Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Clinging to Dogma (Polar Edition)

Quick, who was the first man to reach the North Pole: Frederick Cook or Robert Peary? Might be a trick question as, it appears, neither man actually got there. According to this story from the New York Times, what it calls the "most successful fraud in modern science" continues to provoke debate that sounds awfully familiar, in form if not in content:

The believers who have kept writing books and mounting expeditions to vindicate Cook or Peary resemble the political partisans recently studied by psychologists and sociologists. When the facts get in the way of our beliefs, our brains are marvelously adept at dispensing with the facts.

* * *

When we contemplate contradictions in the rhetoric of the opposition party’s candidate, the rational centers of our brains are active, but contradictions from our own party’s candidate set off a different reaction: the emotional centers light up and levels of feel-good dopamine surge.

With our rational faculties muted, sometimes the unwelcome evidence doesn’t even register, and sometimes we use marvelous logic to get around the facts.
As the story makes clear, the illogic of the competing sides is stoked by the partisan media. Including the Gray Lady herself:
When Cook cabled his tale to The New York Herald, the newspaper promptly devoted its entire front page to the news: 'Fighting Famine and Ice, the Courageous Explorer Reaches the Great Goal.'

Several days later Peary cabled his claim to The Times, which had helped sponsor his expedition. The Times hailed his triumph, reporting that 'the world accepts his word without a shadow of hesitation” and quoting Peary’s denunciation of Cook as a fraud who “has simply handed the public a gold brick.'
Apart from what this says about science and psychology, it's yet another reminder that the good ol' days of "honest" and "impartial" journalism are pretty much a pipe dream. Makes for some fun reading a century after the fact, tho'.

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