I have stumbled across a couple of musings on the MSM from different perspectives that throw into sharp relief a lot of the problems with our present media that we regularly discuss on this site. First, from my friend Jim Wright comes an insider’s view of the biggest Alaska story to hit since Sarah Palin: “Alaskan Middle School Students Scare Moose to Death“.
You keep citing that paper. I don’t think it means what you think it means.
Another trap that laymen fall into when evaluating competing scientific claims is to uncritically accept scientific citations. When I first stumbled across Walter Wagner, I found in various places on the Internet the claim that he had discovered a magnetic monopole, and a citation on his website to this article. The citation was not in the normal format for scientific cites, and upon finding the publication, I figured out why. Wally was not even an author on that paper, he was the lab tech who looked at the stack of lexan sheets under a microscope for particle tracks that met the criteria outlined by the principal investigators – some of the lowest grunt work available in a physics lab. Wagner was, indeed listed in the acknowledgments of that paper, and has used that brief brush with fame to create a highly colorful, and highly fictional, scientific background for himself.
There is another object lesson in scientific citation for the layman here, as well. Science moves. It advances. The date on a cite is important. If someone is citing only older papers (and “old” in science means about 5 years), the layman needs to check for him or herself (or check with a trusted expert) that the argument presented has not been made obsolete by new evidence. Let’s look a little closer at the magnetic monopole, shall we?
Another aspect of being a discerning customer of scientific information is that the careful consumer looks at the source of the information. Not as an ad hominem on any particular researcher, but with an eye to how much quality control went into the peer review, as I mentioned in my last post.
This is directly related to an old post of mine: “Why There?“, and that is a question that you should ask yourself every time a new publication hits the lay press:
So, commenter Tatyana asked about how a layman can discern the signals that indicate that a discussion has left the realm of rigorous thought. I thought I’d set down some thoughts on that over the course of a couple of posts, starting from the extreme left tail of the distribution and working my way in to stuff that’s more mainstream, could possibly be true, but ought not to be pounced on because there’s a lot more work to be done before a conclusion is reached.
So, to start out with, I’ll tackle something that’s obvious to me as being in the looney science bin: the attacks on the Large Hadron Collider. As I mentioned before, my little online Science Fiction group ran afoul of the utter nutbars in the “LHC Will End the Woooorld” camp. I dug a little deeper into the “some scientists” whom the anti-LHCers cite. I uncovered that the most prestigious scientist whom they could quote was a German biochemist I’d never heard of named Otto Rössler.
So then I dug a little deeper into Professor Doctor Rössler’s record, and came up with quite a lot. Unfortunately, it was quite a lot of utter rubbish. I see that rubbish cited all over the Internet, so I tried to set the record straight. After the jump is the blog post I made, mostly for my SF group’s amusement, about how I was able to tell Rössler was a crank. Enjoy.
“The cat, having sat upon a hot stove lid, will not sit upon a hot stove lid again. But he won’t sit upon a cold stove lid, either.” – Mark Twain
Of all the words he’s written on the subject, the most important quote is this one:
When information arrives, how many folks ask themselves: How was this information acquired? Is it complete? Is it accurate? Is it biased. Is it relevant? Is there enough detail? Do I accept it because it reinforces what I think I know, or do I reject it for the same reason? How can I verify it? How can I test it? If I can’t test and verify the information, do I accept it anyway? If so, why?
Those who fail to ask themselves such questions place themselves and those who depend on them, at a significant disadvantage – they will always be at the mercy of those who can observe the universe critically, adjust their worldview appropriately, decide and act.
I have an affinity for that type of inquiry because I am an accredited professional in information warfare – I hold an MBA with a subspecialty in marketing. Some segment of society wages information warfare on the individual practically every day of his or her life. And the individual wages it right back.