Why are science journalists so gullible?

Image: The climax of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, ‘Twilight of the Gods’, by Max Brückner (1836-1919), printed by Otto Henning, restoration by Adam Cuerden, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The credulity of science journalists is remarkable. Their reporting, almost as a rule, is more like writing a press release than objectively verifying the claims of their subjects, namely the scientists. Although mainstream journalism as a whole increasingly resembles state propaganda, there is at least, at times, a semblance of skepticism. So what about science journalists?

Nicholas Wade is a former science editor of New York Times, so he might just have some ideas about it. write for city ​​newspaper, he asks, “Journalists or public relations agents? The context of his comments relates to the origins of the COVID-19 virus. (On this topic, see Cornelius Hunter, “COVID-19 Meets Intelligent Design,” which also quotes Wade.) But what he says applies even more to evolutionary reporting.

“The Temple of Science”

Wade writes, “Unlike most journalists, science writers rarely consider the motivations of their sources.” It’s true. But why?

Innocent of most journalists’ skepticism of human motivations, science writers regard scientists, their authoritative sources, as too Olympians ever to be touched by trivial matters of self-interest. Their daily job is to relay claims of impressive new discoveries, like advances in curing cancer or making paralyzed rats walk. Most of these claims come to nothing — research is not an efficient process — but science writers and scientists benefit from creating a stream of pleasant illusions. Journalists get their stories, while media coverage helps researchers attract government grants.

Dulled by the benefits of this collusion, science writers pay little attention to internal issues that seriously damage the credibility of the scientific research enterprise, such as the astonishing fact that less than half of high-profile discoveries in some fields can be replicated in other labs. Fraud and errors in scientific articles are difficult to detect, but nevertheless some 32,000 articles have been withdrawn for various reasons. The reliability of scientific claims is a daunting problem, but one that is surprisingly of little interest to many scientific authors.

If it turns out that the Covid virus did indeed escape from a laboratory in Wuhan, a tidal wave of public rage could shake the temple of science to its foundations. It is because of the interests of their sources – although political polarization is also involved – that scientific authors jump on any evidence favoring natural emergence and ignore anything that points to a lab leak.

Science writers must decide whether their duty lies with their readers or their sources. One makes them real journalists, the other simple public relations agents not accredited for the scientific community. [Emphasis added.]

They made their choice

Most science journalists who write about evolution seem to have made up their minds to be flacks and toads for divine biologists, who are “too Olympian never to be moved by trivial matters of self-interest.” That an entire area of ​​journalism is underpinned by such misjudgment of human nature is noteworthy.

If, or when, design were to overcome mindless Darwinian processes as the favored explanation of biological complexity, what Nicholas Wade calls the “temple of science” would be truly and truly shaken. As for the origins of this complexity, protecting “the interests of their sources” explains why reporting on evolutionary biology requires such scrutiny.

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