An open letter to Michael Johnston

:: photography, science, doomed

Michael Johnston runs a website dedicated to photography. He also promotes anti-scientific nonsense about audio: you should not support him.

[This was an email I never sent: in the end I got fed up and was a lot more rude. I don’t regret that, but perhaps I should. This was also written before COVID–19: it’s pretty clear that anti-scientific behaviour by the US administration is killing tens of thousands of people, which makes this a lot more urgent (although not, in fact, more serious).]

After thinking about it for a few months I have decided to stop my Patreon subscription to TOP.

I’m doing so as a result of your audiophile posts. I don’t want to discuss these in detail, but I think we can agree that these are explicitly and consciously anti-scientific in nature: you have said, for instance, that you would not accept double-blind experiments1. Since sufficiently-blinded experiments are the only way to remove human bias from experimental results this means you are explicitly, consciously and publicly rejecting science.

I don’t have any problem with what you think about hifi in private — indeed I probably have more fancy hifi than most people, and have built several amplifiers including one valve (tube) one. However, I am not willing to help fund you, or anyone, in making anti-scientific statements in areas where science applies2.

We live in a world which is built on science: you and I are probably only alive as a result of the work of scientists, and you certainly have working eyes only because of science. We also live in a world where scientists are telling us that unless we take quite urgent action to address environmental problems — largely but not only anthropogenic climate change — we are in extremely bad trouble. Unless we address climate change soon our grandchildren’s generation will have blighted lives and many of them will die in horrible circumstances.

Well, a lot of people don’t like this: they have vested interests in not fixing the problem in the short term, will be dead in the long term and either do not care about their descendants or expect that they will be wealthy enough to fence themselves off as the environment degrades. And they certainly do not care about anyone else’s descendants, especially if those people live far away or look different.

Those who don’t want the problem fixed need other people not to listen to the scientists, or not to believe what they hear. One way they achieve this is by casting doubt on science itself: by casting doubt, ultimately, on the concept that there is such a thing as ‘objective truth’ in areas where we should expect there to be. They have been astonishingly successful at this in the last few years. Of course the side-effects are terrible: people who no longer believe that science works or that truth exists also don’t believe, for instance, that the evidence that vaccination works is real. But the things vaccination protects you against do not care about what you think is real, they only care about what is in fact real: whether you have immunity to them or not, or whether the population as a whole has enough immunity to stop epidemics. And immunity is falling and many children will die. But not the children of the vested-interest people: just other children who they care nothing about.

And that’s what’s coming reasonably soon: in the longer term the result of people not believing the science of climate change and not doing anything about it is going to be billions of additional deaths and billions more shortened lives, and the loss of most or all of our culture.

This is not some conspiracy theory: all this is going on quite openly both in your country and mine.

Well, why does what you say about hifi matter? You’re not, after all, denying anthropogenic climate change or supporting the anti-vaccination nonsense. Why do I care that some middle-aged photographer has whacky unscientific ideas about hifi? I care for two reasons.

  • You don’t get to pick and choose: in the areas where science works, it works, and if you say it does not work in one area the message is that, well, you get to choose when to believe what it tells you or not based on what you want to be true. That is toxic as it means that people just get to choose what they think is true as suits them, which is the whole problem3.
  • You have a significant audience: people read your blog and some of them are inevitably influenced by what you say.

Finally, why does it matter? It already seems clear that we’re not going to deal with anthropogenic climate change and that the truth-deniers have won: just look at the politics of the last four years. Why should I care that I’m funding a little more of it? Well, that’s true: I think that there is very little hope, and what hope there is left is fading fast. We have perhaps 50 years or so before things get really bad, and far less than that before there is no chance of preventing the catastrophe. Long before that the corrosion of truth will have less serious but still horrible consequences: we are seeing some of them now. The future is not bright.

But there is some hope. Not, perhaps, much hope but there is still some. And I believe that what little I can do I should do to increase the amount of hope, and to decrease the corrosion of truth, in all its forms. And what you are doing is corroding truth. You are only doing it in a small way, but you are doing it. I can only make a difference in a small way, but not supporting TOP is a difference I can make.

This is why I will no longer support TOP financially.

  1. Although it was not clear you knew what a double-blind experiment really was. 

  2. Science does not apply everywhere, it should have nothing to say about what makes a great photograph, or what makes good bokeh for instance, in my opinion. For that matter it should have nothing to say about what makes hifi sound good in the cases where distinctions really exist. I like how my valve amplifier sounds, but I don’t pretend I like how it sounds because it is has lower distortion than any reasonable transistor amplifier: I like how it sounds just because it has significant distortion and I like the sound of that distortion. The same is true for records, which I also prefer to CDs, and which also are objectively and measurably far worse in terms of fidelity. 

  3. Note again that I don’t think science is useful for, say, judging photographs as art or cameras or hifi as desirable objects: this is not about that.