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“In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable: and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.”*…

Kirsten Thompson, the lead scientist on the Arctic Sunrise, takes water samples for eDNA sampling near Paulet Island at the entrance to the Weddell Sea. Photo by A Trayler-Smith/Greenpeace/Panos

If you ask philosophically minded researchers – in the Anglophone world at least – why it is that science works, they will almost always point to the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-94) for vindication. Science, they explain, doesn’t presume to provide the final answer to any question, but contents itself with trying to disprove things. Science, so the Popperians claim, is an implacable machine for destroying falsehoods.

Popper spent his youth in Vienna, among the liberal intelligentsia. His father was a lawyer and bibliophile, and an intimate of Sigmund Freud’s sister Rosa Graf. Popper’s early vocations draw him to music, cabinet making and educational philosophy, but he earned his doctorate in psychology from the University of Vienna in 1928. Realising that an academic post abroad offered escape from an increasingly antisemitic Austria (Popper’s grandparents were all Jewish, though he himself had been baptised into Lutheranism), he scrambled to write his first book. This was published as Logik der Forschung (1935), or The Logic of Scientific Discovery, and in it he put forward his method of falsification. The process of science, wrote Popper, was to conjecture a hypothesis and then attempt to falsify it. You must set up an experiment to try to prove your hypothesis wrong. If it is disproved, you must renounce it. Herein, said Popper, lies the great distinction between science and pseudoscience: the latter will try to protect itself from disproof by massaging its theory. But in science it is all or nothing, do or die.

Popper warned scientists that, while experimental testing might get you nearer and nearer to the truth of your hypothesis via corroboration, you cannot and must not ever proclaim yourself correct. The logic of induction means that you’ll never collect the infinite mass of evidence necessary to be certain in all possible cases, so it’s better to consider the body of scientific knowledge not so much true as not-yet-disproved, or provisionally true. With his book in hand, Popper obtained a university position in New Zealand. From afar, he watched the fall of Austria to Nazism, and commenced work on a more political book, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). Shortly after the war, he moved to the UK, where he remained for the rest of his life.

For all its appealing simplicity, falsification was quickly demolished by philosophers, who showed that it was an untenable way of looking at science. In any real experimental set-up, they pointed out, it’s impossible to isolate a single hypothetical element for disproof. Yet for decades, Popperianism has nonetheless remained popular among scientists themselves, in spite of its potentially harmful side-effects. Why should this be?

The notion that science is all about falsification has done incalculable damage not just to science but to human wellbeing. It has normalised distrust as the default condition for knowledge-making, while setting an unreachable and unrealistic standard for the scientific enterprise. Climate sceptics demand precise predictions of an impossible kind, yet seize upon a single anomalous piece of data to claim to have disproved the entire edifice of combined research; anti-vaxxers exploit the impossibility of any ultimate proof of safety to fuel their destructive activism. In this sense, Popperianism has a great deal to answer for.

When the constructive becomes “deconstructive”– Charlotte Sleigh (@KentCHOTS) explains how a powerful cadre of scientists and economists sold Karl Popper’s “falsification” idea to the world… and why they have much to answer for: “The abuses of Popper.”

See also: “Why ‘Trusting the Science’ Is Complicated.”

* Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery

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As we re-engage with epistemology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1997 that Ian WilmutKeith Campbell, and their colleagues at the Roslin Institute (part of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland) announced that they had successfully cloned a sheep, Dolly, who had been born on July 5, 1996. Dolly lived her entire life at the Institute, where (bred with a Welsh mountain ram) she gave birth to six lambs. She died in February, 2003.

 Dolly’s taxidermied remains

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“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”*…

A reporter at work covering the Eichmann trial, 1961 [source]

The [New York] Times is becoming a newsy entertainment outlet, à la Jon Oliver, with a business model more like Netflix or Hulu than catchphrases like All The News That’s Fit to Print might suggest. The Times says so itself, announcing a slew of movie and TV deals with Netflix and Amazon, the Hollywood writing room replaced by the New York newsroom. To quote [the Times‘ media columnist, Ben] Smith in a recent piece slamming one of his colleagues: “The paper is in the midst of an evolution from the stodgy paper of record into a juicy collection of great narratives, on the web and streaming services.”

The customer always gets what they want: In the case of an ads-driven business model where the advertiser is the true customer, that’s balanced political news alongside frivolous lifestyle stories as a canvas for ads. In the case of subscribers, it’s being flattered by having their own worldviews echoed back at themselves in more articulate form. Nobody actually pays for news, unless your livelihood depends on it, which is why outlets like The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg will still flourish, but nothing vaguely resembling news will otherwise remain in a subscription-driven world…

Ideology is like body odor: someone else’s absolutely reeks if strong enough, but you can’t even notice your own. If you remain convinced, in the year 2020 AD, that this or that national outlet remains the megaphone of disinterested chroniclers and selfless truth-seekers, then the BO in question is surely your own. But don’t expect everyone else to put up with the stink.

The Times will triumph financially, dramatically so, and utterly fail as an intellectual institution, at least by its former standards. Sure, the Times staff, like fourth-century Roman emperors intoning the half-remembered tropes of the Roman republic, will speak of ‘objectivity’ and ‘the first draft of history’. But only they and their subscribers will actually believe it. The editorial branding will be august pronouncements about ‘the paper of record’, but the business model is pure Netflix: All The News Fit To Binge.

Advertising-funded journalism is not, as some journalists persist in believing, some ineluctable law of the universe. It’s an entirely contingent artifact of a weird confluence of factors: industrialization and the mass consumer economy, urbanization and burgeoning immigration, plus the secular decline of 19th-century Jacksonian political machines.

As I’ve written before, in century-ago-seeming 2019, and which is doubly correct now, American media is in the process of regressing to 19th (or perhaps even 18th) century models of journalism. Ben Franklin posted under two-dozen different pseudonyms including such bangers as Silence Dogood and Alice Addertongue, and displayed as much nastiness or wit as such modern-day lights like @neontaster or @ComfortablySmug.

Gonzo journalism? Samuel Adams helped organize the Boston Tea Party, and then reported about it after the fact, a level of ‘gonzo’ that even Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson never quite reached. Through almost the end of the 19th-century, the revenue model for most newspapers was subscriptions from party loyalists when a paper like The Press Democrat meant just that: the Democratic paper in that town giving that faction’s version of events (with some anodyne wire-service news mixed in).

We assume that this idiosyncratic late-20th-century form of American journalism is an essential ingredient to liberal democracy, the sine qua non juju that makes civil liberties and accountable government possible. And yet, our Western European peer nations, which one side of the American political spectrum loves to draw comparisons with when they’re not threatening to move there, have an utterly different journalistic culture…

Antonio Garcia-Martinez (@antoniogm) muses on his interview with Martin Gurri (author of The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium)… Into the morbid interregnum? “Twilight of the Media Elites.”

Garcia-Martinez’s full piece is eminently worth reading in full– and best understood in tandem with his conversation with Gurri: “The Prophet of the Revolt.” (For a variation on this diagnosis, see also: “Why Facts Are Overrated.”)

For an argument that yes, the full range of facts and the journalism that reports them do matter, but no, we’re not necessarily doomed to a cacophonous interregnum– that journalistic institutions, while troubled, can be saved– see “The First Amendment in the age of disinformation” by Emily Bazelon (in the New York Times…).

And for a set of painful reminders that this conversation is taking place against an active set of campaigns to widen social and cultural divisions via disinformation, see “The Media Manipulation Casebook.”

* Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

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As we sieve signal from noise, we might recall that it was on this date in 1924, four days before a British General Election, that the [London] Daily Mail published the “Zinoviev letter.” Purportedly a directive from Grigory Zinoviev, the head of the Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow, to the Communist Party of Great Britain, ordering it to engage in seditious activities, it “predicted” that the resumption of British-Soviet diplomatic relations (by a Labour government) would hasten the radicalization of the British working class. Offensive to many British voters and frightening to others, the letter– now widely-viewed by scholars as a forgery– aided a Conservative landslide.

But historian A. J. P. Taylor argued that the more important impact was on the psychology of Labourites, who in his estimation for years afterwards blamed foul play for their defeat. Though that was accurate, it distracted them from grappling with the broad political forces at work in Britain and postponed what (Taylor argued were) necessary reforms in the Labour Party.

Zinoviev, who never had to lift a finger…

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“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when… our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness”*…

I’ve always been bullish about American scientific and technological supremacy, not in some starry-eyed, jingoistic way, but due to the simple reality that the United States remains the world’s research and development engine.

This is true for at least four reasons, which I detailed previously: (1) Superior higher education; (2) A cultural attitude that encourages innovation; (3) Substantial funding and financial incentives; and (4) A legal framework that protects intellectual property and tolerates failure through efficient bankruptcy laws. There’s a fifth, fuzzier reason, namely that smart and talented people have long gravitated toward the U.S.

But while Americans believe in unalienable rights endowed by our Creator, we are not similarly guaranteed everlasting technological supremacy. China is already challenging the U.S. in computer science, chemistry, engineering, and robotics. Without a consistent and relentless pursuit of excellence, the eagle risks losing its perch.

Unfortunately, there are a confluence of factors that, when combined, constitute an existential threat to American science: Postmodernism, political partisanship, and trial lawyers…

Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health (and founding editor of RealClearScience; @AlexBerezow) explains (and offers some hope): “The Slow Suicide of American Science.”

And lest we think this a very recent phenomenon, consider this collection of pieces from New Scientist in 2011: “Science in America: Decline and Fall.”

(Image above: source)

* “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…” – Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995)

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As we listen to reason, we might we might recall that it was on this date in 1996 that the cable channel Fox News debuted.

fox-news-logo

source

Written by LW

October 7, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue”*…

 

Nytimes_hq-2

 

Paywalls are justified, even though they are annoying. It costs money to produce good writing, to run a website, to license photographs. A lot of money, if you want quality. Asking people for a fee to access content is therefore very reasonable. You don’t expect to get a print subscription  to the newspaper gratis, why would a website be different? I try not to grumble about having to pay for online content, because I run a magazine and I know how difficult it is to pay writers what they deserve.

But let us also notice something: the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free! You want “Portland Protesters Burn Bibles, American Flags In The Streets,” “The Moral Case Against Mask Mandates And Other COVID Restrictions,” or an article suggesting the National Institutes of Health has admitted 5G phones cause coronavirus—they’re yours. You want the detailed Times reports on neo-Nazis infiltrating German institutions, the reasons contact tracing is failing in U.S. states, or the Trump administration’s undercutting of the USPS’s effectiveness—well, if you’ve clicked around the website a bit you’ll run straight into the paywall. This doesn’t mean the paywall shouldn’t be there. But it does mean that it costs time and money to access a lot of true and important information, while a lot of bullshit is completely free…

The political economy of bullshit– and thoughts on a remedy: “The Truth is Paywalled But the Lies are Free.”

On a related (and somewhat complicating) note, see also “It is possible to compete with the New York Times. Here’s how,” the source of the image above.

* Edward R. Murrow

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As we do like Diogenes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1974 that President Richard M. Nixon resigned, as a result of the Watergate scandal— which was itself, of course, in large measure the result of (expensive) investigatory journalism of the highest quality.

 

Nixon departing the White House after his resignation (source)

 

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