Thursday, October 25, 2007

Silence kit

Is it just me, or is the television getting less capable of dealing with facts?

I only ask because I saw an item on the early evening news a few days ago about carbon sinks. Now this is an interesting topic, particularly as the British Antarctic Survey has just discovered record-breaking levels of carbon in the atmosphere, which is a Bad Thing. The news item, which was made by the BBC, acknowledged this discovery, before going on to explain how the forests and oceans absorb much of the carbon we produce; well, not so much explaining the process as stating that it happens. The rather earnest and somewhat condescending reporter then said that Scientists are concerned that the oceans may soon be saturated with carbon, which again would be a Bad Thing.

And that was it. The report drifted away, leaving all the important questions unanswered. What I would like to have been told is what happens when the oceans become saturated with carbon. Would they become thicker, more like treacle? Does carbon poison fish? Would it wash up on our beaches? These and other questions remained unasked and unsolved by the news item, I think because the producers had decided that the viewers had been told enough Science for one evening. Any more Science might confuse the viewers and make it difficult for them to take in the messages of the advertising.

Then there was the 60 Minutes report about young women and their binge drinking. Apparently, young women are drinking more than they once did. It was difficult to tell from the report whether this is a Bad Thing. On the one hand, excessive drinking can have some serious consequences, which the report did not have time to discuss; on the other hand, the drinking gave the producers an opportunity to show footage of lots of girls wearing next to nothing and behaving badly. I may be mistaken but I do not recall the report containing a single fact, but it had an awful lot of fluff.

Then there was the other 60 Minutes report from last week about the farmer who had discovered a miracle way to grow grass. Apparently, he found something that the Scientists never knew: grass has an electric current growing through it. What's more, he found you can reverse the current by spreading silica over the grass. This causes the grass to grow better than it ever did before.

Yes, really. The farmer markets a product based on his amazing discovery. This product was not described in detail, but presumably is a bag of silica (which is sort of another name for glass). The proof of this pudding is that lots of satisfied customers swear by it.

However, the Commerce Commission does not think the farmer has a miracle product. They think he is a crook. They took him to court, for deceiving the satisfied customers and for damaging the economy. The court agreed that the farmer is a crook and fined him a quarter of a million dollars.

Now, you might have thought that 60 Minutes would be interested in a story about a man who deceived his customers with a bogus product and a junk theory about electricity running through grass. How wrong you would be. You see, running such a story would involve Science, which is difficult. It is a much easier matter to run a story about an ordinary kiwi battler who made an amazing discovery which has led to him being silenced by faceless bureaucrats.

Here are the key arguments made by 60 Minutes: the Commerce Commission had only one scientific expert on this case (obviously, there are many other scientists who know that electric currents run through grass, but they were not called as witnesses); the scientific expert consulted colleagues who work for fertiliser companies (obviously, and this was stated quite explicitly, the scientific expert is in the pay of Big Business, which wants to stop the farmer marketing his miracle product); the man from the Commerce Commission refused to answer really stupid and nasty questions from the 60 Minutes reporter (obviously, a cover-up); the farmer's wife was really upset when the bailiffs came to take away the farmer's vehicles because he had refused to pay the fine (obviously, these are good people).

There is one other argument and this one is the clincher: one of the satisfied customers is an All Black legend. Readers from New Zealand, particularly those versed in the arts of rhetoric and logic, will realise the import of this fact. For the benefit of overseas readers I shall explain: an All Black trumps any argument. It does not matter that electric currents do not run through our grasslands and that pouring glass on the grass would probably be harmful to the environment; an All Black legend supports the farmer and that is enough. Truth is Black and Black truth.

So the farmer is not a crook; he is a kiwi battler. The commerce commission is a bully. Its scientific expert is corrupt. Electricity runs through grass. Changing the direction of the electricity by pouring glass on the grass makes the grass grow better.

And then there is the programme where psychics solve old murders; or rather, they don't solve them but they have some really strong feelings about them. Recently, there was one about a prostitute who had been murdered. The psychics received lots of messages from her, none of which were clear enough to reveal the identity of her murderer or the whereabouts of her body. One of the psychics was led by her to the Auckland Domain; she led the other psychic to the Jewish Cemetery. These are some distance apart. Although the psychics had strong feelings in different places, the programme concluded that they were both right. Of course they were; they had feelings.

It is, after all, feelings that count. Science is a loser's game: all those complicated facts and theories. Feelings are what television is about: sobbing farmers' wives, drunken totty, psychic investigators. Why think when you can feel?


George Darroch said...

I long ago gave up on watching the box for pretty much anything other than entertainment value. That includes the 'news'. I'd rather make my own decisions about what going on in the world is important, and choose from who I hear presentation and interpretation of those facts.

I watch 60 Minutes and 20/20 when I want to cultivate the desire to throw things at the TV, which thankfully isn't too often.

AFAIK, extra CO2 won't effect how fluid the ocean is. But it will make it (mildly) more acidic, which is bad news for crustaceans and coral, and a large number of other sea creatures.

Check out Real Climate on ocean acidification (
Thank Xenu for the tubes!

Anonymous said...

this is just the effect of the culture wars and all those masses with nothing but media degrees. It is they and the arts graduates who make tv programs, if a science graduate happened on the scene they would be greeted with condescension and derision.

The whole point about the psychic story is that the only thing that matters IS the feelings of the psychics. Just like whether putting glass on grass makes the latter grow is not an issue for science, it is a matter of feelings and intentions. The crook, sorry well-meaning entrepeneurial farmer, is right because he feels he is right and is well intentioned. You cannot gainsay these things, they are not subject to objective refutation. Arts and media graduates are comfortable with subjects like that, their whole degrees are about them after all. Facts are grubby things and finding them out means you have to talk to uncool science graduates, yuck!

Stephen said...

That's a bit harsh on arts grads.

I think it has a lot to do with television's religious function. (see Twitcell's Adcult USA). The news is there to repeat stories we already know, and reinforce our views of the world. It is not there to impart information, except incidentally.

The mistake is to see the "news" media's purpose as informational. It is not. It is purely and simply to capture our attention for the benefit of advertisers. Hence the drunken totty, and the items that favour story over fact.

Television is in fact really good at what it's for. The problem is that we viewers have entirely different views about what it's for than the producers.

If the minority of people who care about boring facts stop watching, television producers don't care. Advertisers didn't get value from you anyway.

Anonymous said...


Maxim Institute are BACK!

Where have they been?

More neo-right babble though I am sorry.

Anonymous said...

Three points to make here:
A) If you are in the media - especially news, you will note that many editorial meetings will probably be devoted to upping the excitement, human interest and entertainment value. Entertainment is not just defined as Humour or Drama. Entertainment is anything that occupies you, the aim of entertainment is self forfilling, it is to entertain and so does not need content persay. News is just gossip. You might say, Ok what about a flood warning. Generally the locals ALREADY know that the place is looking to flood because they are there... it is pouring down or the river is looking dangerously high.
B) I dont care about the farmer. Honestly, he could have fallen on his sword in front of the court thinking that the onus of proof is on the prosecution... however, innocent until proven otherwise is only required if it was a criminal case, so he was required to sway the judge with his proof that it works. Obviously he did not, or if he tried then he failed because it is bull. Either-way he deserves what he got. However, with residual fertiliser in the soil and the conditions created by the sand may protect the grass from swings in temperature during winter and loss of water during dry summer. Water is more essential than food for animals and plants so without dehydration stress, the grass might experience better growth. With change in the soil drainage and aeration you might also experience less neutrient loss This is all speculation though, and this kind of thing is speculated by some gardeners. So I would like someone to enter the debate with facts incase there is something about it that works, but not for the hokus pokus reasons the farmer was spouting.
C) I enjoy science. The annoying thing about scientists is that many are blinkered because one rediculous assumption by a fool instantly tars and feathers them without room for; Ok, maybe this is worth looking into objectively. And like most of us, I cannot see a Scientist doing anything for free, unless provoked in such a way that feeds their ego or fits in with their world view already. (i.e: you see what you have always seen, and thereby reinforcing the ego)
RE: Value of TV... about as worthless as sitting in front of a computer for hours after work typing meaningless words into a post of self assuring people looking to be heard in a world of less personal interaction. PS: I liked the blog-item, or-else I wouldnt have posted from inside on this lovely sunny evening when I should be BBQing. Doh.

Pam said...

Hey cool post! Emotional arguments are a bitch but I think that academics do underrate their importance.