The Intersection

Conventional, to the Last

I first heard of the Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam several years ago when he wrote a wrongheaded attack on the then-new phenomenon known as “blogging.” Bloggers quickly eviscerated him; among other things, Beam had failed to comprehend one of their April Fool’s jokes. As Catherine Seipp later summarized in the American Journalism Review:

Following a link on libertarian blogger Virginia Postrel’s site (Dynamist.com), Beam found what he thought was a good example of “bizarre” blogging in Norwegian blogger Bjørn Staerk’s (www.bearstrong.net) “left-wing raving.” Unfortunately, free-marketeer Staerk’s left-wing raving that day was a pretty obvious (at least to bloggers) April Fools’ joke, complete with a link to a North Korean press agency. As Postrel explained somewhat wearily on her own blog later, “Hint to Alex: When a well-known libertarian links to a site, noting rather strongly that the date is April 1, and when that site appears to be Stalinist, something just might be up.”

In this encounter, now four years old or so, Beam behaved like an utterly conventional old-school journalist, unable to comprehend or appreciate new currents like blogging. Well, now he’s doing it again–defending the outmoded canons of “let’s hear both sides” reporting that I and many others have denounced when applied to reporting on scientific topics where no substantial controversy exists. As Beam writes:

I sat in a roomful of journalists 10 years ago while Stanford climatologist Stephen Schneider lectured us on a big problem in our profession: soliciting opposing points of view. In the debate over climate change, Schneider said, there simply was no legitimate opposing view to the scientific consensus that man – made carbon emissions drive global warming. To suggest or report otherwise, he said, was irresponsible.

Indeed. I attended a week’s worth of lectures on global warming at the Chautauqua Institution last month. Al Gore delivered the kickoff lecture, and, 10 years later, he reiterated Schneider’s directive. There is no science on the other side, Gore inveighed, more than once. Again, the same message: If you hear tales of doubt, ignore them. They are simply untrue.

I ask you: Are these convincing arguments? And directed at journalists, who are natural questioners and skeptics, of all people? What happens when you are told not to eat the apple, not to read that book, not to date that girl? Your interest is piqued, of course. What am I not supposed to know?

Beam’s thinking here is so unnuanced I don’t even even feel a need to debunk it. But feel free to go to town on Mr. Conventional Journalism in the comments….

Comments

  1. #1 Paul
    August 31, 2006

    http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2006/08/conventional_to_the_last.php

    Well, as he asked me:

    Are these convincing arguments?
    To not question what you’ve been told? No, they’re not convincing at all, that’s why you should question them.

    And directed at journalists, who are natural questioners and skeptics, of all people?
    Well I doubt the assertion, but still no.

    What happens when you are told not to eat the apple
    You eat the apple, and to extend the analogy you find it was rotten, and you get sick, and you gain a new appreciation for why you were told not to. As a journalist that’s what you do, so that others don’t have to.

    not to read that book
    You read the book, and to extend the analogy you find it was a Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, and you want those hours of your life back, and you gain a new appreciation for why you were told not to. As a journalist that’s what you do, so that others don’t have to.

    not to date that girl?
    You date the girl, and to extend the analogy you find she has an interesting collection of social diseases, and you want the itching to stop, and you gain a new appreciation for why you were told not to. As a journalist that’s what you do, so that others don’t have to.

    What am I not supposed to know?
    That the argument against climate change is based on questionably funded hand-waving, and you’re being played for a chump. And played well, I might add. Go, see what they have to say, but then think. Apply your critical faculties, the ones you alluded to when you claimed that journalists are ‘natural questioners and skeptics’.

  2. #2 Julie Stahlhut
    August 31, 2006

    Let’s hear the other side of child abuse. Let’s hear the other side of embezzlement, arson, and binge drinking. Some people like to do those things, right? Sometimes arsonists even get paid for their activities. All this bad press could put someone out of work.

    Let’s hear about the other sides of cancer, AIDS, and West Nile virus. Everything we hear about them is negative, negative, negative. And to hear these alarmists talk, you’d think we were all going to get sick someday. Last time one of my friends was diagnosed with Type II diabetes, I got so scared I almost changed my diet and got more exercise. But I didn’t, and I still don’t have Type II diabetes.

    Damned doomsayers. What are they hiding from us?

  3. #3 James Hrynyshynm
    August 31, 2006

    Beam’s column was mostly about climate science “contrarian” Richard Lindzen, who appears to be getting a fair bit of complimentary coverage of late. Our own Seed Magazine has a profile up right now.

    Both Beam’s column and Seed’s profile mention Lindzen’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed contributions. One of those essays actually supports the scientific consensus on climate change to a large degree. It was seriously flawed, however, by, among other things, a favorable reference to Benny Peiser’s widely debunked response to Naomi Oreske’s now-famous literature review which found no genuine dissent from the climate change consensus. That Lindzen would buy into Peiser’s poor analysis suggests Lindzen isn’t as sharp a scientist as some would have us believe.

    Tim Lambert offers an even more damning review of that Lindzen essay here.

    It’s not surprising that Beam would ignore such criticism, but was hoping that perhaps Seed would be a bit more skeptical.