Prior to the Presidential election last November, those who were addicted to tracking all the polls and reading the long analyses of stats geeks may have numbered fivethirtyeight.com among their pet websites. Along with electoral-vote.com, Doctor Rubin checked these two sites usually daily to see whether the country had finally come to its senses or had chosen to drive itself off a cliff. Well, both websites churn along, continuing to turn out thoughtful commentary (the former website has expanded to discuss all number of political issues; the latter remains relatively focused on polls, elections and the balance of power between the two major parties).
Earlier this week Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight wrote about a remarkably wrongheaded essay in the Washington Post by George Will. The gist is that Will wanted to poke a mighty big hole in the entire notion that global warming is as big a threat as several of the leading world's climatologists have indicated. The problem with the essay is that he accomplished this by cherry-picking a few quotes and facts completely out of context. Nate lays the case out quite eloquently (and does so in a second follow-up post, as well) so I won't add much here, except to say that I have never been able to understand why Will, despite being more civilized in tone than some of his ideological family such as Rush Limbaugh and the ever-icky Ann Coulter, remains something of a darling of "centrists" and "liberals"--along with his tweedle-dum twin over at the New York Times, David Brooks (who did a little facts-out-of-context op-ed of his own this week while analyzing the results of a Pew Research Study about how & where Americans want to live).
Quick rules for journalists and opinion-makers with respect to interpreting science:
a. If you are not an expert on a scientific topic, generally defer to the experts, keeping in mind that what anyone says isn't absolute gospel.
b. When there is a scientific controversy where there is no consensus opinion, don't take sides unless you either are an expert or you are prepared to admit that you have no expertise in choosing one view over another.
c. When there is a scientific controversy where there is a general-but-not-absolute consensus, be prepared to explain this, especially before writing some glowing review of somebody who endorses theories of chronic Lyme disease, vaccines-cause-autism, homeopathy or the like.
d. Healthy skepticism is of course welcome, but snarky disrespect of the work of several generations of really, really smart people, as if scientists are just a group of touchy-feely idealists who set up experiments to confirm their pre-existing socio-political beliefs, is not.
From my viewpoint, Will managed in his op-ed to violate "a," "b," and "d." Let's give him a week or two to work on "c"!
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