John Gruber recently linked to an MSNBC.com blog post that claims conservatives have lost faith in science. (MSNBC.com? I'm shocked, shocked.) The excerpt he quotes:
An analysis of 36 years’ worth of polling data indicates that confidence in science as an institution has steadily declined among Americans who consider themselves conservatives, while confidence levels have been at steadier levels for other ideological groups.
No other trend has done more harm to the U.S. than this one.
Right, because pollsters asked conservatives how much faith they had in science and respondents answered, "None!" Case closed.
Maybe instead of falling prey to confirmation bias, Gruber would've been better served to see what questions were actually asked of those being polled. On Instapundit, a reader emailed in a comment:
I tracked back to the original paper (Apr12ASRFeature.pdf) to see what the exact survey question was.
“The GSS asked respondents the following question: “I am going to name some institutions in this country. As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them [the Scientific Community]?”(page 172)
The confidence in “people running these institutions” was being measured, not “Science” itself. Huge difference. HUGE!
Even though I'm not a conservative, I too would have answered that my trust in the people running these public institutions is damn near rock bottom. That's a far, far cry from having no faith in "Science".
For someone whose analysis of the tech world is so on point, Gruber's political commentary is surprisingly run-of-the-mill partisan.
I tend to look at claims critically. Ask my friends. They'll tell you it's often maddening.
I'm critical of significant claims because we live in a culture where speakers, passionate about their cause, routinely take liberties with facts in the pursuit of the "greater truth" in the story they're trying to tell. Their purpose is to move you to action. The goal of imparting factual information takes a backseat. There's a report unfolding this week of just such a case.
Mike Daisey claimed to have seen horrors in working conditions at Apple's suppliers' manufacturing facilities on a visit to China. He wrote and stars in a one-man show in New York detailing what he claims are the real experiences he had while in China. His story was broadcast on This American Life as a completely true journalistic piece. The show devoted a full hour-long episode to his story, and he assured the show's producers and fact-checkers that everything he told them was true. He accompanied the broadcast with numerous op/ed pieces in national papers, it set off a wave of protests against Apple, and the brouhaha ultimately caused the company to order up it's own independent audit of the factories. Success for the activist!
Except it wasn't completely true. The most significant parts of Daisey's account were fabricated, as Ira Glass and the staff at This American Life found out. The most recent episode of the radio program devoted a full hour to the most high-profile mea culpa I've ever seen from a news organization.
In the episode, titled Retraction, Daisey is confronted about lying to the show's producers during the lead up to the original episode. In one particular instance, Daisey's story and the show's fact-checkers' discoveries didn't quite match up. While researching the story before the first episode aired, the producers asked Daisey about this, but Daisey didn't fess up. He doubled down on his lie. During the retraction episode, Glass asks Daisey why he did this, Daisey pauses for almost 15 seconds and responds, "I think I was terrified."
"Of what?" asks Glass.
"I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything."
Just last month, news broke of another prominent fraud committed in the interest of advancing a cause. Peter Gleick, founder of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, is one of the leading voices in support of the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming (i.e. man-made global warming). He recently falsified information and illegally obtained documents with the intentions of using them to cast shame on an organization whose efforts oppose Gleick's cause. As it turned out, none of the information Gleick leaked about this organization received more than a shoulder shrug from the media, but the news that Gleick had committed fraud to obtain the documents caused a quite a stir.
And yet even with behavior that is so obviously wrong, many that consider themselves part of the same cause rushed to defend Gleick. James Garvey, writing in The Guardian, said, "Peter Gleick lied, but was it justified by the wider good?"
Oh, and perhaps I forgot to mention– until this news broke, Peter Gleick had been the chairman of the American Geophysical Union's Task Force on Scientific Ethics.
Lately, it's like I'm surrounded by a hundred budding experts on Joseph Kony, each one armed with information they got from a single source. Many people now trumpeting Kony 2012 on social networks have gotten their information exclusively from Invisible Children's films. But how do Ugandans feel about the whole thing? When it comes to the Kony 2012 film itself, the Prime Minister of Uganda certainly seems to take issue with it.
It is as if Kony is still in Uganda, as if Uganda is still at conflict and yet of course we all know this is not true… [The film] gives impression that Uganda is still at war, people are still displaced, those many children are still out sleeping on the streets in Gulu and of course this not true.
One Ugandan girl has a problem with the video's claims and the way it portrays her home country:
Kony's army group formed over 22 years ago... They did their worst over 10 years ago and they haven't struck again in 6 years. So why is this video being put up now?
Why indeed. Why is Invisible Children focusing on this particular criminal? Why make this guy famous, as the campaign's tagline puts it? Kony was responsible for some true horrors in the past, to be sure. Is he still a threat in Uganda? The kindest critiques I've seen coming out of Uganda call Invisible Children and their mission "outdated".
Simon Rawles, another filmmaker who has followed Kony's Lord's Resistance Army into the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it's actually located, had this to say after watching Kony 2012:
I felt a little nauseous watching the film. Couldn't help but feel the director's concern was less about addressing the needs of those affected today by the LRA and the complexities of tackling the rebel group, than as serving as a very slick promotional vehicle for his charity.
Invisible Children might not want to phrase it that way, but that's apparently the case. According to Invisible Children's own Jedidiah Jenkins, the purpose of the organization is to raise awareness. Read: donations that pour in as a result of the films' emotional calls-to-action go toward producing, distributing, and publicizing more films. Seriously. Around 68% of Invisible Children's expenses go to staff salaries, travel, and creative production.
So they may not be on the ground providing direct aid, but at least they're getting the word out, right? They're making people aware. They're telling the story. But who says it's Invisible Children's place to do that? And are they even telling the right story? Not according to Glenna Gordon, the AP photographer who snapped the now infamous photo of Invisible Children's founders posing with guns in Africa:
I can’t bring myself to watch the video. I found all of their previous efforts to be emotionally manipulative, and all the things I try as a journalist not to be. After the peace talks in 2008, they put out another video, and I saw the footage used in these videos blending archival footage with LRA and SPLA and videos of them goofing off. It was the most irresponsible act of image-making that I’d seen in a long time.
Teddy Ruge splits his time between the United States and his home country of Uganda, and he's not thrilled with what he calls Invisible Children's latest "fund-raising stunt":
What I'd really like is for organisations like this to have a little bit more respect for individuals like ourselves who have the capability to speak for ourselves. By putting themselves as the heroes of our situation it debilitates our own ability to progress and develop our own capacity. Every time we take a step forward to rebrand ourselves, something comes along like this and uses us in their own game. We are left as the pawns in the game...
What will a $30 kit do? Did I ask you to sell my story for an action kit to make uninformed college students feel good?
Governments in Africa are already hunting this guy, aided by military advisors and combat-equipped troops from the United States who were deployed as recently as October of last year. So what exactly is Invisible Children advocating that's not already being done? Other than asking for donations to fund the production of more films and telling everyone to spread the word, the big call to action in the documentary is to pressure the U.S. Government not to end the program that sends advisors and troops to Uganda, something the Government has not said it has plans to do. Kind of a lackluster call to action, don't you think?
It's important to be critical when you're presented with a new truth that someone is asking you to believe. It's even more important when those truths are presented as the basis for some call-to-action. If you're being asked join a movement and advocate for a particular position, don't you think it's important that the story that got you to join was truthful? If a news story or documentary isn't emotionally stirring enough to get the audience to advocate for its position unless the storytellers fabricate or misrepresent the most moving parts of the story, doesn't that reveal something? When we see people do that in everyday life, don't we recognize that as manipulation?
This piece isn't really so much about Mike Daisey. It's not about Peter Gleick. It's not even really about the Kony 2012 movement, though I'm obviously quite critical of the organization behind it.
The point is this: We're surrounded by a culture that celebrates well-meaning naiveté and heartfelt inaction. You're a change-making radical as long as you say so in your Twitter bio. Gullibility has run rampant. My generation is filled with people who watch documentaries and fancy themselves informed, apparently unable to fathom that a presentation with all the trappings of a worthwhile cause might actually be misleading them to achieve its goals. Yet anyone who stands up with a few hard questions about the movement du jour is immediately cast as a puppy-kicking villain. I actually had one friend say, "No need to naysay for the heck of it." I disagree. Just the opposite, in fact. No need to hop on the bandwagon just for the heck of it. Be quick to listen, slow to speak. Do some research on the things you support before reaching for the megaphone.
It's easy to be seen as a part of the latest cool social movement with a few simple retweets. That's merely following the social flow. Nothing courageous or radical to be found there.
Be critical when you hear outrageous claims with a call-to-action. They're asking for your time and money. Don't be so willing to give that up. You may be wasting those resources and encouraging others to do the same. If a cause if worthwhile and true, it will stand up to the scrutiny and be strengthened by it. If not, it will fall. As it should.