Sunday, September 11, 2005

Telling the Truth

Some people’s idea of “telling the truth,” is saying anything they think they can get away with -- relying on other people not to be able to tell the difference. Unfortunately, that is especially true of those who work “in the media” -- primarily functioning to propagate that information, disinformation, or ignorance. The kind of people drawn to such positions, and the need to relentlessly compete against every other for fickle public attention, is not conducive to thoughtful reflection and unpressured independence and integrity of judgment. In fact, it may be the ultimate herd mentality, the need to conform, as the arbiter of truth. That manner of determining, assures that the most improbable and outrageous assertions cannot be tested for truth and therefore will be accepted as “fact,” because nobody will bother to dignify and dispute it.

Thus, it will be accepted as an unchallenged truth in that way -- because it is so outrageously ridiculous as to escape sober and rational examination, substantiation and verification. Demagogues, recognizing that vulnerability, know then that the more ridiculous and preposterous their claims, the more they are likely to defy refutation. Then the popular dialogue and conversation is dominated by the absurd, the ridiculous, the preposterous -- while self-evident truths are derided as too simplistic to be sophisticated, and complicated enough to be proof of superior intellect. Of course those suffering from inferiority complexes are easily cowed and impressed. They fear being the first to admit their ignorance -- of that which intelligent people know as patently false.

In a den of thieves, the biggest liar, the greatest con-artist, the most ruthless, is king. In many professions now, that is the criteria of success in that field -- which ultimately must undermine the whole endeavor for legitimacy and credibility. One should be able to be well-informed without being vulnerable to all the nonsense that those clamoring for unfair advantage are corrupted by. Rather than investigative rigor, many reporters are intimidated into accepting the untrue because of their inability to determine the truth for themselves -- and are at the mercy of their informant, to be fair with them. That gullibility is exploited by the unscrupulous.

The ultimate quality of information is limited by the audience it is communicated to. Good information is of no value, or no difference to the undiscriminating. They will believe whatever they are told to believe. It does not even occur to them that they can question authority and validity. That may even be “somebody else’s job.” In many instances, it turns out to be nobody’s job. So the integrity and validity of information is largely dependent on the mutual respect of the informer and the informed.

The old broadcast model of information and communication is almost totally controlled by the informant -- without regard for the capabilities and input of the informed. In fact, that relationship may even be adversarial -- each undermining the other, until all exchanges are counter-informative. In such an adversarial relationship, the interaction destroys the capability of the information receiver rather than enhancing their capabilities. It is a negative-sum game. The less one knows of that kind of “information,” the better off one is.


At September 12, 2005 3:35 AM, Blogger Mike Hu said...

More on Katrina
By Ben Stein
Published 9/12/2005 12:11:44 AM

Fact: Katrina was a devastating storm. It left terrible damage to innocent people's lives and to property throughout the Gulf South.

Fact: There have been other storms as damaging and some far more damaging. What, then, is different about this storm? Here are a few tentative thoughts.

First, the incompetence of the local and state authorities in Louisiana and especially New Orleans was breathtaking. To issue a mandatory evacuation order without providing means of transport is almost criminally irresponsible. To take citizens to shelters where they would be beaten, robbed and raped and to provide no police protection for them was astoundingly incompetent. To allow armed gangs to shoot at rescuers was almost beyond belief.

Second, the response of the federal government is described as slow, and it was slow at first. But can anyone name a natural disaster in which more federal troops, supplies, and money have been dispatched as quickly as they have been done in this disaster? Bush's response has not been unusually bad, but amazingly powerful and swift. In other hurricanes, survivors have been left for weeks on their own. In Katrina's case, the whole affected area has been covered with money and aid and troops to restore order on a scale and with speed never seen before.

Third, the networks and newspapers have been quick to cry racism because so many of the victims were black. This is total nonsense. New Orleans is a mostly black city. Obviously, most of the victims of the storm would be black. No one has been able to point to a single instance in which black victims were mistreated because of their race by whites. In fact, just the opposite has happened. The whole story is of rescues and salvation by people of all races aimed at people of all races. In a gesture never seen before, the whole heart of the nation has taken in poor, bereft black families and sheltered them absolutely without regards to race. This is a mirror of the basic goodness of Americans and the disappearance of racism as an acceptable action basis of American life. It is also a measure of the total absence of racism in the heart of George W. Bush. The media may play this as a story of race versus race, but that is pure incendiary fantasy, and dangerous nonsense.

What is the real story of Katrina is (I suggest) not so much that nature wrought fury on land, water, people, property, and animals, not at all anything about racism, not much about federal government incompetence. The real story is that the mainstream media rioted.

They used the storm and its attendant sorrows to continue their endless attack on George W. Bush. Wildly inflated stories about the number of dead and missing, totally made up old wives' tales of racism, breathless accounts of Bush neglect that are utterly devoid of truth and of historical context -- this is what the mainstream media gave us. The use of floating corpses, of horror stories of plagues, the sad faces of refugees, the long-faced phony accusations of intentional neglect and racism -- anything is grist for the media's endless attempts to undermine the electorate's choice last November. It is sad, but true that the media will use even the most heart breaking truths -- and then add total inventions -- to try to weaken and then evict from office a man who has done nothing wrong, but has instead turned himself inside out to help the real victims.

In the meantime, George Bush does not lash out, does not attack those who falsely accuse him of the most horrible acts and neglect. Instead, he doggedly goes on helping the least among us. I don't know how he does it, but we are very lucky he does. As for truth, it eventually may be salvaged from the flooded neighborhoods of The Crescent City, but not as long as there is a lie to use to hurt an honest man trying to do the best he can, and hundreds of thousands of brave, tireless men and women who do more than point fingers and tell tales. The Katrina story is a disgrace to the people who are "reporting" it while pouring gasoline on a fire. They and their crusade against George Bush are the real stories, and they are dismal ones.

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu.

At September 12, 2005 5:12 AM, Blogger Mike Hu said...,12980,1564369,00.html

Don't dumb me down

We laughed, we cried, we learned about statistics ... Ben Goldacre on why writing Bad Science has increased his suspicion of the media by, ooh, a lot of per cents

Thursday September 8, 2005
The Guardian

Talk about bad science here.
OK, here's something weird. Every week in Bad Science we either victimise some barking pseudoscientific quack, or a big science story in a national newspaper. Now, tell me, why are these two groups even being mentioned in the same breath? Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong? Like a proper little Darwin, I've been collecting specimens, making careful observations, and now I'm ready to present my theory.

It is my hypothesis that in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science, for their own means. They then attack this parody as if they were critiquing science. This week we take the gloves off and do some serious typing.

Science stories usually fall into three families: wacky stories, scare stories and "breakthrough" stories. Last year the Independent ran a wacky science story that generated an actual editorial: how many science stories get the lead editorial? It was on research by Dr Kevin Warwick, purporting to show that watching Richard and Judy improved IQ test performance ( Needless to say it was unpublished data, and highly questionable.

Wacky stories don't end there. They never end. Infidelity is genetic, say scientists. Electricity allergy real, says researcher. I've been collecting "scientists have found the formula for" stories since last summer, carefully pinning them into glass specimen cases, in preparation for my debut paper on the subject. So far I have captured the formulae for: the perfect way to eat ice cream (AxTpxTm/FtxAt +VxLTxSpxW/Tt=3d20), the perfect TV sitcom (C=3d[(RxD)+V]xF/A+S), the perfect boiled egg, love, the perfect joke, the most depressing day of the year ([W+(D-d)]xTQ MxNA), and so many more. Enough! Every paper - including this one - covers them: and before anyone bleats excuses on their behalf, these stories are invariably written by the science correspondents, and hotly followed, to universal jubilation, with comment pieces, by humanities graduates, on how bonkers and irrelevant scientists are.

A close relative of the wacky story is the paradoxical health story. Every Christmas and Easter, regular as clockwork, you can read that chocolate is good for you (, just like red wine is, and with the same monotonous regularity, in breathless, greedy tones you will you hear how it's scientifically possible to eat as much fat and carbohydrate as you like, for some complicated reason, but only if you do it at "the right time of day". These stories serve one purpose: they promote the reassuring idea that sensible health advice is outmoded and moralising, and that research on it is paradoxical and unreliable.

At the other end of the spectrum, scare stories are - of course - a stalwart of media science. Based on minimal evidence and expanded with poor understanding of its significance, they help perform the most crucial function for the media, which is selling you, the reader, to their advertisers. The MMR disaster was a fantasy entirely of the media's making (, which failed to go away. In fact the Daily Mail is still publishing hysterical anti-immunisation stories, including one calling the pneumococcus vaccine a "triple jab", presumably because they misunderstood that the meningitis, pneumonia, and septicaemia it protects against are all caused by the same pneumococcus bacteria (

Now, even though popular belief in the MMR scare is - perhaps - starting to fade, popular understanding of it remains minimal: people periodically come up to me and say, isn't it funny how that Wakefield MMR paper turned out to be Bad Science after all? And I say: no. The paper always was and still remains a perfectly good small case series report, but it was systematically misrepresented as being more than that, by media that are incapable of interpreting and reporting scientific data.

Once journalists get their teeth into what they think is a scare story, trivial increases in risk are presented, often out of context, but always using one single way of expressing risk, the "relative risk increase", that makes the danger appear disproportionately large ( This is before we mention the times, such as last week's Seroxat story, or the ibuprofen and heart attack story last month, when in their eagerness to find a scandal, half the papers got the figures wrong. This error, you can't help noticing, is always in the same direction.

And last, in our brief taxonomy, is the media obsession with "new breakthroughs": a more subtly destructive category of science story. It's quite understandable that newspapers should feel it's their job to write about new stuff. But in the aggregate, these stories sell the idea that science, and indeed the whole empirical world view, is only about tenuous, new, hotly-contested data. Articles about robustly-supported emerging themes and ideas would be more stimulating, of course, than most single experimental results, and these themes are, most people would agree, the real developments in science. But they emerge over months and several bits of evidence, not single rejiggable press releases. Often, a front page science story will emerge from a press release alone, and the formal academic paper may never appear, or appear much later, and then not even show what the press reports claimed it would (

Last month there was an interesting essay in the journal PLoS Medicine, about how most brand new research findings will turn out to be false ( It predictably generated a small flurry of ecstatic pieces from humanities graduates in the media, along the lines of science is made-up, self-aggrandising, hegemony-maintaining, transient fad nonsense; and this is the perfect example of the parody hypothesis that we'll see later. Scientists know how to read a paper. That's what they do for a living: read papers, pick them apart, pull out what's good and bad.

Scientists never said that tenuous small new findings were important headline news - journalists did.

But enough on what they choose to cover. What's wrong with the coverage itself? The problems here all stem from one central theme: there is no useful information in most science stories. A piece in the Independent on Sunday from January 11 2004 suggested that mail-order Viagra is a rip-off because it does not contain the "correct form" of the drug. I don't use the stuff, but there were 1,147 words in that piece. Just tell me: was it a different salt, a different preparation, a different isomer, a related molecule, a completely different drug? No idea. No room for that one bit of information.

Remember all those stories about the danger of mobile phones? I was on holiday at the time, and not looking things up obsessively on PubMed; but off in the sunshine I must have read 15 newspaper articles on the subject. Not one told me what the experiment flagging up the danger was. What was the exposure, the measured outcome, was it human or animal data? Figures? Anything? Nothing. I've never bothered to look it up for myself, and so I'm still as much in the dark as you.

Why? Because papers think you won't understand the "science bit", all stories involving science must be dumbed down, leaving pieces without enough content to stimulate the only people who are actually going to read them - that is, the people who know a bit about science. Compare this with the book review section, in any newspaper. The more obscure references to Russian novelists and French philosophers you can bang in, the better writer everyone thinks you are. Nobody dumbs down the finance pages. Imagine the fuss if I tried to stick the word "biophoton" on a science page without explaining what it meant. I can tell you, it would never get past the subs or the section editor. But use it on a complementary medicine page, incorrectly, and it sails through.

Statistics are what causes the most fear for reporters, and so they are usually just edited out, with interesting consequences. Because science isn't about something being true or not true: that's a humanities graduate parody. It's about the error bar, statistical significance, it's about how reliable and valid the experiment was, it's about coming to a verdict, about a hypothesis, on the back of lots of bits of evidence.

But science journalists somehow don't understand the difference between the evidence and the hypothesis. The Times's health editor Nigel Hawkes recently covered an experiment which showed that having younger siblings was associated with a lower incidence of multiple sclerosis. MS is caused by the immune system turning on the body. "This is more likely to happen if a child at a key stage of development is not exposed to infections from younger siblings, says the study." That's what Hawkes said. Wrong! That's the "Hygiene Hypothesis", that's not what the study showed: the study just found that having younger siblings seemed to be somewhat protective against MS: it didn't say, couldn't say, what the mechanism was, like whether it happened through greater exposure to infections. He confused evidence with hypothesis (, and he is a "science communicator".

So how do the media work around their inability to deliver scientific evidence? They use authority figures, the very antithesis of what science is about, as if they were priests, or politicians, or parent figures. "Scientists today said ... scientists revealed ... scientists warned." And if they want balance, you'll get two scientists disagreeing, although with no explanation of why (an approach at its most dangerous with the myth that scientists were "divided" over the safety of MMR). One scientist will "reveal" something, and then another will "challenge" it. A bit like Jedi knights.

The danger of authority figure coverage, in the absence of real evidence, is that it leaves the field wide open for questionable authority figures to waltz in. Gillian McKeith, Andrew Wakefield, Kevin Warwick and the rest can all get a whole lot further, in an environment where their authority is taken as read, because their reasoning and evidence is rarely publicly examined.

But it also reinforces the humanities graduate journalists' parody of science, for which we now have all the ingredients: science is about groundless, incomprehensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality: they do work that is either wacky, or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory and, most ridiculously, "hard to understand".

This misrepresentation of science is a direct descendant of the reaction, in the Romantic movement, against the birth of science and empiricism more than 200 years ago; it's exactly the same paranoid fantasy as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, only not as well written. We say descendant, but of course, the humanities haven't really moved forward at all, except to invent cultural relativism, which exists largely as a pooh-pooh reaction against science. And humanities graduates in the media, who suspect themselves to be intellectuals, desperately need to reinforce the idea that science is nonsense: because they've denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of western thought for 200 years, and secretly, deep down, they're angry with themselves over that.

That's what I'd have said three years ago. But now I'm on the inside, I can add a slightly different element to the story. I'm an all right-looking bloke, I get about: maybe I'm not the most popular bloke at science journalist parties, but I'm certainly talkative. For many months I had a good spirited row with an eminent science journalist, who kept telling me that scientists needed to face up to the fact that they had to get better at communicating to a lay audience. She is a humanities graduate. "Since you describe yourself as a science communicator," I would invariably say, to the sound of derisory laughter: "isn't that your job?" But no, for there is a popular and grand idea about, that scientific ignorance is a useful tool: if even they can understand it, they think to themselves, the reader will. What kind of a communicator does that make you?

There is one university PR department in London that I know fairly well - it's a small middle-class world after all - and I know that until recently, they had never employed a single science graduate. This is not uncommon. Science is done by scientists, who write it up. Then a press release is written by a non-scientist, who runs it by their non-scientist boss, who then sends it to journalists without a science education who try to convey difficult new ideas to an audience of either lay people, or more likely - since they'll be the ones interested in reading the stuff - people who know their way around a t-test a lot better than any of these intermediaries. Finally, it's edited by a whole team of people who don't understand it. You can be sure that at least one person in any given "science communication" chain is just juggling words about on a page, without having the first clue what they mean, pretending they've got a proper job, their pens all lined up neatly on the desk.

Of course a system like that will cock up. The proof is in Bad Science, every week. See you in Berlin.

· Bad Science will be continuing in the Guardian next week

· What did you think of this article? Mail your responses to and include your name and address.

At September 13, 2005 1:03 PM, Blogger Mike Hu said...

Why don't the Honolulu Advertiser or Star-Bulletin publish any informed opinions?

Gas Cap Not Working, No Matter What Hawaii Politicians Say
By Brian Barbata, 9/13/2005 7:32:12 AM

Former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano had quite a long piece published Sunday in The Honolulu Advertiser, telling Hawaii drivers how lucky we are to have the Gas Cap law. It demonstrated again how he and the others who cooked this up just don’t get it.

If you are reading this, you are probably interested in the Gas Cap debacle as it unfolds, so you should also be considering the sources of your information.

The law’s drafters and Cayetano are all lawyers and career politicians. If you think they have expertise in the petroleum industry, don’t bother reading further. I worked 8 years for the predecessor of Tesoro, and have been a jobber and a retail dealer for 17 years, with experience statewide.

In 25 years, there is no aspect of Hawaii’s petroleum industry I have not been directly involved in. We are a small business. I have never worked for Chevron, and I don’t own stock in Chevron, Tesoro, or any other oil company. They supply me just like they supply other jobbers and dealers. If you don’t think my experience is relevant, again, don’t bother reading further.

Cayetano clearly has an agenda with Chevron, or "the 800-pound gorilla" as he calls them for dramatic effect. I’m not going to defend Chevron, but defensiveness and vindictiveness are all over his remarks. This is not the basis for good law. His arguments are stale, and have been hashed out and superceded by new information long ago. The Chevron suit was settled, lawyers made a lot of money, and yet Democrats continue to call it "proof" of wrong doing. Subsequently, they ignored two State consultants’ reports, warning of the dangers or price controls, as well as experts from inside and outside Hawaii.

This was the genesis of the Gas Cap law, so it’s not surprising its few supporters are defensive as it now finally reaches the light of day. The point now is not whether Chevron should be punished for something no one can quite define, it is the law itself and how it is affecting everyone.

Cayetano is also unhappy with the news coverage of the law, claiming the media "act as passive observers," being controlled by Republican "spin artists." If you have been paying attention to the media on this subject for the last few years, you have noticed that they only started to question the law when reality hit recently. Consumers too. Gas Cap supporters have enjoyed years of media support, based on feel-good, unsubstantiated statements, conspiracy theories, and wild claims of industry collusion. Now here we are, and the media is just reflecting the reality of the situation. There is so much negative opinion against the Gas Cap (like the 5-to-1 email against it on Kauai), it just could not be created out of thin air.

The former governor is not a bad spinner himself. He says we had the highest priced gas in the nation before the Gas Cap (not true), and that only the Cap saved us from the evil oil companies during Katrina. He notes Hawaii after the Gas Cap was 35th in pricing in the nation, and 22nd in the AAA’s latest data last week. Probably true at some convenient moment. I don’t know where he gets his information, but you can go to the AAA Web site at and take a look for yourself. As of September 9th, Hawaii was third (if you exclude D.C.), not 35th or 22nd.

Cayetano would like you to believe that this law is all about Chevron, and that Chevron admitted its evil ways and should be punished. What ever. The reality of the law is that "those most likely to be hurt" (in the words of the state’s two most recent consultants) are jobbers and rural dealers. We just conveniently disappeared; a speed bump on the road to a bad idea. The latest twist is that suppliers should not charge the Gas Cap maximum when prices go up, kind of giving the impression of some demon preying on the villagers (I guess it’s that 800-pound gorilla again). "Oh, great god Chevron, we are at your mercy; please spare us." What champions of the little guy. Yes, they want Chevron and Tesoro (and presumably also jobbers and dealers) to just cover their costs and a "reasonable" profit (which would be?) when the Gas Cap price goes up.

Being fair minded, I suppose they would also agree to protect these same businesses against losses when the Cap goes down. Don’t hold your breath. Now that the Democrats have set up this law, forcing Hawaii gas prices to track mainland prices (news flash: not to lower them), they want it to be a one-way street. "Don’t go all the way up, but make sure you go all the way down." Come on. The Cap means you have to go down. But they don’t want you to go up? Geez. All the experts have said to expect prices to go to the Cap every week, since resellers have no way of knowing when the law is going to hand them losses.

Here’s one very specific example of what anyone with gasoline storage is going through now: Prices go up 50 cents over 2 weeks. Then the PUC’s Gas Cap calculation shows it is going down 40 cents the next week (this is kind of where we are right now). Every gallon that you have in your tank the night before the price goes down is going to be sold at a 40 cent loss…for sure…guaranteed. So, anyone with half a brain is going to do his damnedest to have as little as possible in his tanks on that last day. He is going to put off deliveries and hope he doesn’t run out, but if he does, it’s still better than getting stuck with thousands of gallons of high cost gas. Unfortunately, many small resellers don’t all have the ability to play this game very well, so it’s just going to mean losses.

Jobbers who buy gas by the barge load (like on Molokai) are in an even worse predicament. We pay a huge amount for that barge load when we order it, whatever the price is. We can’t do anything about timing, because the barge has to depart on schedule. How would you like to have just unloaded 200,000 gallons of gas into your tanks at a fixed cost for the next 4 weeks, then watch the Cap go down 10 cents a week? If that happens to us, we’re going to take a $20,000 loss just in the first week. Before the next barge, we could be out of business on Molokai. Not rhetoric; reality.

On the Chevron/Tesoro level, how would you like to bring in $20 million of crude oil in a ship, and refine it into gasoline, just in time to see the Gas Cap prices go down week after week? If it goes down 10 percent, they lose $2 million. Personally, I don’t see how those companies can continue to take such risk.

This is just some of the lunacy of Gas Cap. The fact of the matter has always been that Hawaii’s gas prices have been very reasonable if our taxes on gas were set at the national average. Hawaii taxes still rank first, at least 20 cents over the national average. Several governors seem to "get it," and are talking about implementing a gas tax reduction. What a concept. None of them is pushing a Gas Cap law.

The former governor says, "Time will tell if Hawaii’s Gas Cap law is effective…" Easy to say, since no one has a clue as to how to measure this. We will all be subject to unsubstantiated political rhetoric on this question for a long time. One thing is for certain: Hawaii drivers have now traded price stability for price volatility. Cayetano is dead wrong when he claims prices here would be even higher without the Cap. Historical data demonstrates clearly that Hawaii prices only react mildly to disruptions in mainland markets (because the refiners generally do not import or export gasoline). Both of the state’s consultants commented on this. Without the Cap, we would be merely reading about prices in the rest of the country and breathing easy. Instead, we get to go through part of the pain of Katrina with the Gulf states (one of the Cap formula markets ingeniously selected by the drafters of the law). But hey, who can prove anything? How convenient.

While politicians jockey for position and votes using the Gas Cap as rhetoric, small gasoline jobbers and dealers are going to do whatever we have to do to keep our customers supplied and stay in business. Hawaii consumers can expect the economic roller coaster ride of their lives until this law can be repealed.

Brian Barbata is a jobber for the islands of Kauai, Big Island & Molokai and can be reached via email at


Post a Comment

<< Home