May 15, 2007

Terrible job, NPR

Yes, I'm one of those goofy tote-bag toting public radio listeners. I love their obsession with pronouncing foreign names correctly, and playing ambient noise about things that they are reporting. Nobody does a better job incorporating jungle sounds into their coverage of the South American economy. Nonetheless, nobody is perfect and I have heard a few atrocious things in the past few days that went uncontested. Ordinarily, I wouldn't think much of it, but I suppose I hold them to a higher standard, so it annoyed me. Here is the first:

Newt Gingrich spouting, unchallenged in any way, a bunch of patent falsehoods about global warming. Though he purported to express nominal support for the scientifically-supported position, he almost immediately lapsed back into the usual coterie of pseudo-scientific talking points about how global temperatures have varied over time (a fact, of course, that no one disputes). Repeated a bizarre claim that some climatologists of the 70's were worried about a coming ice age (claims made by a few stray researchers before we started to seriously study climate are not equal to a universal consensus made after decades of extensive research by people who actually know what they are talking about), and utterly embarrassed himself by parroting a rumor started by Erik the Red, that Greenland "is called 'Greenland' because it used to be green." Um, no. Every 2nd-grader knows that the Vikings named 'Greenland' to draw settlers away from the more attractive 'Iceland,' which is actually much greener. The Greenland thing is a retarded lie, spread by global warming deniers. Did other people not learn this stuff in elementary school geography?

Am I naïve to be outraged by the presumption by politicians that they get to make up their own minds about issues with which they have no expertise? If you asked one of these goons how to replace their water heater they would laugh at you and say that their plumber worries about that kind of thing. Yet when it comes to matters far more complicated and important, they mouth off with the kind of solemnity you would expect from somebody who peer-reviews evolutionary biology articles for Nature in their free time. (Except that they are probably spouting opinions that no sane person (or reviewer) would be caught dead with.) Even the assumption that it matters what politicians think about things with which they have no expertise whatsoever is laughable, it is hard to understand why the news media, which (in some imaginary utopia) serves the purpose of fact-checking these propositions, reports on counter-factual views with undue reverence. You don't get to decide what you think about issues that are a matter of scientific judgment. The only aspect of scientific issues that politicians get to have any involvement with is in deciding what to do about things. And then, only a little. Scientists tell you how the world works, and you manage the suggestions of what to do about it. That's how it works.

This is something I think about almost every day, but I don't think I've blogged about practically at all. The old aphorism that 'we are entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts' is never more relevant than now, with public distortion of science that now seems to be frequent than ever. And if crunchy NPR is letting people get away with it, it doesn't look good for anyone else.


David Lauri said...

Thank you for pointing out Gingrich's lies or idiocy. I happened to be listening to the Diane Rehm Show when Gingrich was on, and I actually shouted at the radio, "You are such a liar!," when Gingrich gave that utterly wrong explanation of how Greenland got its name. I was driving and didn't get to hear the whole show, so I don't know if any callers corrected him on air (although I did listen long enough to get to hear Rehm's quiet anger at Gingrich's leaving the show early).