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Stretched Thin, Part 1

As some of you may be aware, during my more prolific days on the ‘Kog, I decried the decline in the quality of journalism, a trend which I directly attributed to the establishment of the 24-hour cable news stations. The need to fill airtime has superseded the need to inform, and has led, not to a better-informed viewership, but to an audience that lives on a steady diet of supposition, fluff masquerading as news, and political partisanship. 

Now, the phenomenon has reached a low point that even I didn’t think possible. CNN, the Turner-owned Cable News Network, which at one time had at least a veneer of respectability by comparison to its laughable competition, has now embarked on a journey into the realm of fantasy. 

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I’m going to have to go with a ‘no’ on that. 

 

CNN’s Headline News Channel has seen fit to inflict upon the public the idea that psychics could be enlisted to find the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which is at best disrespectful to the families of the victims and at worst an insult to the intelligence of everyone within a 5-mile radius. The interview contained the following immortal quote: 

“Naturally, I don’t have hard, concrete evidence,” Lisa Williams confessed. “I think any psychic who has hard, concrete evidence can’t do their job correctly.”

That’s certainly the best description of how psychic abilities work that I’ve seen. Add to this indignity the theories that a black hole was responsible for the disappearance, as well as the all-time classic explanation: god did it. As The Daily Kos points out, “One of the problems with non-stop coverage of a particular event is that eventually… you run out of things to talk about.”

And that, my friends is the problem in a nutshell. The need to fill the endless hours have led to this type of idiocy, and the fact that the public feels better informed as a result is an indication of just how numbed our minds have become by the constant influx of background noise. This has led to the rise of ‘equal time’, which is in reality just filling time. Any scientific or authoritative claim that is made is supposedly in need of balance through the granting of airtime to representatives with an opposing view, no matter how ludicrous. This leads to the phenomenon of the ‘false equivalency’, a timeworn holdover from the proponents of postmodern thought that assert that all beliefs have validity, and we are evil white men to even question such things. 

The difficulty I have with this should be obvious: while people are indeed created equal*, ideas are not. If an engineer says “Evidence says that we should shut down this nuclear reactor due to the risks involved”, that should without question be taken orders of magnitude more seriously than “God says we should keep it operating”. Unfortunately, the distinction is lost on many more people than I am comfortable admitting. Ideas are created by human beings – flawed, weak, venal, selfish, greedy, virtuous, and generous human beings. We are hardwired by evolution to seek out the best possible advantage for ourselves, and if creating an ideology that serves our interests is the way to do it, then it’s as good as done. People are flawed, therefore ideas alone are not proof of anything other than the depth of conviction of the believer.

Add systematic testing of ideas to the mix, however, and you are onto something – the realm of theory. Do tests that are reliable enough, consistently get results that are repeatable under a wide range of circumstances and settings, and the system of checks and balances on the discovery of information we call ‘science’ is doing its job. Do all this well enough and you can shift long-standing paradigms in some fields. These are ideas, but they are ideas that are independently verified by a systematic, objective method and by a community that practices that method. The opposite to this? Guesswork, sloppy attempts to imitate the scientific method to manipulate results and find exactly what you are seeking, ideology, and dogma. Not fact in any sense of the word. Is science perfect? Probably not – there are good and bad physicists, as is true of any social group; it’s nearness to perfection lies in the ability and the willingness to open up your data and your methods to scrutiny by others in your field. In time, it’s the weight of accumulated evidence either proves or disproves a theory, not popularity or volume. 

Witness one of the best and most touching moments I’ve seen, wherein a scientist receives word that his life’s work in examining and trying to explain the origins of our universe in the Big Bang has been verified. He was right

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You, sir, get a cookie. 

Nobody needs this ridiculous circus of misinformation thrown at them at all hours. We are less-informed rather than better-informed, and as a consequence our lives and our society are suffering. Being open-minded is a virtue, but keeping it so open that the wind whistles through on a blustery day is dangerous – and encouraging it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week is irresponsible and criminal. 

 

 

*No. People are not created. Relax. 

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