Will v. Science, Part Two

In a comment on a previous post, Sybil sent this link to “The George Will Affair,” published in the Columbia Journalism Review. I thought it was worthy of a full post.

If you have wandered onto this blog and don’t want to click the link, then here’s the URL:

http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/the_george_will_affair.php

Read this article. Please, please, please. This is IMPORTANT, folks

I believe in climate change BECAUSE I believe in argument. I don’t have an agenda. I WANT to find peer-reviewed articles that refute climate change. So far I haven’t found them. So, as of today, I believe in climate chance because the weight of evidence is on that side.

That’s why Will’s articles terrify me. He offers easily refuted factual errors. More dangerous yet, Will, talented writer that he is, uses his skills to produce incorrect inferences in readers without knowledge of science.

Since I fully agree with the Post‘s stated position that it’s best to argue about issues, I’m doubly upset about their attitude toward facts and inferences. A major part of my job is teaching people HOW to argue and Will’s use, misuse, and twisting of facts would earn any college student of mine a lengthy lecture on propaganda techniques and evaluation of sources.

In other words, I expected more careful* use of sources from Will. On matters of science, science journals and scientific organizations always trump the popular press.

Why? Because academic journals have standards and a peer-review process to catch the sort of errors that popular sources can cheerfully ignore because they aren’t in danger of a peer-review, the dreaded process in which one’s work is marched past a panel of OTHER experts in the field, a hoard with magnifying glasses and hammers, a throng waiting to pounce on and smash the slightest inaccuracy or unsupported tweak.

Uh oh. I just had a horrifying thought. You don’t suppose–

Could the eminent George Will be like most of my college students? Could he cite popular sources because he gives them the same weight as academic journals?

Does he, like many, think that articles published by Heartland Institute or the Sierra Club are the equal of work published in the Journal of Climate?

Too often I see Americans assume that all opinions are EQUAL.

I agree that everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but, like people, those opinions are merely CREATED equal. After that, it’s magnifying glass and hammer time. Unworthy opinions deserve to be shattered by evidence and logic, and even worthy opinions often have some dents to be hammered out. That’s the scientific method.

Cite your sources, and be ready to revise–that’s my motto. I wonder what George Will’s is.

Cassandra

*Sybil just suggested he was “careful” and that I should use “honest” instead.

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4 Responses to “Will v. Science, Part Two”

  1. bodhi-mine Says:

    Careful … the idea that ‘standards’ and ‘peer-review’ somehow promotes better data and better conclusions about said data is itself an erroneous opinion. Scientific journals are, sad to say, full of bad data, poor conclusions drawn from that data, and yes (and far worse): bias and subjective opinion unconcerned with reality.
    Mind you, I am certainly not defending Mr. Will, his opinions or his methods for supporting them, I am simply concerned that your argument is itself on shaky ground. Authority, officialdom and scientific orthodoxy are very dangerous ideas and institutions and demand very careful attention – they are not to go unquestioned. Many a theory now accepted as orthodox was derided by scientific orthodoxy when originally promulgated. Scientists are people too – they defend strongly-held opinions with great passion and often without reference to reality if it does not seem to agree with them.

    “Unworthy opinions deserve to be shattered by evidence and logic, and even worthy opinions often have some dents to be hammered out. That’s the scientific method.”

    Yes, even when (or perhaps especially when) they are the reigning paradigm …

    Best wishes to all.

  2. uncommonscolds Says:

    bodhi-mine says, “Careful … the idea that ’standards’ and ‘peer-review’ somehow promotes better data and better conclusions about said data is itself an erroneous opinion. Scientific journals are, sad to say, full of bad data, poor conclusions drawn from that data, and yes (and far worse): bias and subjective opinion unconcerned with reality.”

    You make several good points.

    Yes, the process of peer review is flawed. Yes, errors get through. But academic review provides a vital first cut to get rid of total garbage.

    After journal publication, the real work starts. Other experts spot problems and then new articles appear with, one hopes, better data and stronger conclusions. And then others will find flaws in those until something truly paradigm changing actually appears.

    As Vonnegut said, “And so it goes.”

    Cassandra

  3. uncommonscolds Says:

    Thinking about bodhi-mine’s comment led me to discover a book that now tops my must-find list:

    The Rejection of Continental Drift: Theory and Method in American Earth Science by Naomi Oreskes

    Cassandra

  4. bodhi-mine Says:

    Uncommon Scolds says, “Yes, the process of peer review is flawed. Yes, errors get through. But academic review provides a vital first cut to get rid of total garbage.”

    I agree that it can have this effect, and, when it does, then it is that the scientific process has the potential to be rewarding indeed.

    “The Rejection of Continental Drift” should be an interesting read. Let us all know if it has any real eye-openers.

    bodhi-mine

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