Philip Kitcher on science journalism

June 3, 2010 • 12:48 pm

by Greg Mayer

In tomorrow’s issue of Science, the distinguished philosopher of science Philip Kitcher reviews several books on climate change (pre-publication version here).  He has written a great deal about creationism (most notably in the classic Abusing Science and the more recent Living with Darwin), and so it is natural that he would come to be interested in the issues surrounding scientific knowledge, public debate, and decision-making in democracies. He has written most extensively about these issues in Science, Truth, and Democracy, and he examines them in his review as they relate to several recent books on climate change.

WEIT readers will want to read the whole of Philip’s essay-review for what he has to say about the climate change debate, and his clarification of the different questions involved: is there anthropogenic warming (yes), what are the consequences (diverse and often bad, but of varying certainty as to their eventuality), and what is to be done (the most difficult; bottom line on doubters of change and consequences: “Tell it to the Maldives!”). Of most immediate interest to WEIT though is what he has to say about media coverage, seen in this case from the perspective of a scientific discipline rather different from evolutionary biology (although the opponents of science seem to be in part the same people). He decries the “he said, she said” format beloved of most American news media.

[the] web of connections among aging scientists, conservative politicians, and executives of companies (particularly those involved in fossil fuels) with a short-term economic interest in denying the impact of the emission of carbon into the atmosphere….could not have produced the broad public skepticism about climate change without help from the media. As Oreskes and Conway point out, “balanced coverage” has become the norm in the dissemination of scientific information. Pitting adversaries against one another for a few minutes has proven an appealing strategy for television news programs to pursue in attracting and retaining viewers. Nor is the idea of “fair and balanced” coverage, in which the viewer (or reader) is allowed to decide, confined to Fox News. Competing “experts” have become common on almost all American radio and television programs, the Internet is awash in adversarial exchanges among those who claim to know, and newspapers, too, “sell” science by framing it as a sport (preferably as much of a contact sport as possible). Oreskes and Conway identify the ways in which the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal have nourished the public sense that anthropogenic climate change is a matter of dispute, how they have given disproportionately large space to articles and opinion pieces from the “merchants of doubt,” and how they have sometimes censored the attempts of serious climate scientists to set the record straight. Even the New York Times, the American newspaper that takes science reporting most seriously, typically “markets” scientific research by imposing a narrative based on competition among dissenting scientists.

This tendency to “he said, she said” journalism has been noted before here at WEIT, and we have happily noted exceptions.

Review of WEIT in Wall Street Journal

January 29, 2009 • 9:38 am

A very nice review of WEIT appeared today in the Wall Street Journal.  It was written by the distinguished philosopher Philip Kitcher, who has written extensively on evolution, creationism, and evolutionary psychology.  I highly recommend his recent book, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, which not only dismantles intelligent design, but deals with the thorny problem of how nonreligious people can find the same kind of solace and social networking that is provided by religion. Philip also wrote what I consider the definitive critique of evolutionary psychology (then called “sociobiology”): Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature.  Finally, his avocation is James Joyce, and he’s just penned an introduction for the general reader to Finnegans Wake: Joyce’s Kaleidoscope: An Invitation to Finnegans Wake, an accomplishment which I can regard only with astonishment.