Defending public investment in entomology

Watch beetle guru Anthony Cognato trying to deal with Fox News ignoramus Tucker Carlson:

It isn't news that Fox News isn't, um, news. Nor is it news that Fox can't grasp the benefits of public investment in knowledge creation- perhaps because actual knowledge is anathema to their business model. But I digress.

I'm going to complain instead that Cognato missed out (or was edited out) on a major talking point to counter Fox's bluster.  Fox pretends Cognato just sidled up to suckle at the stimulus teat while the getting was good. A university welfare queen, or something.  But that's simply not true.  None of the NSF proposals funded under the stimulus were submitted as stimulus projects. Carlson showing up and acting like a royal asshole in these institutions misses the point. The scientists followed regular NSF channels, and to act as though the scientists themselves are slyly ripping off the taxpayers is, well, just being an asshole.

Cognato did a solid job in justifying the existence of Michigan's entomology collections. But. Some preparation to nail down concise talking points would have better helped counter Carlson's direct challenges.  Scientists aren't trained to speak in talking points, and when direct challenges are answered with a more conversational tone the segment is easy for the post-editing team to manipulate to their narrative.

In particular:

  • Michigan's sole positive economic sector is Agriculture. The insect collections comprise the primary information base about a large threat to productivity of said economic sector.
  • $200,000 is chump change- it's way less than Sean Hannity's salary- and a small price to pay for maintaining the integrity of the collections.

Interestingly, Fox never let the facts that the grant was being used to salary several people and to order equipment from American scientific supply companies (who also employ people) get in the way of their narrative.  The segment undercut their story, yet they pressed ahead anyway.

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Yikes. Does MSU not have a media relations officer who can help faculty/staff address the media or provide training? That was a bit hard to watch...he seemed very nervous.

I've had media training, and it's a must-have if you're going to be drilled with those "why should MY tax dollars be spent on bugs?" questions etc. unless you are a naturally gifted orator/spin doctor, because yeah: the media ARE often assholes about this kind of thing more often than not. For some reason, they seem to find anything to do with bugs "quaint".

Having said all this, I'm not sure if any amount of media training can prepare someone for the full Fox News snow job. I think a better policy is to recognize that Fox isn't a legit organization and just not grant access or interviews.

WOW. Wow. Wow. I liked how Hannity touted his own book, whose proceeds NATURALLY go to charity, after making the lame but clearly acid "bugging me" joke, which came after they showed that they had cut some of Cognato's closing remarks. They didn't even call him an entomologist! Yeah, he's just a crazy "bug scientist"! I hated how they really gave short shrift to the importance of the specimens, where Cognato seemed the most coherent, and how they exaggerated the reason for the stimulus money. Lesson #102: Freezing is a TEMPORARY solution.

At least McCain was actually ignorant about ant research. Fox did some really cheap 'journalism' here.

Ok, enough of the rant. Maybe I actually don't know what I'm talking about.

Oh, whoops, they did call him an entomologist. But you could still hear a somewhat leering tone when he says "bark beetle specialist".

(sarcastic pause) ... Those Cabinet Makers should be ashamed of their selves. Getting hired by the university with the Tax Payer's Money. How dare they be employed during the recession!

(another sarcastic pause) ... Those $8 to $10 an hour students are robbing America blind! How dare they try to pay for college.

(sarcastic pause) ... Ok I'm done now.

By MrILoveTheAnts (not verified) on 09 Mar 2010 #permalink

Yeah, that got me too. The scandal of taking taxpayer money to hire near-minimum wage workers to perform trained labor...

As soon as I saw the story I checked your blog, bug girl- I figured you might have something to say as it hits all the right buttons. I deleted a few expletives while writing this one myself.

We can only hope that at least some of the FOX audience would have the discernment to look beyond the "reporter's" badgering and actually listen to the response. For lacking the polish of an experienced spokesperson with a good command of soundbites, I think anyone listening carefully and respectfully to him could have gotten Anthony's message. The rest are beyond salvation, I fear.

New bumper sticker:

Have you kicked a FoxNews member today?

By Joshua King (not verified) on 10 Mar 2010 #permalink

Fox News has posted the entire interview on their website . Turns out that Anthony did argue that they didn't receive stimulus money directly and clearly explained NSF funded additional projects as you pointed out earlier this year!

Unfortunately it was up to the douche bags of Fox News and its "reporters" to "report" the story, which they did a pretty good job of twisting, bending, and beating into the inflammatory injustice that they wanted!

Thanks for the heads-up. I left a comment over at Hannity's blog.

Well, given the circumstances, I thought Anthony did a good job of making the major points regarding how the money was obtained, where it was going (4 students for 2 years plus preserving jobs for those companies supplying materials needed to upgrade the collection) and why insect collections are important (protecting agricultural plants from insects to feed and clothe society). Granted Anthony is not a slick PR marketing guy that is well prepared to entertain a minimally educated audience on this subject when interviewed by an experienced journalist tasked by his boss to vilify and denigrate the stimulus program. Fox was uninterested in documenting whether Anthonys NSF grant was a good investment for society or not and Anthony's answers on the spur of the moment were informative and on target, and then largely ignored in the Carlson/Hannity focus on stimulus bashing tinged with entomophobia. I was particularly disappointed that these experienced journalists did not recognize the value received for the taxpayer dollar by the employment of 4 students for two years to aid upgrading the collection while at the same time these students were pursuing an education. This is equivalent to supporting one student for 8 years. Where, I might ask, can the public make a better contribution to bettering society than in employing students to perform a needed service that also is embedded in their obtaining a higher education that they are likely to use to obtain higher paying jobs and deliver more skilled services (and taxes) to society for the rest of their lives? These journalists were the ones unprepared to pounce on the story they were presented and effectively communicate it to their audience. I suggest they revisit this issue after thinking through some of the facts they were provided and also provide Anthony an opportunity to actually document the facts he provided if they are truly interested in how this particular stimulus money impacted society in the short and long term. Their hatchet job agenda fizzled and they could not deal with the facts Anthony provided so they crept away with crawly skin ignoring the meat they had uncovered. A shallow journalistic treatment of the subject, but not atypical of the craft by any network when pursuing an agenda rather than uncovering facts and following up to develop the real story that is there to be told. Scientists are not entertainers by and large except when cast in an "egghead" role by experienced journalists motivated by an ancillary agenda and then most of us unaccustomed to impromptu formation of elegantly crafted answers play the egghead role in response to carefully crafted agenda laden questions rather well. Anthony, to his credit and that of the rest of us scientists communicated the facts simply and well. Those in the audience able to analyze those facts would recognize immediately that the real eggheads here were the journalists that presumably seek to find the truth and communicate it to the public--they found the truth and then proceeded to ignore and dismiss it. Too bad for them and hooray for Anthony.

By Marvin Harris (not verified) on 10 Mar 2010 #permalink

These are the same people that, for the last century, have hassled scientists who were given any sum of money to make a map of fruit fly genes, put benzene in a fish tank, or try to explain why you feel heavier when an elevator moves up. To them anything without an obvious application is frivolous. They are not worth debating because they are so ignorant of science.

By Rob Clark (not verified) on 11 Mar 2010 #permalink

Alex - thank you for your support and post on myrmecos. Glad you saw the almost complete interview.

I had about 6 hours forewarning that I was #102 in Hannityâs Wasted 102 program. So I had time to prepare some concise points concerning the value of the collection and how the grant was used. But the questioning was quick and the topics a little disconnected so I did get a little nervous as I was remembering and choosing among appropriate responses. I liken the experience to engaging bar-banter with a layperson (but without the beer).

I was lucky â Iâm sure they could have diced up the recording to make me and the collection look like a total waste. Carlson understands the value of the collection and science but believes the federal government shouldnât pay for it â he rather see the states support science.

By Anthony C (not verified) on 11 Mar 2010 #permalink

You know what would be even more wasteful (from a Fox "News" standpoint and ignoring the cultural and scientific value of said "bug collection")? Allowing a collection, housed in a state building for 130+ years, maintained by state employees for 130+ years, and which contains specimens collected on trips and during projects funded by the government, to essentially rot for lack of $187,000.

By Annie Ray (not verified) on 11 Mar 2010 #permalink

Well, I expected much worse. I think Anthony did a good job (although maybe he should have worn a white lab coat and ditched the beret) and Fox allowed him more time than I expected for 'maybe it is a noble cause'. The talking heads seemed no less trite and ignorant than usual.

I think this is just a small manifestation of several much larger problems. The first is that there is no good source of unbiased news. Today, the MSM is all about political agendas and hype and has no interest in facts unless they can be used to bolster their narrative. It isn't just Fox News that isn't news.

The second is the decline in the belief in science as separate from politics and superior to opinion or superstition. I think this derives directly from agenda-driven 'science'. When scientists sell themselves to the highest bidder or jump on the big gravy trains, I suppose it is logical to not trust or respect them. The rise in superstitious beliefs is harder for me to understand, but without respect for logic and science, then I guess it is inevitable.

The third is the decline in scientific knowledge in the general public - a special problem for entomology. Part of this is probably due to the increasingly urbanized population - few of whom have any real experience with nature or even agriculture. Part is also due to the general decline in educational standards at the secondary and tertiary levels. Part is also due to big, agenda-driven science funding that has marginalized unpopular sciences.

In my youth, I seem to remember a respect for science and scientists that is hard to find today. I also remember being able to rely more on newspapers and tv news to understand what was going on in the world - although this may be one of those Golden Age delusions. Anyway, I guess I'm bloviating, and that should be restricted to the MSM, not a science blog.

what idiots fox are. it's not a stimulus package, it's a FREAKING GOVERNMENT GRANT. That money would have simply gone to some other research group. jesus this is asinine!

as for the person commenting before me, fox was absolutely completely ignorant of how scientific research occurs and how it's funded.

Hey, thanks for stopping in, Anthony. It's not often we get celebrity visitors here.

I did not get the impression that Carlson understands science or the value of collections. At least, the section was edited to reinforce the conception of insects as useless irrelevancies such that *any* spending- state, federal, stimulus, or whatever- was frivolous. Does he think his disdainful tone for the whole topic will encourage state governments to want to pick up the tab for science funding?

I don't think I'd have the stomach to deal with Fox, though. You're a braver man than I.

That is just insane. I forwarded this to some people in my department. These clowns just want to see science destroyed. Science relys too much on facts and evidence, which is a threat to fox "news"

By John Shorter (not verified) on 11 Mar 2010 #permalink

Words fail me. Seriously.

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 11 Mar 2010 #permalink

Really? They are investigating where billions of dollars in stimulus money is going and $200,000 is the best they can do? What idiots. I would have thought someone at Fox would have been smart enough to make this guy hit the pavement again and do some real investigative reporting. Peewee Herman could have done a better job. Not only is the money peanuts in comparison to the bigger picture, but it is also going to protect a valuable collection. Unbelievable! I wish Mr. Cognato would have ignored his request for an interview as the guy clearly hasn't done his homework to know why insect collections are needed.

Should never have let a hack like Tucker Carlson into the door.

How about someone doing a pest ridance service of the Faux news HQ?

Hannity is proof that evolution is certain instances doesn't exist. LOL!!!!!

Morons should not be allowed to procreate!!!!

Hi, Taylor,

Just was checking up on what was happening at the Wild Animal park when I decided to go to your facebook site. I watched the interview with the entymologist (you know how I never notice names) at Michigan State. I think this is one time when Hannity stuck foot in mouth since it seemed like a valid use of our money. Ten times better than the bridges to nowhere. I thought the interviewer was respectful although their was a hint of "I'm going to get you" in his voice and the fellow that was interviewed was quietly knowledgeable with his answers. Furthermore, I liked his honest answers a lot. Grandma

PS: Maybe your love of bugs is rubbing off on me!

By Grandma Jackie… (not verified) on 22 Mar 2010 #permalink