I recently picked up my monthly copy of one of the pre-eminent magazines in the sciences that I have subscribed to for many years. This month’s cover article was on American energy policy. OK, fine. We are all concerned about the rising prices at the pump and impact (mostly negative) on our economy.
But it freaked me out when I tried to read the article. The entire thing was an editorial based on reader responses to a survey sent out by the magazine. No facts, no science, no specific issue really, not even any survey demographics, no factual support for several pages of random assertions about what different factions in the government are doing wrong and the havoc being wreaked in our economy.
I admit, I got a little irate.
When did an opinion survey suddenly constitute proof of anything? Is increasing corn production for biofuel the cause of rising food prices? I used to think so, but recent publications by notable economists say this is not so. But if 1300 people believe it is the cause, does that make it so? I don’t think so.
Worse, in my opinion, is the idea that a major science and technology magazine would publish a cover feature with nothing more than an opinion survey as the basis. This is the worst kind of science since the Middle Ages. Hey, while we’re at it, lets outlaw gravity. If we can get everyone to float to work on Hover Boards, we can nip this whole oil crisis in the bud.
I may be wrong on any subject. Just ask my wife. But if I offer facts, we can discuss what the facts mean and even come to different conclusions. But our discourse must begin with facts.
The publication of an opinion piece in a science and technology magazine is the most egregious abuse of the press I have run in to in quite a while. If we want to have dialog in the public arena that is aimed at solving serious public policy problems, we need facts and information. We also need for the majority of Americans to be able to think clearly and make rational decisions.
This problem is systematic in our educational system. We don’t need to educate with more and more information. We need to teach people how to think. How is it that engineering schools can graduate a student that is unfamiliar with Mill’s Methods, and can’t put together a simple test for isolating a problem? I actually had to help a graduate of a local engineering school figure out how to test the bonding strength of magnets on the rotor of a motor. That’s crazy. In fact, its actually dangerous as we let some of these kids into industry and design and build products for use by the consumer.
But we see this increasingly in many areas of the media. Why would Carl Sagan’s opinion on climate change matter if his expertise is in Astronomy? I actually saw a news interview in which he asserted that there was going to be the equivalent of Nuclear Winter after the oil field fires at the close of the Iran Iraq war. So this latest magazine article shouldn’t be surprising. I might expect it in a newspaper where people aren’t trained in the sciences, but it sure seems odd in a major piece in a technical publication.
We need to be very wary when politicians start talking science. Very few have any technical training and could credibly know what they are talking about. That being the case, we need more people in the engineering community who DO know what they are talking about, to input to the issues of the day and start engaging the people in Washington who are making decisions.