This is Bad Journalism. The three reporters reached out to individuals they describe as “experts”. But they aren’t experts. They are just people the three authors can talk to.
With the Information Explosion has come increasing specialization. A hundred years ago, a well-rounded liberal arts education implied that you would be able, in some minimal way, to grasp the fundamentals of our universe and society. If nothing else, your liberal arts heritage would make possible an unbroken chain of who-to-ask. If you didn’t understand something, you knew enough to find who would.
This fundamental ability, to “know who knows”, has become a casualty of the Information Explosion. Increasingly, people don’t know what they don’t know. This self-awareness deficit seeds a chain reaction, reaching out to people who don’t know either.
If it’s not your job to root out information, it’s just being dull and narrow. There have been ignoramuses as long as people. But ignorance to the point of not knowing who to ask is fatal to the purpose of a reporter.
The first thing these reporters should have asked themselves, as a self-check is, “Do I know for sure what it means to be an expert on this subject?” Let’s put down the sterling definition first:
An expert on the subject of sonic harassment is someone whose job it is to design equipment, teach the operation of it, or to counteract the effects. Their job descriptions:
- Design: An engineering physicist, or applied physicist, engaging in the cross-discipline of physics and engineering used to design actual devices.
- Teach: A support specialist provided by the manufacturer to train clandestine operators. The operators themselves do not qualify as experts. They don’t know enough.
- Counteract: A person whose job it is to ferret out and nullify all manners of clandestine electronic attack.
How does this compare to the list of cited “experts”?
- Dr. Hung Jeffrey Kim, neurologist. The neurologist typically has encyclopedic knowledge of neurological problems and the relationship with pathology. He is expert at noninvasive diagnosis by clinical signs. Typically, he has little knowledge of physics. He knows little about acoustics beyond the basics of sound pressure level presented to the ear, and localization of sound. Mathematics: undergraduate level. If I’m wrong, I’ll be happy to discuss with Dr. Kim.
- Dr. Scott Masten, toxicologist. Toxicology is about chemistry, not physics. Knowledge of this subject is limited to generalities.
- Sharon Weinberger, journalist. The CNN journalists cite another journalist as an “expert”? Technical knowledge: negligible.
- James Lewis, former foreign service officer. Technical knowledge: negligible. He may not know this.
What happened? Why did the CNN journalists reach out to people who are not experts, and anoint them as such?
- The CNN criteria is to bang out an article as fast as possible, without spending too much time on it. Make four phone calls, and you’re done.
- Unlike sometimes socially distant scientists and engineers, the CNN “experts” are socially approachable.
- Because their technical levels are little higher than the reporters, they won’t encounter the feared gobbledygook. CNN’s journalists can understand them easily, because they have the same limited vocabulary relevant to the subject.
Have people with expert backgrounds really become unapproachable? Or are we more impressed than we should be by job titles, “Dr.”, “diplomat”, or “journalist”? Maybe a little more time with someone approaching the criteria of a real expert, coffee and doughnuts instead of the quickie phone call? CNN, try it.
Or has the Information Explosion deprived CNN’s journalists of the self-awareness of what they don’t know, and who to ask?
It would be interesting to compare the reasoning of the CNN article with the two I’ve written, Sonic Attacks on U.S. and Canadian Diplomats in Cuba; a Kremlin Op? and Havana Sonic Attacks — Addendum for techies only.
But it simply isn’t possible. It’s beyond the ken of the CNN reporters. Tragically, they don’t know how important their deficit is. If they did, it would become unimportant, because they would find the right people to ask.
CNN: know what you don’t know. Raise your standards.