Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On journalistic platitudes and scientific theories

Forgive me for leaving infographics and visualizations aside for a minute, as I want to bring attention to a misguided piece of journalism I've read recently. It was written by Nicholas Wade, someone who I admire since Before the Dawn, a good introduction to human evolution. Unfortunately, his recent short essay, Between Rock of Ages and a Hard Place, is a befuddling, self-contradictory piece of nonsense. Go read it. This is its structure:

1. Senator Marco Rubio said something stupid.
2. Here's the evidence for why it is so stupid.
3. Even so, let's not say that it is stupid; let's suggest instead that nobody can be 100% certain of anything, so we can leave each other alone.

This is the most important part of the article:

"Militant atheists like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins beat the believers about the head, accomplishing nothing; fundamentalist Christians naturally defend their religion and values to the hilt, whatever science may say."

Here's how Wade suggests we should proceed, then:

"By allowing that evolution is a theory, scientists would hand fundamentalists the fig leaf they need to insist, at least among themselves, that the majestic words of the first chapter of Genesis are literal, not metaphorical, truths. They in return should make no objection to the teaching of evolution in science classes as a theory, which indeed it is."

This is a strategy I'd call appease-the-beast, and it has never worked. I think that it would accomplish even less than being "militant", if by that we mean being blunt and clear.  Those that are blind to evidence won't be convinced by patronizing politeness. Besides, using the word "theory" like Wade does in the article goes against what he himself knows very well —but strives to hide—, which is that scientific theories are equivalent to mere opinions only in the minds of those who have never taken a proper science (or philosophy!) course. Good scientific theories are the closest things we humans can have to facts.

Wade's suggestion reminds me for some reason of the old journalistic mantra of presenting "all sides of a story", which is excellent advice unless you know for sure that one of those sides is completely right and the others are completely wrong, in which case you should say so and avoid platitudes. Presenting "balanced" views in journalism when no balance is pertinent is a disservice to your audience and an insult to their intelligence. It undermines your credibility. And it is profoundly dishonest.

The image that illustrates this post is discussed here, by the way.

(Others have replied to Wade in The New York Times today.)


  1. Hi Alberto (not stalking, just saw this and feel strongly about it) I come from the home of the BBC which has the balance principle at the heart of its charter. Recent debates have raised the question of whether equal airtime/consideration is equivalent to balanced airtime/consideration. There is a strong argument that although all persons should be treated equally, there is no reason that their ideas should be extended the same rights. A view that has, in principle, no evidence to support it, is not equal to a view which both requires evidence and provides evidence. Imagine a justice system which treated all views as equally valid. Moreover, to avoid the debate is to never move towards resolving an issue...even an inch.

  2. I am in favor of balance and debate, obviously, and of giving people time to express their ideas. However, when it comes to things such as the ones mentioned in the post, giving equal time to all parts is just silly. Evolution is not a "theory" in the sense of "opinion". It is a fact, in a coloquial sense.

  3. Sorry Alberto - I think you misunderstood (or I have). I agree entirely that not only is evolution a fact, it is a beautiful algorithm which, once understood, is revealed throughout both the natural and social realms. My point is only that the fallacy underlying the equality of treatment of ideas is based upon confusing it with the principle of equality of treatment of individuals. Treating people with respect is good, but should not extend to their ideas. Ideas should be tested against empirical standards, mystical beliefs should be dismissed until such time as they bring some evidence to the table. My final point was in support of your identification of the error of 'appeaseing the beast'- this is a form of avoiding the debate, and condemns us to live with it forever, rather than moving towards a world where truth trumps faith.

  4. It is me who is sorry. I had understood your point. I was just trying to make mine even clearer, but I was not very effective!