Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

I’m a fan of Richard Dawkins, but the only people who think his role in the atheist movement is a messianic one are those who don’t pay any attention to the atheist movement. I’m not always on his side, and I feel no obligation to be.

But some of his critics are scraping the bottom of the barrel for reasons to bash him, until they run out of barrel. Then they find another barrel underneath, full of the dregs and mud that have sloughed off the first barrel, and are busily scraping down to the bottom of that as well.

Yesterday, Richard Dawkins described a phone call he’d had from a journalist for The Telegraph. This journalist had some frankly bizarre things to say, beginning with:

We’ve been researching the history of the Dawkins family, and have discovered that your ancestors owned slaves in Jamaica in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. What have you got to say about that?

From there, Dawkins was asked about the guilt he felt for his ancestors’ actions, the origins of the “estate” partly owned by his family, and whether or not he might have “inherited a gene for supporting slavery” from his several-greats grandfather.

And sure enough, the next day the Telegraph runs an article about how Dawkins’s family “built their fortune using slaves”, using what seems like exactly the same thread of arguments as had been decided upon before Adam Lusher even contacted Dawkins, but with a few quotes from their conversation thrown in there to give the impression of balance and well rounded reporting.

The “estate” that remains of this “fortune,” as Dawkins describes it, is a small working farm, which has nothing to do with the personal wealth he’s amassed through substantial book sales, among other things. And quite why the horrifying truth that people centuries ago made a living through practices we now find abhorrent is supposed to surprise us, or reflect badly on Richard Dawkins in particular, is unexplained.

Nothing Dawkins has ever said or done has suggested that he has any sympathies toward the concept of slave-ownership. It seems odd to even ask him to clarify his position on the matter. Is this a line of questioning that Thomas Jefferson’s descendants still have to face? He owned slaves more recently than Henry Dawkins. How do we know what his great-great-great-great-grandchildren are up to?

But, even if Dawkins isn’t a special case and doesn’t deserve to be picked on specifically, maybe there’s something to the reparations argument anyway. Perhaps he and others like him, whose families are known to have profited from slavery in the past, do owe some sort of apology or remuneration to those whose families have suffered from this barbarism.

Of course, you don’t need to look any further than The Telegraph to find a rebuttal to this “intolerant side of the anti-racism movement”, and an explanation of why there is no reason for people today to feel personally responsible for the injustices of the past.

Anyway, there’s someone else I can think of whose ancestor was responsible for even more atrocities than Henry Dawkins. Murder, destruction of property, germ warfare, famine, and yes, slavery, were among his legacy. He was responsible for the deaths of millions as his bloodthirsty regime sought endless conquest.

And by “someone else”, I mean 0.5% of the population of the planet.

Hop to it, Mr Lusher. You’ve got a lot more historical injustice to right.

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The New York Times faces an ethical quandary. When they’re writing about stuff people have said, should they bother to report on whether that stuff’s true or not? Is that an important or useful part of their role as a news organisation? They’re “looking for reader input” on this. Because they’re not sure.

Dear Dr Phil, if you want to actually help people as you claim to do, you have a responsibility to do better than this.

– A new addition to add to the list of Mother Teresa’s crimes against moral decency: she campaigned to protect a child-abusing Catholic priest, stressing “how careful we must be to guard the purity and reputation of that priesthood”.

Here’s a video which very neatly and briefly explains the distinction between a trend and a variation in data – for example, between the constantly changing weather, and the gradually shifting climate.

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About fourteen years ago, a Birmingham councillor was trying to find a way to market the various Christmas events going on in the city centre over the holiday period, and came up with the word “Winterval”.

Since then, certain tabloids haven’t shut up about the idea that Winterval was an attempt by the politically correct lefty brigade to ban Christmas.

By “certain tabloids”, I mean above all the Daily Mail, which has averaged more than three repetitions of this falsehood every single year since 1998 – but many other papers, including respectable broadsheets, have racked up comparable frequencies of reprinting the same rubbish.

Now, though, the Mail has printed three sentences in their Clarifications and corrections section, so everything’s been sorted out.

Except, even if the subject of Winterval is now as unambiguously settled and resolved as anyone could hope it to be, this still isn’t the most satisfying way to draw the saga to a close. Dozens of misleading and hyperbolic articles, over the course of more than a decade, have been offset by a couple of column inches. I find it unlikely that the cumulative effect they’ve had will be significantly reversed by this latest development.

Of course, I don’t want to be too harsh on the Mail for acknowledging and correcting a mistake, even if it was overdue and under-emphasised. But it’s evident how little the problem has been solved when you look at the bulk of their side of the general media conversation.

A couple of months ago, blogger Kevin Arscott pointed out to Melanie Phillips that she was repeating a long-debunked myth in her Daily Mail column. She wrote back, describing his message as being “as arrogant and ignorant as it is offensive”, and reasserted her baseless claim that the use of the seasonal marketing term Winterval was part of an effort to avoid referring to Christmas at all (even though the official descriptions of Winterval always directly referred to Christmas several times).

“Winterval buried ‘Christmas’ and replaced it in the public mind”, she wrote, which of course explains why you’ve barely heard mention of Christmas this century, outside the columns of a few intrepid tabloid journalists fighting to bring you the truth, amidst all the politically right-on Winterval talk going around.

In Melanie’s next email to Kevin, she made vague and entirely inane threats of suing him for libel.

Previous attempts to complain to the PCC about the repeated untruths being printed in this popular national paper had been unsuccessful. But the Mail’s recent decision to clarify and correct their position implies that they’re now siding with Kevin, at least on his basic point – the claim that Christmas was “renamed in various places” was, in fact, misleading and incorrect, despite Melanie’s initial objections. He’s waiting for an apology.

Oh, and the headline of the Melanie Phillips article from September, which now carries a correction as to the nature of Winterval, was: Our language is being hijacked by the Left to muzzle rational debate.

This is how successfully the tabloid media’s ability to self-regulate is currently working.

So yeah, it still kinda sticks in my craw.

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So, stuff’s been happening. The news seems to be falling apart.

I could do some sort of write-up about the ever-increasing flurry of scandals that began with the News of the World’s collapse, but it’s not like pointing out the horribleness of some of the horrible things some people did will really bring anything new to the discussion. I am utterly devoid of unique insight, and if you’re relying on me for providing basic news-gathering services on something this big, you’ve got problems.

The one thing I will say is that John Finnemore’s editorial on Radio 4’s The Now Show was an absolute blinder:

There’s also an extended transcript here. He knows how to say words good.

I know that’s not much to leave you with, given my relative silence this past week, but I’ve only gone and been and done and gone and got myself a girlfriend, who’s become something of a focus of mine, and at this particular moment is rather more interesting than you lot. No offense. You’re still great. She’s just better. Her name’s Kirsty and she’s a nurse and she has a cat with no teeth.

So, how’s your week been? (I don’t actually care. A girl likes me.)

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Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has won the tabloid bullshit of the month award over at Five Chinese Crackers. It could not possibly be more deserved.

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– What’s at the centre intersection of this Venn diagram of silliness? Catholic doctors curing gays with homeopathy. What exactly do they plan to dilute?

– Pretty much everyone except politicians seems to understand by now that the war on drugs is a disaster. Maybe we should just put TV writers in charge and things might start getting better.

– Winner of the Nobel Prize for awesome Paul Krugman has been schooling dishonest Republicans in healthcare lately, which has been quite fun to watch. One, two, three, four.

– BREAKING NEWS. These women have FEET.

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I told you yesterday I was having trouble keeping up the earnestness.

It all seems barely less terrible in that part of the world than it was yesterday, but there are other petty things worth getting annoyed about, in between just feeling sad.

Ben Goldacre has pointed to an article in the Daily Mail which is dripping with even more bullshit than you’d expect.

It suggests that a “supermoon” – basically the moon being closer to us than it usually is – could have caused the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And by describing this as “the latest natural disaster” of its kind, it seems to take it as read that the moon has already been wreaking havoc in numerous other ways.

“Astrologers” are credited with predicting that, in just over a week, the moon will be closer to Earth than it has been in years, and so its gravitational impact will be increased, causing “chaos”.

The first problem with this is fuck astrologers. Astronomers – the ones who actually do science instead of just making shit up – have kinda been on top of the moon’s perigees and apogees – that is, the times when it’s closest or farthest from Earth – for quite a while now. And yes, at the upcoming perigee it will be a smidge closer than it has been for a few years, but not by much. It’s less than half a percent closer than it was in the February perigee, and it’ll be a while before it’s that close again.

The second problem is that this upcoming perigee is due on March 19th. Saying the extra gravity could have caused disasters on Earth in the past few days is like saying “Hey, better watch out for werewolves, it’s only a week and a half till the full moon!” It was at its apogee – the furthest point – less than a week ago. That means the moon was further away from us than usual when the earthquake hit.

All credit to Phil Plait for explaining all this to me so that I can re-explain it all to you. As well as for putting up some repetitive and monumental stupid in his comments thread.

But what’s even more hilarious and/or murderously infuriating is that the Daily Mail posted another article, TWO DAYS previously, which describes “bizarre rumours” about a supermoon triggering “tidal waves, volcanic eruptions and even earthquakes” being put about by “conspiracy theorists” and “lunar-tics” (which, by the way, isn’t even a pun, because that’s where the word ‘lunatic’ fucking comes from).

They actually apply some moderately competent skepticism further down that article, quoting actual scientists who do much to debunk the exact same bullshit that the same newspaper is quite happy to regurgitate barely 48 hours later once something scary happened.

Never mind that the moon isn’t at the perigee for more than a week, meaning it’s currently further away than usual, and so the earthquake in the pacific isn’t what the astrologers predicted at all. Come yesterday’s scare-mongering, all the science gets relegated to way down the page, below the picture, where they know most people probably won’t look. And the last word goes to the “small and vocal minority” who are daring to defy the stodgy old scientists by believing whatever fantasies they want.

Donations are still needed and appreciated at the Red Cross and Save The Children.

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Nick Davies’s book Flat Earth News is currently in the process of rendering me more cynical and disillusioned about the global business of news reporting and journalism than I’d thought possible. It’s incredibly depressing and utterly brilliant.

Of course, I’ve been following sites like the Angry Mob and Enemies Of Reason and Five Chinese Crackers and Tabloid Watch long enough to find the whole subject fairly depressing anyway. But don’t worry. It gets worse.

One thing that drove home the dismal state of journalism today in particular was this guest post on No Sleep ‘Til Brooklands, by someone to whom and about whom the Daily Mail (it had to be the Mail (actually, it really didn’t have to be the Mail, but it’s not surprising that it was)) told repeated, deliberate, unkind lies. They knew the story they wanted to tell, and completely made up a series of alleged direct quotes from someone who never said any such thing.

It’s a dishearteningly gripping read, even if you tend to support a “bollocks to the lot of it” opinion to begin with. Nobody involved is obliged to give much of a fuck if they completely misrepresent reality, and when that reality is “a person they’ve lied about” there’s little recourse for anything to be done to redress it.

It’s been too quiet here lately. I’ll have something happier to talk about soon, with luck. Tweet me a link to anything else going on that you think I should be talking about.

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I’m finished with the catch-up posts from my time in the wilderness now.

But, if you already miss my disconnected and untimely ramblings on old news that you’d forgotten about some time ago, fear not! Sometimes it just takes me weeks to have an opinion on something.

I didn’t say much about any of this at the time, but Martin Robbins wrote a couple of months ago about this thing called Rock Stars of Science. This is some sort of campaign intended to make science seem cool, by getting the nerds who do it to stand near some awesome people.

Martin’s not a fan of the campaign, and I can’t say I’m loving it based on what I’ve seen so far either. I’ve clicked round their website for a while, and I can’t see many people learning anything worthwhile as a result of this.

There are some rallying cries about the importance of science, mostly to the effect of “Let’s cure cancer!”. There are lots of photographs that someone’s clearly gone to a great deal of effort to take. There are lots of scientists staring at you through a fashionable colour filter. And there are some big walls of text about the details of the research that the “Rock Docs” are doing, in which I’m not sufficiently interested to read more than half a paragraph. And I’m already on board with this whole science thing.

But, although much of Martin’s complaint is valid, I think he kinda misses the mark in his response as well.

Chris Mooney was involved in the campaign itself, and although I have my considerable reservations about his own stance on this, he’s annoyed at Martin for at least some of the right reasons. He quotes Martin’s article, referring to a photograph taken on the Moon depicting one of mankind’s more impressive achievements:

If you don’t understand why this is one of the coolest things you will ever see, then you really aren’t cool, in fact you’re the opposite of cool. You are to cool what Dan Brown is to literature.

As Chris points out:

To which the American public responds “!#$@^ you, I liked The Da Vinci Code” and returns to watching Dancing With the Stars.


The thing about Martin’s comment is that it seems to imply (although I suspect this may not really be his position) that anyone who doesn’t automatically gush over the achievements of science, and stare in wide-eyed wonder at photos that represent extraordinary accomplishments in remarkable fields of study, is a hopeless Philistine who’ll never appreciate the beauty of science and isn’t even worth trying to reach out to.

Which is quite clearly neither conducive to a better public understanding of science, nor particularly fair to millions of Dan Brown fans.

Surely a big part of science communication needs to be about providing people with that sense of wide-eyed wonder, helping them to understand the astonishing truths that science has uncovered about the world around us, which aren’t immediately obvious to the uninformed layman. I don’t even think Martin would disagree with this in principle.

This is the reason (well, one of many) why Carl Sagan is especially cherished among popularisers and practitioners of science. He had a knack for powerfully communicating the beauty and awe of the ideas he talked about, and making these truths and discoveries seem as wondrous as they deserve to. If the coolness of a particular image should be self-evident to anyone with any sense, we would neither need nor value as we do the kind of skill that Sagan had. The concept of a “science communicator” might even be redundant.

I don’t think the Rock Stars of Science has done anything especially helpful, though I admit I probably haven’t experienced its full effect. But there absolutely should be something like that going on, to try and connect with people who’d otherwise shrug and go back to their reality TV and cheap thriller novels, and grab their attention long enough to explain something neat to them.

Given the often lamentable portrayal of “science” that their mainstream news outlets and trashy stories are probably giving them, it’s hardly their fault if it’s not immediately obvious why some of the cool things real science has to offer are worth getting excited about.

I am among those who are convinced that there is more concentrated awesomeness in Martin’s pixelly image of the Sun taken through the Earth than anything Bret Michaels is ever likely to do. But to fully understand, appreciate, and enjoy one of those, I just have to switch on my TV and stare dumbly forward; to really get the other one, I need to know what the hell neutrinos are.

We can and should keep talking about how great science is. But the people who need persuading of that are central to the science communicators’ struggle. They might not see it right away, but let’s not rule out their potential to someday see the same wonder that we do.

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The BMJ (originally “British Medical Journal”) has published a report describing Andrew Wakefield’s autism research as an “elaborate fraud”.

Wakefield notoriously published a scientific paper in 1998 proclaiming a possible link between childhood vaccinations and autism. It has since been retracted by the journal that published it, and Wakefield has been struck off (i.e. had his license to practise medicine revoked). This new report goes beyond concluding that his work was unscientific, unethical, and incorrect, and suggests that it seems to have been “a deliberate attempt to create an impression… by falsifying the data”.

Part of Wakefield’s response has been to imply that the BMJ, which has been publishing scientific research and reviews since 1840 and is among the most respected and widely cited such institutions in the world, has no credibility or significance.

“BMJ? Had its day” was his conclusion on Twitter yesterday. As I observed at the time, this seems a rather grandiose claim for one discredited idiot to make against such a respected publication, but you can’t argue with a rhyme.

Working on similar principles that things which sound a bit the same must be true, I came up with: “Andrew Wakefield? Fraudulent scumbag.” Wait, I may have confused “rhyme” with “mountains of evidence” there. My mistake.

Everyone seemed to notice this story first on CNN’s website, and of particular interest is Wakefield’s interview with Anderson Cooper.

Cooper seems to know the score, and does a pretty great job. It’s clear from the outset that Wakefield has no actual facts to back himself up, and his only response to the heaps of criticism of his work and his methods is to complain about being relentlessly persecuted – a complaint which does nothing to address any of the evidence. He asks who’s paying Brian Deer (the journalist behind the report) to do what he’s doing, admitting that he doesn’t know and failing to explain why this should be remotely relevant. (He also neglects to mention his own substantial and genuine financial conflicts of interest, such as owning a patent on an alternative measles vaccine.)

Elyse over at the Skepchick blog is also all over this. In particular, she goes through the specific cases of each of the twelve children in Wakefield’s study, and highlights the discrepancies between what was claimed in the paper and what the actual facts of the cases are.

Some of the children were showing early indicators of autism before getting the MMR vaccine. Some didn’t show symptoms until several months later, also nullifying any evidence of a causal connection. The published data seems to have been repeatedly and deliberately misrepresented to make a link seem much better supported by the evidence than it is.

Steven Novella’s write-up of the latest developments is also a must-read.

And if you really want to get into this in some depth, there’s the BMJ report itself (or at least the first in a series, for now) by Brian Deer, who’s been plugging away at this thing and unweaving the facts from the bullshit for years. Mr Deer, I do not own a sufficient number of hats that would allow me to adequately take them off to you.

Edit: Brian Deer has responded in an interview to Wakefield’s continued accusations and insinuations against him, and Orac has weighed in on Wakefield’s dissembling and the inevitable manic minority rushing to his defense.

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