Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Get it right

I've harped a bit on the subject of avoiding cable news. Actually, I've done so more than once. I promise, I've followed my own advice ... for the most part.

Everybody backslides, though.

Last night I wanted to find out more about Irene's aftermath, and since it was time for Olbermann's newscast I thought I'd see what, if anything, he would report.

Now, the fact that Irene wasn't a really high-profile part of the newscast didn't bother me. His show is avowedly political and I knew that going in. Since Michele Bachmann had made an inflammatory remark about Irene being God's hint to politicians to get right with the public, it made a certain amount of sense for him to make her fatheaded rabble-rousing the focus of his Irene coverage.

No, the trouble came when analyst Sam Stein weighed in:
... the other thing that's striking about it is that there are legitimate, uh, implications or lessons to be learned from the, uh, earthquake here in DC and the hurricane that followed, uh, shortly thereafter up the East Coast, and that's a very scientific lesson, which is that the Earth is actually changing, uh, its climate, and we can have a very serious discussion about those things ...
Uh, no, we can't have a serious discussion about "those things" if you're going to call an earthquake a sign of climate change.

Look, it's hard enough for the public to keep scientific research and the current state of scientific knowledge in a variety of fields straight. It doesn't help for journalists to muddy the waters by making flatly and ridiculously wrong statements. The problem is worsened when those journalists assert the authority of "science" to support their factually incorrect statements.

Olbermann himself has a special burden in this regard. He repeatedly, and justifiably, has called out hard right-wingers for anti-scientific bias and assertions that contradict scientific evidence. He therefore has placed himself firmly on the side of science. That, in turn, confers a responsibility for not passing along, and not allowing others on his show to pass along, blatantly wrong information to his viewers. Olbermann did not call Stein on his ridiculous assertion. He therefore is as culpable as Stein for misinforming his audience.

How much should a journalist know about science? I frankly don't know. What I do know is, if you're trying to advocate on behalf of scientific research and you screw up your facts badly enough that a nonscientist who's only half paying attention catches you at it, you don't know enough. Stein and Olbermann aren't doing science or scientists any favors by passing along bogus information.

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