Archive for October, 2007

Error Prone : Misleading lines in the media.

29 October 2007

Each one of us carries some useful skills & knowledge acquired either through formal education or through the crucible of experience that let us spot effortlessly misleading or incorrect statements falling within one’s own domain. We miss out many inaccuracies from areas we know little or nothing about or have little interest in. Unfortunately, such errors or misreporting in media is way too far ubiquitous than we would suspect a priori. Most errors may be innocent & harmless, attributable to carelessness or non-application. Others may be innocent but damaging, especially when an opinion of a well acknowledged & widely known expert in a field is used to buttress a position in another filed. This is quite akin to celebrity endorsements. Still other ‘errors’ may be devious and motivated, planted deliberately to serve a specific overt or covert agenda of an interested constituency. It would be interesting to look up a few examples from today’s Asian Age (choice of paper is incidental) to understand the anatomy of the ‘error mechanism’. First, an innocuous one,

Mumbai, Oct. 26: Hindustan Construction Company Limited (HCC) has received three major orders worth Rs 983 crores to construct two underground stations in New Delhi and build a water tunnel in Mumbai………. The orders include a Rs 774.64 crores contract from Delhi Metro Rail Corporation for constructing two underground stations and a tunnel between New Delhi and Talkatora Garden stations……. ……bagged another order worth Rs 727 crores from the Bombay Municipal Corporation to construct a large water tunnel……..”

Obviously, the hard pressed for time poor correspondent hasn’t had time to digest the figures in company handouts while shuttling between conferences and relying on courtesy Samosas & Tea to quench hunger. Except for planting general doubts in the mind of readers about the quality & standards of present day journalism, it does little harm to anybody else. The next example is a step ahead.

Dr Pachauri, who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize, said, “India has to expand its fuel choices”, adding, “I would like to see the (Indian) government not buckle under pressure of some of its supporters, like the Leftists.” Claiming “India will face a severe fuel crunch”, Dr Pachauri told the Financial Times newspaper on Friday that blocking the agreement “certainly does limit India’s progress in the energy field” and that “if people don’t see the benefit of this opportunity… I would say they are halting the country’s progress”. Pachauri is described earlier in the report as Climate Change Scientist.”

When the Nobel Peace prize was announced, many Indian papers announced in bold headlines that it went to Dr. Pachauri & Al Gore. It must have massaged many parochial egos and satisfied unfulfilled chauvinistic aspirations. If truth is to be sacrificed, so be it – it’s a small price to pay for the glory of our land. In actuality, the prize went to UN Inter Governmental Panel on climate change (IPCC), whose chair is held presently by Pachauri. The panel itself is a humongous effort orchestrated by hundreds of scientists and other experts working through several sub panels. Such an effort is needed for 2 reasons. Firstly, Climate Science (CS) is comparatively a young science and it is only recently that its development has received a great impetus. Its nature and contours have just started getting in to sharper focus. Even now it is pretty common for two scientists to arrive at opposite conclusions based on the analysis of same set of events. Secondly, it’s a collaborative effort between many different disciplines like Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology, Engineering, Economics, & even politics and its kindred sub-specializations. Some may raise eyebrows at the inclusion of Politics or economics. But if the corrective steps required for mitigating and reversing the deleterious effects on climate are to receive wide spread acceptance and support, then the inputs that Economics and Politics can provide will prove crucial. Therefore, in a very loose & generous sense of the word, anybody associated with the IPCC effort may be called a Climate change specialist, much like describing a laboratory chemist working at BARC a ‘Nuclear Specialist’. But this kind of vagueness is dangerous and confusing for an informed public debate. As far as I know, Pachauri can not & should not be called a climate change scientist in the interests of rigour & accuracy. That is of course not to imply that he does not have a well informed and reasoned position on the issue. This simply avoids the ‘transference effect’, whether it was intended or not, i.e. specialization in one field is taken as presumptive expertise in others. A letter from Chris Landsea, an expert in Hurricanes, recording his reasons for withdrawing from a sub-panel ‘AR-4 of IPCC’ is telling in this regard.

There are many legitimate scientific reasons to be concerned with global warming, but the evidence just is not there with hurricanes no matter how much it is trumped up for the media and the public. Proceeding with such announcements outside the proper IPCC process taints the credibility of climate change science and will in the longer term diminish our influence over public policy.

The sad thing about this is that it did not have to turn out this way. I did try to caution both Dr. Trenberth and Dr. Linda Mearns before the media event (email included below) and provided a summary of the consensus within the hurricane research community. Dr. Mearns decided not to participate in the panel perhaps as a result of my email correspondence. I sincerely wish Dr. Trenberth had made the same decision. Dr. Trenberth wrote back to me that he hoped that this press conference would not “go out of control”. I would suggest that it was out of control the minute that he and his fellow panel members decided to forego the peer review scientific process and abuse science in pursuit of a political agenda.”

Now we come to the concluding part with a pronouncement from a Nobel Prize winner scientist, who averred in London Sunday Times,

“I am inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.”. He said he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

This gem came from James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, speaking ahead of his visit to UK to promote his new book – ‘Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science’. There was a sharp reaction from the scientific community and he had to even loose his directorship in a prestigious US laboratory as a result. He expects that genes responsible for ‘variations in intelligence’ will be found soon. This may indeed happen. There seems to be enough variation within human populations of the same race, even between parents & progeny, to justify looking for intelligence’s genetic makeup. It is doubtful though that such genes will not be blind to colour. Moreover, even intelligence testing has been open to controversies. There is a sound claim of bias in such tests that asserts : ‘What one sets out to find, will be discovered’. The design of experiments is often affected by investigator’s outlook. The results of the experiments are then influenced by the design.

Epilogue : One of the events which precipitated this article is my friend’s passion for accuracy in scientific reporting. Anybody interested in science should take a look at it à Reporting on a revolution’.