Put down those non sequiturs and stereotypes, Captain Fishsticks, and no one will get hurt

Captain Fishsticks is one of our local conservative nutjobs who haunts the pages of the St Paul Pioneer Press—he’s a free market freak who wants to privatize everything, especially the schools, and yet everything he writes reveals a painful ignorance of anything academic. This week he’s written a response to an article that left him distraught: Peter Pitman advocated more and better science education for Minnesotans, especially on the subject of climate change. Fishsticks, to whom all education is a zero-sum game because every time he has to learn another phone number a whole ‘nother column of the times table drops out of his brain, objects to this threat. He starts off by agreeing with Pitman’s argument, but does so by tying it to some of his lunatic obsessions—he’s a pro-smoking anti-vaccination guy.

I’ve made much the same argument relative to policymakers who unscientifically exaggerate the dangers of secondhand smoke and bureaucrats who ignore scientific evidence about the dangers of universal vaccination.

This approval will not last. The rest of his column is a weird paean to excusing ignorance of science. You see, if people learn more math and physics, they’ll get the idea that we live in a “clockwork universe”, and then they won’t like music or poetry anymore. Seriously.

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If they can’t get the details right, why trust them at all?

Is anyone else getting a “look how stupid Americans are” vibe from all the British coverage of Ken Ham’s creation ‘science’ museum? It’s another story from the European press that politely echoes Ham’s overblown claims for his grandiose edifice to ignorance, and mostly recycles the same old stuff we’ve heard over and over again. It really does seem to simply parrot whatever the Answers in Genesis con men say with complete credulity…for instance, I’ve seen this strange comment repeated multiple times in these kinds of stories.

Two-thirds of the US population lives within six hours’ drive of Cincinnati, but Mr Ham has bigger ambitions for tackling agnostics further afield.

Hold it. Think. Check your facts. Look at a map, and you’ll see that that domain outside of a circle with a radius of 300 miles includes everything west of Chicago, the entire urban Northeast, and most of the major cities of the South, such as Atlanta. It includes Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, etc., a populous region to be sure, but how can one argue that a small area that excludes California, Texas, New York, and Florida contains the bulk of the nation’s people? That’s an area of about 280,000 square miles in a country of 3,700,000 square miles—shouldn’t that make a reporter stop and think, especially when it is an area that does not include our regions of highest population density?

I’m beginning to feel a “look how stupid the BBC can be” vibe right now, myself. Does anyone know where this mysterious number comes from? Is it Ken Ham lying, or is it the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce lying?

A plug!

Coturnix finds a blog that is reviewing Seed magazine in a multi-part series. He seems pretty cool with it so far, but he hasn’t reached that review of mine at the end of the last issue yet, though.

I know it sounds so crass, since Seed Media is hosting this site, but it really is a good magazine—I eyeball it every month with some trepidation, for fear it might go the Omni/Wired route of hyping widgets, but it’s holding my interest every time. There’s a real kicker of a testimonial to it, that I just learned about the other day:

My Mom subscribes to it.

Whoa. You know it’s gotta be good. She’s an intelligent and discriminating lady, you know.

DeLong explains Easterbrook

How can Gregg Easterbrook be publishing a science column in Slate? Brad DeLong explains it all.

The fact that Easterbook’s writing is “lively” and “provocative” and that he is a member of the appropriate social networks is sufficient reason to publish him as a “science writer.”

I can see where “lively” and “provocative” are necessary pre-conditions for getting a column in a popular magazine, but are they sufficient? No. Would they hire someone for a gossip column who had never heard of Scarlet Johansson or Brad Pitt? There is this phenomenon called “expertise” that ought to be part of the equation.

That being in the right clique is part of the prerequisite is unfortunate, but is a common part of human reality. The interesting thing, though, is that picking Easterbrook tells us something about the social circles in which Slate management seems to circulate—and that is that they are disjunct from the social circles that include competent scientists and science writers.

The fact that this has an effect not just on how good their operations are at delivering accurate information but also on how the scientifically-literate regard their operations as a whole–I don’t think that’s something that enters Weisberg’s (or Foer’s) mind at all.

Exactly. Although it could be that that’s a smart (in a short-sighted, counter-intuitive way) decision: the scientifically literate are clearly a minority in this country, so maybe one way to market ‘science’ to that profitable majority of boobs is to hire a boob to write it. That is, if you think your job is not to tell people what they ought to know, but rather to repeat to them what they think they already know.

Needs more arrows

But I like it anyway. It’s a series of charts illustrating channels of communication of science.


I appreciate the distinction made between “Average Citizen” and “Informed Citizen.” Maybe there ought to be another box interposed between “Mainstream Media” and “The Average Citizen” labeled “Fox News/Talk Radio/Other Organs of Propaganda,” though. And shouldn’t there be another arrow from “Mainstream Media” to “Informed Citizen”?

PowerPointing our way to disaster

Neddie Jingo has an appalling example of the kind of presentation used to promote our strategic plan in Iraq. Go take a look and weep—it’s one of those meaningless godawful PowerPoint-style assemblages of boxes and arrows. You know what I mean: a nightmare of chartjunk that distracts everyone into contemplating the relationships of graphical abstractions on a screen rather than actually dealing with the substance behind them.

I’m actually very impressed that he managed to also put together a paragraph actually explaining what the graphic is supposed to mean, and that the paragraph makes sense…and exposes the deficiencies in the plan.

Once upon a time, it took a fair amount of effort to put together a slide for a presentation. It involved photography—that stuff with film—and you had to plan well ahead and put it together with some care. You had to think about what you were going to include. And when you put all that work and planning into each slide, once it was projected on the wall, you spent a good bit of time carefully explaining it to your audience. The slide was an illustration of some data, and the interpretation and explanation was done with the words you used to accompany it.

Now what I see with PowerPoint is a proliferation of graphical noise and short bullet points, accompanying by a steady bloating of the number of slides shown. An image is no longer a piece of real-world data, but something the speaker flashes up as a substitute for saying anything. As the Neddie Jingo example shows, it can be a flying piece of fantasy with no substance behind it at all…but string enough of those together and you can zip through a pretense of a talk without actually having to say anything.

One measure of a good talk to my mind is being able to imagine the video projector failing, and the speaker still being able to communicate a sensible idea to the audience. PowerPoint isn’t the point of your talk, it’s a convenience, a crutch, a tool for making some data visible. Nothing more.

Although it does look like it can also be a weapon of mass distraction when misused by the military.

Rapture Insanity Watch

I keep waiting for the padded ambulance to roll up and men in white coats to leap out, shoot these bozos with a trank gun, wrap them up in a straight jacket, and go howling off to the nearest sanitarium, but no…instead, they get invitations to appear on cable news and babble about the apocalypse. And it’s not just the airhead news media…

…Rosenberg is just one of several conservative media figures who have identified and expounded upon the purported signs of the Apocalypse to be found in the Israel-Hezbollah conflict. During his appearance on Live From…, Rosenberg claimed that he had been invited to the White House, Capitol Hill, and the CIA to discuss the Rapture and the Middle East, and noted—several times—that the apocalyptic events described in his novels keep coming true.

What’s really frightening is that these people don’t exhibit an ounce of critical thinking, and these ridiculous attitudes are endemic in the people who run our country. I’m waiting for some smart, pragmatic, sensible guy in government or the press to stand up and truncate that famous quote: “You have done enough. Have you no sense?”

(via Atrios)

Think before morphing

Oh, good. I saw this WaPo article with a morphing animation of a lemur into SJ Gould, and I was mildly appalled—it’s a very badly done gimmick that doesn’t say anything about how evolution works, and actually grossly misleads the viewer on the morphological transformations that had to have occurred. Fortunately, I don’t have to deepen my reputation as a cranky internet curmudgeon by complaining about it— Carl Zimmer has done it for me.

Transforming grid coordinates is an interesting tool in describing the transformations between forms—D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson did it well—but you need to start with forms you know are linearly related and you’ve got to define and align anatomical features very carefully. Picking random photos of various primates and blending them ain’t it.

Playboy, paragon of journalism

A reader sent in a quote from this month’s Playboy. They understand.

As politics go, we’re surprised so many readers expect us or any publication to provide “balance,” which reflects a belief in the fallacy that there are two equally valid sides to every story. You see this in the debate over global warming and evolution. Thousands of scientists stand on one side of the issue, recognizing that global warming is a problem and that evolution is firmly established, while only a few detractors stand on the other.

Move over, NY Times. Playboy has a more principled journalistic philosophy than you do (or at least, than some of your staff.)

I’d start reading the magazine, except that every time I’ve opened a copy, I find that I can’t quite get past the pictures. They’re too purty.

Noted without comment

Jodi Rudoren née Wilgoren, whose views on journalistic responsibility to accuracy and truth were encapsulated in this comment,

I don’t consider myself a creationist. I don’t have any interest in sharing my personal views on how the canyon was carved, mostly because I’ve spent almost no time pondering my personal views — it takes all my energy as a reporter and writer to understand and explain my subjects’ views fairly and thoroughly.

has been promoted at the NY Times.