Saturday, June 17, 2006

Bethell vs. Mooney

Yesterday on NPR's Science Friday Ira Flatow hosted authors Tom Bethell and Chris Mooney for a half-hour discussion on the politics of science.

I think shows like this are basically useless. They flit around from topic to topic, never landing for more than a couple of minutes, and there is no depth whatsoever, on anything. This show discussed the following topics, all in a mere 35 minutes: bird flu, stem cells, the AIDS pandemic in Africa, global warming, evolution vs. ID, sex and politics, and more.

Naturally, the discussion did not resolve a single thing.

Secondly, neither author has any scientific training, and it shows. Bethell, who seemed the shakiest, started his career interested in jazz, and Mooney was an English major at Yale. Neither seems used to the process of using data to borrow down into the facts, and as far as I can tell neither has much idea how scientists think, live, work, and breathe. As a result all Bethell can do is reflexively tout the skeptics position, and Mooney reflexively touts consensus. As I wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle when I reviewed Chris Mooney's book, his writing doesn't resolve any issues or change anyone's opinion--only science journalism can do that. "Opinion journalism," which is what Mooney says he practices, comes nowhere close.

Astonishingly, PZ Myers asks "Whose side are you on, Flatow?" He seems to think that the job of a talk show host (who, in this case, plays as best he can the role of the journalist) is to take sides with one guest over another, instead of letting each of them speak their mind. Funny, I thought his role was to be objectively neutral.

But even Flatow fails to impress: at one point he implies that the Dover, Pennsylvania decision scientifically resolved once and forever the evolution versus Intelligent Design debate. I don't see how a court decision can scientifically resolve anything at all.

Finally, I was amazed to hear Chris Mooney say of bird flu, "I'd rather hear false alarms than be blindsided by a problem that comes out of nowhere." As if those were the only two choices. How about a dedicated scientific effort that collects data and methodically establishes the truth? I presume he thinks the same of global warming, which is not a position that is going to convince the world to take action.

Where do I go to get my half-hour back?


Thomas Palm said...

David, go check with your local fire department what they think you should do if you suspect there is a fire. Their advice will be to call them, not wait and make absolutely sure there is a fire. A false alarm is an inconvenience, but if there is a fire those minutes may make it that much harder to control.

It's the same with the bird flu. Sure, we should do our best to get the truth, but given that viruses mutate in random ways, by the time we are sure it is a threat it may be too late to act. A false alarm or even ten false alarms are a low price to pay to be ready when the real disaster strikes.

The usual moral of the story about the boy who cried wolf is all wrong. The boy just watched the sheep, it was the villagers who didn't respond who lost their sheep. (At least to the mythological wolf. Any boy could scare off a real wolf).

Dano said...


I think you expect too much from SciFri.

In my view, they are just the next level drill-down from, say, McPaper. You are asking for in-depth analysis from a show that adds slightly more analysis to mainstream media, in order to get listeners interested in a topic.