Saturday, December 28, 2013

Virginia Heffernan Exemplifies What is Wrong With Journalism

Both my parents were journalists. In fact, in 1939, my mother was the first woman reporter at the Florence Evening Star in South Carolina -- a newspaper started by Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who helped capture Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger. My mother was a good writer who wrote about many topics, but she didn't write about science or mathematics. She never wrote about those topics because she didn't know anything about them. In fact, she never mastered long division. But she could write emotional and moving stories that would bring tears to your eyes. So I have great affection for journalism and its practitioners.

But my mother, and the editors who hired her, understood her limitations. They wouldn't have sent her to cover a science story because they all knew what her areas of competence were. Reporters were expected to know the basics of the area they covered.

That doesn't seem to be true for much of modern journalism. I hear over and over from scientists that whenever they read a popular article that touches on their area of competence, the writer gets everything wrong. And it's often true, in my experience, for articles discussing my own areas of mathematics and computer science.

This also seems to be the affliction of Virginia Heffernan, a writer who "came out" as a creationist earlier this year. According to Wikipedia, Heffernan has no advanced training in science or technology at all. Yet she happily wrote about technology and was described as an "Internet guru".

In her widely criticized Yahoo article, she claims to have read Darwin, but summarizes his argument incorrectly as "Whatever survives survives". (Has she been reading Michael Egnor?). She confuses evolutionary psychology with evolutionary biology; she doesn't understand the difference between "hypothesis" and "theory"; yet she feels competent to comment on evolution. Likewise, she characterizes the Big Bang theory as "something exploded". Maybe she confused the scientific theory with the TV show.

In her article, she cites Yann Martel for justification as follows: "1) Life is a story. 2) You can choose your story. 3) A story with God is the better story."

No, Virginia, science doesn't work like that. The universe isn't a story you can just "choose". The virtue of the scientific method is that it gives a way to distinguish between stories that make you feel good and the real state of affairs, using hypothesis testing, strong skepticism, and peer review. Despite her Harvard education, Heffernan doesn't show any sign of understanding this. You'd think that would make her question the value of her Harvard Ph. D., instead of questioning the science that allows her to post drivel on Yahoo.

Heffernan reminds me of another journalist: Malcolm Muggeridge. Muggeridge didn't understand or care very much about science either; he once wrote, "It is true that in my lifetime more progress has been made in unravelling the composition and the mechanism of the material universe than previously in the whole of recorded history. This does not at all excite my mind, or even my curiosity." Muggeridge's lack of interest in science had consequences: he once confused a good photographic film with a miracle. That's the kind of nonsense that happens when you think the universe consists of stories whose truth you can just choose at your whim.

Heffernan willingly exposed the limits of her competence and discredited herself. (In another example, she recommended a denialist blog here; it didn't seem to raise many alarm bells at the New York Times.) In the future, no responsible editor should hire her to cover science and technology. The real issue now is whether editors get the message Heffernan conveys, and do a better job assigning reporters to cover stories in their competence.

1 comment:

MNb said...

"1) Life is a story.
2) You can choose your story.
3) A story with God is the better story."
First of all I dispute 3. The story science tells - without any god of any kind - is vastly superior, beginning with the Big Bang and ending with me typing these words while living in an entirely other country than you.
Regarding 2: this has been debunked more than 25 years ago, when a physicist asked the question: and which story should the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki August 1945 have chosen to avoid the nasty consequences of the nuclear bombs?