Archive for March, 2011

Goodman on CNN on the Japanese Disasters

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

Tim Goodman, TV critic for The Hollywood Reporter, continues the discussion of how bad CNN’s Japan coverage has been: Japan disaster shows U.S. journalists unprepared.

Covering this trilogy of terror in Japan really underscores how much better prepared reporters and anchors need to be. The incessantly simplistic and embarrassing questions need to stop. Someone needs to tamp down runaway speculation. Also, the attention on the Middle East in past years has dulled producers’ sense of keeping experts from Asia on the source list.

It’s a shame that going online to watch videos from NHK, BBC and Al Jazeera English was far and away the best option for Americans.

Carlson: Why Do Governments Lie about Disasters?

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Ann Carlson of the Legal Planet blog was initially impressed by the Japanese government’s openness about the unfolding nuke crisis. But today there were signs that the U.S. government thinks things are more serious than their Japanese counterparts have been saying, which makes her wonder what’s going on. From Why Do Governments Cover Up the Truth About Environmental Disasters?:

I’m reminded a bit of the Obama Administration’s efforts in the early days of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to seriously understate the rate of leakage of oil  even in the face of independent and credible expert conclusions that the spill was far larger than either the government or BP wanted to admit. After investigating the response to the oil spill, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Drilling and Oil Spill blasted the administration for its lack of candor and explained in very clear terms that the consequences of lack of candor go far beyond a PR disaster.  To quote the Commission’s staff:

The absence of trust fuels public fears, and those fears in turn can cause major harm, whether because the public loses confidence in the federal government’s assurances that beaches or seafood are safe, or because the government’s lack of credibility makes it harder to build relationships with state and local officials, as well as community leaders, that are necessary for effective response actions.

One could easily substitute a few words and make the same claims about the Japanese government’s handling of the nuclear crisis if the US version turns out to be the correct one.

So why do governments engage in obfuscation in the case of a major environmental crisis?  Is it because they fear that the political fallout from a disaster is likely to increase with the size of the calamity and therefore wishful thinking leads them to underestimate the harm?  I honestly don’t get it. Candor breeds trust, something badly needed during an emergency.  And yet governments seem incapable of learning that lesson.

I think she’s right that wishful thinking is a factor. There’s also this: Politicians are in the business of fostering a particular set of public perceptions. “I’m the best candidate/vote for me.” “The steps our administration has taken have been instrumental in bringing about [good outcome X].” “[Bad outcome Y] had nothing to do with the actions of our administration.” And so on. A lot of those things may have only a tenuous relationship with the truth, yet politicians’ overriding imperative is to convince people that those things are, in fact, true. In a crisis, with solid information in short supply and public perceptions in an especially volatile state, the urge to spin reality in as favorable a direction as possible is surely overwhelming.

Except that with disasters, reality has a way of asserting itself despite the spin. And as Carlson points out, squandering credibility by engaging in politics-as-usual can lead to very real harm.

Laden on Skeptics on Fukushima

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Greg Laden has some really good comments on the ongoing Fukushima reactor events and their spinning by pro-/anti-nuclear advocates: The Fukushima Disaster, Hyperbole, Credibility, Skepticism, and the Future of Nuclear Power.

I honestly think that it is too early to have this conversation, but alas, the conversation has been forced.

Daniel Gordon (and Steven Novella) Can Fly

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Steven Novella makes an extraordinary claim: I can fly.

That’s right – I can fly, just like Superman (although not as fast – let’s be realistic). I can take off from a standing start and simply defy gravity by lifting off into the air. I can then soar through the air with perfect control and land gently on the ground at will.

He can’t do it in others’ presence (they make him nervous), so there’s no photographic evidence of him doing it. But he offers several photographs of other people flying to demonstrate the plausibility of the claim. For example, this one:

I pointed out in the comments that photographer Daniel Gordon also has this ability, and has documented it extensively as part of his flying pictures project:

Dueholm on Savage

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

I’ve become a big fan of Dan Savage’s Savage Lovecast. It (along with the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe) has become my main sanity-retention device for the ultra-commute. So I really liked this article, which is both a very good explanation of what Dan Savage does, and an insightful critique of the Savage worldview, from the perspective of Lutheran pastor Benjamin J. Dueholm: Rules of Misbehavior.

If Savage’s ethical guidelines — disclosure, autonomy, mutual exchange, and minimum standards of performance — seem familiar or intuitive, it’s probably because they also govern expectations in the markets for goods and services. No false advertising, no lemons, nothing omitted from the fine print: in the deregulated marketplace of modern intimacy, Dan Savage has become a kind of Better Business Bureau, laying out the rules by which individuals, as rationally optimizing firms, negotiate their wildly diverse transactions.

Also, I have to say: Who knew that Lutheran pastors were so cool as to offer insightful, no-holds-barred commentary on America’s favorite foul-mouthed sex-advice columnist?

U.S. Media #fail on Quake, Tsunami, Fukushima Reactor Problems

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Like most people, probably, my main reaction to recent events in Japan is horror and sympathy. (I say “most people”, and am pretty confident in that, but there are still the depressing people documented here and here to take passing note of.)

But a secondary reaction, also shared by many, was this: Man, when did the news media in this country get so incredibly crappy? Doc Searls wrote about this at Earthquake turns TV networks into print. Pretty much every US TV news outfit, from CNN on down, came off as horribly inadequate to actually talk about what was going on in an intelligent manner. Instead we got a breathless, poorly informed voiceover. The visuals were compelling, but I could see them online.

It wasn’t just TV that came off as inadequate. Print was bad, too. The earthquake hit at 9:46 p.m. California time, yet the next morning’s LA Times had nothing — literally nothing — on the front page about it. Nor did it have anything on the front page of the little mini news section (called “LATEXTRA”) that the paper began including a while ago. I always assumed the LATEXTRA section is there so that the paper can run last-minute news items, but apparently even that didn’t buy them enough time to deal in any depth with a story like this that hit at 9:46 p.m. Pacific time. There was one (1) item about the quake and tsunami in the paper: Inside the LATEXTRA section was a single brief item noting a few of the initial facts. I can imagine the conundrum the Times’ editors went through: All they had time to do was this embarrassingly minimal mention, which was going to be viewed as completely inadequate, and be completely out of date even before it arrived on readers’ doorsteps. But what was the alternative? To run literally nothing would almost have been more honest, but I guess that would have been even more embarrassing.

Now we’re witnessing the next phase in the ongoing #fail: Coverage of the Fukushima nuclear reactor problems. Breathless “ohmygod, meltdown!” chatter makes for drama and viewership, I guess. But I think conveying actual information would be a nobler thing for the media to aspire to. J.A.Y.S.O.N. turned me onto @arclight’s Twitter feed, which led me to this excellent item: Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors.

Update: Perhaps not so excellent. Per this item at Salon:

Identified as an “MIT research scientist,” Dr. Josef Oehmen wrote the post over the weekend with the title, “Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors.” It was a modified version of an e-mail he sent to family and friends in Japan on Saturday evening, according to the blog where it was originally posted.

Oehmen, it turns out, does work at MIT but has no special expertise in nuclear power. And his key claim — that “there was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors” — appears to have already been proven false…

So does Oehmen actually work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? Yes. But not in the nuclear engineering department. He works at an entity called the Lean Advancement Initiative, which focuses on business management issues. Is he a “research scientist”? Yes. But, again, not in any nuclear field. Oehmen’s research focuses on “risk management” with an eye to helping companies “take entrepreneurial risks.” He writes papers on things like “Human Resource Management in China.”

I e-mailed Oehmen to ask if he stands by the claims in the post. He referred me to the MIT press office, which in turn told me that Oehmen is not doing interviews.

The bottom line is that thanks to the Internet we’re better off than we used to be in information terms. But it’s still pretty shocking to be confronted with how far the old media I used to rely on have eroded. And when it comes to TV news on breaking stories, I’ll be going with the Al Jazeera English live stream in the future.

Update: Hiro pointed out this cool interactive graphic to me. Behold the Slider of Doom: Satellite Photos of Japan, Before and After the Quake and Tsunami. Nice jquery-based UI, dead-tree dudes.

Ken Jennings on reddit

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Verily, the pinnacle of the Internet: IAmA 74-time Jeopardy! champion, Ken Jennings. I will not be answering in the form of a question.

WatsonsBitch [S] 1714 points 5 days ago[-]

Wait, I got it.

There once was a host named Trebek, Whose mustache was sexy as heck. It would have been weird If he’d grown a big beard, Like Conan, or Riker on Trek.

Novella on Truthers on the New 9/11 Footage

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

Here’s an interesting commentary by Steven Novella on the release, nearly 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, of new police helicopter footage of the burning towers, and in particular on the reaction of 9/11 Truthers in the videos’ online comments: New 9/11 footage.

In addition to faulty logic, the comments give insight into the emotions of the typical conspiracy theorist. In a word – they are smug. Everyone who does not accept their raving paranoia is naive or idiotic, part of the “sheeple.” Anything short of the maximally cynical interpretation of every piece of evidence, in their view, is naive. Conspiracy thinking is pattern recognition and hyperactive agency detection gone wild, sometimes unhinged by impaired reality testing. At the milder end of the spectrum there are those who simply employ flawed logic – who have fallen down the rabbit hole of conspiracy thinking.

I’m not looking to wind up Knarly or anything. Nobody here but us sheeple, right?