Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lazy journalists & media whores

About a month ago, I read a post over at P.Z. Myers blog Phyrangula on Why do physicists think they are masters of all sciences?  It was about Michio Kaku, who is the Henry Semat Professor of Theoretical Physics at CUNY's City College of New York.  Dr. Kaku professionally works on string theory and attempts to communicate science to the general public by lectures, books, and articles.

I've read one of his books, Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel, and it's an interesting read.  It's also pretty much in his area of expertise - physics.

The problem is that Kaku has become somewhat of a media darling (check out his Wikipedia page for a list of appearances and interviews).  Why is that a problem?  Well, it wouldn't be if he just stuck to physics, but for some reason many physicists have the conceit that they're experts in everything.  This conceit actually has a name - it's called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In the post at Phyrangula, Myers shows a video of Kaku talking about evolution and wonders if he's an idiot because what he's saying betrays a complete ignorance of evolutionary biology.  I was reminded of this because a couple of days ago, I was in my car listening to NPR and who were they quoting about the Japanese earthquake?  That's right, Dr. Michio Kaku.

I'm not sure what motivates a journalist to think "I need some information about an earthquake, I'll call a theoretical physicist who works on string theory" other than pure ignorance and/or laziness.  Who would even think to call a geologist to ask about a new breakthrough in particle physics?  For earthquake information, they could have just as easily called a seismologist at Lamont-Doherty, for example (Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, NY has a seismology and tectonophysics division with numerous PhD seismologists).  These guys know exactly what happened in Japan.

Isn't this the pot calling the kettle black, Steve?  Here I am in my blog writing about everything under the Sun - many of the topics being far outside of my area of expertise.  I guess there's something of an egotist in a blogger thinking that other people will be interested in what they write.  In my very first blog post, I called it "literary masturbation".  I guess the difference, or at least my rationalization, is that I fully acknowledge that I often write about topics outside of my area of expertise.  I don't believe, however, that I present myself as an expert on all these topics.  Blogs are like op-ed pages, they're mostly opinion pieces.

Full disclosure - I was called by a local public radio station the other day and asked questions about the Japanese earthquake (I'm not a seismologist, but my academic background is in structure/tectonics).  They either didn't like the sound of my voice (personally, I think I sound like shit when recorded) or what I said (I basically said the Japanese quake wasn't unusual to a geologist and large quakes like that could be expected every once in a while on a geologic time scale on an area like the subduction zone under Japan) but it apparently never aired.

1 comment:

  1. I saw both his CNN Yellowstone commentary and his commentary on Good Morning America on the nuclear plant problems in Japan after the quake. I could not believe they were asking this guy questions about something so far out of his field. He came across as Chicken Little. I think his ego has undergone its own version of the big bang.

    I don't think the news media wants a sober discussion of the facts, we don't have the attention span or the intelligence to digest it. So just tell us "the sky is falling" and we'll keep on watching.

    By the way, I enjoy your blog.