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The iPhone in Japan, Part 1: Why Academics are Better than Journalists

You may have read this damning piece about Wired's coverage of Japan's "hatred" for the iPhone. If you haven't, go read it now. I'll wait.

(Playing Sol Free on the iPhone... Operating my iTunes library from the iPhone... Checking mail on the iPhone...)

You done?

Good.

Basically, here's the thing: In academia, when we write a claim--any claim--we have to either back that claim up with data we've collected and analyzed, or we have to cite some other available source written by someone who did. This is to ensure that we aren't just pulling things out of our butts and lying to people.

And that, my friend, is why academics are better than journalists.

"Yeah, but, who cares?"--I hear you thinking aloud, "it's just a stupid puff piece about a phone."

Wel, in this case, yeah, it's not the end of the world if it's wrong. It isn't going to get anyone killed, but it could have a negative impact on Apple's stock price, which could mean lost jobs, which could add to the unemployment problem in the US where the company is based, which could add to the overall economic downturn...

Everything is connected, and in the information age, putting out bad information from a position of authority, whether it be deliberate or negligent, is serious business. Wired is supposedly a respected and respectable technology magazine. In this case, a writer abused that reputation to try to get away with just throwing some crap on paper and cashing his paycheck.

And that's not right.

This case in and of itself isn't really much to worry about, but it points to a problem that affects us all: the media is full of shit. They are motivated by readership and ad dollars, not truthfulness. Whereas in academia, we are all (well, almost all) trying to help further elucidate some little arcane piece of theory or human wisdom, with the understanding that no one benefits from making things up, and where readership means basically nothing to research writing, and the only things that even get published are those which our peers have examined and verified to at least be properly sourced, journalists can just hammer out crap and move on. Whereas an academic writing an untruth (deliberately or negligently) will only be read by a handful of people who at least possess the skills to determine if it is true or not, a journalist can potentially reach millions of people who have no choice but to believe what he says. Whereas an untruth in research writing, by itself, may at best change a handful of people's minds and lead them on a research wild goose chase for a while, an untruth in the popular media results in things like the post-9/11 economic recession, which should have never happened (Taleb, 2001 <== See? Not so hard, is it?).

We don't allow such sloppiness in the field of relatively inconsequential academic research writing; why should we do so for the mass media?

REFERENCES

Taleb, N. N. (2001). Fooled by randomness: The hidden role of chance in the markets and in life. Random House: NY.