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Why Are Science Reporters So Credulous?

Image: The climax of Wagner's Götterdämmerung, the "Twilight of the Gods," by Max Brückner (1836-1919), printed by Otto Henning, restoration by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The credulousness of science journalists is remarkable. Their reporting, almost as a rule, seems more like they are crafting a press release than objectively probing the claims of their subjects, namely scientists. Although mainstream journalism as a whole has come increasingly to resemble state propaganda, there is at least, sometimes, a semblance of skepticism. What is it, then, with science reporters?

Nicholas Wade is a former science editor for the New York Times, so he might well have some insights on that. Writing for City Journal, he asks, “Journalists, or PR Agents?” The context for his comments is reporting about the origins of the COVID-19 virus. (On that, see Cornelius Hunter, “COVID-19 Meets Intelligent Design,” who also cites Wade.) But what he says applies even more so to reporting on evolution.

“The Temple of Science”

Wade writes, “Unlike most journalists, science writers seldom consider the motives of their sources.” That’s true. But why?

Innocent of most journalists’ skepticism about human motives, science writers regard scientists, their authoritative sources, as too Olympian ever to be moved by trivial matters of self-interest. Their daily job is to relay claims of impressive new discoveries, such as advances toward curing cancer or making paralyzed rats walk. Most of these claims come to nothing — research is not an efficient process — but science writers and scientists alike benefit from creating a stream of pleasant illusions. The journalists get their stories, while media coverage helps researchers attract government grants.

Dulled by the advantages of this collusion, science writers pay little attention to in-house problems that seriously detract from the credibility of the scientific research enterprise, such as the astounding fact that less than half the high-profile findings in some fields can be replicated in other laboratories. Fraud and error in scientific papers are hard to detect, yet nonetheless some 32,000 papers have been retracted for various reasons. The reliability of scientific claims is a formidable problem but one of strangely little interest to many science writers.

If the Covid virus should be found to have indeed escaped from a lab in Wuhan, a tidal wave of public rage may shake the temple of science to its foundations. It’s in reflection of their sources’ interests — though political polarization is also involved — that science writers jump on any evidence favoring natural emergence and ignore everything that points toward a lab leak.

Science writers need to decide whether their duty lies to their readers or to their sources. One choice makes them real journalists, the other just unaccredited PR agents for the scientific community. [Emphasis added.]

They’ve Made Their Choice

Most science reporters who write about evolution appear to have made their choice to be flacks and toadies for the godlike biologists, who are “too Olympian ever to be moved by trivial matters of self-interest.” That an entire field in journalism should be underlain by a such a wild misjudgment about human nature is worthy of note. 

If, or when, design should overtake blind Darwinian processes as the favored explanation for biological complexity, what Nicholas Wade calls the “temple of science” would really and truly be rocked. Regarding the origins of that complexity, protecting “their sources’ interests” explains why reporting about evolutionary biology needs such intense scrutiny.