Friday, June 30, 2006

Science Reporting: Another Well-Aimed Rant

This Wired commentary by Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig is so good that I have to quote heavily from it:

At theaters across the US this summer, Americans will learn the truth about global warming from the man who almost became their president. An Inconvenient Truth is the film adaptation of a slide show that Al Gore has presented thousands of times to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. You -- and your 10,000 best friends -- should see this movie. . .

About halfway through, Gore cites two studies to explain why so many people remain so skeptical about global warming. The first looked at a random sample of almost 1,000 abstracts on climate change in peer-reviewed scientific journals from 1993 to 2003 and found that exactly zero doubted “that we’re causing global warming.” The second surveyed a random sample of more than 600 articles about global warming in popular media between 1988 and 2002 and discovered that 53 percent questioned “that we’re causing global warming.”

Good journalism likes two sides to every story. Lazy journalism fails to distinguish between objective sources and interested parties – and this issue has interested parties aplenty, from ­industry-funded think tanks to hired PR firms, feeding the press the disinformation it needs to make the story sound balanced. This is the media’s own inconvenient truth – that the institution charged with reporting the facts is so easily manipulated. . .

Gore wants to change how we act by changing how we think about global warming. Yet An Inconvenient Truth can inspire progress only if the audience is responsive. Of course, the audience best prepared to fix global warming – the government – has already been corrupted by the same money that plays the puppet press so well. Likewise with the media’s inconvenient truth: If any of the networks were so impertinent as to report what scientists know about global warming, could it withstand the inevitably well-orchestrated charge of bias? These truths may be inconvenient, but the forces resisting their acceptance are extraordinarily powerful.

The issue for technoprogressives should be obvious: unless people (especially those who make and influence crucial decisions) are able to receive accurate information about important matters, they can't make good choices.

One of the problems with a free press is that it is susceptible to being bought. Of course, freedom of the press certainly is preferable to having a controlled press, even if the controlling party is supposedly benign, but maintaining the value of a free press requires constant vigilance.

During the last 20 years or so, America's independent media has been largely gobbled up by corporate monoliths. If not for the rise of the netroots and the blogosphere, there might be no voice left to oppose the megacorp-neocon "truth" machine.


posthuman-debate said...

The issue of global warming is finally making inroads in the public consciouss. Lets hope that this is not something temporary and people from all walks of life and backgrounds realize that this is a problem that can potentially effect us all.

Robin Zebrowski said...

What Lessig says about media liking two sides to every story is almost certainly to blame for the current pathetic and destructive state of education on evolution in America today as well. They've managed to give a voice to a fictitious other side just to make it appear balanced and fair, when in fact there is no other side to give a fair voice to. Global warming suffered the same fate. The world is in deep, and American media has no idea the power it holds in the battles.

Tom FitzGerald said...

It's not so much that a free media can be bought, as that a corporate media is bought by definition.

Dale Carrico said...

There are things we can do.

Click on the link to FreePress on the blogroll to the right, or go directly to "Key Issues" Page, which contains over forty different media reform issues under basic categories, like "Media Ownership," "Intellectual Property," "Commercialism," etc.

There are of course a number of other great organizations doing important work to address the problems raised in this post and in the subsequent comments, from Media Matters and FAIR, to Creative Commons and EFF (most of them have links to the right also). I focus on the FreePress site particularly just because it has such great practical information and also provides a really clear sense of the ways in which many different problems and reform campaigns relate to one another.