American Culture

When it comes to journalists, what about quality?

by JS O’Brien

(With apologies to Dr. Denny, whom I admire greatly, and who would certainly fix journalism if he could.)

Lost in the justified hand-wringing over the loss of newspaper jobs, and the inevitable reduction in the number of important stories journalists can uncover, is the issue of “quality.” I mourn the loss of quantity in the journalistic ranks as much as anyone, and I’m betting more than some, but I am more concerned with quality these days.

I happened to run across these two articles, here and here, by Alva James-Johnson, a columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Perhaps things have changed, but in my brief brush with newspapers many years ago, one did not become a columnist until one had demonstrated a depth of knowledge, insight, erudition, and quality of thought that qualified one for something near the top of one’s profession. Columnists were the cream of the crop. I hope, based on this example, that this is not the case these days.

Take this statement, for example.

Proponents of evolution have to realize that not everyone is convinced the theory is true. And those who don’t are also taxpayers who should have a say in the curriculum.

Using James-Johnson’s logic, any taxpayer should be able to change curriculum if, in his/her opinion, something in that curriculum is “not true.” For instance, if I believe that the world’s financial system is controlled by the international Jewish conspiracy, I should be allowed to demand that “truth” in the curriculum. If I believe that African-Americans are genetically inferior to whites and Asians, I don’t need proof. I can have that placed in the curriculum, at the very least, as an “alternate theory.”

Or what about this statement?

But it’s sort of like the tree-falling-in-the-forest conundrum. If you’ve proven evolution and most people aren’t convinced, is it really proven?

Galileo Galilei proved quite convincingly that the sun is the center of the solar system using the observations of the phases of Venus. Added to other observations that made heavenly phenomena completely fit into a Sol-centric system, the conclusion was obvious. Yet, had one taken a poll of humans in the 17th century, surely 99.9999% of them would have avowed vehemently that the heavens (including the sun) revolve around the Earth.

James-Johnson would have public opinion trump the evidence. Had there been 17th century public schools in Europe, they should have taught the earth-centric system of the universe as an alternate theory. To her, it is not “proved” until those who have no idea what they’re talking about agree that it’s proved. Opinion is all, even the most uninformed … even the most ignorant … of opinions.

If the quality of her thought is suspect, what about the quality of her education?

The age of the Earth can neither be proved nor disproved by science,” wrote Dr. Jeremy I. Walter, head of the Engineering Analysis and Design Department at Pennsylvania State University. “Scientific evidence can be compiled to support one model of Earth history as compared to another, but such work amounts to a feasibility study, not proof.

Strictly speaking, science can never prove anything for certain. James-Johnson could step out of a 15th story window tomorrow and fall up. It could happen. No one has ever seen this happen before (without mechanical help) but, if it did, it would require revisiting the Theory of Gravity to modify it or throw it out based on observation of a phenomenon that doesn’t fit the theory.

This is middle school science, folks. I know this because my middle-schooler learned it last year in the 6th grade!

What James-Johnson ignores is that science treats some things as if they were facts because the probability that they are facts is so high that any other treatment would be perverse. If I am sending a space probe to Neptune, I treat gravitational forces as if they were fact and, wonder of wonders, that probe, after slingshotting off the gravitational fields of other planets, gets exactly where I wanted it to go, more than two billion miles away, just as the Theory predicted it would.

But science would never say it couldn’t happen differently next time. It would just give very, very long odds against it, based on all the data available.

In this way, the odds against the young-earth crowd are very long. There are scores of observable phenomena pointing to an old earth. Each of these phenomena has to be rebutted in a way that makes sense. Currently, many of the arguments against these phenomena (such as the assertion that rubidium-strontium decay in rocks must have been at a different rate “once upon a time”) are unsupported by anything but wishful thinking.

And what about the quality of her education combined with her work ethic?

As for the theory of evolution: a member of the national board of directors of the Health Physics Society Andrew McIntosh, a combustion theory expert at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, bases his argument on the second law of thermodynamics, which establishes that a spontaneous, natural process could only lead to increased chaos and less complexity over time. The theory seems to contradict evolution, which asserts that the universe has become more orderly and complex.

This little chestnut has been so thoroughly debunked by physicists, and for so long, that it’s hard to believe that anyone is still making this argument, let alone an “expert in combustion theory.” I googled “second law thermodynamics evolution” and turned up pages of rebuttals.

Here’s the short version. The second law of thermodynamics applies to the universe as a whole. It does not preclude increasing complexity in one part of the universe. And it certainly doesn’t preclude increasing complexity in open systems that respond to energy. We have number of examples of increasing complexity happening naturally, from snowflakes to sand dunes.

I learned this in 9th grade science. James-Johnson should have learned it too but, barring that, she should at least have taken five minutes to find out how wrong her combustion theory expert is.

Says James-Johnson, about the second law argument:

I’m not a scientist, but such arguments raise enough questions to at least warrant a debate.

No, you are not a scientist, Ms. James-Johnson, nor do you have even the most rudimentary understanding of science, and the argument you quote has never raised a debate because it’s so fundamentally wrong, having been debunked thousands of times (I’m sure).

Scholars & Rogues has seen a number of discussions here go south over the issue of whether all “fact” is really just opinion. Ms. James-Johnson appears to believe that this is so. After all, to paraphrase her, if you prove something to be so likely that it is perverse to believe otherwise, but many people, who have no specific knowledge of the topic at hand, still disagree with you, have you proven it? In other words, to Ms. James-Johnson, the opinion of the ignorant is every bit as valid as the opinion of the learned in determining what we generally call “fact.”

It appears that the only qualification Ms. James-Johnson has to be a journalist, and a columnist, is having an “opinion.” Any opinion. It is not necessary to be well-enough educated to quickly identify specious arguments. It is not necessary to do research, no matter how little time it takes. And it appears that the only qualification for hiring her, and perhaps every other journalist at the Sun-Sentinel, is the same.

Having an opinion.

This is the sort of quality we find in newspaper journalism these days.

11 replies »

  1. What about quality? Hell, what about a passing grade in 7th-grade science?

    My compliments, JS, on your restraint here. This “journalist” is a half-educated fuckwit who’s an embarrassment to her community, her employers and whatever discount department store sold her a degree…

  2. I offer these takes on “columnists”:

    Columnist? You’re a reporter who writes long.
    — Metro Editor Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton)
    to McDougal (Randy Quaid) in ‘The Paper’

    Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.

    — George Santayana, 1863-1952
    philosopher, poet, literary and cultural critic

    Much information is in some way incomplete or imperfect. The proper response to evidence you dislike or dispute is to supplement it or discredit it with better evidence. The wrong response is to suppress it.

    — Robert Samuelson
    columnist, The Washington Post Writers Group

    Everyone’s a columnist today. Everyone can call a talk show and agree or disagree with Rush or someone’s cable show and for 90 seconds be a columnist. Opinion itself is cheaper than ever, easier to come by.

    — Steve Lopez
    columnist, Los Angeles Times

    Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.

    — Mark Twain

    Throw the editorial writer into contact with life itself. Don’t let him sit in the office and become a professor. Don’t let him read other papers too much. And above all, don’t let him swallow the propaganda that is all over the place.

    — H.L. Mencken, 1947
    address to first National Conference of Editorial Writers convention

    Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.

    — H.L. Mencken

    The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs.

    — John Dewey

    Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

    — Napoleon Bonaparte

    A terrific piece, JS. Thanks.

  3. There’s an interesting take on the complexity of chemical compound evolution. Atoms look to form a stable state. But they can’t see the future. They look for the lowest energy form available to them AT THE MOMENT. So, for instance, even though an Oxygen atom could form a lower energy bond than that with itself, it would form O2 if only other Oxygen ions were available. This creates complexity as well as a lower form of energy. A different compound (for instance, say H2O) may be more stable, and have lower energy, than O2 but would require additional energy to undo the previous bond before it could form a lower energy compound.

    In other words, the universe isn’t conscious, or aware of the opinions of columnists. If the solar system forms a stable shape then it will hold a form of complexity. If something comes along that adds energy to the system (a high-velocity comet, for instance) then it might cause an explosion (releasing energy) and allowing the system to form a new, lower-energy, stable form.

    A reading public gets the columnists it deserves.

  4. JSO,

    Wonderful piece. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out Susan Jacoby’s terrific new book THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON. She offers you not only plenty of evidence of the problems you limn here, she provides lots of background and corollary running throughout American culture.

    See a description of her new book here:

    http://www.susanjacoby.com/

    And here see her interview with Bill Moyers:

    http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/02152008/profile.html

  5. The Scientific Theory of Evolution – has been proven to a point where there is certainty in its conclusion. Based on nature’s processes and observations of said nature, moreso that in biology, evolution is a change in the inherited traits of a population from one generation to the next.

    Creationist theory holds at its base – the use of ‘GOD’ did it. Well, that is nice if we all believe in a ‘GOD’ or the same ‘GOD’ and very nice since science cannot cross-examine ‘GOD’ and put ‘GOD’s’ actions to scientific testing, which would actually prove or disprove said theory. So, if there is no sciencific process to test ‘GOD’, then by its own definition of a scientific based theory – it is not science because it is not testable.

    So, my solution is to have scientific based theories taught in Science Class and religious based theories taught in Sunday School Class. And at home, you can teach them one, the other or preferably both and let them make up their own minds, which is a the base of being a parent – in giving our children choice.

    As a final point, if you’re going to debate something please take the time to actually study both sides of the point, thought and/or arguement to be discussed – in order to actually know what you are debating.

  6. But it’s sort of like the tree-falling-in-the-forest conundrum. If you’ve proven evolution and most people aren’t convinced, is it really proven?

    Good thing somebody is awake in Florida to catch these people up in statements as breathtaking in the sweep of its ignorance as this one.

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