Journalism is to thought and understanding as the indictment is to the trial, the hypothesis to the truth, the estimate to the audit. It is the first cry for help, the hand groping for the light switch in the dark, the returns before the outlying precincts have been heard from. - Sam Smith
Saturday, July 19, 2008
WHEN SCIENCE, POLITICS, RELIGION & JOURNALISM MEET
Several months ago, Suzan Mazur wrote of an important upcoming conference of scientists who did not reject Darwin's beliefs about evolution but who thought things that had been learned in the succeeding century and a half might expand or alter some of the underlying assumptions.
A reasonable, unsurprising, yet important project, one that one naturally expects of scientists. And newsworthy. In fact, however, only the New Zealand online journal Scoop and the Progressive Review, so far as we can tell, told the story.
Now another journal has finally published a report on the conference (for paid subscribers only): Science Magazine, the publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Admittedly, Science takes a number of slaps at what it considers Mazur's hyperbole, such as her calling the Altenberg Conference the "Woodstock" of evolution science that "promises to be far more transforming for the world" than was the 1969 music festival. But without Mazur's article, Science might have just let this important meeting remain in the obscurity it had been otherwise awarded.
The popular view of science - which the profession is careful not to discourage - is of brilliant, earnest and honest sorts plumbing the inner recesses of reality for new truths. In fact, scientists tend to be like other human beings, in that they can also be petty, jealous, cautious and suspicious (albeit expressing these ordinary foibles with particular erudition).
And, if they are on campus, they are also subject to that most pernicious of academic temptations: the desires and biases of their funders. Mazur believes this is a factor key to the way evolution has been handled of late. Certainly it would not be the first time in science, witness the distorting role of the Defense Department, agribusiness and pharmaceutical corporations in supposedly objective science.
At the very least, it can easily become a matter of what fiscally correct questions one feels comfortable asking and which are best left to someone else. And it may explain why the Altenberg 16 conference was not public.
Evolutionary scientists are also particularly on guard these days because of the craziness of creationism. Mention the possibility that Darwin may not have told the whole story and the reaction in some quarters is to consider the mere question to be aid and comfort to the enemy. To understand how complicated this can get, consider on the other hand the born again corporate executive who simultaneously believes his salary and bonus to be the logical product of both intelligent design and the survival of the fittest.
In any case, scientists, like the rest of us mortals, don't work in a vacuum. If there is anything we should have learned from Hiroshima and climate change it is that what goes on in the research lab doesn't necessarily stay in the research lab.
This is where journalism can help. What Suzan Mazur did is what journalists find themselves doing from time to time: snooping around the lab before they're invited. It is an effort often unappreciated by scientists, who typically feel they should control the amount, character, timing and wording of the knowledge they possess. But the reporter's point is not to provide a final or complete explanation, or to overturn existing ones, but simply to shine some light in the dark, in this case without fear of either funders or fundamentalists.