Esoteric Knowledge

By Sean Carroll | May 13, 2010 9:39 am

You may have heard that a major climate bill — the “American Power Act,” sponsored by John Kerry and Joe Lieberman — is trundling through Congress. Its prospects for passage are highly unclear; it’s a giant mess of a bill, which would have important consequences for any number of sectors in the economy, and the country’s attention is largely focused elsewhere at the moment. (A substantial fraction is focused on Justin Bieber, but I don’t really blame him.)

So what does the bill say? Here’s the very short version, from our sister blog 80 Beats:

The carbon emissions targets are: 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. That’s made to match the goals in the House bill that passed in 2009. In addition, the bill proposes putting a price on carbon.

Somewhat longer version from Think Progress here. Or of course you could just read the bill yourself (pdf). Only 987 pages! Most of which read like this:

24 ‘‘(i) IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding
25 subparagraph (A), subject to the condition
1 described in clause (ii), the Administrator
2 shall withhold from distribution under this
3 paragraph a quantity of emission allow-
4 ances equal to the lesser of—
5 ‘‘(I) 14.3 percent of the quantity
6 of emission allowances allocated under
7 section 781(a)(1) for the relevant vin-
8 tage year; and
9 ‘‘(II) 105 percent of the emission
10 allowances of the relevant vintage year
11 that the Administrator anticipates will
12 be distributed to merchant coal units
13 and long-term contract generators
14 under subsections (c) and (d).

There are good reasons why bills are written in turgid legal language; but it means that very few concerned citizens are going to be curling up with a good piece of legislation in the evening. That’s okay; we have multiple high-profile media outlets that are here to help us understand the complexities of these important changes to how our country does its business. I mean, right?

Sadly, no, as a wise person once said. CNN had a sit-down interview with Kerry and Lieberman last night, and here’s what we get:

Last night, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman appeared on John King’s CNN program to promote their climate bill, the American Power Act. The transcript is fairly lengthy, but at no point does King ask them to explain the provisions of their bill. Instead, he begins by asking whether they have 60 votes, tries to get them to explain why John McCain isn’t on the legislation, and then asks them to comment on the Sestak-Specter race in Pennsylvania. In fact, the clip the John King show posted online (which I embedded above) doesn’t even mention the climate bill.

Isn’t there room in the media landscape for just one TV news channel that would take seriously the responsibility of actually providing their viewers with useful information? It might be a small, niche market, but if the Golf Channel can thrive, surely it’s an experiment worth trying? I refuse to believe that providing useful information is of necessity such a tedious and boring activity that it can’t be made interesting, no matter how hard we try. We need to get Stephen Spielberg and Jay Rosen in a room together to figure out how to make a news channel that would honestly inform people in an entertaining way. Have them call me.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Media, Politics
  • Mike

    The News Hour on PBS does an excellent job compared to all the other news outlets. Sometimes on business channels like Bloomberg you can get important details, to the extent the business community is impacted one way or the other. That’s about it though.

  • Rohan Mehra

    Stephen Spielberg?!?

    Did you really think that remark through?
    The guy who digitally removed guns from the hands of soldiers in the re-release of ET and shot a lot of the film ‘Berlin’ in Prague and Budapest hoping no one would notice!
    And there’s always the worry that he’d get his friend George Lucas in on the deal…

    On the plus side at least it would get young children interested in politics and the economy!

  • Jim Harrison

    Back in its early years, CNN was a hard-news operation. That business model didn’t work. To have a news channel that does something more than to try to maximize profits, one requires some source of subsidy with an ideological motivation. Unfortunately, there are a lot more eccentric right-wing billionaires than billionaires interested in financing objective news.

  • Pieter Kok

    Well, there’s the Daily Show…

  • diogenes

    Oh, yeah, the Daily Show, for those who can’t stand their “news” without it being diluted by “comedy” and snark. Mike had it right on recommending the News Hour.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    It’s not TV, but I like Market Place quite a bit, and it’s a good way fill my brain while driving home. Outside of viewer-supported news, I’m afraid you’re going to find nothing but disappointment.

  • Lug and do a great job of summarizing the provisions of major pieces of legislation. The downside, however, is that they’re not news organizations, so their coverage is not always comprehensive or timely. (For instance, right now neither has an article on the climate bill. I expect they will, when the debate on it revs up.)

  • Mike

    Six or seven years ago we banned all TV signals from our house. People whose main source of news and analysis is TV, always seem to have a high ratio of arrogance to understanding. What a waste of time.

  • wds

    At times like these I can’t help think back to Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I think his analysis still stands: you can’t do TV without entertainment, and you can’t truly inform people if you also have to entertain them.

    Some shows manage because they have a subject that leads to pretty pictures and it’s not necessary to really be complete (i.e. nature documentaries). But for news? The best way to stay informed is still to read, not to watch.

    Sean mentioned doing it “in an entertaining way”, which I think is exactly the problem here. Of course for some of us, interesting == entertaining, but there’s a difference in effort required from the viewer between Larry King’s narrative (blah blah, let’s see them talk this way out of this one), versus actually analyzing what is in a new bill.

  • Phillip Helbig

    It seems one can comment on blog entries which are too old, which is why this is here and not
    in the “Attack of the Boltzmann brains” thread.

    What do you think of ?

    “To make predictions for an eternally inflating “multiverse”, one must adopt a procedure for regulating its divergent spacetime volume. Recently, a new test of such spacetime measures has emerged: normal observers – who evolve in pocket universes cooling from hot big bang conditions – must not be vastly outnumbered by “Boltzmann brains” – freak observers that pop in and out of existence as a result of rare quantum fluctuations. If the Boltzmann brains prevail, then a randomly chosen observer would be overwhelmingly likely to be surrounded by an empty world, where all but vacuum energy has redshifted away, rather than the rich structure that we observe. Using the scale-factor cutoff measure, we calculate the ratio of Boltzmann brains to normal observers. We find the ratio to be finite, and give an expression for it in terms of Boltzmann brain nucleation rates and vacuum decay rates. We discuss the conditions that these rates must obey for the ratio to be acceptable, and we discuss estimates of the rates under a variety of assumptions.”

    I think that qualifies as “esoteric knowledge”. :-)

  • Sleeth

    I agree with Mike that The News Hour on PBS had done an excellent job, especially in finding people who can explain the complexity of issues. But maybe we are expecting too much from television news. Newspeople, who are not experts in the fields they are reporting on, are faced with the challenge of condensing complex issues into 2 minute segments, and they have to appeal to the general public at the end of long workdays when viewers are tired and trying to relax with family. Instead of lambasting current news media, it is our challenge to identify and cultivate alternative news sources that do thorough jobs of reporting. If you find a good source of news, tell others, blog about it, facebook it, YouTube it, twitter it. Perhaps, as people seek other information sources, the traditional news establishments will take notice. That is how we change the news landscape. There are other things we can do as well. Today is graduation day at my university, and, though the field is new, seven students are graduating with COMMUNICATIONS OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY degrees. Hopefully they will be a part of filling this news void.

    On, and I think the country has moved on from watching Bieber and is now watching Greyson Michael Chance

  • Miguel

    As an example, Amy Goodman with Democracy Now provides some good information news. One program is obviously not enough, as no one can cover all sorts of issues satisfactorily, but a possible model is already there and others could certainly develop it further if they’d wish to do so.

  • Z

    I second the Amy Goodman comment. Also, Rachel Maddow on MSNBC isn’t too terrible, although it’s obvious she has no science background. The US version of CNN is beyond terrible, but CNN International isn’t all that bad although it’s no BBC (which is having it’s own issues with rigor).

  • Imran

    For international news, neither CNN or BBC can come close to Al Jazeera’s breadth and depth. Their presentation is from a decidedly non-American or non-Western POV, which is refreshing if nothing else.

    For national news, News Hour is pretty much it. CNN does a good job with breaking news, but not much else. I don’t classify FOX News or Comedy Central as legitimate news organizations, though both can be very entertaining.

  • Brian137

    On, and I think the country has moved on from watching Bieber and is now watching Greyson Michael Chance

    Yesssssssssssss!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Yesssss!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • spyder

    Still wondering what exactly constitutes a good “vintage year” in trade allowances. “My that was a good vintage, all those carbon atoms linked with oxygen in one to one and one to two rations well above the norm? It also had more than a hint of oxygen bonded in threes making for a somewhat bitter aftertaste on one’s palate.”

  • Redshift

    In all honesty, why would a TV channel be a good medium for this sort of information? We do have a medium for it that works, and you linked to it. Explaining bills before Congress is something that works much better in print, so it’s not like the failure of TV news shows to do it is a great loss. There are important things that are much better conveyed with video, but detailed analysis of legislation isn’t one of them.

  • Jammie

    There is to much censorship and it needs to be brought under control and to justice. In order for there to be real change in the world. I am a recent and current victim of our justice system. Innocent until proven guilty, my ass, your guilty until proven innocent. The truth about America is, money buys power, police, government, friends, and lifestyle, but will never supersede will power, love, and faith. As humans we must find new ways of getting the truth out to the people, because knowledge provides power and ignorance breeds ignorance.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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