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Cornelia Dean Doesn't Trust You -- But Then Again, She Doesn't Trust Herself, Either

There's a disturbing trend for the role of media in a democracy: journalists who don't trust their profession, the public, or themselves. These days more reporters, editors, and journalism advocates are urging their colleagues to jettison objectivity in reporting and replace it with something they can trust: their blind allegiance to authority.

Perhaps no one serves as a better example of this than New York Times science writer Cornelia Dean. Her new book, Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public, has a gem of a chapter titled "The Problem of Objectivity."

You read that correctly. Here's a journalist who sees objectivity as a problem. To wit:

In striving to be "objective" journalists try to tell all sides of the story. But it is not always easy for us to tell when a science story really has more than one side -- or to know who must be heeded and who can safely be ignored. When we cast too wide a net in search of balance, we can end up painting situations as more complicated or confusing than they really are. (pp. 47-48, emphasis added)

And here I thought that journalists were supposed to investigate the story and search for nuance, layers, complexity... the things that make for a compelling narrative. I guess that Dean gave that up a while ago when she decided to simplify things. And what better way to simplify than to edit out dissenting voices?

You can think of plenty of examples of such stories: climate change (it's real, and people are contributing to it); HIV and AIDS virus (the virus does cause the disease); vaccine preservatives as a cause of autism (not). In each case, though, there are prominent people, some with respectable technical credentials, supporting the so-called dissident view. President Bush was a prominent climate-change denier, and it is difficult for a conventional American journalist to say any president is flat-out wrong. (p. 48, emphasis added)
Are you kidding me? She can't be serious. What reporter didn't tell Bush -- sometimes to his face -- that he was wrong? Since at least 2004, it's what any self-respecting reporter (or, in Dean's words, "conventional American journalist") has done, and with relish. But maybe Dean is talking about a different type of reporter here, one who is afraid to question authority, and she wants to shore up their intellectual courage.

Of course, if that's the case, the rest of this chapter becomes utter nonsense. Dean's point is that journalists can't get science, so they have to be careful and trust only the scientists whom scientists respect (and yes, that is some pretty swell circular logic she's got going for her). Just know that, if you're a journalist, you're not going to be able to judge for yourself. Don't worry about it and remember that at least you're a journalist and not a plebian member of the American public:

The point is, debate and disagreements are hallmarks of science, especially in arenas where science and policy intersect. Journalists will be hard-pressed to tell the good idea from the specious. And when we journalists are unable (or unwilling) to judge for ourselves, we often fall back on he-said-she-said reporting. In effect, we turn the whole question over to our readers (or listeners or viewers), who probably have even less basis for judgment than we do. (p. 52)

Dean gives us what she takes to be the problem -- "the mere mentioning of someone in a news article implies that their views are worth paying attention to," so you can't actually report the dissident views because it lends them credence. The solution? Well, some might suggest that if you're going to advocate for journalists making the judgment calls for their readers, they had better be well informed about the subject at hand.

Not Dean. If she doesn't think the public can grasp the science at hand, she also doesn't trust the journalist either. It's a false humility, one designed to tell her colleagues where they should turn when they can't make the judgment calls themselves (judgment they only have to make because they don't trust the people they report to, remember): throw up your hands and appeal to a higher power, namely the authority of the Establishment.

This problem of objectivity has no ready solution. For me it is by far the most intractable problem in coverage of science and engineering. In my opinion, scientists and engineers are the only ones who can help solve it. (p.55)

In other words, Help us, O Scientists Who Cannot Be Questioned! Tell us what the truth really is.