A recent series of articles in The Japan Times about the growing earth leaves me conflicted over the status of journalism. It seems that everyone acknowledges that we are in a significant transition, and that the new media is playing an increasing role in news reporting and analysis. Meanwhile, traditional journalism is losing its business model and is downsizing, which is having an adverse effect on quality.
The very fact that the internet has exploded print media’s business model means that quality control is really all that traditional journalism has left. In the past the value of a large media outlet was partly its physical infrastructure and its ability to distribute the news – by printing papers or by owning transmitters or cable lines. Now anyone can get online and distribute information to the world for peanuts. We don’t need big media infrastructure anymore.
But, we are told, traditional media, with professional journalists and editors, provides a critical quality-control filter on information. The internet, meanwhile, is unfiltered, which results in a very high noise to signal ratio. So we still need professional journalists, and some way to pay them.
While there is some merit to this argument, when it comes to science journalism I am not sure if this is really true any more. When I look at science reporting by both traditional media and new media I see a wide range of quality, from very high quality reporting, to lazy superficial nonsense, to the outright promotion of pseudoscience as if it were news. The problem with the new media is that it is very bottom heavy – there is a lot of crap. But from my perspective, the crowd sourcing is working. The best science blogs are rising to the top, and new models are emerging that are not filtering out the bad stuff, but are at least pointing out where the best quality lies.
Traditional media, meanwhile, suffers from declining quality overall. While there is still high quality reporting, the public is still left with the need to filter the good from the bad. Even worse, bad reporting can benefit unfairly from the imprimatur of its big media reputation.
New media and old are also merging and playing off each other, so the relationship is becoming more complex. We’ll just have to see how it plays out, but I think, with regard to science reporting, if traditional media outlets are going to continue to justify their own existence, they will need better quality control.
Case in point - three articles by reporter Jeff Ogrisseg in The Japan Times about the pseudoscientific notion that the earth is growing. I understand that The Japan Times generally has a good reputation as a serious news outlet, so that lends a high profile to the nonsense Ogrisseg is spreading.
I don’t expect science journalists to be experts – just to have a working knowledge of how science functions, and some idea how to figure out which ideas have merit and which are fringe.
Ogrisseg gets everything wrong, most significantly in how he misrepresents the process of science and how consensus is achieved in science.
He is defending a fringe idea, never taken seriously by the scientific community, that the earth has been significantly growing. Millions of years ago, some claim, when it was half the size it is today, the continents all joined together. As earth continued to grow the crust split apart, separating the continents and forming the oceans in between.
The growing earth community, small as it is, tends to ridicule the modern theory of plate tectonics and continental drift. Essentially their critique of robust consensus within modern geology is the argument from personal incredulity, belittling and ignoring the massive evidence based upon which plate tectonics is based.
For example, Ogrisseg writes:
Could this theory offer one simple explanation for the current distance between Earth’s continents, and the death of the dinosaurs — without involving a Hollywood-size asteroid — and turn the long-held notion of India smashing into Asia on its head?
So the “terrible lizards” simply did not adapt fast enough as the Earth grew, and that is what killed them off — not some CG-like impact from outer space.
Ogrisseg subtly ridicules the impact theory as “Hollywood” and “CG” – as if it is the fantasy of a special-effects artist. This gives the reader the impression that the asteroid impact theory is fanciful and speculative, and does not even attempt to address the overwhelming evidence for the impact. What about the Chicxulub impact crater, the K-T iridium layer, the sudden disappearance of not only the dinosaurs but 90% of all species, including many small and aquatic species?
Ogrisseg also dismisses through ridicule the evidence for plate tectonics. He acknowledges that in the ocean there are spreading zones where new ocean floor is emerging from below the crust, and then spreading outward toward the continents. Growing earth advocates claim this is the actual creation of new matter, not just the movement of material from the molten depths.
Plate tectonics also holds that there are subduction zones – the ocean floor moves from the spreading zones and then dives beneath the continental plates at subduction zones. Again, Ogrisseg just dismisses subduction:
No need for giant rocks from outer space, runaway continents or credulity-straining subduction zones to consume and recycle epic masses of material.
He does not say what, exactly, about subduction zones strains credulity. What he does strain is the irony meter – claiming scientists are dismissive, while he himself dismisses massive amounts of evidence, and characterizing accepted theories strain credulity while claiming that new matter is being created by some unknown process.
Next up is the asking of questions that make it seem like there are unexplained anomalies – but not addressing the accepted answers for those questions: Ogrisseg asks:
In terms of mountain building, too, it’s interesting that none of the large, nonvolcanic mountain ranges on our planet, such as the Alps, Andes or Himalayas, are more than 100 million years old.
Mountain ranges are all less than 100 million years old because mountains erode over time – they don’t survive longer than that. So we only have mountain ranges that were created recently enough that they have not yet eroded.
Ogrisseg gives us the standard dismissal of solid scientific consensus as if it were nothing but dogma – we are used to this from creationists, HIV deniers, and every group that has an axe to grind with an accepted scientific theory.
Though much of the theory is routinely ignored or dismissed by mainstream scientists, as its specifics reveal themselves, a nagging awareness persists that “dismissed” does not mean “disproved.”
Then he gets to the most glaring problem with the growing earth theory (among the myriad of problems it has):
The problem with Growing Earth Theory, mainstream scientists say, is that it would require the creation of brand new matter — a mechanism for which they claim has not been confirmed and therefore is not accepted as happening.
Not only has a mechanism not been confirmed – there is no plausible mechanism at all. The growing earth theory has also been “disproved” by the multiple independent lines of evidence for plate tectonics and the lack of evidence, despite accurate enough observations for decades, that the earth is, you know, growing.
Growing earth enthusiasts think they are solving “problems” with modern geology, but actually they are addressing non-problems by creating many more.
So where is all the new matter coming from? From particle-anti-particle creation from quantum fluctuations. Without getting into this in detail, the processes Ogrisseg is referring to does not result in the creation of new matter – the matter/anti-matter particles annihilate each other almost instantaneously. They do not form stable matter (other than, perhaps, for black hole evaporation, which is not applicable to the earth).
The bottom line is that the lack of a mechanism or evidence for the creation of new matter is a far more significant problem than anything the growing earth theory claims to solve (but actually doesn’t).
And of course, when we begin to think about the implications of increased mass of the earth over time we get a cascading collapse of accepted scientific theories. The earth-moon system, and the solar system as a whole would not be stable with increasing gravity. So growing earth advocates have to chuck out our theories of gravitation and planetary mechanics.
The pattern is amusing and disturbing – ridiculing the scientific community for far-out ideas and lack of evidence, and then putting forward absurd ideas with no evidence. Then crying “dogma” and “conspiracy” when they don’t get the attention and accolades they feel they deserve.
Now they have a cheerleader at The Japan Times – leaving the science bloggers one more piece of damage control to tackle.