Will Science Journalists Ever Confront Democrats?

Will Science Journalists Ever Confront Democrats?
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Slate’s Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, doesn’t shy away from a good rant every now and then, often focusing his wrath on scientifically clueless politicians. I admit to doing the same. In his latest diatribe, Plait pointedly asks, “What the hell is going on with my government?”

But, strangely, by “government” he apparently means “Republican Party.”

As I detailed in my recent book, Science Left Behind, the media’s eagerness to criticize unscientific conservatives is surpassed only by its timidity in the face of equivalent misdeeds from progressives. I exposed some of the left’s anti-science beliefs because, quite frankly, few others in science journalism seemed willing to do so.

Any dispassionate analysis of the goings-on in Washington would conclude that it is plagued by dysfunction. Only a partisan zealot would blame just one side but not the other. Is it really necessary to point out to journalists that, while the Republicans control the House, the Democrats control the Senate and Presidency? In times like these, when D.C. is gridlocked, both sides are to blame for failing to lead on important issues.

To be fair, Plait does toss in a token criticism of President Obama for insufficiently funding NASA. (But, considering he used to work for NASA, he is perhaps particularly sensitive to this issue.) As usual, Plait reserves his ire almost exclusively for Republicans. Unfortunately, his retelling of history is rather incomplete.

For instance, Plait criticizes Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana for signing into law a policy that could undermine the teaching of evolution in schools. Absent from Plait’s analysis is the fact that, when the bill was passed in 2008, the Louisiana legislature was controlled by Democrats.

He also rattles off a list of anti-science Congressmen, all Republicans. Excluded from his list are the 53 Democratic Congressmen and Senators (compared to only two Republicans) who wrote a letter to the FDA demanding labels on genetically modified food. This policy position is in direct opposition to that held by organizations representing America’s finest scientists and doctors – the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Medical Association (AMA).

Plait also failed to mention the group of Democratic Congressmen who support a resolution proposing a new hypothesis about global warming: That climate change will cause an increase in the number of hookers around the globe.

Also AWOL from Plait’s list is Tom Harkin, the quack-loving, homeopathy-pushing Senator from Iowa who is responsible for helping legitimize alternative medicine. Such pseudoscientific voodoo has done more to harm average Americans than any misguided teachings on evolution or climate change.

Plait goes on to lament how scientific reports were censored in the “Bad Old Days” of the George W. Bush administration. He conveniently leaves out that the Obama Administration purposefully withheld information from scientists during the BP oil spill and doctored documents to make it appear as if scientists agreed with the drilling moratorium they implemented. And he did not mention that the Obama administration interfered with the FDA’s approval of genetically modified salmon.

The biggest bee in Plait’s bonnet was the latest bill proposed by Rep. Lamar Smith, which orders the National Science Foundation to only fund research which is in the national interest. This is a very bad idea for multiple reasons, and Plait is correct to call for its defeat.

But Plait’s characterization that “Smith wants politics to trump science” Soviet-style is absurd. The NSF’s mission is to promote science, engineering and technology. The fact that fields like psychology and sociology receive funding from the NSF means that politics has already trumped science. The NSF should never have gotten involved in social studies, especially political science, and Smith’s bill – while poorly thought-out – is almost certainly aimed at them.

Finally, at the end of the article, Plait makes something of a confession:

I know I focus a lot on these attacks coming from the far right—because that’s where the overwhelming majority originate—but in truth they’re coming from all directions, and it’s up to us to do something about it. [Emphasis added]

Wrong. Plait focuses on the far right because he is a partisan. He ignores the equally massive volume of anti-science garbage coming from the far left because he sympathizes with that side of the aisle. It is confirmation bias combined with motivated forgetting.

This is why many Americans find the media so infuriating. There is barely even a pretense of giving both sides of the story. Instead, the media is divided into ideological camps, and each side only tells half the truth. It’s like watching litigation on Judge Judy, except far more obnoxious.

Besides, as journalists and science writers, it really is unbecoming to so openly display partisan politics. Not only is it bad for the public’s faith in science journalism, but it is equally bad for the public’s faith in the scientific enterprise itself.

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