Lawrence M. Krauss asks some very uncomfortable questions in his Scientific American column, War Is Peace: Can Science Fight Media Disinformation? (emphasis added):
When I saw the statement repeated online that theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge would be dead by now if he lived in the U.K. and had to depend on the National Health Service (he, of course, is alive and working in the U.K., where he always has), I reflected on something I had written a dozen years ago, in one of my first published commentaries:
“The increasingly blatant nature of the nonsense uttered with impunity in public discourse is chilling. Our democratic society is imperiled as much by this as any other single threat, regardless of whether the origins of the nonsense are religious fanaticism, simple ignorance or personal gain.”
The rise of a ubiquitous Internet, along with 24-hour news channels has, in some sense, had the opposite effect from what many might have hoped such free and open access to information would have had. It has instead provided free and open access, without the traditional media filters, to a barrage of disinformation. Nonsense claims had more difficulty gaining traction in the days when print journalism held sway and newspaper editors had the final word on what made its way into homes and when television news consisted of a half-hour summary of what a trained producer thought were the most essential stories of the day.
Now fabrications about “death panels” and oxymoronic claims that ”government needs to keep its hands off of Medicare” flow freely on the Internet, driving thousands of zombielike protesters to Washington to argue that access to health care will undermine their fundamental freedom to have their insurance canceled if they get sick. And 24-hour news channels, desperate to provide ”breaking” coverage at all hours, end up serving as public relations vehicles for any celebrity who happens to make an outrageous claim or, worse, decide that the competition for ratings requires them to be anything but ”fair and balanced” in their reporting.
“Fair and balanced,” however, doesn’t mean putting all viewpoints, regardless of their underlying logic or validity, on an equal footing. Discerning the merits of competing claims is where the empirical basis of science should play a role. I cannot stress often enough that what science is all about is not proving things to be true but proving them to be false. What fails the test of empirical reality, as determined by observation and experiment, gets thrown out like yesterday’s newspaper. One doesn’t need to debate about whether the earth is flat or 6,000 years old. These claims can safely be discarded, and have been, by the scientific method.
Obviously this applies equally well to the climate change mess. I’m sure many of you have as much trouble keeping yourself from screaming at the TV or radio or newspaper when accosted by yet another example of “faux balance”.
Whether it’s blogs, a.k.a. the Wild West of speech, or letters to the editor in a newspaper, where even the most obviously incorrect statement is left unchallenged by the people who decided to print it in that day’s edition. In more blunt terms, if the editors won’t edit, then what are they being paid for? Oh, I can hear the objections now–”You’re advocating censorship! If those letters agreed with your views, you’d love to see them published!”–and so on, ad inifinitum, ad nauseum, ad givemeafreakingbreakeum.
If you’re one of Those people, let me suggest a little mental experiment. You’re HIV positive, and so is everyone you care about, with a small portion of them already exhibiting signs of AIDS. In fact, every person currently alive or yet to be born is/will be HIV positive. We’re all literally in a race for your lives. We have to hope that some combination of science and public policy can find a way to not only cure that wretched disease but roll out the cure without wrecking the economies of entire countries.
It sure won’t be easy. Even in the best case the costs will be high, and therefore everyone will be impacted, and it will take an effort unprecedented in the history of public health to pull it off. Many poor countries won’t be able to afford even a relatively cheap cure, so the wealthier countries will be asked to contribute enough to close the gap.
Now, with this existential clock ticking in the back of all our minds, someone wants to keep telling the world via blogs and letters to newspapers that there is no HIV/AIDS connection, we should not spend a single cent on further research or public health efforts. These postings and letters are loaded with nonsense that’s been debunked endlessly, but the people pushing this particularly despicable world view are relentless. Would refusing to publish their letters in your local newspaper be “censorship”, or would it be an act of common sense and even, if I may be so left-wingy-warm-and-cuddly for a moment, decency?
Yes, I know, this is not a perfect analogy for our situation. We’re not searching for a single silver bullet solution for our interlocked climate and energy messes. We already have nearly all the solutions we need (much cheaper EV batteries would be a nice addition to our tool box, as would workable CCS (carbon capture and sequestration), not that I think the latter will ever appear). And I suspect that rolling out our multiple climates solutions will be a lot tougher than issuing a bottle of pills or set of injections to every person on the planet, even without taking into account the infection of political stupidity some countries (like the US, China, and India) are exhibiting.
But as analogies go, it’s close enough, and just as senseless and infuriating as our real-world mess.
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