When writing his book “Dealers of Lightning,” Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik asked computer scientist Bob Taylor how he managed a team of geniuses like the ones who laid the foundation for the modern internet.
Taylor, who funded the U.S. Advanced Research Project Agency Network, told him that he divided all disagreements into two classes, the first of which he tried to avoid.
“A class one disagreement is when two people disagree, and neither can explain to the other the other’s point of view,” Hiltzik said. “A class two disagreement, in contrast, is when a person can explain to the other the other’s point of view.”
Class one disagreements take place between one side with facts and verifiable conditions, Hiltzik said, and another that offers alternative facts. And in a public lecture at Paterno Library’s Foster Auditorium on the Penn State Campus, he said they are becoming increasingly common in the worlds of politics and science.
“I think what we’ve seen in Washington, and certainly what came out of the presidential campaign … is the elevation of the class one disagreement into an ideal and a goal,” Hiltzik said. “We can see how this works in practice: the recent fiasco of the repeal of Obamacare was a class one disagreement within the Republican Party.”
These kinds of disagreements, Hiltzik said, are particularly problematic for journalists who want to weigh both sides equally. He used a controversial 2013 episode of Katie Couric’s now-defunct talk show as an example, which he said had given a platform to critics with “highly emotional and scientifically dubious” claims about the HPV vaccine Gardasil.
“When I reached her producers, they defended the segment … by saying that the show regularly discusses important topics in the hopes that people can make their own decisions,” Hiltzik said. “You can see the slippery slope at work here.”
Even more dangerous is when pseudoscience is given credibility in the form of big money, which is the case with climate change, he said.
The debate over its causes, and even its existence, is not scientific, he said.
“It’s driven by economics,” he said. “By vested interests like the fossil fuel industry, and by the larger business community that wishes for the nirvana of a world without government regulation.”
Solving problems like climate change, Hiltzik said, will likely require highly funded, large-scale efforts in “big science” — like the efforts that led to the creation of the particle accelerator and the first successful trip to the moon.
Hiltzik wrote about these achievements in his 2015 book, “Big Science,” and ones he attributes to a public trust in the legitimacy of science. The loss of scientists who were able to articulate the nature of their research to the public, he said, has led to a loss of that trust.
In their absence, Hiltzik said journalists will have to take better care to familiarize themselves with the nature of scientific research when reporting on it.
“If that means learning more about genetics or particle physics or climate science to comprehend what scientists are actually reporting, then so be it,” he said. “That’s our job.”
Matthew Guerry is a Penn State journalism student.