December 03, 2006

Fabricated but true?

Yesterday, in a post about the curious culture of modern science writing, I wrote:

As I've watched the reaction to Louann Brizendine's book over the past few months, I've concluded that "scientific studies" like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It's only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they're true. For most people, it's only important that they're morally instructive.

What would [various journalists] say, if presented with evidence that they've been peddling falsehoods? I imagine that their reaction would be roughly like that of an Episcopalian Sunday-school teacher, confronted with evidence from DNA phylogeny that the animals of the world could not possibly have gone through the genetic bottleneck required by the story of Noah's ark. I mean, lighten up, man, it's just a story.

From his bunker in Los Angeles, Omri Ceren wrote in response:

CBS invented that response with the post-Killian memo "fabricated but true" argument. You're sounding awful militant there, professor -- thinking of switching over to the other side ;;-) ?

Omri's analogy is an apt one. But in the fall-out from Memogate, CBS News fired Mary Mapes (who produced the offending segment), Betsy West (the Senior Vice President who supervised primetime news programs), Josh Howard (the executive producer of 60 Minutes Wednesday), and Mary Murphy (Howard's second-in-command). And Dan Rather is now exiled to the remotest regions of HDNet.

In contrast, consider the 9/29/2006 segments on ABC's 20/20, titled "The truth behind women's brains" and "Gender myths: let science decide". No one at 20/20 is in even the slightest bit of trouble, although the sheer amount of fabricated evidence presented on those programs was a great deal larger. In fact, the folks responsible for those 20/20 segments probably got praise and credit from their employers, since the pseudo-science of sex differences is a very popular topic, and those segments were effectively presented and presumably got good ratings. The same thing can be said about the dozens, if not hundreds, of editors, producers, pundits, reviewers and reporters who have spread the same fabrications through the global media over the past few months.

My point here is that journalists still maintain the presumption that the news media ought to tell the truth about politics, economics, natural disasters, and so on. If it's shown that fabricated evidence has been presented as if it were true, someone ought to apologize or even get fired. However, it's clear that there's no such presumption in the area of science reporting, even when the issues have major public policy implications. Has any journalist ever been disciplined for publishing a source's fabrications about science, even when a small amount of research would have uncovered the problems? I've never heard of a case. Science writing is treated as a form of popular entertainment, of a vaguely utilitarian sort, and even when articles present quantitative "facts" that are completely fabricated, as has recently become common in the case of the "science" of sex differences, there are no consequences.

(For another example, of many, you could take a look at the infamous "email lowers your IQ twice as much as marijuana does" story.)

With respect to the question of switching sides, we here at Language Log like to think that you can be interested in the truth, independent of your political, cultural and religious allegiances. In the case of the Memogate controversy, we presented our mite on behalf of the truth. 60 Minutes showed the faked documents on 9/8/2004; LGF showed that they were forgeries on 9/9/2004; CBS News continued to defend the authenticity of the documents, vigorously, until 9/20/2004, when (as the wikipedia article puts it) they "stopped defending the documents and began to report on the problems with their story". On 9/22/2004, CBS conceded, in effect, by appointing an independent review panel. We started talking about the story on 9/15/2004 -- we were a bit slow on the uptake, I'll grant -- but our judgment was clear from the start:

"Typography, truth and politics" (9/15/2004)
"You couldn't have a starker contrast" (9/17/2004)
"Little Green Apples at the Blue Moon Bar" (9/24/2004)

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 3, 2006 03:53 PM