Information Reliability. This is a pet peeve of mine. Stephen Jay Gould was a stickler for finding out where ideas “that everybody knows” came from, and often finding the original source to be dubious.
I am writing today because of a recent Mallard Fillmore cartoon proclaiming that “new reports give strong evidence for global warming being caused by warmer sun temperatures, not humans”. I regularly read this strip to see what the other side might be thinking. Wherever I read outlandish claims (in any publication), I like to check the source. To this author’s credit, he usually publishes his source for any counter-intuitive claims right on the panel!
The source for this one was NewsMax.com, an unabashedly far-right-leaning, tabloid-like publication.
“Discover forbidden attraction secrets that the Liberal Media don’t want you to know about!” cries one front-page ad.
The article about global warming mentioned (without citation or link) studies comparing 3 years average surface temperature readings from Earth and Mars, and showing that Mars has also warmed up slightly during the study period. This seems reasonable; likely to be correct. But it doesn’t contradict any of the hundreds of studies covering dozens of different types of measurements over thousands of years of climatological data that they are trying to debunk. But Mallard said it, and cited a source. I know I’ll see it propagated from there. Just like the following.
A year or two ago Mallard proclaimed that scientists have proven that there are more trees in America now than there were in pilgrim times, and his source was listed. That source linked to another, to another. So far, so good. The original, dry study showed that the count of trees in the Boston Bay area in 2004 was greater than that calculated for the same region after the pilgrims finished clear cutting for construction, cropland, and fuel. Duh. As it migrated down the literary intestinal tract, the area grew and the time period of comparison became more vague. For a month or so after that, conservatives were repeating that there are more trees in America now than there were in colonial times!
Always look to see where surprising claims come from, and track it back to the source. You’ll usually find that several layers of spin sit on top of a simple misinterpretation. On the other rare occasions, someone ends up with a Nobel prize. It’s worth checking if you want to hold onto your claim of being informed.