To be a good professional engineer, always start to study late
for exams, because it teaches,you how to manage time and
tackle emergencies. (Bill Gates)

When talking about things that are controversal, often "pragmatic" arguments come up that refer to statistics, quotes and other evidence which are "common sense", but of which nobody seems to really know the origin.

Like, in a recent discussion about vegetarism, me and my interlocutor wondered whether anyone really made reliable studies about whether the production of meat and milk is less efficient and more polluting than the production of vegetables which can supplement meat and milk. I am a convinced vegetarian, for moral reasons (though I am not a vegan for purely pragmatic reasons), and I would still be a vegetarian if it was more polluting than eating meat, but anyway, this question is interesting.

It seems to be common sense, and I dont really doubt that its true. Producing meat doesnt just need grassy green stuff, cows need corn, which needs a lot of nutrients to grow, which therefore needs manure which pollutes the ground water. The question is, in the end, if we grew vegetables directly instead of cow-food, could we get the proteines people need more efficiently? I dont really doubt this, and many people claim that, its sort of "common sense", but I dont know any single study verifying this, and actually, I doubt that most of the people claiming this do.

Same is for the whole climate-change-discussions. There are studies, but who is really interested in them? Most people just claim what their ideology dictates them, as you always find some study giving you a better position.

Same for drugs (on which I recently blogged), there is a lot of "common sense" about illegal drugs and people dying because of them, some people claim that additional restrictions would reduce the number of deaths, some people (like me) claim that it will be the other way around. There are studies, but they are hard to get for ordinary people.

Same for crime. Some pople claim that stricter penalties decrease crime. Some people say that they are useless, some even claim that in some cases penalties which are too hard can be counterproductive and increase the relapse rates for criminals.

The problem is that normally people are redirected to "experts" on a topic, if they are interested in a topic. On the one hand, there is the Press™ that should make such information available to a broad audience without requiring them to get deeply into that topic. Papers and magazines may be useful if one wants to know about stuff happening in the world, but with all that tabloid newspapers and ad-sponsored magazines many people (like me) doubt that they are a good source for this type of information. For example, whenever I read an anteroom-paper about some topic I know, I see a lot of wrong or misleading information, sometimes I even see what exactly the people writing that article didnt understand. So I conclude that the same holds for topics I am not familiar with. Why should I read them (except when I am in an anteroom without having anything to do anyway).

On the other hand, even first-hand experts often are affiliated to interests like funding or selling stuff, and of course, ideology (which is in my opinion good for research, but bad for objective discussions). And of course, they get their information either from other experts or from research results they read themselves.

Therefore, it would be nice if there was a sort of newspaper that tries to give its readers exact information about the statistics and research papers studies rely on, without requiring them to know every detail. Knowing every detail of every topic is basically not possible, but it should be a major goal to make it easy for people to get into details of every interest when needed. That is, if somebody makes a claim, dont ask him for consequences of his claim, ask him why precisely he made that claim and what it bases on, discuss with people who think different. A discussion between two scientists having different opinions should in many cases be more interesting than an interview.