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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Analysis: How News Misleads

CBS Channel 11 in Dallas/Ft. Worth recently aired a segment, "Does God Exist?" in which they announced that mathematical physicist Frank J. Tipler has claimed to prove the existence of God through 'hard nosed physics'. I started this entry with the intent to critique Tipler's claim. However, seeing as how his claims have already been thoroughly critiqued in other sources, I have decided instead to critique, not the claims, but Channel 11's coverage of them - a wonderful example of the serious problems inherent in the way news is so often covered.

First a little background on Tipler's claim in two paragraphs. Tipler claims that God is an artificial intelligence or 'Omega point' - a cosmological singularity. He claims that we will eventually create artificial life forms that will go out and populate the universe, gathering so much information that this super intelligence is inevitable. He also claims that this intelligence will love us and thus resurrect all of us in a simulated environment, first by creating every possible combination of gene codes possible for humans, and then by running simulations of history for every possible outcome. Thus, all of us would be sure to somewhere in this vast simulation (or 'emulation' as he calls it to represent a more philosophically real and detailed version of simulation). He claims this intelligence is the God described in Abrahamic religion and several other belief systems, and more specifically connects it with the Christian scheme of things. This paragraph above somewhat encapsulates the general nature of his claim, although I'm sure I haven't captured every detail perfectly. For more information, you can check out Tipler's own website or works HERE, or read his entry in Wikipedia HERE.

This second paragraph will tell you the next important thing you need to know about Tipler and his claim; and that is where they fall in the overall scheme of science and religion. Has Tipler revolutionized physics and religion, or is he a crackpot on the fringe of society? Are his claims being debated seriously among the intellectual and religious elites of our nation or are they not taken very seriously as a real debate at all? In both cases, it would seem the latter is the case. As the Wikipedia article states, the prominent scientific magazine Nature reviewed Tipler's book and called it a "masterpiece of pseudoscience... the product of a fertile and creative imagination unhampered by the normal constraints of scientific and philosophical discipline." Tipler's work has also been critiqued by Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy, Victor J. Stenger, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which you should read HERE. It should be noted that Stenger also moves beyond the realm of science in his book, God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. However, I think his critique here is representative of the overall scientific consensus on Tipler (and, by the way, where was Channel 11's groundbreaking report on this book?).

Now that you have some background, take a look at the segment CBS Channel 11 aired and come back to read my analysis...

CBS Channel 11: Does God Exist?
(click the link at the end of the sentence "To hear Tipler explain his ideas, click here")

I have written before about how news media can and does often mislead their audience without ever making any false claims in the segment. As you can from viewing the clip, any person who watched this segment could easily come away with the following impressions:

1) Tipler's work represents a new and profound event.
2) Tipler's claims have caused a large controversy within the scientific and/or religious community.
3) Tipler's claims involve the traditional concept of the Christian God.

All of which are, of course, false. Curiously, one thing we don't get from the segment are what Tipler's claims are! Of course a mathematically detailed presentation of them would be unsuitable for general audiences, but we don't even get an overview of the claims in layman's terms. Rather, we are supposed to make due with a hand writing "=> God exists" on a chalkboard while hearing monk chants.

It is quite easy to imagine and suspect that, the next day after this segment aired, thousands of believers returned to their water cooler at work to talk about how 'even science is coming around and understands that God is real' while atheists are stubbornly clinging to outdated science because they missed last night's program.

Let's take a look at the segment in more detail. It opens with:

"Does God exist? That is a question that is a question which, through the ages, has been mostly a philosophical one. That is until recently..."

Here is where the viewer gets the impression that some new breakthrough has been made. This would be a false impression for two reasons: (1) Tipler's claims are not very new in substance and he himself has been making them for some time, and (2) What he presents is imaginative speculation with a bunch of math thrown in to make it sound scientific. Nothing he presents is truly a breakthrough of any kind. Tipler has not left the realm of philosophy in the least (not to mention that he hasn't even left the realm of 'bad philosophy').

The piece goes on to show Tipler saying that he became a committed Christian of 12. This in itself illustrates a pre-determined conclusion before his work even began. No mention is made of the obvious possibility that he is looking for arguments to prove a pre-determined conclusion, something completely contradictory to the scientific approach.

Nearly a third of the way into the segment we are now hearing how Tipler ignores the notion that science and religion are separate - a common position of many philosophers, scientists, and theologians, which has nothing to do with Tipler's specific claims. We have still yet to hear them.

"Tipler calls God the cosmological singularity stemming from ancient theologians' definition of God."

If ancient theologians called God a cosmological singularity, some affirmation of that or references would be nice. It is obvious here that the reporter spoke only with Tipler himself and basically regurgitated what Tipler said in a nicely edited package.

"Tipler uses hard-core science: Einstein's principles of general Relativity and quantum mechanics."

First, there is no "hard-core" science. There is simply science and non-science. Secondly, the fruitcakes and quacks that try to suggest we have psychic powers and that space aliens built the pyramids also "use" relativity and quantum mechanics to 'prove' their claims. The reporter, Maria Arita, simply states these things in a very gullible and credulous manner, encouraging the same in the viewer - as if she were the spokesperson for Tipler's infomercial.

Now for the part where 'balance' supposedly comes in.

"But not everyone agrees..."

"Not everyone" is a far cry from "almost no one" which would have been closer to the truth in terms of the impression it gives.

"Avowed atheist Dr. Tim Gorski of Arlington says the mere question of God in a scientific sense is flawed."

First of all, why do they need to go to an 'avowed atheist' to ask about this? Addressing God scientifically is a flawed notion and not what science is designed for. Any reputable scientist could have confirmed this; theist or atheist. By going to an atheist the reporter (1) brought people's disliking of atheists into the mix, and (2) made it seem like his position was the oddball minority one, instead of the reverse. Then they go to two different denominations of Christians who say that belief in God is about faith.

We are now two thirds of the way into the segment, and still no details about what Tipler's claims are.

"Professor Tipler knows there are skeptics at church. Even some of his colleagues don't believe."

This is another grievous example. "...there are skeptics at church" Yes - how about, "...at church, a huge number of believers say that God is a matter of faith". That might have given a more accurate impression than a simple acknowledgment that "there are skeptics".

The second sentence is even worse: "Even some of his colleagues don't believe." Yes - how about, "...The vast majority of scientists and major scientific publications consider his claims unscientific." Maybe that would generate a more accurate impression in the viewer than "some of his colleagues".

"Still, Tipler says, God is the divine substance outside of space, time, and matter."

Earlier when responding to Dr. Gorski's statement that science doesn't study the supernatural the reporter retorted, "But the notion that God is in the natural appears to be exactly what Tipler is saying" - well which is it? Is God natural or the divine substance outside of space, time, and matter? To whatever degree it is the latter, it is outside of the realm of science because such things are not susceptible to its methods (not without Tipler's unbridled and pseudoscientific imagination that is).

"And theologians appear to have mixed feelings about the idea, but the debate rages on."

Which debate? The debate about the existence of God? If so, that's true - but it is not the impression this closing line gives. Closing the piece in this way gives the impression that the debate over Tipler's claims 'rages on' - as if his notions have caused a real stir.

Thus, most viewers come away with the impression that some major ripple has happened within science and now there is a big controversy that rages on. Unfortunately, a more accurate description would be that one fringe Christian mathematician is making unfounded pseudoscientific claims largely rejected by any serious sources from religion or science - one of a long line of such people.

If you think I mean that they shouldn't have reported this because it is false, then you have missed a very important point - that's not what I'm saying at all. Reporters don't need to judge the truth or falsity of claims like this - and they should report them. But they should not take fringe claims and set them along side the vast majority of accepted claims as though they have achieved some balance. This misrepresents the overall situation. As such, the report has betrayed everything news is supposed to be about - it is supposed to make people more informed about their world. It is not supposed to give them false impressions about the world.

So, the next question should be, why do reporters do things like this?

First, there is a general inclination to favor anything religious or godly in the news. This is because, as a corporation, the news outlet knows that the majority of its viewers are believers. In addition, many of the news reporters and writers are believers and may not even realize the bias.

Secondly, it is important for a reporter to make her story sound as though it is significant and as timely as possible. Thus, it wouldn't be very exciting without making it sound like some important event has taken place rather than a story about 'yet another fringe crackpot'.

Next, we have the old notion that news seeks out the most extreme and unusual of events to report on. In terms of science, this means that the fringe people, the pseudoscientists, the weirdest and most bizarre people, are the ones that are reported on. Rarely would mainstream accepted views be deemed anything worth reporting, unless we're talking about a news show dedicated specifically to science.

Lastly, there is the matter of time crunch and resources. We see this happen a lot more in local news. Often the reporter has to put together a story and doesn't have a whole lot of time to gather interviews, get input, etc. This can mean only talking to one person or source extensively. The result can then be a simple rehash of only one position to a greater extent than is reasonable.

I would suggest that news agencies can still make compelling news without such distortions. If they want to report on fringe elements in science that's fine. These stories can be very interesting. But they should at least report where that fringe claim stands among the whole of the scientific community.

Claims like Tiplers come and go, and there will always be a degree of pseudoscience out there - that's not extraordinary or newsworthy. The newsworthy item in this situation, however, is the unusual and bizarre practices of our news media - a news media that constantly misleads and misinforms the public. Unlike the continuing existence of unscientific fringe claims, that is something that needn't happen, and something can be corrected.

Thanks to my wife, Julie, for providing the links and info on this.

10 comments:

  1. HolyRomanEmperorMay 15, 2007 at 3:10 PM

    Interesting article. Have you considered sending a copy of this (or a letter in general) to the news station or the reporter who did the story?

    I think you should.

    Before sending, you might want to proofread this article again though. I did notice a few typos, etc. Nothing so bad as to cloud your intended message, but still not what you would want possibly printed in a newspapper or put up on the news channel's website.

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  2. Thanks. I've gone through and found what I could. I thought about sending to the station but figured they wouldn't care. Maybe I will. :)

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  3. holyromanemperorMay 15, 2007 at 4:40 PM

    Well, they DEFINITELY won't care if they never read it!

    :)

    Who knows, they might even find it interesting enough to give you some air time to rebutt/respond.

    Then maybe your own show.....

    OK, maybe not. You still should send it though.

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  4. Also, you should mention something about science needing empirical evidence, not just disembodied math. You can have an infinity of coherent, interesting mathematical systems. They're not physics unless you can somehow attach them empirically to an observed phenomenon in the world.

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  5. Ah yes, excellent point - thanks very much anonymous!

    Very true - a mathematical description of something is no more scientific than an informal description of something if it isn't backed up by empirical evidence.

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  6. A person with the username 'James Redford' has left a comment here, which I've removed. James, I appreciate you reading and commenting, but I generally ask commenters not to make their comments so very long. You should post all of that in your own blog and then feel free to comment here again with a link.

    James' article was basically stating that Tipler's work was more respected and scientific than I had presented, and that he's been published in scientific journals. He also says that my discussion of his standing in the scientific community is committing the logical fallacy of ad hominem and appeal to authority.

    As to that, please see my sections 1.10 and 1.13 of my "Principles of Socio-Personal Humanism" on my philosophy site.

    As for the claims about Tipler's standing and his work itself, I would invite readers to visit Tiplers pages (which I linked to in the post) to decide for themselves. Again, I also invite James to post a link here back to his longer comments for others to see.

    (James, if you don't have access to your post, I have your comment in email and would be happy to mail it back to you so it isn't lost)

    Thanks :)

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  7. For my reply to DT Strain's originating entry above, see:

    James Redford, "Reply to DT Strain Regarding Prof. Frank J. Tipler's Omega Point Theory," January 16, 2008 http://geocities.com/theophysics/redford-reply-to-dt-strain.html

    For more on Prof. Frank J. Tipler's Omega Point Theory, I cordially invite everyone to read Prof. Tipler's below paper, which among other things demonstrates that the known laws of physics (i.e., general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Standard Model of particle physics) require that the universe end in the Omega Point:

    F. J. Tipler, "The structure of the world from pure numbers," Reports on Progress in Physics, Vol. 68, No. 4 (April 2005), pp. 897-964. http://math.tulane.edu/~tipler/theoryofeverything.pdf Also released as "Feynman-Weinberg Quantum Gravity and the Extended Standard Model as a Theory of Everything," arXiv:0704.3276, April 24, 2007. http://arxiv.org/abs/0704.3276

    See also the below website for much more information on Prof. Tipler's Omega Point Theory:

    Theophysics http://geocities.com/theophysics/

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  8. Thanks for reposting James. As I mentioned in my original article, the subject was the coverage practices of the media. My negative position on Tipler's ideas themselves were taken for granted and never really argued. Had that been the subject, I'm sure I would have agreed more with csicop and these amazon reviewers. Good luck with your explorations nonetheless :)

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  9. DT Strain, most of the Amazon.com reviews for The Physics of Immortality by Prof. Frank J. Tipler (1994) are positive, with five-star reviews in the lead. And a number of the unfavorable reviews make fundamental factual errors, such as suggesting that cosmological observations obviate the Omega Point (again, for the error of that see Profs. Lawrence M. Krauss and Michael S. Turner, "Geometry and Destiny," General Relativity and Gravitation, Vol. 31, No. 10 [October 1999], pp. 1453-1459; also at arXiv:astro-ph/9904020, April 1, 1999 http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/9904020 ).

    Apparently Robert A. Baker* didn't read the book The Physics of Immortality (1994) which he comments on, as he erroneously claimed in his article that Prof. Tipler is a Roman Catholic, when Tipler explicitely stated (pg. 305) that he is still an atheist because he didn't at the time have confirmation for the Omega Point Theory.

    And in a section entitled "Why I Am Not a Christian" in The Physics of Immortality (pg. 310), Tipler wrote, "However, I emphasize again that I do not think Jesus really rose from the dead. I think his body rotted in some grave." This book was written before Tipler realized what the particular resurrection mechanism is that Jesus could have used without violating any known laws of physics (and without existing on an emulated level of implementation--in that case the resurrection mechanism would be trivially easy to perform for the society running the emulation).

    Hence, relying on information from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSICOP) is obviously a mistake.

    Interestingly, Baker refers to Prof. Tipler's previous book co-written with astrophysicist Prof. John D. Barrow and "Foreword" by Prof. John Wheeler as "the respected 1986 book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle." Yet that is the first book wherein Tipler's Omega Point Theory was described, and in quite some detail. It appears that Baker hadn't read that book, either, as he doesn't seem aware that The Physics of Immortality is a continuation on the Omega Point Theory described in the 1986 book.

    Rather than getting your information from people who have made up their minds without understanding what it is that they are criticizing, I recommend you read Prof. Tipler's below paper, which among other things demonstrates that the known laws of physics (i.e., general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Standard Model of particle physics) require that the universe end in the Omega Point:

    F. J. Tipler, "The structure of the world from pure numbers," Reports on Progress in Physics, Vol. 68, No. 4 (April 2005), pp. 897-964. http://math.tulane.edu/~tipler/theoryofeverything.pdf Also released as "Feynman-Weinberg Quantum Gravity and the Extended Standard Model as a Theory of Everything," arXiv:0704.3276, April 24, 2007. http://arxiv.org/abs/0704.3276

    Reports on Progress in Physics, in which the above paper was published, is peer-reviewed and the leading journal of the Institute of Physics, England's main professional body for physicists. Of course, the referees at the Institute of Physics would not publish Prof. Tipler's Omega Point Theory in their journal if they thought that it was "nutty," "addled" or otherwise demonstrably flawed.

    See also the below website for much more information on the Omega Point Theory:

    Theophysics http://geocities.com/theophysics/

    ---

    Note:

    * Robert A. Baker, "Nutty Professors, or Some Addled Academics?," Skeptical Briefs (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry; CSICOP), December 1994 http://csicop.org/sb/9412/nutty.html

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  10. Thanks James,

    The links I gave are not sources meant to support or back up my position; nor were they the cause of it. Rather, they outline the position I have come to as well as I might summarize it myself. As for debating the issue in detail, frankly, I don't intend on it because I have deemed it not worthy my time or effort. But thanks again for the comments :)

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