Re: Rensberger and anthro (long)

Gina Maranto (gmaranto@WORLDNET.ATT.NET)
Thu, 24 Oct 1996 16:35:17 +0000

At 01:03 AM 10/23/96 +0000, Richard Wilk wrote:

>I have also spent time with science reporters who were smart, incisive,
>and good listeners. But even the best is usually pressuring you to get
>some complex idea into a sound bite.

I infer, Richard, that you have had many bad experiences with TV and radio
reporters (or are you using the term "sound bite" in a generic sense, which I
suppose is okay, if non-standard? If one wants to be reductive about it,
print journalists are out to get the "good quote" or "the story," whereas TV
and radio people are the ones who go for sound bites). In my fairly extensive
experience with radio (as for TV, I've only been on C-SPAN, where one is
generally permitted to expound--or whinge on--almost indefinitely), I too have
encountered interviewers who are attempting to "pressure" me into mcnuggetting
complex notions or events or descriptions. In such instances, one always
has the
prerogative to address the problem head on by saying something like, "That's an
over-simplification of the idea/historical narrative/issue. In fact, it's more
complicated, because XYZ." Given the time constraints, it's not often possible
to go into all the details, but one rarely expects to be able to do so in those
mediums. Anyone who considers it absolutely anathema to be forced to compact
their statements, or who considers that it would be a violation of their
standards to do so, owes it to themselves to pick their forums very, very
Live versus taped (because in the editing room many a fine phrase falls to dust;
and one has no control over the outcome of an edited piece, unless one has
secured the right of final approval over the final cut, and good luck at doing
that!); Ray Suarez versus some gonzo talk show host; a known interviewer versus
an unknown one; You get the idea. Of course one also has the option to make a
policy of not doing TV or radio at all.

As for print journalists, yes, it's true, they (we) are under the constraint
of the word-count and generally must limit the use of jargon in order to
to a general audience, and so find themselves (ourselves) in the business of
simplification. And some complex ideas can be more easily simplified than
This a problem of hermeneutics or, if you will, translation, and I can't imagine
that one can mount any substantive objection to the act itself. Parents and
do it all the time, for instance. The issue would seem to be the care
that's exercised
in carrying out the act, and insofar as the quality of carefulness is not
by extenuating circumstances (bad editing, impossible deadline, etc.), that
would seem to derive from factors other than a person's profession. Which
is to say: there are lousy practitioners of journalism just as there are lousy
practitioners of scholarship. Does it then follow that journalism and
scholarship are

In the end, complaining about the lack of complexity in journalism is akin to
complaining about the lack of good narrative flow in a scientific paper;
there are
structural and methodological reasons for both. This is not to say that
cannot achieve important things: To give just one hoary example, Walter
four-part analysis of the flaws of intelligence testing, appearing in the
*New Republic*
in 1922, is among the most incisive and insightful articles ever written on this
subject--by anyone. (Finally, to really discuss this issue, we need more
space and
time, and need to look at magazine journalism versus daily journalism, local
versus national dailies, reporters who cover science as a beat versus those
who cover
it as part of their general assignment duties, etc., etc.)

> I have also found science reporters
>in general are always happy to report that "genes cause x,y, and z" and
>they never want to hear that science can be wrong unless its fraud. I had
>some very frustrating talks with reporters last year when psychologists
>started to announce that they had proved that beauty was genetically
>coded and entirely biologically based - the reporters just wouldnt listen
>to evidence that beauty standards vary tremendously across cultures
>because they wanted to report a genetic breakthrough.

Let me address your second point first, Richard: reporters "never want to
that science can be wrong unless it's fraud." Well, to explain that phenomenon,
where it occurs (and as with the previous proposition regarding the exclusion of
anthropologists as sources, I haven't found this to be an attitude in
evidence among
those science writers of my acquaintance, though I have certainly seen
evidence of
it among the broader pool of reporters), would require a tome on the history of
the idea of the infallibility of science, which would include chapters on
the notion
(as elaborated by Bacon, Descartes, Whewhell, Buckle et al.) of science as a
against superstition; on the propaganda of science as an agent of
"progress;" on the
promotion of science-as-secular-religion by any number of scientists and
scientific organizations; and on the confluence of scientific, governmental,
and corporate aims,
especially in the post-World War II era, which have served to cement in the
minds of non-scientists the notion that science produces unassailable
"truths." Failing an
examination of those larger circumstances, one could, I suppose, simply fall
back on
the explanation that reporters who refuse to accept that scientific data are
not graven
in boron carbide by the diamond of the scientist's mind are simply ignorant,
as a result of poor education. To tutor this ignorance is then no easy
task, but it's
one for which scientists themselves bear some responsibility, both on the
front end
(schooling) and the back end (professional interaction). Admittedly, it
seems odd
that newspaper and magazine editors permit people who are "ignorant" of
is, of the philosophy and history and sociology of science, because any
discussion of the infallibility or non-infallibility of science is tied up
with these areas of inquiry--
but then, it also seems odd to me that my junior high school hired and
promoted people
to teach me algebra and biology who were not terribly fit to do those jobs.
a whole other kettle of fish.

Now for your interwoven first point: that "science reporters in general
are always
happy to report that "genes cause x,y, and z": Yes, well, I share your
This is a source of great aggravation and dismay to me, and I've been
talking about
it with scientists, colleagues, and just about anyone else who will listen, for
years. In fact, at a basic level, my entire book is a campaign against naive,
ingrained notions about heredity and genetics, which have shown themselves to be
incredibly persistent and resistant to change, even among
scientists--geneticists and anthropologists not excepted. Taken as a body,
the newspaper and magazine reporting
on molecular biology and genetics (someone out there please do a nice, huge,
study beginning, say, in 1953? career opportunity for some graduate student
out there),
is just flat stinko. But it's not as if people have been sitting around on
their hands.
Tons of scientists and even some journalists have tried to educate the
public (and their colleagues) on genetics: J.B.S. Haldane, Ashley Montagu,
Sir Peter Medawar, Richard
Lewontin, Roger Lewin, Ruth Hubbard, Jon Marks pop to mind as immediate
examples on
the science side. There are, of course, many many more. But genetics is
not only
complex, it's also conceptually difficult and full of lacunae, so educating
is difficult. And the process is not helped by the fact that multiple
often unconciously held, must be overcome, those cultural legacies which can be
collapsed into the reductio ad absurdum: like breeds like. So anytime a
calls and seems to be operating upon the notion that genes are straight-line
then it's the scientist's option to say, "Whoa doggies, hold up here a
minute. Let me
check something: Do you believe it's the case that genes cause x, y, and z?
If so,
let's just back up a minute." And give them a brief lesson in genetics. A
pain in
the butt, no doubt, and perhaps in many instances an exercise in futility.
I have
found, in talking about my book, that people are often quite surprised by the
information that genes are not fate (James Watson's opinion
notwithstanding). If they
never have heard this before, how can they be expected to understand it?
Again, it
seems reasonable that science writers should be held to a higher standard.
But you
work with what you get, right?

I must end by saying that, IMHO, Richard, certain intemperate comments about
Rensberger, whom I don't know personally, were perhaps out of place in a public