Science journalism ignorant of science
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2011/01/17
When Michael Specter’s book Denialism was launched to a dazzle of ballyhoo, I agreed to review it for the Journal of Scientific Exploration. That turned out to be an onerous task, far from enjoyable because the book is so dreadfully bad: a staggering degree of ignorance about science is everywhere on display, deplorable in the extreme since Specter is an award-winning science journalist.
Not long after Specter’s book appeared, the New Scientist carried a series of essays as a “Special Report: Denial” (15 May 2010). Those essays are on the whole as ignorance-based as is Specter’s book. For a thorough debunking of both book and Special Report, see my essay-review just published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration.
The principal flaw in these writings is the underlying belief that on any given issue the prevailing scientific consensus, the Establishment view, is unquestionably correct. Such a belief illustrates ignorance of the history of science, which is a continuing record of Establishment views proven wrong and being replaced by what then becomes the new Establishment view.
Misplaced faith in science as the source of absolute, permanent truth stems from the ideology of scientism, which holds that science and only science can offer true answers. Few people admit to that unsupportable belief when challenged, but by their actions and unguarded words a great number of people show themselves to hold that belief.
Specter is far from the only science journalist or science writer tainted by scientism; Natalie Angier is another. In her review of Specter’s book in the American Scholar (“Science Doubters”, 79 #1, Winter 2010, pp. 102-5) she perpetrates fallacy upon fallacy and indulges in semantic sleight-of-phrase in the attempt to mask her dogmatism. For example, she mimics Specter to the effect that the “overwhelming weight of evidence” favors vaccination, it’s “remarkably safe”, adverse reactions are “rare” — which attempts rhetorically to lull the reader into rejecting the well-based qualms that critics have expressed about the use in vaccines of organic-mercury-based additives and toxic adjuvants like squalene.
Angier approves Specter’s assertion that denialists “replace the rigorous and open-minded skepticism of science with the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment”. But no science writer should remark “the rigorous and open-minded skepticism of science” without mentioning that this is an unachieved ideal and that scientists frequently display “inflexible certainty” about their own views. Angier’s ignorance goes so far that she actually credits Specter with coining the term “denialism”! She deplores that the Internet favors “popularity over p-value”, when it is actually the use of p-values that is responsible for the misguided acceptance as significant of many apparent correlations that are not significant *. Angier follows Specter in dismissing chiropractic as quackery even as mainstream studies have shown that it has a better record of treating lower-back pain by manipulation than does mainstream medicine with drugs and surgery.
Angier differs from Specter in denying that there’s been a loss of faith in science, citing a Harris poll in which 60% of respondents rate the prestige of doctors and scientists as high or very high. That’s what the problem really is; most people have too much faith in what the public spokespeople for science and medicine assert nowadays.
* Matthews, R. A. J. 1998. “Facts versus Factions: The use and abuse of subjectivity in scientific research”, European Science and Environment Forum Working Paper; reprinted (pp. 247–282) in J. Morris (ed.), Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Butterworth, 2000.