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K. C. Cole explains why mainstream editors can’t handle science

– they are too smart to want to feel dumb

But shouldn’t K.C., and the editors of the CJR, question their own mainstream assumptions too?

Ignorant CJR editorial against Harper’s an example

No good writer fails to flatter editors, but K. C. Cole has come up with an unusually clever way of explaining why difficult science topics don’t easily get into “newspapers and other major periodicals”, such as the New Yorker.

It is because editors are “the smartest guys in the room” and don’t like to feel dumb:

Editors, however, seem to absorb difficulty differently. If they don’t understand something, they often think it can’t be right — or that it’s not worth writing about. Either the writers aren’t being clear (which, of course, may be the case), or the scientists don’t know what they’re talking about (in some cases, a given).

Why the difference? My theory is that editors of newspapers and other major periodicals are not just ordinary folk. They tend to be very accomplished people. They’re used to being the smartest guys in the room. So science makes them squirm. And because they can’t bear to feel dumb, science coverage suffers.

On close examination this breezy piece of superficially persuasive comment seems at least partly questionable, however.

In the first place, it is always possible that editors are smart, and hate to look dumb, but isn’t hating to look dumb a sign of lack of intelligence? We have to say that we have never noticed any intelligent person of any kind worry about being dumb. If anything, it’s the dumb question that they find most interesting to explore such as, Is HIV the true cause of AIDS?

No, it’s not that editors aren’t smart enough to understand science. Actually, it’s the opposite: they’re too accustomed to being smart, and thus can’t deal with the fact that they don’t understand it. And because they’re uncomfortable feeling confused, readers are left in the dark about a universe of research that eludes easy explanation.

I was discussing this problem recently with a colleague who had been beating his head against the wall for months trying to get a story about a mysterious “dark force” in cosmology past editors at The New Yorker: “They kept saying they didn’t understand it!” he complained. Well, of course they didn’t understand it. Nobody understands it. That’s precisely what makes it so interesting.

Well, why shouldn’t editors ask science writers to make it clear what they are saying, even if the material itself is not clearly worked out by the scientists themselves? That is what editors and writers are for, as far as we are concerned.

In fact it is the only thing editors are for, shaping and editing to elucidate, not to change the nature of the piece, which they may want to do for political reasons, not always good ones.

As the gatekeepers of science publishing, editors have much to answer for in the last twenty years of not covering the flaws of the HIV∫AIDS paradigm, for example, in their conscious or unconscious acquiescence with the censorship of the NIAID of that area.

The egregious action of the New York Times recently in publishing the violent diatribe of Cornell’s John Moore against the critics of that paradigm, Deadly Quackery, and ignoring any replies, is the latest example of editors doing the not-even-secret censor’s bidding in that area instead of doing their job, which is to inform their readers fully.

But that’s another story.

CJR blots copybook once again

Maybe it’s just the heatwave in Manhattan, but it seems to us there is something leaden about this whole piece, which may be the fault of the editors of the Columbia Journalism Review, which has to be the most analytically challenged, committee flavored, middle brow review of journalism in the country, even if it didn’t print knee jerk diatribes against HIV∫AIDS critics to please its mentors on the Times.

This editorial is what we are referring to, one which all informed readers will have to acknowledge as … “imbecilic”:

Under Lapham, Harper’s has made great sport of ridiculing all manner of establishment thinking, so publishing Farber is not entirely out of character. What is out of character, especially in light of Lapham’s routine swipes at his brethren in the press for what he sees as their infuriating weakness for stenography and intellectual dishonesty, is that Farber was allowed to argue her cause without wrestling — even a little bit — with the mountain of scientific evidence to the contrary. If someone unschooled in the AIDS debate were to read the piece, he would assume that Duesberg is the only right-thinking man in the scientific community. Yet, as far back as 1994, the journal Science published a thorough investigation of Duesberg’s claims and found the evidence for them unpersuasive. Many of Duesberg’s so-called supporters quoted in that investigation said they did not so much believe in his ideas as in his right to dissent.

Farber, too, is entitled to dissent. But when dissent morphs into an “imbecile vision in the desert,” as it does in her Harper’s article, then the editors owe their readers the courtesy of being a little less civil, a little less silent.

Thus out of youthful ignorance and disrespect the editors of Harper’s, instead of gaining credit for their signal achievement in being the first to break ranks from the censorship induced conformity of the mainstream press in HIV∫AIDS science are subjected to mice chewing their cheese, in the form of some callow student untutored in the ways of the modern scientist naively assuming that they are automatically wrong to challenge the “mountain of evidence” in question, not to mention a Science article by Jon Cohen (whose journalistic incompetence was exposed by Serge Lang), when even the editors of the Columbia Journalism Review would know better than to print such an article as Celia’s – God wish they ever would ever have the honor – without looking into its assertions pretty thoroughly.

That the editors of Harper’s maintained their silence in the face of this indictment is a satisfying enough comment on its worth.

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Editorial

On Context

AIDS

Lewis Lapham, who recently stepped down as editor of Harper’s magazine after twenty-eight years, has long displayed a special disdain for the mainstream press. In the May 2005 issue, he wrote: “Far from being scornful of the messages blown through the trumpets of doom, the news media make a show of their civility and a virtue of their silence; here to please and not to think; every American free to worship the reflection of his or her own fear; no superstition more deserving than another, no imbecile vision in the desert that can’t be sold to a talk show, a circus, or the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives.”

Lapham was referring to the press’s context-free rendering of the National Association of Evangelicals’ plan to inject its faith even deeper into American politics. His comments apply just as easily to his own magazine’s handling of Celia Farber’s piece on AIDS in its March 2006 issue. For the last fifteen years, Farber has been among the loudest proponents of the notion, put forth primarily by a lone virologist, Peter Duesberg, that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS. In her Harper’s piece, Farber executes a jarring bait-and-switch, devoting most of the first three-quarters of her fifteen-page article to a well-reported examination of a horribly botched AIDS drug trial in Uganda, before veering off into her well-worn rant about how conventional wisdom on AIDS is the product of a conspiracy between greedy scientists and their benefactors, the pharmaceutical companies.

Under Lapham, Harper’s has made great sport of ridiculing all manner of establishment thinking, so publishing Farber is not entirely out of character. What is out of character, especially in light of Lapham’s routine swipes at his brethren in the press for what he sees as their infuriating weakness for stenography and intellectual dishonesty, is that Farber was allowed to argue her cause without wrestling — even a little bit — with the mountain of scientific evidence to the contrary. If someone unschooled in the AIDS debate were to read the piece, he would assume that Duesberg is the only right-thinking man in the scientific community. Yet, as far back as 1994, the journal Science published a thorough investigation of Duesberg’s claims and found the evidence for them unpersuasive. Many of Duesberg’s so-called supporters quoted in that investigation said they did not so much believe in his ideas as in his right to dissent.

Farber, too, is entitled to dissent. But when dissent morphs into an “imbecile vision in the desert,” as it does in her Harper’s article, then the editors owe their readers the courtesy of being a little less civil, a little less silent.

The CJR’s coverage of HIV∫AIDS is a study in itself, since it has the job of critiquing the coverage of an area where it shares the same false assumptions as the purveyors of misinformation. Read this and weep for the lowering of standards at an institution associated with a great university: AIDS: Hiding in Plain Sight How Lurid Reports Obscure the Bigger Story By Kai Wright

Too bad it’s such a distortion of reality. Crystal meth use is indeed spreading among well-heeled, largely white, urban gay men. And HIV is certainly on the rise among gay men as well — new infections shot up 17 percent between 1999 and 2002. The problem is that that increase is driven by infections among low- and middle-income African Americans. And those infections have little to do with “sex marathons.” To the contrary, they’re most likely the result of serial monogamy within small social circles where HIV is already present.

AIDS: Hiding in Plain Sight

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How Lurid Reports Obscure the Bigger Story

BY KAI WRIGHT

Bob’s story was certainly compelling. The New York Times found him “prowling” for sex in a Manhattan bathhouse, high on “a wildly addictive stimulant” even as he spoke with the reporter. The sentiment of most of the men in the bathhouse was that, as one of them said, “rubbers are a killjoy.” None cared about the threat of AIDS, and all were hopped up on crystal meth — a drug the story’s headline described as THE BEAST IN THE BATHHOUSE.

The article was but one in a recent spate of shocking tales about how the nexus of drugs and sex has led too many gay men to ignore the danger of HIV. It’s gripping stuff, and it’s this year’s hot AIDS story in the U.S.

Too bad it’s such a distortion of reality. Crystal meth use is indeed spreading among well-heeled, largely white, urban gay men. And HIV is certainly on the rise among gay men as well — new infections shot up 17 percent between 1999 and 2002. The problem is that that increase is driven by infections among low- and middle-income African Americans. And those infections have little to do with “sex marathons.” To the contrary, they’re most likely the result of serial monogamy within small social circles where HIV is already present.

That’s a far less eye-popping tale, and one we have seen woefully little coverage of. Nor have we seen much coverage of the fact that the epidemic is aging — 44 percent of new HIV diagnoses in New York City each year are among people over forty — because of growing infections among middle-aged blacks who aren’t using condoms with their partners. No beasts, no bathhouses, just the small but crucial miscalculations that add up to today’s still growing AIDS epidemic.

All reporters love a good lead. From drugs to crime to poverty, we cover America’s social concerns with a dose of perception-skewing hype. An ambitious study recently released by the Kaiser Family Foundation makes this clear. The study illustrates how, from the beginning, the AIDS story has been driven by a series of big, attention-grabbing events. In the early years, it was the effect on the blood supply and debate over San Francisco bathhouses being shut down. Next came the public infections of Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson, followed by a pair of very large events, the discovery of the drugs that have staved off death for so many people, and, finally, by the AIDS devastation in Africa.

The Kaiser study didn’t analyze how much the hot story of the time colored how life with HIV was depicted. But it offered a disturbing hint at what this approach misses: overall, only 3 percent of stories focused on U.S. minorities. African Americans account for half of all new infections every year, but they have rarely been involved in the epidemic’s high drama.

Even when blacks have entered the frame, the picture has remained out of focus. A recent hot story was about black men “on the down low” — guys who consider themselves straight, and live as such, but maintain homosexual relationships on the side. For most publications, those pieces offered a rare focus on black gay men. Yet, just before the down-low infatuation emerged, a high-profile study estimated that a third of twentysomething black gay and bisexual men are infected with HIV. Beyond the initial news reports, journalists have shown little interest in these largely out-of-the-closet (and thus boring?) people whose primary risk is unprotected sex inside a relationship with someone they’ve trusted too quickly.

To be fair, the quest for a dramatic story angle goes beyond journalism. Many of those leading in the fight against HIV insist on framing it as an emergency rather than a lasting concern. That means creating a sense of urgency — something best done by focusing on hyperbolic scenarios.

In its laudable effort to get the epidemic onto the front page, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focuses journalists on attention-getting theories. The down-low hysteria began when the CDC started pushing studies that speculated that such men form an “HIV bridge” to straight black women. The crystal meth hype is now being driven by the CDC’s effort to understand what it’s calling an “HIV-prevention fatigue” among young gay men.

The result is a myopic understanding of this epidemic. We see white where there’s actually black. We see drug-induced orgies where there are really complex sexual choices complicated by the search for intimacy. And we see something that demands our attention for just a few fleeting, hysterical moments when we’re actually facing a systemic, decades-long problem.

Anyhow, getting back to Cole, she tells us that

In fact, this is one place in which the intelligent-design people have a point. It is unfathomable that complex life forms evolved in tiny increments over time through random mutation and natural selection — that our ancestors are bacteria and our siblings are fish.

We know it happened nonetheless because we have multiple lines of evidence: the fossil record, DNA, morphology, embryology and so on. (We even see evolution in action right in front of our noses. If we couldn’t, we wouldn’t be worrying about bird flu.) But to pretend evolution “makes sense” in some ordinary way does our readers a disservice (and too often leads journalists to neglect to mention the evidence at all).

Even this is questionable, it seems to us. A veteran science correspondent like Cole should know by now that the essential problem with evolution, and the reason it is still credibly attacked even by intelligent design advocates as missing part of its modus operandi, is that random mutation is not quite enough to explain evolution. Not, that is, random in the sense of random changes on the molecular level, which could never effectively interact with natural selection. Evolutionists are confident in the truth of their hypothesis, of course, since in outline it explains everything and alternatives explain nothing, but let’s not mislead readers. There is something interesting going on which allows wholesale change above the molecular level, and biologists are struggling to nail it down. To slide past this is to ignore one of the great stories in science today.

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CJR Home » Issues » 2006 »

Columbia Journalism Review

Voices

Weird Science

Why editors must dare to be dumb

By K.C. Cole

Like many beat reporters, science journalists spend a great deal of time educating their editors about the peculiarities of their fields, and by and large those exchanges are not only illuminating but ultimately lead to better stories. But there’s one place we hit a wall.

No, it’s not that editors aren’t smart enough to understand science. Actually, it’s the opposite: they’re too accustomed to being smart, and thus can’t deal with the fact that they don’t understand it. And because they’re uncomfortable feeling confused, readers are left in the dark about a universe of research that eludes easy explanation.

I was discussing this problem recently with a colleague who had been beating his head against the wall for months trying to get a story about a mysterious “dark force” in cosmology past editors at The New Yorker: “They kept saying they didn’t understand it!” he complained. Well, of course they didn’t understand it. Nobody understands it. That’s precisely what makes it so interesting.

In science, feeling confused is essential to progress. An unwillingness to feel lost, in fact, can stop creativity dead in its tracks. A mathematician once told me he thought this was the reason young mathematicians make the big discoveries. Math can be hard, he said, even for the biggest brains around. Mathematicians may spend hours just trying to figure out a line of equations. All the while, they feel dumb and inadequate. Then one day, these young mathematicians become established, become professors, acquire secretaries and offices. They don’t want to feel stupid anymore. And they stop doing great work.

In a way, you can’t really blame either scientists or editors for backing off. Stumbling around in the dark can be dangerous. “By its very nature, the edge of knowledge is at the same time the edge of ignorance,” is how one cosmologist put it. “Many who have visited it have been cut and bloodied by the experience.”

All the more reason it’s so refreshing that readers of science stories don’t seem to mind a bit of confusion — even when the subject matter is difficult or counterintuitive: ten-dimensional space, for example, or fossils for foot-long “bugs” that crawled out of the sea 480 million years ago. Every science writer I know has had the experience of readers coming up to them and saying: “Gee, that was fascinating; I didn’t understand it, but I’ve been thinking about it all day.” Readers often inquire about books where they can read further on a subject, or even primary sources.

Editors, however, seem to absorb difficulty differently. If they don’t understand something, they often think it can’t be right — or that it’s not worth writing about. Either the writers aren’t being clear (which, of course, may be the case), or the scientists don’t know what they’re talking about (in some cases, a given).

Why the difference? My theory is that editors of newspapers and other major periodicals are not just ordinary folk. They tend to be very accomplished people. They’re used to being the smartest guys in the room. So science makes them squirm. And because they can’t bear to feel dumb, science coverage suffers.

So what is it about science that makes them uneasy? Surely it is more than the obvious fact that it’s hard to understand things that aren’t (yet) understood. In science it can be just as hard to understand what is understood. Relativity and quantum mechanics have been around for nearly a century, yet they remain confusing in some sense even to those who understand these theories well. We know they’re correct because they’ve been tested so thoroughly in so many ways. But they still don’t make sense.

On the other hand, why should they? Humans evolved to procreate, eat, and avoid getting eaten. The fact that we have learned to understand what atoms are all about or what the universe was back to a nanosecond after its birth is literally unbelievable. But the universe doesn’t care what we can or cannot believe. It doesn’t speak our language, so there’s no reason it should “make sense.”

That’s why science depends on evidence.

In fact, this is one place in which the intelligent-design people have a point. It is unfathomable that complex life forms evolved in tiny increments over time through random mutation and natural selection — that our ancestors are bacteria and our siblings are fish.

We know it happened nonetheless because we have multiple lines of evidence: the fossil record, DNA, morphology, embryology and so on. (We even see evolution in action right in front of our noses. If we couldn’t, we wouldn’t be worrying about bird flu.) But to pretend evolution “makes sense” in some ordinary way does our readers a disservice (and too often leads journalists to neglect to mention the evidence at all).

Science muddles our minds in many other ways as well. For example, much of it deals with essentially invisible things. I once had a hard time convincing an editor of the reality of curved space-time (Einstein’s extremely well-tested explanation of gravity) because, she said, “You can’t see it.” Actually, you can see it — among other ways, through gravitational “lenses” that bend light just the way the lens in a camera does.

Science is also innately uncertain. What makes science strong is that these uncertainties are out there in the open, spelled out and quantified.

It’s essential to know not only what scientists know, but also what they know they don’t know. This is an unfamiliar concept to editors used to dealing with politics or sports.

And then there’s the fact that data are always to a certain extent ambiguous. Translating the behavior of retroviruses or superconductors into words takes a lot of interpreting — even for scientists. There may be more than one correct answer. Or no description in lay language may be able to do justice to the subject at hand.

For all these reasons and more, good science journalists know that if they’re not dealing with subject matter that makes them dizzy, they’re probably not doing their jobs.

The best editors understand all this. As for the rest, perhaps Weird Al said it best: sometimes you just need to “dare to be stupid.”

A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, K.C. Cole teaches science journalism at the University of Southern California. Her latest book is Mind Over Matter: Conversations with the Cosmos.

5 Responses to “K. C. Cole explains why mainstream editors can’t handle science”

  1. Martin Kessler Says:

    I don’t think you get it (maybe you do and are just trying to be funny) regarding understanding difficult ideas or that evolution theory has been “credibly” attacked. Relativity theory which is a whole lot more complicated has been not only reasonably handled by the press, its critisms have also been handled well also. Relativity theory is a theory because it doesn’t answer everything about the way the universe works. But it as a scientific theory has gone through the hypothesis testing well enough to demonstrate it’s validity withing limitations – obviously – nuclear bombs and reactors have been two of the byproducts of its usefulness. What creationists have done is put up a smoke-screen that fooled ignorant journalists and many lay people into believing there was something “scientific” to it by renaming “it” intelligent design. As though someone or something “designed” complex biological structures. Adaptation is the key word missing from much of creationist jargon. I was watching a PBS science program on creatures of the desert – the script that the narrator was reading mentioned that one of the creatures was designed for that dry hot environment (as opposed to adapted to it). I wonder what that creature was doing when the desert was water. I guess the “designer” put a new “design” in when the water dryed up. Journalists much to my dismay referred to creationism aka intelligent design as a “theory”. This of course elevated creationism to an elite status which a scientific theory is (like relativity or string theory). The funny thing is that those pesky creationists succeeded in getting book publishers to print an evolutionary disclaimer stating that it is just a “theory” as though a theory isn’t as good as or at least no better than their pseudo-scientific ideas.The worst thing about the HIV/AIDS hypothesis is that it hasn’t really been tested – that is why Duesberg said that it has no predictive value (which a real theory has). I believe that the establishment researchers know this which makes them criminals of sorts.

  2. Truthseeker Says:

    Martin, I think you misread what was said, since we agree completely with your rejection of intelligent design as a non-theory which is not worth discussing because there is nothing to discuss, scientifically speaking. We only meant that objections to evolutionary theory as it stands now, as insufficient to explain its complete modus operandi, are valid, although this is trivial because they are widely recognized, and much work has been done on them in the last decade to fill in these gaps. But we were referring to the seemingly miraculous workings of Nature, which remain to be elucidated, not of God and divine intervention, which makes no sense at all when examined. The worst thing about the HIV/AIDS hypothesis is that it hasn’t really been tested – that is why Duesberg said that it has no predictive value (which a real theory has). I believe that the establishment researchers know this which makes them criminals of sorts. Surely it is tested by seeing if any of the predictions that flow from its assumptions have worked out. Duesberg has shown that no major prediction has proved out. For his alternative hypothesis, all predictions have worked out to date.The failure of the HIV=AIDS hypothesis in this regard is so blatant that distorting the picture to pretend it has worked out is properly defined as antisocial to the point of criminality, yes, since it has led to needless sickness and death, so criminal seems the right term, we agree.What punishment do you think it deserves? Their defenses will be, we didn’t know, we made an understandable mistake, everyone we knew agreed with us, the political leadership and the journal editors endorsed it, and no one respectable disagreed with it as far as we knew, we just followed orders.Can’t blame them, right? Just an unfortunate error.

  3. Michael David Says:

    Very well put, the both of you. Sadly they will never be brought to trial, which is why they must be destroyed by whatever means necessary and at our disposal. For now, that means the web, used as creatively as possible, since the major journals and media are locked up tighter than Aphrodite and Ares. Good luck.

  4. Truthseeker Says:

    Alert! Positive comment from the Dr! But though we appreciate that departure from the norm from the arbiter of quality in this field, we need an answer to our question.

    What punishment is appropriate at Nuremberg II, Judge?

    Twenty years of HAART with no plastic surgery to correct the wasted face and the buffalo hump at the base of the neck, not to mention the scraggly limbs and the enlarged fat around the abdomen, the severe diarrhoea, the nausea and vomiting, the heartburn and reflux, the flatulence, the stomach pain, the cramps, the high cholesterol and the heart attacks, and the eventual need for a liver transplant, unfortunately not available?

  5. david burd Says:

    Why in the world does The Group For the Scientific Reappraisal Of The Hiv-AIDS Hypothesis, now titled Rethinking AIDS, The Group For the Scientific Reappraisal, not get mentioned by articles featuring Duesberg??! Most all just mention Duesberg without citing his prestigeous Group allies such as Drs.Gordon Stewart, Kary Mullis, Charles Thomas, Phillip Johnson, Etienne deHarven, the late Alfred Hassig, Richard Strohman, Serge Lang, The Perth Group comprising Drs. Val Turner and Eleni Eleopulos Papadopulos, and other luminaries such as Drs. Harry Rubin and Havey Bialy? The whole publicity problem is that even articles citing Duesberg fail to mention his tremendous number of supporters with all their published evidence.

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