When I put in a complaint the other day regarding an extraordinarily biased tv report about cattle in national parks a twitter follower asked if I would have complained if the bias had been the other way. Made me consider the question for a moment.
The answer of course is “no”, but why? Remember Carl Sagan’s comment that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs”? Which is why there was such interest in the “faster than light neutrinos” the other day. That claim illustrated the Sagan idea – it has to be checked and rechecked, duplicated and reduplicated (and hasn’t yet been, so it is not an extraordinary proof and is probably wrong).
Which brings me back to the question of “balance” in a story in the media. An “ordinary” claim doesn’t require balance. Earth is round, species evolve, there is no imaginary friend, the planet is warming as a result of human activity, Elvis Presley is dead, chocolate and red wine are good for you? Go for it, make your program, I’ll watch it, no problems.
But if your schtick is that vaccination is bad for you, cigarettes good for you, the moon landings were fake, a picture of Jesus has appeared on a piece of toast, there is no global warming, cattle are good for the alpine environment, etc, etc, etc, then you had damn well better present the other side of the argument or at least indicate its existence, or I’ll be down on you before you can say “Media Watch”.
To paraphrase Sagan, extraordinary claims require a balanced tv program. Which brings me to the second part of a modern recipe for accurate television – we need to be told the affiliations of the person making the program, or speaking during a segment, or writing a newspaper column, or a blog.
Affiliations that have no bearing on an argument in hand are irrelevant. Someone who is a member of a football club, and who comments on, say, environmental issues, has no obligation to reveal that they are a Collingwood supporter. Nor would someone who went to a particular church, had a hobby involving antique furniture, or whose place of work was a hospital.
On the other hand if the topic being addressed was poker machines or liquor licences then football club membership would almost certainly be relevant. As would the other interests be if the topics were private school subsidy, import duties, or health funding.
We live in times where people go to great lengths to hide affiliations that are relevant. Hence the rise and rise of right wing think tanks with bland titles and hidden funding sources. Hence the rise of “astro turf” protest groups, apparent movements arising spontaneously as a result of public anger or concern, in reality carefully created by billionaires, or conservative politicians, or media shock jocks. Hence the rise of commentators with, like the think tanks, bland meaningless names like “social commentator”. Hence the rise of political parties with apparently meaningful names “People for the Forest” say, or “Responsible Climate Change Action” which will turn out to be parties started by forestry and coal companies respectively, with a policy of cutting down trees and burning coal.
So I am very careful to look at the affiliations of people I am seeing and hearing these days, want to know if their background is ordinary or extraordinary in some way. But does it matter, won’t their arguments, if valid, stand alone, fail if not? Well, yes, it does.
Physics has to be time and geography independent. That is, whenever and wherever you perform an experiment the results should be potentially the same. This is also true of other sciences, with obvious variations in biological science. What should also be true is that science is ideology independent. That is, if you read, or hear, a paper by a scientist, whatever their background, it will be the results that count (while recognising that interpretations can vary in all kinds of ways).
But outside of science it matters greatly. If I read something by, for the sake of argument, George Pell, I am reading something by someone who is not merely a Catholic but who has so much absorbed and accepted Catholic teachings as to be Cardinal and head of church in Australia. When he pontificates then, on issues such as gay marriage, contraception, abortion, church school funding, religion in the classroom, I don’t read his words as being the result of independent research and analysis to reach a carefully considered position, but as simply a statement of church dogma.
Similarly if I read, hear, material on the economy from a libertarian free market think tank funded by big business, I am quite sure I won’t be reading any Keynesian economics, or support for socialism, or for action on environmental issues. In addition, on more particular issues, where the tank has funding from, say, energy companies or tobacco companies, I know I won’t be reading research supporting climate change action or reduction in cigarette promotion.
I really don’t want to know what clubs think about problem gamblers, foresters about tree felling, pubs about alcohol, evangelicals about evolution, psychics about the supernatural, irrigators about water, nuclear spokespeople about nuclear safety, billionaires about taxation, shooters about gun safety, libertarians about public service, warmongers about war. So when people appear, right there on my tv, making statements about such things, I really do want to know where they are coming from. If someone with no axe to grind has done independent research which shows that more forest can be cut down, fine, I’ll listen to your arguments, examine your data. But if you are an employee of a pulp mill forget it.
A scientist approaches a question in the spirit of the old legal oath – “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” – following the data to see where it leads, what the answer to the question is, however it might conflict with, contradict, the hypothesis the scientist began with. An ideologue (of whatever kind), or someone paid by ideologues or interest groups, does the opposite of this, they start with the answer, the truth as revealed by, say, Hayek or Benedict, and they set about investigating the data in order to obtain that answer. What else could it do, it is the truth, the whole truth, and there is nothing else but that truth? Whether they know it or not, people who start with an answer instead of a question are driven by their ideology.
Look this is not to say there are not scientists with ideology that warps their science. Most notoriously in evolution and climate change. It is usually easy to recognise because of their strong links with religious groups or libertarian think tanks (climate change being the biggest challenge ever posed to the mad-brained libertarian ideology). In some it can be more subtle though, representing political mind-sets more inclined to accept one analysis than another (an example in my own field of research being the role of fire in Australian ecosystems). With so much money around these days for those willing to argue against climate change, or gambling reform, or plain packaging of cigarettes, it is not surprising that a scientist of a certain ideological tendency can be tempted to turn a blind eye to some results, or present other results in the way most favourable to his or her employers. Or even without money, argue strongly for something which forms a fundamental part of their political or religious world view.
Obviously we all approach issues with predispositions influenced in some way by our family background, schooling, personal circumstances and so on. We are all ideological creatures to some extent. Me no less than others. In the ordinary scheme of things this doesn’t matter. I may want some research outcome to match my own belief about, say education strategies, but if it doesn’t I would shrug and say well, isn’t that interesting. My “ideology”, such as it is, doesn’t tell you much about what I write except in a negative sense – I am an atheist, I am vaguely left of political centre with an interest in the environment, I belong to no political party, I am not employed by any think tank, I have no financial vested interest in political outcomes. Judge what I say, the logic of my arguments, the quality of my data. I guess my outlook is coloured by my background, but good luck working out how. And that would be true of a very big proportion of ordinary people writing, blogging, appearing on tv, voting in elections.
But where it is not true I bloody well want to know before I invite you into my living room or on to my computer screen. Okay? That’s not so extraordinary is it?