June 25, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Political Science 101: Doubt Scientific Claims

Science goes through a chain of messengers from data to consumer.  In between are fallible scientists, who speak often in incomprehensible jargon and often only partially understand what they observe, but often wish to gain notoriety with a major discovery (or need to publish or perish).  Next, the institutional press offices decide what is significant and try to digest the jargon to layman level.  The predigested stories are then delivered to science reporters, who sometimes sensationalize the filtered stories to make a name for themselves.  Finally, the media outlets, prone to peer biases, dress up the products to grab the eyes of readers of their newspapers, magazines, or web pages.  How much of the real scientific data remains at the end of this game of Telephone?  Sometimes the bias is clearly evident, but often the product is delivered with all the presumptive authority of science.  Once in awhile, a reporter comes clean about the dirty work involved.

First, a lesson from history.  “This year is Galton year –a celebration of Francis Galton, a genius – but a flawed genius,” Steve Jones wrote for the BBC News.  Galton’s accomplishments, such as weathermaps and fingerprinting for detective work, have been overshadowed by his darker side as the father of eugenics, popular in its heydey, but viewed today with the perspective of history as a disastrous social quest to purify the race of the unfit.  Galton also created an “ugly map” of Britain to help men avoid bad genes.  He left an enormous sum of money at his death for the Laboratory of National Eugenics at University College London – later abandoned by the University, though it retains a Galton professorship.  Francis Galton had good press in his time; today, his reputation is clouded.  It’s a lesson that the tides of history can change the prestige of a scientist and his ideas.

Speaking of prestige, there’s a fringe group of scientists who deserve more, according to William Laurance writing in New Scientist.  These are the cryptobiologists: searchers for extinct or weird animals.  “Yes, they chase bizarre creatures and flit around the fringes of conventional science,” he said, “but we ought to appreciate their adventurous spirit rather than be disdainful.”  The prestige comes if and when they find something.  There have been successes: the “coelacanth, mountain pygmy possum, venomous Cuban solenodon and giant terror skink” among them. One can imagine any given reporter giving a cryptobiologist good or bad press, depending on his or her bias.

Among those getting the worst press in science media these days are the creationists.  No attempt at covering bias was shown by an entry on PhysOrg, “Creationism creeps into mainstream geology.” The headline might have pointed out that a leading creationist with a legitimate PhD in paleontology led a successful field trip in Colorado at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, but instead, used a creepy verb and the ideological suffix -ism, while rarely applying the suffix to evolutionism.  The article was filled with allusions to conspiracy and unscrupulous motives: “crafty” new “strategy” to pretend acceptance among “mainstream” scientists.  As history shows, tides can turn, as well they might, if Darwinians continue to swim upstream against public opinion armed with nothing but leaking waterwings of just-so stories.  In the climate of controversy surrounding intelligent design, presidential candidates need to guard their language carefully, as David Klinghoffer and Jay Richards advised in American Spectator.

Controversial subjects are good places to watch for science bias.  New Scientist wrote about “abuse, threats and hysteria” between scientists, politicians and the public in Australia over the issue of “climate science.”  Not being quite as politically lopsided and ideology prone as creation vs. evolution, climate science has provided a bonanza for sociologists, philosophers and lay observers to watch humans behaving badly when it comes to claims of scientific authority.

Hannah Nordhaus is one science reporter who has spilled the beans about reporter bias.  Writing for Breakthrough Journal, she described how prepared she was to tar-and-feather big business for the collapse of honeybee colonies.  Ready to take up Rachel Carson’s banner with the environmentalists, she was hindered from publishing by personal circumstances, but watched other colleagues go at it.  Then she researched the story and found that, like most things in science, the subject is far more complex and nuanced than that.  She even found reporters using a fraudulent quote by Einstein, failing to research adequately, and committing other egregious journalistic sins, excused because it was perceived to be a noble cause.  She saw similar excursions into journalistic license with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Ending with a sermon for her colleagues, she wrote, “By engaging in simplistic and sometimes misleading environmental narratives —  by exaggerating the stakes and brushing over the inconvenient facts that stand in the way of foregone conclusions­­ — we do our field, and our subjects, a disservice.”

Exercise: Compare and contrast the Breakthrough Journal take on the oil spill with that of National Geographic, which alleged faulty science on the part of the BP oil company and other experts.  What facts were included or ignored to give the desired slant?  What questions were asked or not asked?

Creation-Evolution Headlines does not deny having a bias, because everybody does.  What we do is provide a service – even to those who disagree.  As Darwin himself said, “A fair result can only be obtained by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”  That cannot happen with a press unified on one side of a given controversial issue.  Since the mainstream media are almost without exception Darwin toadies, you owe it to yourself, even if a staunch evolutionist, to hear both sides.  You will find facts here that are ignored by the press, and learn to assess the relevance of facts used in arguments.  You will learn to ask questions the pro-Darwin side never thinks about.  You will watch our Baloney Detector applied to Darwinist arguments, and learn to practice using your own B.D. on ours.  That’s fine; far be it from CEH to push easy-believism on either side.  Facts, history, and philosophy are far more interesting and detailed than simplistic presentations often portray.  Even if you remain an evolutionist, hopefully by reading CEH regularly, you will learn how to avoid winning our award for Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week.

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