Tuesday, November 15, 2005

She Said, He Said, I Said

A month or so ago I defended Jodi Wilgoren for a story she wrote about the culture war over evolution. Some in the blogosphere felt that the New York Times shouldn't devote any ink to a disreputable scientific position (namely, creationism or I.D.). Basically, I felt (1) that the mere fact of the controversy, of a large segment of the lay public that differs with expert scientific consensus, was newsworthy; and (2) the creationist position looked bad under Wilgoren's scrutiny. Myopia, self-delusion, even malicious anti-intellectualism are on the march in the U.S. The best response progressives can make is not to curse these movements, nor ignore them, but describe them calmly and closely--if possible, let the Flat Earthers tell their own story, give their own account, alongside established scholarly opinion. The Flat Earthers will shoot themselves in the foot, or worse.

Wilgoren's coffee shop story, which I blogged about yesterday, may have been lightweight lifestyle journalism, but was basically unobjectionable. The he said-she said approach is a problem when applied to matters of national politics and/or when high-powered spin doctors are involved. But in Wilgoren's hands, on these softer cultural stories, with selective use of detail, I think the merits of the two sides can be fairly judged. And hey, Wilgoren's piece won't lead to an unjust war or a skewed presidential election, like the work of some NYT reporters I could name.

Now for an encore, I'm going to pick another bone with Pharyngula and defend another mainstream reporter who gives voice to the wingnut position on science. NPR's religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty has come in for criticism in the past from Atrios, Media Matters and elsewhere for some items on her resume: she lectures at a seminar for evangelical journalists, and has received money from one of Howard Ahmanson's foundations (other Ahmanson foundations support the Discovery Institute as well as anti-gay causes.)

I started to compose a hair-splitting point-by-point defense of Hagerty, but the hell with it. (If you care to, raise some points in Comments and I'll see if I can answer them.) I don't always think she does a great job; a couple of years ago I heard her freeze up during a live report on "All Things Considered"--the worst I've ever heard a broadcast reporter choke under pressure. But I'm reminded of the protest some right-wing blog made recently, that a gay reporter should not cover the gay marriage debate--it's a conflict of interest. That's horseshit, and so, in a milder form, are some of the complaints about Hagerty. An evangelical can cover the religion beat--if she's careful.

The story in question, from last weekend, examines a tempest in a teapot: an editor at a small science journal approved for publication a paper on Intelligent Design. The journal has ties to the Smithsonian Institution, a fact which amplified the inevitable protests of evolutionary biologists, and led to some negative consequences for this editor Richard Sternberg: basically, a certain amount of professional ostracism. (Which he deserves. If not a reactionary, he's at least a dope.) The story goes on to discuss young biologists who hold anti-Darwin views but who feel they must conceal them in order to receive tenure. Hagerty interviews both sides, the mainstream Darwin defenders and the conservatives. She lets the right-wing biologists tell their story, air their gripes, and at the end we (I, at least) get the feeling they're whining. It's noteworthy that that a few scientists are trying to get Intelligent Design on the agenda. It's somewhat enlightening to get this window into the workings and politics of scientific publishing and academic hiring. But in the end, you conclude that ID proponents are marginal, and for very good reasons. (Having a science Ph.D. and believing in Intelligent Design is an absurdity, and should never have been allowed to happen, and if such a person is weeded out at the tenure stage, well, better late than never.)

No comments: