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.)