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Dangerous For Democracy January 12, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics, Science.
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Via Political Animal:

The British Daily Mail ran a report yesterday with the headline, “Could we be in for 30 years of global COOLING?” The piece told readers, “According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado, the warming of the Earth since 1900 is due to natural oceanic cycles, and not man-made greenhouse gases.”

It led Fox News to report, “30 Years of Global Cooling Are Coming, Leading Scientist Says.”

There are, of course, two small problems. First, the National Snow and Ice Data Center said no such thing. The director of the NSIDC said, “This is completely false. NSIDC has never made such a statement and we were never contacted by anyone from the Daily Mail.”

Second, the Fox News report cites the research of IPCC scientist Mojib Latif, one of the world’s leading climate modelers. The story completely mischaracterizes his work, and gets the story largely backwards.

Latif told Dr. Joseph Romm:

“I don’t know what to do. They just make these things up.”

Yes, they do. And as long as there are news consumers who prefer the alternative universe these outlets provide, they’ll keep making these things up.

Scientific literacy is not exactly widespread in the U.S. And that means the corporate media, especially Fox News, can say what they like if it will attract eyeballs. The average person has no way of assessing this information. That is not good for our democracy.

So I don’t think we can expect news consumers to solve this by themselves. It is really incumbent on the news profession to police their ranks. People who work for outlets like Fox News or The Daily Mail should be drummed out of the profession. Journalism professors should make it clear that working for either organization is a violation of journalistic ethics.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


More Pseudoscience from the Science Media November 29, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.
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The recently-reported case of Mr. Houben is another example of the science media running amok.

Houben was completely paralyzed after an accident and had been diagnosed with Persistent Vegetative State (minimal brain function but no consciousness) for 23 years. But thanks to the technology of modern neuroscience, (MRI scans that measure blood flow) Steven Laureys, a neurologist at the ­University of Liege in Belgium, was able to determine that Houben was completely conscious but just unable to communicate. This is an important development that suggests misdiagnosed coma cases may be more prevalent than previously realized.

But as this story in the Guardian reports:

This led to further evaluation of Mr. Houben’s clinical state, and it was discovered that he was able to communicate by typing out messaging on a board. Mr. Houben soon began recounting how he was awake the whole time, screaming inside his head, and eventually retreated into his dreams. He now feels like he has been reborn and looks forward to interacting with his family. [The NY Times ran a similar story]

Many scientists, while acknowledging the importance of Laureys’ brain scan studies, are highly skeptical of the claims regarding communication. This commentary by Stephen Novella is typical:

I don’t know what Mr. Houben’s exam is. But I do have a video of him communicating. What I can say with high confidence is that this is a video of bogus facilitated communication. The “facilitator” appears to not just be supporting Houben’s hand, but moving it around the keyboard.

Houben is looking in the general direction of the keyboard, but at times not directly at it (which is necessary for single finger typing). It is not clear if he can even see, and since his eyes are not in line it is not clear which eye he would be using.

His hand is also in a brace; his finger is not touching the board – the plastic of the brace is – so he would have little sensory feedback.

And yet his hand flies dextrously across the board typing very quickly. It seems impossible that someone with his level of paralysis, and years of inactivity, would be able to type so quickly with just a little “support”. There is little doubt, in other words, that his typing is the product of bogus FC – the facilitator is doing the communicating, not Houben.

Reporting of his typing is without skepticism, and so basic questions are not addressed. It would also be almost trivial to test whether or not the communication were legitimate – the report says he responds in Flemish – so have a non-Flemish speaking facilitator hold his hand. Apparently, he also understands English so you could have a non-English speaking facilitator answer questions posed in English. Or blind the facilitator to the keyboard or visual information that Houben has access to. […]

The only thing I am certain about in this case is that the typing out of messages through FC is bogus. Otherwise, I do not have access to sufficiently detailed information to make any specific conclusions.

Another video has Mr. Houben typing furiously with his eyes closed.

Facilitated communication involves a “facilitator” holding a patient’s hand to “help” them communicate by pointing to letters on a board. It was proposed some years ago as a way of helping brain damaged patients communicate but controlled, blind studies have shown that the communication is being done by the facilitator, not the patient. Yet these stories are reported with none of the skepticism such a hypothesis deserves.

So we seem to have another case of a credulous media drawing implications from a story with no facts to support them.

And as Novella points out:

It is also, in my opinion, a further abuse of this patient. Mr. Houben, if he is truly conscious, has now been deprived once again of his ability to communicate – usurped by a facilitator, who will be communicating in his name (and even writing a book, we are told). Never underestimate the ability for pseudoscience to make a bad situation worse.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Science and Public Ignorance July 12, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.
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There was some very interesting (and disturbing) polling information released last week regarding public attitudes toward science. Via CNET:

In the current survey, only 27 percent of Americans cited scientific advancement as one of the country’s most important achievements, compared with 47 percent in May 1999.

That is a curious drop-off in just 10 years. I’m not sure what the explanation is although scientific illiteracy may have much to do with it.

Among those [scientists] surveyed, 85 percent see the public’s lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem. Almost half criticize the public for having unrealistic expectations about scientific progress.

If the public has unrealistic expectations about science, when science inevitably doesn’t deliver, the public may be disappointed in the promise of science.

The media may contribute to the public’s scientific illiteracy.

The media also shares in the blame, say scientists. About 48 percent of scientists say the news oversimplifies science. Newspaper coverage comes off best, with 36 percent of scientists rating it excellent or good. But TV coverage of science fares worse–only 15 percent of scientists see it as excellent or good.

The media is often guilty of overselling science by reporting as scientific fact findings that have still not been confirmed. In most news stories, you have to read to the end to find out the degree of consensus regarding a particular discovery. Even then it may not be clear how complete the scientific understanding of a phenomenon is. So when speculative or insufficiently researched results don’t pan out, again the public is disappointed.

Of course, when you have a public that just flatly refuses to believe even settled, well-confirmed scientific explanations, it is hard to know what conclusions to draw from this data.

The majority of scientists firmly believe in evolution, with 87 percent saying humans and other living creatures have evolved over time through processes such as natural selection. Only 32 percent of the public believes the same.

A full 84 percent of scientists say global warming is the result of human actions, such as burning fossil fuel, while only 49 percent of the public agrees.

Science is so pervasive in human life that the public’s lack of understanding seriously threatens democracy.  The human race, long ago, chose the route of technology to satisfy needs and there is no turning back. We cannot make good decisions about how to live without understanding the nature of the reality in which we must live.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com