You Don’t Always Need to Be Fair and Balanced October 31, 2009

You Don’t Always Need to Be Fair and Balanced

Dan Gilgoff of U.S. News and the God & Country blog recently wrote about Ray Comfort‘s attempt to smuggle Creationism into a bastardized version of On the Origin of Species.

I don’t mind that he’s reporting on that non-story, because there’s an appeal to that story from both sides of that fence — the people who prefer sound science and rational thinking… and the people who agree with Ray Comfort.

When complaints started pouring in that the article about Comfort offered “coverage but no critical commentary,” Gilgoff decided to try something else.

He posted a piece by Comfort explaining why he wrote the prologue to this book. Later, he posted a rebuttal from science advocate Eugenie Scott. They’ll do another round of back-and-forth:

Here’s the first post from Comfort, explaining his new book, which he plans to distribute in the tens of thousands on college campuses. I’ll post a rebuttal from NCSE Executive Director Eugenie Scott later today. Next week, I’ll put up a follow-up post from each. And just a reminder: Neither God & Country nor U.S. News necessarily endorses their views.

This is the wrong way to handle the situation.

I understand the need for journalists to not be biased. But to suggest that there are two sides to this story and that they deserve equal time is ridiculous. Eugenie Scott knows her science. Comfort doesn’t know his.

You don’t give equal time to someone who thinks Obama was born in Kenya and someone who actually knows what he’s talking about. There’s no debate there. You don’t give equal time to a Holocaust denier and someone who experienced it firsthand. There’s no debate there.

It is perfectly fine for U.S. News and Gilgoff’s blog to take a position in this case! Eugenie Scott is not some polar opposite of Ray Comfort. She’s not some minority holding a fringe viewpoint.

She’s the voice of every educated, intelligent, pro-science person whose beliefs are based in reality — she holds the only position in this fake “debate” that is tenable. Why can’t U.S. News take the side of reality?!

Why can’t they simply say that they support her views and not his?

Why can’t they come out and say Comfort makes absolutely no sense and that his views have no foundation to rest upon? (Isn’t that what an actual reporter would write?)

Why do they have to pretend like there are two sides on this issue when there so clearly are not?

It doesn’t matter that there are millions of Americans who agree with Comfort. Every single one of them is deluded on this issue. A good reporter should just acknowledge that.

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  • Annie

    Unfortunately this seems to be an ongoing fight with the media lately. In their desire to be objective they have become unable or unwilling to differentiate between arguments that have merit and those that don’t.

    As long as the religious right can convince the media that they have to present “both sides” of every issue they will continue to win.

  • JD

    Unfortunately, I think the problem is that if your organization clearly take sides, then they may lose the subscriber base that the other side represents, maybe offending a quarter of your audience.

  • Sadly, they do it all the time, especially when it comes to science.
    Look at how they present issues like the ‘link’ between autism and vaccinations.
    Look at how they present any discussions on policy going through the congress.

    The desire to be unbiased doesn’t mean mindless repetition of talking points.

  • I honestly don’t mind Newsweek doing something like this. The best way to discredit someone like Comfort is to simply let him talk for more than 5 minutes. Anyone with half a brain who paid attention during high school science class can clearly see that the man is nuts and has no idea what he is talking about. The fact that they are letting Eugenie Scott rebut him is almost overkill.

  • Miko

    Eugenie Scott is not some polar opposite of Ray Comfort. She’s not some minority holding a fringe viewpoint.

    Isn’t your point based on the idea that the number of people who agree with you is irrelevant to the truth of your position? Who cares if she’s a minority holding a fringe viewpoint or not?

    Anyway, while you’re technically correct, there’s the problem that epistemic issues make putting this into practice difficult. I’d wager that the people who write these stories probably don’t know which side is right. Many of them probably understand science well enough to conjecture that the side that’s survived peer-review is correct, but unless they’ve studied the evidence themselves, they don’t know that it’s correct.

    Take a look at “news” sources we have that do what you’re suggesting (e.g., WND). I’d say having a news source that declares Comfort’s views to be correct and doesn’t bother offering the counterarguments is worse than one that does engage in a tortured form of “objectivity” by presenting both sides.

    You say:

    It is perfectly fine for U.S. News and Gilgoff’s blog to take a position in this case! … Why can’t they simply say that they support her views and not his?

    Would it still be perfectly fine if they said that they support his views and not hers?

    The real danger comes when the correct option is suppressed from the list of alternatives presented. (One sees this most often in political coverage that tends to read as “Democrats say ___ and Republicans say ____” without discussing the possibility and typically near-certainty that both are objectively wrong.) At the end of the day, truth has an inherent advantage over falsehood and I have to believe that people will eventually flock to it if it’s on the market. It’d be great if we could find a procedure for whittling news coverage down to the true bits only, but we need to remember that in this case the potential harm from presenting too few ideas is far greater than the harm from presenting too many.

    That said, in this particular instance, I agree completely.

  • littlejohn

    We should be very careful about criticizing minority viewpoints. In the United States at large, ours is the minority viewpoint. The fact that it is the majority viewpoint among experts isn’t convincing to many people, including many who read news magazines. I’ve worked as a journalist long enough to assure you that a large majority of working journalists are bright enough to know Comfort is wrong, but they know their reading audience well enough not to say so.

  • The issue here is not about which viewpoint is in the minority and should be suppressed.

    The issue is that one of the two viewpoints presented is obviously, demonstrably WRONG. *That’s* why Newsweek should not give it the time of day.

  • Cafeeine

    I think Fox’s subtitle has people thinking that ‘fair and balanced are insoluble. These examples show that sometimes to be fair, you can’t be balanced.

  • Matt D

    I loved Miko’s comment.

    I agree that we might all be better served if the media could present only things that are “true”.

    Unfortunately I think the media’s role is no longer to disseminate facts and truths. it’s a ratings game, with the only priority being to win the war to capture advertising spend.

    Mainstream media cant afford to offend anybody, so they present a mixture of non-news and overly PC debates, giving voice to anybody who seems to represent a reasonable number of media consumers.

    sounds a lot like politics really.

    if you want some truth in your media diet then you have to go online – then you can find any “truth” that you like!

  • I haven’t followed the story on Ray’s version very closely. In reading Dr. Scott’s rebuttal I’m immensely disturbed to find that not only did Ray write an intro, but 4 chapters were removed altogether! Memory hole, anyone?

    So you not only get to add to a book to cast a shadow on its contents but you get to change the contents by cutting things out? I’m publishing my own version of the bible. I’m going to buy a bunch of blank journals and write “holy bible” on the cover. That should do it.

  • Brad

    How do you know that you are not the one who is deluded… Science itself, can’t prove the non-existence of God, it may postulate but can never prove.

    If you possess half of all the knowledge in the world, how do you know that the knowledge about God is not in the other half?

    Science does not contradict God, nor can it. Man’s theories may contradict him in the name of science, but it is not science that is at fault, it is their application of science.

  • I am not deluded. I just don’t find it rational or reasonable to say “god did it” every time there is a question without an answer. If I do that, then I am not doing science. As Dr. Scott has said in the past, science is agnostic toward god. You’re right, science is concerned with the natural, not the supernatural. The purpose of science has never been to disprove god. But at every turn science is finding answers to questions that religion used to claim ownership of. Science has moved into areas of knowledge never imagined by theologians. Frankly, I think that scares the crap out of them.

    Evolution is science and there is mountains of data and observation to prove it. Darwin did not try to answer the question about the origin of life. He was interested in the diversity of it. The origin is a question that we haven’t answered yet.

    Science is ok with saying “I don’t know.” That drives progress in science, finding new questions and new ways to answer those questions.

    Faith can never prove god’s existence either, but faith doesn’t care. The very definition of faith is to believe something without any evidence whatsoever. I have been netter served in my life by reason.

  • Baconsbud

    Brad think about what you are asking. How many times in any classes you have attended have they asked you to prove the negative? You say that science can’t prove doesn’t god exist but can science prove he does exist. It seems you are on the edge of what is the truth and you have to decide if you want to believe something because you have evidence it is or because you have faith it is. Since I have no idea of what you have been told in your upbringing I can’t say where you might want to look for answers but until you are willing to look at everything the same and base your beliefs on what does the most good around you, I would say you need to question those around you.

  • Jen

    As an atheist, I never am sure how to deal with Ray Comfort. I can see why PZ talks about him regularly, as RC is a nut. However, the Atheists of Austin, and specifically Matt, have pointed out that paying attention to him even a little gives him the life-giving attention he so clearly craves. Given that he is going to keep seeking attention, I have to just look at this at as a reason for some middle-of-the-roaders to meet Eugenie, who is about the nicest A-list atheist who always gives an awesome interview.

  • muggle

    My first impulse was to say remind me not to read US News.

    However, on thinking it over (and reading some of the other comments), I’ve got to say maybe they’re using the right approach.

    Ray Comfort may get people to follow this who don’t even know who Eugenie Scott is. It may open some minds to maybe he isn’t that smart after all. Or it may at least just expose them to some facts they didn’t know.

    At the very least, it’s gonna be controversial enough to draw attention to the issue (and the butcher job done to the book) that just giving Eugenie Scott’s side wouldn’t do. Comfort is hoping to to fool people, obviously. This will make it a bit harder.

    The more exposure to his atrocity on this matter the better, even if it does keep that fool gloating in the spotlight he craves with adoring pretty boys like his cohort gazing lovingly at him.

  • Maybe I’m picky, but it’s the US News and World Report. Not Newsweek.

    Maybe the flaw in the reasoning of “balance” is that the average reader will be able to sort the real from the fantasy. This isn’t necessarily the case.

  • Maybe I’m picky, but it’s the US News and World Report. Not Newsweek.

    Thanks, Justin. I’ve fixed it!

  • JimboB

    So, why don’t we make up a bastardized copy of the bible, with a 50-page “introduction” that completely dismisses the content of the entire book?

    I suppose that would be petty… and Ray Comfort-ish…


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