A reader’s letter to NPR

May 1, 2015 • 12:17 pm

We have yet more reader activism:  JBillie didn’t like what he heard on NPR (National Public Radio) on a show about the Armenian genocide (yes, President Obama, it was a genocide, even though you cowardly refuse to use that word), and so he sent a testy letter to the station (published with permission). Their response was not satisfactory.

Original Message:

This is a message for Steve Innskeep: This morning, when interviewing the scholar on the Armenian genocide by the Turks during WWI, you used the adjective “scientific” to describe the plan for murdering the Armenians.

This is the wrong adjective.

There were no scientists involved in this decision. There were no experiments, data, or results. These decisions were made by generals and politicians. This plan was managed, not scientific. It was calculated, not scientific.

Why is it that managed genocides somehow get marked up to the ledger of science, when science has nothing to do with them, even as a tool. The Armenian genocide was carried out by foot soldiers with small arms and death marches. Science isn’t needed and wasn’t used for it. These tools have been around since long before the word science was ever coined or the techniques ever used.

No, the adjective you were groping for was: Cold-blooded. Not scientific: Cold-blooded.

Can you please correct this in the repeats of this segment? Thanks,


Response to Message #957487:
Dear Billie,

Thank you for contacting NPR.

We appreciate you sharing your concerns with us. We strive to offer the highest quality of news and information available. Listener feedback helps us to accomplish this goal.

We welcome both criticism and praise, and your thoughts will be taken into consideration.

Thank you for listening, and for your continued support of public broadcasting. For the latest news and information, visit NPR.org.

NPR Audience and Community Relations

That letter went right in the circular file. If they correct it in a rebroadcast, I’ll send a free copy of my new book to the reader that hears it and proves it.

And you know, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the use of the word “scientific,” even though, as the reader notes, it really is pejorative here.

52 thoughts on “A reader’s letter to NPR

    1. Reads like thoughtless boilerplate. It was not an actual response. Ana may as well have not even read J. Blillie’s letter.

      Why does science have this ominous connotation to so many people?

      1. (Hm. I bolded the first “l” in Blillie, to subtly note that Ana had left it out, but I’m not sure it’s significant enough to notice. Hence this notice.)

          1. Speaking as someone whom has worked at several different media outlets, including radio & TV stations I can attest that it is extremely unlikely that JBillie’s letter was even read, let alone that it was given much attention.

            1. At the radio stations and newspapers I’ve worked for, this is pretty much the standard non-response you would have got from them too.

              There’d be people who cared, but most writers would’ve refused to change it, even when they knew they were wrong.

          2. Just don’t call me late for dinner! People have been messing up my name for as long as I can remember. The most common is, of course: Billie (the Kid).

      2. Why does science have this ominous connotation to so many people?

        Oh, that’s easy. Science is the party pooper that tells them that, no, in fact, they aren’t going to see Dear Aunt Mabel singing with Jesus after they die. They had a good thing going, and then those pesky scientists went and messed everything up!


        1. Ben beat me to it, but that won’t stop me from increasing the value of this conversation by two cents.

          People don’t like science because it prevents them from believing whatever they want to believe. Not just religion, but stuff like racial equality, the importance of the environment, and self-serving, wildly inaccurate political ideas. As a well-known paragraph in Chris Mooney’s The Republican War On Science put it:

          In a famous October 2004 New York Times article on the Bush administration, journalist Ron Suskind described his encounter with a “senior adviser” to the president:
          The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality.”

          To put it in a sentence, science insists on finding out the objective nature of reality, thereby depriving people of their treasured subjectivities. This pisses off the powerful
          (who are concerned only with maintenance of their power, not with what is true) as well as the hoi polloi (who want to pretend their opium subjective beliefs are actually true). OK, that was two sentences, but you know what I mean.

          There is a T-shirt, possibly on SMBC, with a slashed circle over a unicorn, and the caption “Science: Ruining Things since 1542”.

          1. Ben beat me to it, but that won’t stop me from increasing the value of this conversation by two cents.

            If that was only supposed to be 2¢, you’re due some change from what you paid….


      3. ‘Why does science have this ominous connotation to so many people?’

        Science has been getting this kind of bad rap ever since that book by Mary Shelley.

        And there’s no more popular science-fiction trope in Hollywood than the evil scientist and the danger of technology slipping the bonds of human control, or being used as the oppressive tool of an autocratic government — even if a lot of it is cheesy, Ed Wood-caliber stuff. We can trace this trope back, outside Hollywood, at least to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Heck, we could probably ride that trope all the way back to Prometheus stealing fire from the gods.

    2. “Ana” is probably the name of a mail-answering programme. something like “Ana is A Nameless Acronym”, perhaps.

  1. This is the same sort of tripe that I get back from my republican senator and other legislators when I write to them about something they want to do that I don’t agree with (which is virtually all of the time!). The return letter says nothing of substance for any corrections…!

    By the way, Lindsay Graham sends the same letter every time…

    1. And does he sign it “John McCain’s butt boy” everytime — or does he have an autopen for that?

  2. I think the better word would have been “methodical”. It just means it was planned out in some detail. That isn’t what “scientific” means.

    1. However, I did a “define” search on google and this is the featured definition (relevant parts bold):

      sci•en•tif•ic [adjective]
      based on or characterized by the methods and principles of science.
      “the scientific study of earthquakes”
      synonyms: technological, technical; More
      research-based, knowledge-based, empirical; e.g., “scientific research”
      relating to or used in science e.g., “scientific instruments”

      systematic; methodical: “how many people buy food in an organized, scientific way?”
      synonyms: systematic, methodical, organized, well organized, ordered, orderly, meticulous, rigorous

      1. As I alluded to above, the unfortunate thing is that Inskeep chose “scientific” rather than any of those synonyms, presumably because he thinks people perceive the word as more ominous and that it will therefore work better describing an atrocity. This ominous connotation only exists because so many people don’t understand what science actually is.

  3. Scientists are too often viewed as unwavering, ethicless priests at the temple of Nature spelling doom for all of humanity.

    1. And as the handmaidens of the capitalist Fortune 500 Romneyesque (English major MBA/JD) CEO management “Producer” type. What do “management” types “produce,” as compared to STEM types, craftsmen, laborers who actually accomplish the cognitive and physical Pt. A-to-Pt.B actions transforming concepts into realities?

      1. It is the great anathema that these types who actually do so little, claim such large reward.

  4. Ridiculous use of “scientific”. NPR isn’t what it used it be, and I’m personally not crazy about Steve Innskeep anyway.

    Can’t we get Bob Edwards back?

  5. I agree that “scientific” is not the best word to use in describing the plan for Armenian Genocide (for that is what it was). In a similar vein, my lack of free will compels me to, very respectfully, submit that “cowardly” may not be the best word to describe our President’s lack of publically using the word genocide. Balancing the need to appease or gain consessions from Turkey (very large partner) versus Armenia/Armenians (very small actor) in the real-politik world of Russian/Iranian/Syrian/Iraqi/Saudi balance of power/geopolitical strategy may allow one to be critical of Obama as “disingenuous,” “conniving,” “Two-faced,” “Machiavellian,” “un-principaled,” or even “concessionist” but I am not sure “cowardly” is immediately apparent from my understanding of his statements.

    1. Yes, I concur, frank assessments of other nations is not very useful in international diplomacy if you want to get any results. And what usually happens is that they throw it right back at the U.S., which after all does not have an unblemished history itself.

    2. ‘Balancing the need to appease or gain consessions from Turkey…’

      Neville Chamberlain wholeheartedly concurs.

      Obama beating around the bush on this issue may be wise delicatesse (though I’m not convinced). It’s still “cowardly.” Anyway, Jerry’s not engaged in statecraft; there’s no reason why he shouldn’t call a spade a spade. So what’s the problem with his use of the word?

      The Turks will have to live with their genocide being called a genocide — and with any head of state who refuses to acknowledge that genocide being called “cowardly” — on an American website. (Hell, I’m not sure what the Turks are so sensitive about in the first place; the Armenian genocide was an Ottoman deal.)

        1. Right. The Turks ought to (hu)man-up and admit what happened during the Armenian genocide, the way the Germans have with shoah. That’s always the first step to moving forward.

  6. Dumb me. Always referred to another march in WWII as the Bataan Death March. Maybe it was Scientific. Maybe that Trail of Tears as well.

    1. Yeah, nothing says “scientific” like a long march through the jungle, starvation rations of rice, and bamboo.

  7. Well done JBillie. Now if we could also get the word out that while genetics is science, eugenics is pure ideology.

  8. > (yes, President Obama, it was a genocide, even though you cowardly refuse to use that word)

    There’s a similiar case with Germany, denying genocide of the Herero population of colonial Namibia in 1904. As for the Armenians, the argument runs that international laws on genocide were not implemented at that time, so it was perhaps murder of a people, but no genocide. Background, of course, is that recognition as genocide would pave the way for reparation claims.

    1. Oddly, this example of genocide was somewhat scientific. Notorious German anthropologist Eugen Fischer conducted various experiments with human subjects and many Herero skull were shipped off to Germany for study. The last of the human remains were only returned in 2014.

  9. Why must some people dissemble when evidence backed truth is available for anyone interested. The longest running genocide was perpetrated on the Amerindian buts saying that will get you verbally (sometimes physically threatened) pummeled

  10. Nicely played JBillie.

    Perhaps if you had pretended to be a Christian Scientist and claimed that you were offended by their use of “scientific” on those grounds, they would be more likely to change it.

  11. If Innskeep was reading from a written question or other prepared text, then he deserves the heat he’s getting here. On the other hand, if he was reaching for a word and stumbled on to “scientific” (maybe trying to convey a sense of the Armenian genocide being systematic) I’d give him a pass — unless he has a history of badmouthing science (which I’m unaware of). I mean, who hasn’t done that?

  12. This kind of phony boilerplate non-response is precisely the reason I stopped writing to NPR years ago and started my public radio blog and twitter feed.

    They pay a lot more attention to things that are said on social media.


    While I’m on the subject I’m documenting pro religion or anti-rationalist sentiment on public radio. When you notice it please tweet me or comment on my blog.


  13. Good letter JBillie. If you are concerned that it wasn’t read and/or passed on to Mr. Inskeep, perhaps you could communicate with him directly via his twitter account.


    (Professor Coyne: feel free to delete this is you don’t want this kind of contact information revealed on your web site.)

  14. I must admit, I’m more than a little bit confused.

    Here, you approvingly cite JBillie’s quote:

    “‘scientific'[…]is the wrong adjective. There were no scientists involved in this decision. There were no experiments, data, or results. These decisions were made by generals and politicians. This plan was managed, not scientific. It was calculated, not scientific.”

    But a couple of years ago, in a critique of Philip Kitcher, you wrote that you “construe science broadly,” and that being scientific in the general sense had no necessary connection with scientists doing experiments, generating data and results:

    In fact, I construe “science” broadly: as the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge. Those methods can indeed apply to history and some of the humanities.
    In the end, then, many of Kitcher’s arguments against “scientism” seem misguided—unless you conceive “science” narrowly as “what self-described scientists do.” But science is more than a profession; it’s a method—a method of inquiry that arose from the Enlightenment. In that sense, plumbers and car mechanics practice science when they diagnose problems.

    I agree with this earlier, broad construal of science; “science” doesn’t need to be limited in meaning “natural science.”

    Consequently, I hate to rain on the party here, but if even car mechanics and plumbers are being scientific when practicing their craft, then politicians, political theorists, and generals are likewise being scientific when planning and implementing genocide.

    1. Be honest: you’re not confused, but are trying to point out some errors or contradictions in my views. But I hate to rain on your parade, for you’re wrong. Plumbers and mechanics are trying to find out what’s true in the universe (i.e. where is that pesky leak?), while generals and political theorists are plotting to change policy or kill people. Yes, they may use scientific data in that endeavor, but that endeavor is not science–any more than is plotting to drop a water balloon on somebody.

    2. No, they are being *technological*, if one wants to be ultraspecific. (As one should be.)

      Technology has moral inputs and outputs; science does not. (This is *not* the same claiming that there are no ethics of science; it is a claim instead about the *content*.)

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