Much of our news is people crying “wolf”. Do we still listen to real warnings?

Summary: You can always tell a slow news day when the clickbait flows. The good news is that most of the bad news is wrong.  The bad news is that the news diet served by our fear mongers has deadened us to the real dangers we face. (1st of 2 posts about this today)

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The End of Civilization

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Civilization is so over.

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Alarm bells toll for human civilization as world’s 12th largest mega-city to run out of water in just 60 days“, Natural News, 3 December 2014 — About Sao Paulo, Brazil. “Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson will also run dry.” Got to love the certainty of this statement, typical of doomsters. We turn to real journalists at The Guardian to understand Sao Paulo’s problems (not exactly ending-civilization-scale-problems).

The biggest problem is in the Cantareira water system, which is the largest of six reservoirs that provide water to some 6 million of the 20 million people living in the metropolitan area of Sao Paulo city. Cantareira is now down to 6% of its capacity of 1tn litres, the water utility Sabesp said on its website. Of the remaining five systems, Alto Tiete is at 11% of capacity, Rio Claro 25%, Alto Cotia 30%, Guarapiranga 40% and Rio Grande 70%.

Although declining water supplies have been a concern since last year, authorities have resisted rationing water. But Leme de Barros said officials need to consider a range of steps, among them implementing water rationing but also encouraging the use of more efficient appliances, lowering water pressure in the system and doing better at repairing leaks.

Many problems are serious when people do nothing about them. And problems in Brazil, with its underinvestment in infrastructure, tell us little about the better-managed parts of civilization. Yet people read these articles and let such nonsense shape their view of the world.

Fold the tents, Las Vegas is toast.

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Journalists enjoyed the we’re running out of oil articles that generated so many clicks in 2005-2008. Now they run the equally daft Las Vegas will run out of water soon. British newshounds do this better than ours, such as The Telegraph’s story about “desperate attempts to save Sin City are under way” (“Unless it can find a way to get more water from somewhere Las Vegas is out of business.”).

A surprise to the doomsters (it’s always a surprise to the doomsters), engineers are building solutions. For details see “Vegas not running dry” in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. And they have not begun to reduce their per capita water consumption, which (insanely) is among the nation’s highest (details at Slate).

Bee Warning
They’re trying to tell us something

It’s the bee-polcalypse, again! Food is over.

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It’s fun to watch the news echo chamber exaggerate scientific studies. Nature runs “Disease associations between honeybees and bumblebees as a threat to wild pollinators” (ungated copy), a study showing that honeybees spread diseases to their wild cousins. The LA Times goes for the hot headline: “Bee colony collapse viruses spreading to bumblebees” The scientists studied deformed wing virus, which is linked to the still largely mysterious colony collapse disorder (as are many factors). It is not the “colony collapse virus”. The study doesn’t even mention CCD.

A similar study in the Journal of Applied Ecology suffered the same fate: “Emerging viral disease risk to pollinating insects: ecological, evolutionary and anthropogenic factors“. Motherboard at Vice.com takes this, exaggerates it as the LAT did (this spreading of diseases is a normal process, not something new), then goes for clickbait heaven: “If bees go down, we’re going down with them. Literal buzzkill.” They then give the usual context-less doom and gloom about colony collapse disorder.

Here’s a post about CCD for those who like their news with facts, history, and context.

NASA

Civilization is doomed. NASA says so.

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Science is, as it ever was, the source of headlines for slow news days. The Guardian: “NASA-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?” LiveScience: “Society Is Doomed, Scientists Claim“. Huffington Post: “Civilisation Is Doomed Warns Safa Motesharri’s Nasa-Funded Study“.

This has little to do with the actual study in Ecological Economics: “Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies” — “HANDY is a 4-variable thought-experiment model for interaction of humans and nature.” Four variables is a thought-experiment about society; four hundred variables gives a useful model. Nor was NASA amused at their exploitation of their hard-won credibility (many journalists, of course, didn’t bother to check with NASA before rushing out their clickbait). Their statement:

A soon-to-be published research paper {in Ecological Economics} was not solicited, directed or reviewed by NASA. It is an independent study by the university researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity. As is the case with all independent research, the views and conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone. NASA does not endorse the paper or its conclusions.

There are real wolves
There are real wolves out there.

The “boy who cried wolf” describes a serious problem.

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Much of this results from the excess of journalists and news media vs the paying audience, plus an equally oversized public relations industry. The result is distortions in the news. Some studies have documented this (more are needed), such as “The growth of the science PR industry has resulted in an overly exaggerated presentation of research findings“, Alasdair Taylor (PhD Chemistry, Fellow at U Nottingham), London School of Economics blog, 3 June 2014

Is this just good fun, with a few extra bucks for the news media? It would be for a society of people with functioning B.S. detectors. For a gullible fearful people it’s the equivalent of a hyperactive adrenal gland. Excessive excitement followed by exhaustion, the cost of these stories and our poor judgement. Worse, some of the warnings are serious but we lump them in with the exaggerations and fakes. Such as the destruction of the oceans, among our most serious problems being totally ignored (details here, and here).

We see this with the hype about climate change, now in its third decade (with as yet no serious consequences from the warming climate) — a collapse of interest by the US public, disinterest even about preparing for past weather and certain-to-occur future changes (e.g., sea levels rising, as they have for thousands of years).

  1. Have we prepared for normal climate change and non-extreme weather?
  2. Droughts are coming. Are we ready for the past to repeat?

When we mock clickbait by journalists and refuse attention to those who use it, then perhaps we might get better news. News should be an active process between us and journalists, more than just staring at the women on Fox News.

For More Information

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Some posts about our news media:

  1. The media – a broken component of America’s machinery to observe and understand the world, 2 June 2009.
  2. We’re ignorant about the world because we rely on our media for information, 3 June 2009.
  3. Are we blind, or just incurious about important news?, 6 July 2009.
  4. Examples of America’s broken vision. Here’s why we cannot clearly see our world., 21 October 2012.
  5. The news as a series of hysteric fits by America. Why? How can we get a grip on ourselves?, 12 December 2014.
  6. Fox News gives us what we want: journalism for a New America, 26 December 2014.

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