25 November 2009

Informed by Informing Information

Listen, I really don't get any joy when I come across indications that to be "American" is to be blatantly uninformed and reactionary, but I come across them all too often of late. No, I get it, all media has its slant and a line of people somewhere in the US is not, in and of itself, suggesting a plague of ignorance. But, there's something else at work here; that those people interviewed in the line who claimed they couldn't think of anything off hand (but might be able to research it) really wouldn't be able to create valid arguments because they simply don't have the resources.

Take, for instance, the new breast cancer screening regulations. And consider an example of the outrage that followed. Despite the fact that Sarah Palin's death panels were non-existence, this was seen by many as an act of rationing care; that the social/commun/lenin/mao/ists are corrupting America with big government legislation which is out to kill women to save money in order to provide healthcare to the illegals. Now, I spent about 20 minutes looking through not stories on the guidelines but the published report itself. I'm not doctor, and parts of it are hard to simply skim, but its not too difficult to see that the changes aren't earth-shattering, and (if you look at the previous reports) not unprecedented. Basically, this panel concluded, in tandem with the World Health Organization and other groups, that the risks of regular mammography in women in their 40s could not be overtly justified by the committee and should be left to the individuals and doctors.

The language is hardly absolute and inflammatory, yet the reaction is visceral. I see two reasons for this, first that breast cancer is a widespread, personal and highly emotional condition/issue for people who suffer and families that lose those people. A great deal of the reporting is clouded with testimonies of those who's lives were saved by a mammogram at age 40, or a mother who could have been saved had she been to regular screenings. Surely the human interest aspects of news are important, they make us care about issues that might otherwise seem foreign, but we cannot let emotional reaction prevent us from reading reports critically. I mean, if you read a news story that says doctors are suggesting that you do the opposite of what you know saved a friends life, wouldn't you attempt to figure out exactly what it was the doctors said? I tend to investigate those things that seem illogical to me.

Compounding this is the healthcare debate. The conservative zealots and politicians in the pockets of the insurance industry would do anything and everything to prevent passing any reform. Anything that even hints at some sort of change is painted as being forced upon us and destroying the America we love. Of course this has nothing to do with the actual science, the understanding of the science, or the value of human life but of campaign donations and political ideology. The result, I think, was a discourse fed by emotion and outrage in which people didn't have time to read the actual language; most were too busy writing witty and biting remarks to those that did not find the guidelines distasteful.

More recently, science was thrust into media debate again. Apparently, emails from an institution devoted to studying climate change were stolen. And, apparently these emails suggest that we are witness to the largest scientific conspiracy in the history of the age of enlightenment. ClimateGate. Scientists are corrupt, hiding data, spinning results and "tricking" the world into believe that humans are having an impact on global ecology. As to the details of what would drive scientists to do this, I am at a loss. I have not reviewed these thousands of emails myself yet, but the snippets I have read show some geeky scientist humor and discussion of problems facing climate scientists. Either this is just science being science, or this is evidence that the existence of global warming is still up for debate. Time to freak out.

To me this shows me what I already knew about science from reading Bruno Latour's Science in Action and studying an archaeological field school. Science is not pretty, its done by people who have their own motives and friends and enemies. Quote Gavin Schmitd in the NYT,

“Science doesn’t work because we’re all nice,” said Gavin A. Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA whose e-mail exchanges with colleagues over a variety of climate studies were in the cache. “Newton may have been an ass, but the theory of gravity still works.”

Now what he may have failed to mention is that Newtown's hypothetical jackassery likely made theoretical gravity what it is. There might be a lot of evidence to support climate change, but correlations alone do not a scientific movement make. We need to find the correlations and test them and believe them and tell others in order to make them true. I have said before that I think science is misunderstood by many who simply accept its authority. If you send a bunch of white men to college for a really long time and then they write long papers with big words, you're likely to believe what they have to say, especially because their really smart friends also believe them.

But science and medicine are human constructs and human practices. As such they are imperfect, and this goes beyond the whole test, retest and suggest tests for the future thing. The idea of pure fact, of the truth about climate change, is always going to be seen through a fallible, human lens. We cannot simply observe. We can only observe through our baggage, like the scientists who discuss, within their work-related emails, skeptics and journalists that complicate their lives.

Without going into a mini-version of my thesis, my point is that the coverage of events, and misunderstanding of what science is, lead to in this case, an inability for many to figure out what the hell was going on. If I might make make the elitist assumption that not all my fellow Americans are as unoccupied, investigative, cynical and academic as I am, I think I can safely say that John and Jane Doe, watching ABCs nightly news, would not go to such lengths as I have gone here to understand the debates. We find trusted sources, take them at their words, and are provided with convenient buzz words to utilize in discussions with our friends and family.

Unfortunately, that most of the country is simply fed info by their moving picture boxes is supported by the general sitgma of intellectuals, those rich elitists stuck in their books and out of touch with people. Though I experienced it in college, I find more and more in the "real" world that independent review and learning is scoffed at and ignored in the face of more palatable perspectives (those which incite the emotions). Thinking is generally unprofitable and a waste of money-making time and a lot of people won't make time for it. Thus, we find ourselves in a time when the Palin line counts as informed decision making.

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