Monday, November 21, 2005

Who's More Dishonest, Scott Pelley or Tim Kusky?

updated 11/23/05

I emailed Dr. Kusky and was impressed with the speed and graciousness of his response. I was perhaps too hasty to question his integrity. Actually, no perhaps needed, I was wrong to question his personal and professional integrity. I still disagree with his conclusions, but he has offered to send supporting detail.

However, I stand by everything I wrote about Scott Pelley. I really was not that angry about the Sixty Minutes story until I saw the reporter's notebook online. It's a classic example of someone sounding fair and unbiased while giving a totally one-sided presentation.

After watching Sixty Minutes last night and checking its web site (unfortunately complete, verbatim transcript not online) today, it was hard to tell who was more dishonest the reporter or the "flood control expert." Before, I go any further I should state that, in this case, dishonest means conveying a false impression without telling an outright irrefutable lie. If a reporter who's researched a story loosely uses terms that his research should have revealed to be misleading, he abandons all pretense of pursuing the truth. If the "expert" that he interviews allows these terms to be misused, the expert abandons all claim to scientific objectivity.

To get a sense of Pelley's ability to distort without telling an actual mistruth watch the reporter's notebook video on the Sixty Minutes web site. He begins by stating that New Orleans is naturally sinking at a rate of a 1/2 inch a year. Not up to a 1/2 in. but a 1/2 in. There's no debate that subsidence is a naturally occurring problem in N.O., but most geologists believe it to be occurring at a rate of 1/2 centimeter a year (audio link) or 2 in. a decade. An honest mistake perhaps, but it overstates the case by a factor of two and a half.

The rest of the clip (and last night's story) is full of omissions so glaring that the obfuscation must be deliberate. Early in the clip he refers to the coastal erosion that occurred as "hurricanes approched the Gulf Coast and the sea has edged forward"; later he refers to reclaiming the coast that "hurricane Katrina and other storms have washed away." The clear implication is that Louisiana's loss of coast has been totally caused by natural forces. Perhaps the most telling omission comes at the end of the clip. When asked how people in New Orleans would justify spending the money on flood protection and coastal restoration, he replies that they'd say that N.O. is a jewel that must be saved at any cost. That's it. In the time he spent in N.O., he never heard any one say that most of the erosion was the product of human activity or that the most ambitious coastal restoration proposed would cost about the same amount as The Big Dig . I suppose it was an honest oversight.

The actual story was even more misleading (again, complete transcript must be purchased). To begin with, in the promos CBS referred to Kusky as a natural disaster expert and, during the story, Pelley introduced him as Tim Kusky, a professor of earth sciences at St. Louis University and a flood control expert. However, during the interview, Pelley referred to the fact that that Louisiana was naturally sinking while showing a map that showed the amount of coast Louisiana had lost to erosion, primarily the result of human activity (technically, the erosion occurs naturally, but human activity both contributes to the erosion and prevents the coast from being naturally replenished). Oddly this scientist felt no need to clarify the difference between subsidence and erosion, two scientifically distinct terms. Worse, he seemed happy to leave viewers with the impression that New Orleans would naturally be surrounded by The Gulf of Mexico in 90 years.

It's undeniably true that other human activities (construction and maintenence of the MRGO, dredging, digging of canals, by the oil industry, through marshland,etc.) only contribute to the problem caused by the levee system along the Mississippi River. Whether fresh water diversion projects could offset the effects of controlling the river might even be a legitimate subject of scientific debate. That, however, was not the case that Kusky made. Instead, he allowed Pelley to make scientifically misleading statements while arguing that the cost of saving New Orleans would make such a project untenable. In so doing, he stopped speaking as a scientist and started speaking as an advocate.

Finally, one has to wonder that Kusky was comfortable being referred to as flood control and natural disaster expert. An examination of his St. Louis University homepage finds his research interests listed as:

Tectonics and Geodynamics, Structural Geology, Precambrian Geology and Crustal Evolution, Evolution of Orogenic Systems,
RemoteSensing and GIS, Tectonics and Mineral Deposits.

Nothing in there about flood control or natural disasters.

However, a glance at Amazon U.K. does show that he wrote this book:

Geological Hazards: A Sourcebook (Oryx Sourcebooks on Hazards & Disasters S.)
Timothy M. Kusky

described as:

An introduction to the scientific principles behind various geological processes to explain how and why they can sometimes be dangerous to humans, this sourcebook contains numerous examples of famous or recent geological disasters. The text provides contemporary scientific information on all major types of geological disasters, such as volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunami, as well as on such less common events as sinkholes and asteroid impacts.

I suppose writing an introductory book on a particular field might qualify one as an expert. Of course, Amazon also has this listing for him:

Asteroids, Comets and Meteorites: Cosmic Invaders of the Earth (The Living Earth Set)
Timothy Kusky (Foreword), Jon Erickson

Clearly written and well illustrated with black-and-white photographs, illustrations, and helpful tables, Asteroids, Comets, and Meteorites provides students, researchers, and general readers with the most up-to-date information on this fascinating field. From the days of the dinosaurs to our modern environment, this book explores all aspects of these cosmic invaders.

One can only wonder whether CBS will have Kusky on to give his scientific opinions as an "asteroid expert" or "space exploration expert" next time NASA is in the news.

Thanks for your comment on my blog. Your piece is exhaustive, and exactly right. I'm going to update with a link to your post, and I'll check in with you often -- it's good to find someone who is concerned enough about NO's recovery to blog about it.
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