Monday, June 23, 2014

Self-satisfaction means death of scientific inquiry

In science, self-satisfaction is death. — Jacques Monod

As Features Editor for the Cape May County Herald during the housing boom of the early 2000s, I assigned a story on lumber alternatives for new housing construction to a relatively new assistant.

Several days after I assigned the story, he turned in (what he thought was) the finished product. His 1,200 words praised a new, sustainable wood source that was not widely available and used by only three builders in the entire county—all of whom he had interviewed for the article.

“Why,” I asked, “are there only three companies using this material?”

“it’s just too expensive,” he replied quite assertively.

“Then you should state that in the article,” I said. “Plus, I see where you only interviewed three people—in fact, the only three that use this lumber.” I handed the paper back to him. “Now get me some interviews with contractors that don’t use the material, and find out why. In essence, get their side of this.”

The kid was damn mad about this. “How many more contractors do you want?” he demanded.

“Well,” I said in my best avuncular tone, “you got three that use the stuff; now get three that do not.”

As he continued to silently stare at what he apparently thought was his completely unreasonable editor, I told him what all journalists should know, but most of whom must constantly be reminded: “A newspaper’s job is to be objective,” I said. “Give both sides of the story, if you will. When we stop allowing both sides of an argument to plead their case, we lose credibility.”

He added two more interviews with contractors that had decidedly opposite views to the first three, making the overall article (somewhat) more impartial. But for the rest of his time under my supervision, he held my proclivity for fact-finding against me.

He wasn’t a journalist; never really let himself develop into one. You can study journalism, you can be trained as a journalist, but unless you develop a journalist’s heart…

Having spent my early grammar school years within walking distance of Independence Hall, my journalist’s heart was nurtured on the history of the United States. That heart experienced its first cardiovascular contractions when I learned of what went on at those antique desks inside the hall (we could sit in them in the early 1950s) back in 1776. It experienced a shot of adrenaline when I studied the Constitution a short time later, and settled into a steady rhythm by the time I read—and understood—the Bill of Rights.

But just as with physical cardiac health, you need a journalistic EKG once in a while to make sure you’re not suffering from arrhythmia. The Philadelphia Inquirer provided me with an unscheduled checkup on page A27 of their June 13 edition. In an article unabashedly titled, “Don’t give equal time to climate-change deniers,” the author, an environmental professor at a local college, proposes that the media close off any further discussion because, he wrote: “There is only one side of this story.”

He—like my young editorial assistant mentioned above—displayed his indignation at an unnamed news organization that aired a segment on global warming which presented those who said we should be concerned, and those who held the opposite view. Imagine! They actually presented both sides of an argument!

“Sure,” the author admits, “they (media) want to provide a balanced view. But not all stories have two sides.”

Aren’t scientists supposed to welcome skepticism? Isn’t that what true science is about—questioning?

Hopefully, the Inquirer—operated by open minds responding to the pulse of journalistic hearts—will ignore the climate-change author’s plea, because he has apparently flatlined.

The above editorial was published in the Oped section of the Philadelphia Inquirer (p. A17) June 23, 2014