by Roger B. Blumberg
Earlier this week I heard a talk at Brown University by the science writer Carl Zimmer, titled “A Tale of Two Scientists.” Zimmer compared the responses Bill Chapman of the University of Illinois, and Richard Lenski of Michigan State University, to political controversies that were inspired by and/or made use of their scientific work. Chapman studies climate change, and recently some of his data was used by the nationally syndicated columnist George Will to promote a view Chapman didn’t believe his work supported. Although Zimmer was very critical of Will, and what he considered the failings of the editorial process at The Washington Post, he was also critical of Chapman.
Rather than engaging Will and/or the Post directly, Chapman had briefly posted a statement on his website about Will’s claims, and it was written in the style of an addendum to a research communication. Zimmer found the lack of engagement disappointing and the style of Chapman’s statement obtuse — it certainly wasn’t clear that Chapman cared very much whether his statement would be widely read or understood. In contrast, when the integrity of Richard Lenski’s work on E. Coli -– describing the production of thousands of generations of several strains that seemed to confirm some central predictive principles of Darwin’s theory of natural selection –- came under attack from some creationists, including Conservapedia’s Andy Shlafly, Lenski responded with a clear, funny and sharp letter which he sent to Shlafly and also made available on the web (where it was a big hit in certain circles). Zimmer presented this as a success story.
Zimmer claimed that today every scientist, regardless of her area of study, must be concerned with how the public perceives her work, and should work to make that perception as veridical as possible; and he implied that scientists can handle controversy well or badly depending in large part on how eloquently and persuasively they can write about what they’ve done, and how eloquently and/or persuasively they can answer their critics or interlocutors.
The idea that scientists can defeat political misrepresentations of their work without the help of institutions is especially appealing today, when blogging seems to hold such promise and traditional newspapers, and especially general interest dailies, seem to have no future. But the idea is not especially new. More than 30 years ago there appeared The Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine in which well-known scientists were among those who wrote articles for a general audience that set out to debunk and refute all sorts of religious, pseudo-scientific, and “irrational” claims concerning natural phenomena. The magazine aimed to assert the value of science and reason, and explain to a general audience what was fact and what was fiction in our understanding of the natural world.
I remember reading the early issues of The Skeptical Inquirer and finding the articles clear and reasonable; but I also remember feeling that the writers failed to appreciate the style and rhetoric of the reports they claimed to be debunking, and therefore failed to understand their appeal. Like someone who thinks they can change the mind of a World Wrestling Federation fan by revealing that there is acting involved, or that the blood is fake, the authors of The Skeptical Inquirer didn’t seem to understand that the people who embraced “pseudo-scientific” beliefs about the world might not be moved by the forms of justification the authors considered compelling and decisive.
Although The Skeptical Inquirer continues to be published, I can find no evidence of its ever having had a significant impact on public discourse about science, and clearly the social/political/intellectual consequences of all the great science writing by scientists before the 1980s in the United States were no match for the efforts to dethrone science that have been so successful in the Reagan and Bush administrations. So even if we grant Zimmer the view that we now live in a new sort of information “ecosystem”, primarily because of the Web, we have no reason to believe that contemporary scientists writing persuasively about their own science, or the scientific work of others, can have any more impact on the general public, and public discourse about science, than did the scientist-authors in The Skeptical Inquirer. While we might take comfort in the idea that the Web, and blogging in particular, is capable of generating the same sorts of reliable information that was once the province and responsibility of newspapers (and professional journalism generally), we have no reason to believe that this is true either. Finally, even if we pretend that the scientists who desire to tell the whole truth will acquire superior eloquence in writing about their work, we know from the enormous and regrettable impact of an institution like the John Templeton Foundation that individual scientists, no less than individuals in any profession, can be seduced and have their professional judgment compromised, by the right combination of incentives.
Good journalism, like good science, just isn’t something we can replicate or replace very easily. The social enterprise that includes professional reporting, fact-checking, and editing, as well as professional discussions about newsworthiness and responsibility, can produce something that is more valuable to society than the work of any individual. Not in the sense that natural selection can produce better fitness in a population of organisms over many generations — the metaphor of an “ecosystem” to describe the production of news is very misleading — but in the sense that good institutions give us certain kinds of products reliably that individuals cannot. A person working alone, no matter what her/his training or education, who is not involved in this social enterprise or institution, might occasionally produce something of comparable value, but not reliably and probably not very often. So while it’s a wonderful idea to teach graduate students in the sciences to write well and to take an interest in writing for an audience of citizens as well as colleagues, we shouldn’t forget that a great deal will be lost to society if we allow science journalism to disintegrate into a collection of individual blogs and online versions of The Skeptical Inquirer.