer to claiming “nuclear” physics as a specialty. The proper title is Radiation Safety Officer”.

But surely the Gray Lady gets it right? Right? Say it ain’t so, Joe:

Mr. Wagner, who lives on the Big Island of Hawaii, studied physics and did cosmic ray research at the University of California, Berkeley, and received a doctorate in law from what is now known as the University of Northern California in Sacramento. He subsequently worked as a radiation safety officer for the Veterans Administration.

Every undergrad with a science degree “studied physics” at one point in their college career. A minor does not a physicist make.  The whole cosmic ray thing is another red herring – he was a lab tech (who was merely thanked in the acknowledgments of a paper, and manifestly never was an author of a paper, as one would expect someone who “did cosmic ray research” to be) in a lab that once found [1] an anomalous particle, which he insists was definitely determined to be a magnetic monopole despite the retraction[2] 3 years later. And a JD is not really a “doctorate” in law, the Ph.D. is. At least they get radiation safety officer right.

But this one, this one really chaps my rear end. National Freaking Geographic:

Luis Sancho and Walter L. Wagner, independent astrophysicists in Hawaii, petitioned the U.S. District Court in Honolulu, Hawaii last spring to stop the progress of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

Pardon my French, but just WTF is an “independent astrophysicist”? Furthermore, just where did astrophysicist come from? Wagner’s gone from nuclear physics to astrophysics? This one gets me the most because of the byline. The author, one Anne Minard , claims to hold a Master’s in Biology.   I’d like to think that training in the sciences leads one to a) have a bit of a BS detector about science credentials, and b) makes you more apt than the average J-school grad to check sources. Sadly for Ms. Minard, no. I realize her editor may have had a hand in that, but she put her name on the byline. Both she and her editor owe society at large an apology and a retraction of that statement.

I have stated more than once that every single time I’ve been privy to information about a news story, the MSM has gotten some fundamental detail wrong. Now I have yet another datapoint. Long live the blogosphere, and long live my UCF, doing the job we pay the fourth estate to do.

[1] P. B. Price; E. K. Shirk; W. Z. Osborne; L. S. Pinsky (1975-08-25). “Evidence for Detection of a Moving Magnetic Monopole”. Physical Review Letters 35 (8): 487-490. American Physical Society.

[2] Price, P. B.; Shir, E. K.; Osborne, W. Z.; and Pinsky L. S. Further measurements and reassessment of the magnetic-monopole candidate Phys. Rev. D 18, 1382 – 1421 (1978)

23 thoughts on “Outblogging the MSM”

  1. (1) Historically, journalist are lazy. They grew their aura of omniscience by virtue of being the only people with access to the large physical infrastructure needed to disseminate information in the pre-internet era. No one else could gainsay them in the public arena so they just got used winging it without consequence. If they mistakenly credit some idiot with more status than his accomplishment warrant, pre-internet who would have known?

    (2) They do have to be worried about being sued. If they accurately report idiots credentials the idiot might sue. On the other hand, their duped customers can’t sue.

  2. Shannon: if they accurately report the credentials, it’s not libel–truth is a defense.

    Indeed, what they have to worry about is inaccurately reporting credentials, which is what they’ve done in Mr. Wagner’s case.

    Great post, John, and not just because I’m cited in it….

  3. Eric,

    Shannon: if they accurately report the credentials, it’s not libel–truth is a defense.

    (1) Just because they might win doesn’t mean they won’t get sued and incur the cost defense. (2) Even if they misrepresent the credentials of a small number of people they report on, the damage to their prestige and bottom line of small number of mistakes outweigh the benefits of accurate reporting that most people do not notice. (3) Most media consumers will not notice such mistake so it really doesn’t pay to spend the time and effort to track the correct information down.

  4. What Eric said, John, and thanks for the shout out.

    I’ve written extensively about false information and how it is increasingly becoming common in this age of instantaneous connectivity for unvalidated data to ingrain itself into the public consciousness. Part of the problem is that in this case, reporters are incestuous, i.e. because Wagner has been widely reported as a Radiation Safety Officer, Nuclear Physicist, Attorney and etc – it’s simply taken as something “everybody knows” and without question. When in reality, the first thing any competent reporter should ask himself is “what the heck is a radiation safety officer?” It sounds weighty, but then so does “Sanitation Engineer” when you’re talking about a simple garbage man.

    When a guy like Wagner who is at odds with the entire scientific establishment, and who is emphatically not part of the experiment in question, claims greater knowledge than the actual scientists and engineers who are running the project the very first thing that should have been checked was his background – prior to any phone call or interview.

    The media was eager to write “World will End” and “Black Holes, Oh Noes!” stories, because those always sell papers – but the truth of the matter is that “Alleged Expert Exposed as Fraud” sell papers too, and it’s a hell of a lot more useful to the public at large. Too damn many once respectable News outlets (CNN for example) have become the all-britney-all-the-time channels.

    Now, however, a certain type of person will believe his claims, no matter what proof is presented refuting them. A lot of people believe that science is evil and scary and that scientists are going to uncork the genie – and no matter what, because Wagner was originally reported as a credentialed scientist, they will always believe that he just might be correct and that his opinion should be considered. And they have, and have been soundly refuted, but most people simply aren’t equipped to evaluate the math (me included), and so they still think that there just might be something to Wagner’s claim.

    The simple truth of the matter though, is that Wagner is no different from the crazy long-haired fruitcake with the sandwich board out there on the street corner with the bible and the sign claiming that the world will end tomorrow. You wouldn’t believe him, why would you believe Wagner?

  5. Great summarization. Too bad I’ve been AFK for large portions of the last few weeks, or I would have helped out more.

  6. > How does a high score on high school and bachelor level mathematics…

    LOL. The guy is bragging about doing well at algebra and calculus? Not to promo my own chops (I’ve not worked on anything substantial in Math since about 1989, and really not since 1982), but I taught myself calculus when I was 15. I took calculus in JuCo while in HS (giving me official credit in it), and took the 4000-level DiffEq course in my freshman year, then 2 5000-level grad courses (Special Functions was one of them, I forget the other) as a soph, then 2 6000 level courses as a junior (Approximation Theory and Tensor Analysis) — (again, it’s been decades. I’d have a hard time doing an integration by parts these days).

    My point is that Algebra and Calculus at the level’s he’s trying to sound so snooty about are really BASIC, and don’t even BEGIN to touch on the kind of math that goes into modern advanced physics (which is one of the chief drivers of applied math) — which deal with multidimensional analysis and some VERY high level concepts of topology.

    To put it in perspective, realize that Newton’s calculus was developed BEFORE 1700 AD. So there’s been <b<more than 300 years of development in the mathematical arena since that time, and that development has occurred in a period with far more specialist mathematicians involved than existed ever before 1700 AD.

    The man’s credentials aren’t only nonexistent, by his own efforts to trumpet them, he shows how deeply ignorant of the actual subject he actually is:
    Wagner: Oooh, I know *calculus*.
    Me: A whoop ti f***ing sh**. What do you know about conformal mapping? Can you integrate a curve through an area with a hole in the middle of it? What technique would you use? Please identify how a Laplace Transform compares to a Z-transform. What is Time-Scale Calculus?. Define how to use a Heaviside step function to solve a differential equation. Annnk!!! Sorry, you lose, don’t bother to insert another coin. Not only don’t you know the rules of the game, you can’t even grasp the vast array of concepts involved.

  7. Obloodyhell – exactly. My math is rusty too, but I do hold a Ph.D. in Chemistry – the math-intensive kind, not the synthetic kind. I have a feeling that he thought he was dealing with some Organiker or undergrad when he came sniffing around my site.

    This idiot could not even pass the basic introductory graduate physics class at Berkeley. The fact that he lists no graduate training in physics in the court documents where he outlines his credentials should have set off the radar of any competent reporter.

  8. > (1) Just because they might win doesn’t mean they won’t get sued and incur the cost defense.

    They need to incur this if need be (some collective action can spread the expense, for one thing). If they can’t be trusted on to actually vet sources, then they can’t be trusted, period.

    You might as well usa a blogger or Wiki as a reference. Journalists CLAIM they have higher standards. This sort of thing (plus the overall political scene) show that to be a blatantly false claim.

    At the very least, WHY ARE THEY REPORTING ON IT? They certainly can’t be sued for ignoring the topic, since the individuals involved don’t pass vetting.

    Part of this is a wholesale effort on the part of journalism, from what I can see, to misinterpret, misinform, and deceive people about what is science and what is the scientific method. When they quote cranks like this, they create confusion about what is known and unknown, and about who can officially say “what” and actually know what the hell they are talking about. You see the same sort of crap, on a lesser level, with Global Warming.

  9. P.S. in case anyone hasn’t seen it (I also posted it up over at Hot Chicks, and it’s been around for a couple months now) and you want something lighter than a Higgs in this LHC vein:

    The Large Hadron Rap

    I could be wrong, but I believe that’s Hawking doing the machine voice for them.

  10. Well said John, and I would like to add that I am glad that we use our powers for good. (Kudos as well to Jim and Eric and all of the other UCFer’s who help make the internet a little more surreal…one turd at a time.)

  11. David Leffler,

    I think the argument you posted to was tongue and cheek. If not, it present a rather common fallacy that crops up around Femi’s Paradox.

    If fact, you can prove that anything will destroy the world using Femi’s Paradox. During the Cold War people argued that nuclear war must be inevitable because no other advanced species had contacted us. Likewise, you could “prove” that nanotechnology, global warming, resource depletion, carnivorous teddy bears, etc must all seal our doom.

    The simplest explanation is of Femi’s Paradox is that Femi got his assumptions wrong. The simplest assumption is that earth is not the first planet in the galaxy to evolve intelligent life. Research in the last ten years suggest that we might well be.

  12. John,
    If you knew me, you would know that I meant it entirely in jest. But I guess these days you never know.
    My thought was that very few, if any, of the people reading this blog would be taken in by such a claim. But it makes fun reading – perhaps the basis for a good science fiction yarn.
    And no intentions of offense here either, but lighten up Baragon-Kun. Being playful, and sometimes downright silly, can sometimes open a pathway to new things.
    Best regards,

  13. David, sorry, I don’t know you, and I’ve been hip-deep in stupid these last few weeks. That’s why I asked.

    One of the side effects of this little affair is to make one cynical and mistrustful. Outside of the scientific issues, I think that’s the greater harm of a Wagner.

  14. And David, Baragon-kun’s been following this from the Physics sites, and his native language is Spanish, so I think he lost your humor somewhere in the translation.

  15. UFC member Mr. Jim Wright’s legal accusations concerning Walter L. Wagner are incorrect and he retracted related statements after threat of libel suit.

    Mr Wright writes: “I retract the statement the Wagner is a convicted criminal. But only the specific term Convicted Criminal.” [1] and “I retract the statement that Wagner lied under oath, or lied to me.” [1]

    [1] Jim Wright, StoneKettle Station (December 27-28, 2008) stonekettlestation.blogspot.com/2008/10/walter-l-wagner-pitifully-insane.html

  16. Random Read-By Internet Person says:

    JTankers, what the hell is your problem? Do you get a medal, or, you know, special services or something?

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