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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Journalism: Covering the conflict of ideas or degenerating into gossip?

In "Gossip dressed up as investigative journalism", Spiked deputy editor Brendan O'Neill argues that "Conspiracy theories about everything from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina to spiked writers are polluting the mainstream media.."

He complains,
There was a time, not so long ago, when you would have had to trek down to Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park or rub shoulders with the weird anti-Semitic guy at your workplace if you wanted to hear conspiracy theories. [ ... ]

Now, however, conspiracy-mongering has moved from the margins to the mainstream, and it masquerades as investigative journalism. [ ... ]

Many reporters today seem less interested in what politicians and public figures say or do, than in working out the hidden motivations behind what they say and do. They no longer ask, 'Is this public figure right to say what he said?' or 'What will be the consequences of his actions?', but rather 'Who's funding him...? Who put him up to this...? What are his links with big business that might explain his antics...?'

I couldn't help thinking of O'Neill's well-argued piece when I read Rob Crowther's complaint at the Discovery Institute's site, that

New questions are being raised about the accuracy of the New York Times'
article on scientific critics of neo-Darwinism last week, spurred by an amazing admission by Times' reporter Ken Chang that only a small minority of the scientists he interviewed actually fit his story's stereotyped description of Darwin's critics. While Chang's story conveys the clear impression that scientists who support Discovery's Dissent from Darwin statement are motivated by religion rather than science, Chang has now admitted in an interview that 75% or more of the scientists he interviewed did not fit this description. In other words, Chang and his editors selectively reported the results of their own investigation to convey the exact opposite of what they found. It turns out I was right to warn before the article's publication that when it comes to the evolution issue, the Times' motto should be "all the news that fits"!

Okay. For a long time now, the Times has engaged in news gathering in support of a world view. I won't soon forget how they took my humble story of the premiere of Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian last June and turned it into an anti-evolution brouhaha, even though the film says nothing about evolution. (It is about the fine-tuning of the universe for life and the favorable position of Earth for exploration of the galaxy.)

The Times reporter present at the Smithsonian showing announced to me sotto voce, that I had caused the uproar myself, on account of my blogging. How ridiculous. There would have been no uproar if the Times had not printed incorrect information. It was not the original reporter's fault that the information was incorrect. (Incidentally, he was not the reporter present at the showing.) So far as I know, the Times' management had not given that reporter time to actually see the film, which should have been a fundamental step before reporting anything - so I obviously do not blame him for what he did not know.)

News gathering in support of a world view is not new, different, or unusual. But I think O'Neill has identified a trend that should interest Crowther: Gossip about relationships or motives has largely replaced controversies over ideas.

Note that the gravamen of Chang's charge is the supposed motives of the scientists, not the strength of their evidence.

And that is exactly the sort of thing that O'Neill rightly complains about:
The rise of the conspiracy theory points to an important shift in journalism and public debate. There has been a move from debating the substance of someone's beliefs or behaviour to focusing myopically on the motivations behind them; from challenging individuals over their words or actions to trying to uncover some deep, dark ulterior motive. This has had a deadening effect on public debate. It replaces a critical engagement with political developments with a destructive neverending search for the secret agenda.
Indeed, he charges that "Today, some investigative journalists are little more than glorified gossip columnists, ... " and I am forced to agree.
The reason, I fear, is a cultural trend against taking ideas seriously. From working on my current co-authored book, I have discovered that some current neuroscience typically argues that the mind is merely an accidental output of the brain, like a rainbow floating over the falls. In other words, ideas do not spring from a universal logic behind the universe; they are accidental and don't really connect with anything significant.
Now, two things follow from such a view:
1. It does not matter if your ideas are "correct" in any sense. There is actually no sense in which they can be correct. They either conform to the ruling conditions or they don't. Bad luck for you if they don't. It's not your fault, because you probably just have bad genes or environment or whatever. But even if your ideas happened to conform, they wouldn't have significance anyway. There is no way in which they can have significance.
2. Ideas don't matter, but gossip is fun! So we can carry on about the secret agenda and associates that supposedly underlie every idea, that are indeed the real substrate of any given idea.
Thus if scientist X says that his data don't support a given model of evolution, we can say, well, that's because he once had dinner with X who once slept with Y, and anyway he belongs to a nutjob religious group and an ethnic group with funny last names. That's all we need to dismiss him, because idea don't matter in themselves.
Yeah really.

(1) Ideas matter.
(2) The people who think ideas don't matter won't matter.
(3) Gossip about alleged motives and associates will waste the time of everyone who pursues it. It may not be a sin or crime (I am not the judge), but it will sure be a time sink.
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?
An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

The Pope using the term "intelligent design" to describe the Catholic view of origins, go here.

Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams attacked by Darwinist, hits back. Will he now cartoon on the subject?

"Academic Freedom Watch : Here's the real, ugly story behind the claim that 'intelligent design isn't science'?".

Roseville, California, lawyer Larry Caldwell is suing over the use of tax money by Darwin lobby groups to promote religious views that accept Darwinian evolution (as opposed to ones that don’t). I’m pegging this one as the next big story. See also the ruling on tax funds. Note the line that the “free speech” people take.
How to freak out your bio prof? What happened when a student bypassed the usual route of getting frogs drunk and dropping them down the chancellor’s robes, and tried questioning Darwinism instead.

Christoph, Cardinal Schonbon is not backing down from his contention that Darwinism is incompatible with Catholic faith, and Pope Benedict XVI probably thinks that’s just fine. Major US media have been trying to reach rewrite for months, with no success.

Museum tour guides to be trained to "respond" to those who question Darwinism. Read this item for an example of what at least one museum hopes to have them say.

World class chemist dissed at Catholic university because he sympathizes with intelligent design.
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