Belaboring the Obvious

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Science and the MSM....

In a recent article, Jeff Cohen of FAIR reminded me of a problem that seems to be growing in the so-called mainstream media--and especially through the Bush years, when science has taken a back seat to ideology.

There are reporters out there--presumably top-notch ones--who were completely taken in by a little flash talk from the Bush administration, and simply have no scientific training on which to depend for their reporting on issues which are, increasingly, dependent upon at least some minimal knowledge of a wide variety of scientific disciplines.

So much of the breathless dreck which was reported in the run-up to the war could have been avoided with equal measures of skepticism and just a little scientific background.

As Cohen reminds us, Judith Miller and Michael Gordon were among those suckered by the White House (on any number of occasions and topics) and especially on the subject of the "aluminum tubes." I cannot count the number of clueless reporters who wrote something like, "the import of aluminum tubes used in nuclear weapons." Those "aluminum tubes" were not used in nuclear weapons (the average reporter today, even with the declassification of basic nuclear weapon design, couldn't tell an aluminum tube from a Toyota). Rather, they would have been used (if appropriately specified) in gas centrifuges.

That fact didn't escape the notice of Gordon and Miller, but neither of those reporters, reputed to be experts on weapons of mass destruction by the country's "paper of record," happily reported the administration line without, apparently, a solitary moment of skepticism. A call to the IAEA with a few pertinent questions, informed by basic scientific understanding, would have resolved the question of "the toobz." To wit: the intercepted tubes were of what alloy? Is that alloy strong enough for centrifuge use and compatible with uranium hexafluoride gas? The administration said the aluminum was anodized. Would anodizing be eaten off by the very reactive uranium hexafluoride gas and would that clog up the separation/enrichment process? The tubes were reputed to be 81mm in diameter. Isn't that too big and heavy for use in a gas centrifuge? Isn't that a standard size for artillery rocket launching tubes? And so on.

The same might be said for Powell's bravura performance before the UN Security Council. If there were, indeed, mobile biological labs, why did the administration depend upon colored illustrations of them, instead of satellite photos? Why, when the administration excitedly announced that those laboratories had been found, did no reporter ask how airborne contaminants such as molds and fungi could be excluded from a truck which had no clean room and was equipped with a canvas canopy (the trucks were finally determined to be carrying hydrogen generators for artillery balloons, and were originally built by the British), or how the technicians could have been spared death from their own product with such facilities? If one has no clue about how bioweapons are made in bulk, one does not ask those questions.

When Powell held up a vial purportedly containing weaponized anthrax spores, did any pundit ask, "if that's really anthrax, did it come from Iraq, or from our labs? And if it's not anthrax in there, what is the reason for Powell suggesting that it is? And, don't the answers to those questions have a bearing on the matter at hand?" And on and on and on.

Even a small amount of scientific knowledge and logic on the part of a properly skeptical reporter would have gone a long, long way to exposing--before the war--the deceit employed by the administration in their quest for war for political purposes.

When some administration sources slyly suggested that all of Iraq's chemical weapons and precursor materials had been shipped to some secret location in the middle of Syria's desert, why did no reporter do the math from the numbers offered by the administration? It wasn't that difficult to do. From the amounts offered by the administration, one could make simple guesstimates about the density of the organic compounds involved, multiply those against the many thousands of gallons of each component asserted, add in the weight of the containers holding them, and, as I did, come up with the rough number of tractor-trailers required to move that purported amount of material. With an average route of 450 miles, there would have been trucks on the highway north spaced one mile apart, coming and going, twenty-four hours a day for three weeks, if Iraq even had that many trucks. No satellite captured that traffic or the end destination(s)? A little simple math would have made that question relevant.

Where was the evidence for the unmanned aerial vehicles capable of spraying those chemical and biological weapons on the coastal areas of the United States? How were those UAVs to get to the United States? What was their size? Their range? Their maximum payload? When the few recovered prototype balsa wood, spit and duct-taped examples were shown to the press after the invasion, they were not even close to as well-made as those by amateur quarter-scale model airplane enthusiasts in this country, and, if they had worked at all would have had a range of perhaps, at best, twenty miles or thirty miles. But, most reporters reported them as threats, rather than the slapped-together jokes they actually were.

What about the charges that Hussein could launch an attack on the United States in as little as forty-five minutes? How, and by what means? Did anyone in the mainstream press ask that question and press for an answer which did not border on the ludicrous? I don't recall anyone challenging that on the basis of fact. Most reporters accepted it as true because Bush said British intelligence and Tony Blair said so. After all, the British had issued a report saying just that. Who was to doubt them, even though there was no evidence? Certainly not the reporters of the scientifically-savvy United States....

When Kindasleazza Rice went before the cameras of the networks, ominously invoking "mushroom clouds" as the inevitable payback for insufficiently prompt action on our part, how many reporters asked, "how is Hussein going to do that with an infrastructure crippled by war and sanctions? How is Hussein going to get a bomb here even if he could get make one in the near future? If he has nothing but variants on SCUD missiles, capable of at best a few hundred miles' range, and no planes with more than a few hundred miles' range and no aerial refueling capability, how does he get a bomb here? By ship? Wouldn't we be watching for that? Is there any ship in the Iraqi navy, such as it is, that wouldn't run out of fuel before it rounded the Horn of Africa? With a baker's dozen of carrier battle groups at our disposal and satellites in space capable of tracking any ship, wouldn't we be able to dispatch any errant Iraqi gunboat/garbage scow/rented tin can on the high seas?"

Alas, no one of any note asked any of those questions. Merely asking the questions, persistently, and denying the Bush administration the opportunity to make bullshit sound like science (a tendency on the part of this administration--in following the example of our Dear Leader--of which most reporters should have been already highly aware), might have been enough to short-circuit the Cheney administration's war. But, what can one expect from the press when someone on NPR labelled Newton's Second Law of Momentum as the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

All the questions above are not rocket science. They're grounded in logic and just a few simple, easy to understand concepts and a little practical knowledge--and are prompted by some skepticism about the evidence offered by the Bushies. But, the best and the brightest in the White House press corpse didn't ask those questions. They went for drama instead of the details that mattered--because they had no notion of what those details might be or what questions to ask. Judith Miller, often described by others in the press as an "expert" on weapons proliferation (and perhaps, by comparison to those clueless souls, she was) never asked, never probed, never challenged. She didn't know squat about what she was writing, but, she talked a good game and she had the power of The New York Times' reputation behind her. Even so, her repeatedly demonstrated tendency to be taken in by administration officials who, like her, talked convincingly about things of which they knew nothing, knew no bounds. Had Judith Miller known concepts and principles instead of buzzwords and ideology, and applied them with some healthy skepticism, she might have been able to give the public a more accurate view of the situation before the war. More's the pity that she, like most of her brethren in the press, did not, would not, and could not bring both skepticism and a knowledge of the fundamentals to the utterly essential task at hand--informing the public.

A little more skepticism and a little more scientific awareness might answer a number of important questions before the Bush administration plows right ahead on its next misadventure in oil country.

(art from


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