At least with respect to coverage of science and technology, and from the point of view of public understanding as opposed to public relations, the evolved ecosystem of flacks, hacks, editors, publishers and readers is working very badly. (I gather that it’s not working very well from the point of view of return on investment either, but that’s another story.)
This is not the fault of specific individuals, and it can’t be fixed by beating up on individual reporters and editors, even though that’s the natural thing to do. In fact, I’ll freely admit that I have no idea how to fix it, other than the nutty idea of raising standards by lowering them.
But let’s not kid ourselves that the problem is that reporters need to write about too many different things that they can’t possibly understand, or are too busy writing copy to have the time to figure out what’s going on.
The problem is the traditional journalistic “sense of mission” that tempts reporters to grovel in front of self-righteous experts, promote the newest political salvation scheme, and compel the ignorant masses to accept as true whatever they are told to believe. The most important thing, above all else, is that the masses must never, ever lose faith in the ability of their superiors to explain what is best for them and cram it down their throats.
This tendency to prescribe the correct thoughts for their readers is shared by the new generation of science propagandists:
Let’s go back to 2006 for a minute. That’s when I joined ScienceBlogs which, at the time, billed itself as the “world’s largest conversation about science.” Granted, at the time there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot of science on ScienceBlogs (science comprised something like 30% of SB’s content), but ScienceBlogs was (and is) a product of Seed Media Group, whose motto is “Science is Culture,” and apparently many of the early ScienceBloggers just forgot the science part and focused on the culture (in the form of politics and religion). Now, Seed has been great over the last year and a half or so, more than doubling their blog total, and many of the blogs they’ve added are almost exclusively science-oriented. But Seed’s biggest blog, the one to which everyone else in the network is inclined to link if they want a traffic boost, and which therefore can have a big influence on the content of the entire network, long ago ceased to be about either science or conversation. Instead, it became a prolonged self-aggrandizing, attention-whoring rant (it’s likely not a coincidence that the proportion of rant to science, and the tone of that rant, grew in proportion to the blog’s traffic).
Now, if we were to take ScienceBlog’s self-description as a conversation about science seriously, we might be inclined to believe that ScienceBlogs would be the home of a rational discussion what happened with the UCF student and the idiot Catholics who harassed him. But in all likelihood, before we started to believe that, we’d be reminded that ScienceBlog’s biggest name is not interested in conversation or rational discussion, and so we would not be surprised that instead of taking the broadly effective route, that blogger chose instead the juvenile tactics of right-wing xenophobes, in order to show that he is, in fact, the biggest, baddest, most anti-religious atheist in all of the intertubes, and to get all sorts of attention both from his loyal epigones and from religious nuts (it’s probably not a coincidence, as well, that the blogger in question is planning on publishing a book sometime soon). There has been a resulting discussion, of course, but instead of focusing on the Catholics and their abominable behavior, the discussion has been about our biggest blogger and his nonsense.
There are dozens of reasons to criticize the behavior of that blogger, perhaps the most salient of which is that it’s never OK to gratuitously attempt to hurt the feelings of large groups of people, with no other reasonable end but to hurt their feelings, but I think the most tragic consequence of said blogger’s behavior is that it pretty much cuts off any discussion of the real issues, and diverts the attention to him. And I find it sad any time the opportuntity for rational discussion of important issues is undercut by adolescent nonsense. And I also find it sad that ScienceBlogs, supposedly a bastion of reason, “the world’s largest conversation about science,” long criticized for being overly liberal in its political orientation, is dominated by an illiberal, anti-intellectual ass whose idea of a rational response is to emulate Michelle Malkin or the Dansk Folkeparti’s youth movement. I feel ashamed to be associated with it, and him.
[Boldfacing added by me.] Now, I really don’t care about the content of the Crackergate controversy. I just find it interesting how obsessed PZ Myers is with solidifying his position as the Pope of Positivism and the Vicar of the Reason Fairy. PZ’s Eucharist is the abstraction he calls “reason” or “science.” If anyone dares to desecrate a symbol of reason, he is all over them, accusing them of atheist heresy, condemning them to atheist hell, and fervently denouncing every opinion that doesn’t line up with atheist dogma. He’s right, you’re wrong; deal with it.
This is not new. Auguste Comte first promoted this wonderful new way of ordering society according to reason and science, and since then many other science-worshippers have taken it very seriously. The problem is how to make it a reality if you consider most people too stupid to understand it. The only solution is to use socially sanctioned violence and coercion backed up by the power of a sovereign state.
The disciples of the Reason Fairy insist that the currently accepted expert consensus on science is The One Truth that everyone must submit to. It doesn’t really matter if you understand it, as long as you pledge your loyalty to it. Anyone who doesn’t give the oath should be blackballed from ever holding any job except fortune teller or crash test dummy. Basically, if you disagree with any part of it, you shouldn’t even be walking down the street without a police escort. Even thinking anything contrary to the current dogma should be a capital crime (Harris). Also, it should be a crime to teach children anything that contradicts it, since that would be a form of child abuse (Dawkins). [emerod]
These people are disgusting. Not because of the content of their beliefs, which don’t concern me here. What is disgusting is how they twist the definition of reason to justify their irrational hatred of anyone who disagrees with them, and then they follow it up with a political program that other people willingly submit to.