One of the most infuriating habits of the media is its tendency to allow unqualified showmen to discuss scientific matters of which they know next to nothing.
This is particularly noticeable in the United States, where politicians and news presenters regularly make claims about climate science and evolutionary biology that demonstrate their own paucity of understanding concerning these subjects. Why don’t news channels invite scientists working in relevant fields onto their shows, rather than political and television celebrities that are simply not qualified to pass judgment on scientific matters, and who regularly get their facts wrong and contribute to misinforming the public and promoting scientific illiteracy?
To pick on people like Bill ‘tides go in, tides go out’ O’Reilly and Glenn ‘global warming sceptic and intelligent design advocate’ Beck for distorting scientific accuracy would almost be too easy, and the problem is not just limited to the American Right. Bill Maher, a Left-of-centre comedian and talk show host in the United States that I otherwise quite like, has made some shockingly misinformed and ignorant statements about vaccines.
Similarly, Intelligent Design advocate and scientific fraud William Dembski was invited on to the Daily Show with John Stewart to “debate” the “question” of evolution. And who was on the “other side” of this supposed debate – a geneticist? A palaeontologist? An evolutionary developmental biologist? No, it was a historian, Professor Edward Larson. Now, I have nothing against Prof Larson, and I know he has written on the historical development of evolutionary theory. But surely it would have been judicious for at least one member of the panel to actually be a practising life scientist?
In my experience, scientists are often very eager to discuss their research, and by in large do a pretty good job of explaining it in an engaging way for the general public, especially if helped along by a decent science journalist. And even if radio and television companies want ‘celebrities’ for their shows, there are plenty of scientists that have written popular books aimed at a general readership, and some have even achieved semi-celebrity status. How about Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers, Sean B. Carroll, Adam Rutherford, Steve Jones or Eugenie Scott? Hey, if they wanted a Christian to explain evolutionary science they could have asked Kenneth Miller or Francis Collins.
Instead, the Daily Show hosted an intelligent design advocate (well known for misrepresenting scientific data and concepts), a historian, and a ‘new age mystic’ named Ellie Crystal, who I can only describe as bizarre (she babbled about “sacred geometry”, or something. I didn’t really get it.) The show producers could have invited a philosopher that actually knows something about evolutionary biology in her place, like Barbara Forrest, Daniel Dennett or Michael Ruse.
So why don’t they ask the experts?
I suspect this is due to a combination of perceived mistrust in science and scientific authority, a worry that science is “boring”, simple apathy and intellectual laziness, and, in the case of Fox News at least, a desire to wilfully warp scientific evidence to fit around predetermined political ideology (particularly regarding ‘sociologically controversial’ subjects like evolutionary biology, climatology, and embryonic stem cell research.)
And the effect really isn’t harmless. Denying anthropogenic global warming at a time when millions of people living in coastal areas are facing the reality of rising sea levels; denying evolution when the extensive use of antibiotics is causing the emergence of multi-drug resistant, highly virulent pathogens such as recalcitrant TB; denying the efficacy of vaccines when many debilitating diseases, such as measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, polio and (recently) cervical cancer can be easily prevented with their use, and many more (HIV, malaria, schistosomiasis) still await the development of efficacious life-saving vaccines; blocking funding into embryonic stem cell research, which has the potential to benefit millions of people who suffer from incurable degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s; and interfering with the creation of highly nutritious genetically modified plants that can alleviate the world’s global food crisis, saving millions from starvation; are all major threats to the prosperity of human beings and non-human animals around the world. (Michael Spencer’s ‘Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives’ makes for superb reading on this subject.)
And beyond the global threat to human civilisation, scientific illiteracy in the media can adopt more personal forms of cynicism and nastiness.
My motivation for writing this little rant came after hearing extreme right-wing radio host and bigot, Rush Limbaugh, accuse Michael J. Fox of ‘faking’ his Parkinsonian symptoms in order to gain a sympathy vote for the Democrats. Referring to a video Fox released promoting stem cell research, Limbaugh said that Fox had either adopted the shaking movements as an affectation, or deliberately missed taking his medication to accentuate the symptoms. Limbaugh described Fox as “really shameless.”
It takes serious chutzpah to accuse someone suffering from intractable neurodegeneration of lying about their condition; presumably Limbaugh consulted a neurologist, neuroscientist, psychiatrist or other healthcare professional before making this accusation? Unfortunately not; had he done so, he would have been informed that Fox’s jerky movements are known as dyskinesia, and this is a classic sign of Parkinson medication. (Parkinson’s Disease itself causes severe rigidity and muscle stiffness, slow movements and tremor. Ironically, far from missing his medication, the large jerky movements of the head and arms apparent in Fox’s video occur as a side-effect of medication used to combat Parkinson’s Disease.)
Had I been in Fox’s position, I’d have been tempted to release a three-word statement that simply read, “Fuck you, Limbaugh”. But evidently Fox is a bigger man than I. His response was measured and laudable, and included the following piece of insight:
We all have a right to speak up and say what we think is right, and we all have a right to fight for the things that we believe in, and I believe that science should move forward in this country. Science is a big part of the American story, and we need to start writing a new chapter.
Here here. If only more people in the media would listen to that message, and allow the voice of reason and science to rise up above the background buzz of ignorance and ill-informed, misinforming opinion.