The New York Times Should Seriously Consider Not Writing About Science Anymore
G.K. Chesterton once quipped, "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." He was speaking of the most important things in life, such as faith, volunteering, and parenting. He was not speaking of journalism. That, if done badly, should be ceased.
Enter The New York Times. America's so-called "newspaper of record," the once proud Gray Lady, has seen better days. Its circulation is dwarfed by that of its crosstown rival, The Wall Street Journal. Founded merely 33 years ago, USA Today's circulation and influence have skyrocketed. And The Economist, a weekly British newspaper, has grown to become perhaps the most influential print publication in the world.
What has gone so wrong for the NYT? Many things are to blame. The paper's leftish editorial page is out of step with a large portion of the American public. A high-profile scandal, in which journalist Jayson Blair was caught fabricating articles, damaged its credibility. The biggest factor, however, is the rise of credible challengers -- both print and digital -- that simply do better journalism. There is little incentive to spend money to read the NYT when superior news coverage (and more sensible editorializing) can be found elsewhere.
The NYT's science coverage is particularly galling. While the paper does employ a staff of decent journalists (including several excellent writers, such as Carl Zimmer and John Tierney), its overall science coverage is trite. Other outlets cover the same stories (and many more), in ways that are both more in-depth and more interesting. (They are also usually free to read.) Worst of all, too much of NYT's science journalism is egregiously wrong.
Cell Phones and Cancer
The most recent example of NYT malfeasance comes in an article that cites Jospeh Mercola -- an anti-vaxxer, a quack purveyor of fraudulent alternative "remedies," and a Dr. Oz groupie -- as a source for a story on the safety of wearable electronic devices. Dr. Mercola believes that cell phones are dangerous to the human body. They are not. Yet, the NYT's award-winning (!!!) technology journalist naively regurgitates all of this nonsense, even going so far as to claim that while Wi-Fi signals are probably safe, 3G signals may not be.
How embarrassing. Cell phones do not and cannot cause cancer. As Michael Shermer explains, the photons involved in telecommunications are of insufficient energy to break chemical bonds, which is necessary for them to cause cancer. Wi-Fi and 3G signals both come from the same region of the electromagnetic spectrum, alongside TV and radio waves. So, not only is it unscientific, it is simply illogical to conclude that 3G signals pose some sort of unique risk.
Reliance on fringe, pseudoscientific sources has become something of a trend at the NYT. Its most deplorable reportage involves the science of food, particularly GMOs. Henry Miller, the former founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology, reprimands anti-GMO foodie Mark Bittman for "journalistic sloppiness" and "negligence" in his "[inability] to find reliable sources."
Furthermore, in a damning exposé, Jon Entine reveals that Michael Pollan, a food activist and frequent NYT contributor, "has a history of promoting discredited studies and alarmist claims about GMOs." Even worse, Mr. Entine writes that Mr. Pollan "candidly says he manipulated the credulous editors at the New York Times... by presenting only one side of food and agriculture stories." Mr. Pollan was also chided by plant scientist Steve Savage for disseminating inaccurate information on potato agriculture and fearmongering about McDonald's French fries.
On many matters concerning nutrition or health, the NYT endorses the unscientific side of the debate. For instance, The Atlantic criticized a New York Times Magazine essay on the supposed toxicity of sugar. At Science 2.0, Hank Campbell mocked an NYT writer's endorsement of gluten-free diets, and chemist Josh Bloom dismantled a painfully inaccurate editorial on painkillers.
Teach the Controversy
It gets worse. Brian Palmer, a journalist at Slate, details how the NYT was "dupe[d]" into reporting on a fictitious condition known as "post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome." While it is certainly possible that a subset of patients are suffering from some sort of post-infection immunological sequelae, the majority of patients are likely suffering from a different ailment altogether (chronic fatigue, perhaps, or that insidious process known as aging). Yet, as Mr. Palmer notes, the NYT piece cites a fringe medical doctor and describes how antibiotic treatment works for some patients, even though actual data refutes that claim.
Mr. Palmer rightly concludes that the author and "the editors at the New York Times ought to have known better."
Science journalist Deborah Blum, in a scathing post for PLoS Blogs, denounces NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof for his infamous chemophobic rants. Mr. Kristof, who appears to believe that chemical is a four-letter word, routinely engages in "sloppy" and "less than thorough" journalism, as Ms. Blum writes. She concludes with this exhortation: "I wish he would focus and do it right. Or not do it at all."
The NYT Makes All Journalists Look Bad
As a whole, too many of the NYT's science articles take a pro-fearmongering, anti-technology viewpoint that is buttressed with dubious research. Even though interested readers can easily find plenty of thoughtful science journalism elsewhere, the NYT's shoddy reporting still matters. The journalistic malpractice that regularly stains the pages of that once great paper besmirches the reputation of all journalists.
For our sake as well as their own, the NYT ought to restrict science writing to only those staff members capable of it. However, if the NYT fails to rectify this problem and continues to demonstrate an inability to meet the minimal standards of acceptable scientific discourse, then maybe it ought to consider axing its science coverage completely.
Either do it right, or don't do it at all.