The 2,099th Meeting of the Society

January 22, 1999

Surviving the Age of Bad Information

Joel Achenbach

Washington Post

About the Lecture

What do you call someone who believes that from the simplest molecules of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen there arose by pure random chance, four billion years ago, a replicating entity that could be plausibly defined as alive? What do you call a person who believes that this creature or creatures like it eventually evolved into the amazing diversity of organisms that we see on our planet today? What do you call a person who marvels that this process of biological change has allowed the emergence of a creature that is sentient, that can study the universe in stunning detail, that can create models of the distant past and distant future, that can inject into the world images and sounds and ideas of surpassing beauty? You call such a person a skeptic. A skeptic, in today's society, is someone who accepts the scientific theory of our origins and of nature—even though there are innumerable competing ideas involving spirits, demons, UFO aliens, exploded planets, the Face on Mars, untapped psychic powers, shadow governments, time travelers and various kinds of "new physics". For a journalist who ventures forth into modern society it is a challenge to sort what is real from what is merely reassuring. There is a profusion of what can be called Bad Information. But there are things that can be done to combat Bad Information and make the scientific version of reality more palatable to a society starved for deeper truths.

About the Speaker

Joel Achenbach is a staff writer of The Washington Post. He's the author of three books based on his nationally syndicated column, "Why Things Are," which ran from 1988 to 1996. He now covers a range of subjects, from politics to science. He is in the final stages of a book for Simon & Schuster, to be published in November 1999, about the cultural and scientific fascination with extraterrestrial life. Achenbach graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University in 1982 and worked at The Miami Herald for eight years prior to joining The Post. Since 1991 he has been an occasional commentator on NPR's "Morning Edition". He and his wife Mary have three daughters and reside in the District.


President Garavelli called the 2099th meeting to order at 8:20 p.m. on January 22, 1999. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2097th meeting and they were approved. The speaker for the 2099th meeting was Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post. The title of his presentation was, “Surviving the Age of Bad Information.” Bad information is a bothersome problem to us primarily because there is so much good information out there. Tools to sort the available information are available and the most effective tools are found in science. This is the point of convergence Mr. Achenbach carefully walked us to in his presentation on surviving in the age of bad information. Mr. Achenbach opened his talk with a discussion of space aliens. The reason for this particular subject is that the topic is full of bad information. He described himself as a skeptic, contending, as did Carl Sagan, that we do not know, and are nowhere close to knowing, anything in the way of facts about life beyond Earth. We have theories. We have plausibility arguments, but we do not have facts. In Mr. Achenbach's research on life beyond earth, the number of known, confirmed examples of life beyond earth was zero. At the end of his research, the number is still zero. Zero is his guiding light. Zero is his anchor. As he stated while clarifying his position on the subject, “He would not believe in aliens if there was one chewing on his leg.” Compare this approach to the Cocktail Party Paradigm of life beyond Earth. This principle is stated perhaps at a meeting of an intellectual society or a philosophical society; “It would be so arrogant of us to think that we are the most advanced life form in the universe.” Yes, it's wrong to be full of yourself and lacking humility and talking too loud and belching! However, the abundance of alien civilizations in the universe is not dependent upon our level of arrogance — or our humility. The most effective approach to sort bad and good information relies on answering the question, “Is it true?” People tend to genuflect to a person with the most degrees or the most prestigious title. However, as in science, “the data” usually wins out. In some regards, science is simply a set of tools. It requires experimentation and independent verification and it provides a central goal to, “get it right.” It is this “get it right” goal that is the most effective approach for sorting bad and good information. There are different types of bad information and some of it is harmless. A religious belief that is not backed up by hard evidence is not an example of bad information — so long as everyone agrees that it is a matter of faith. However, if someone claims that the Hubble Space Telescope found Heaven, we have a bad information situation. Mr. Achenbach identified other recent examples of bad information. These include the CNN-Time magazine story of last summer about nerve gas during the Vietnam War that developed from a perfectly well-meaning journalistic venture. So too, the San Jose Mercury story saying the CIA was responsible for triggering the crack epidemic in urban America. Mr. Achenbach then closed his presentation and kindly answered questions from the floor. President Garavelli thereupon thanked Mr. Achenbach for the society, announced the next meeting and made the usual parking announcement. He then adjourned the 2099th meeting to the Social Hour at 9:35 p.m. Attendance: 45 Temperature: 9.4°C Weather: clear Respectfully submitted, Bill Spargo Recording Secretary