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The Politicization of Science in the Media

The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect strikes again

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Via RealClearScience today comes a stark reminder that there is literally no such thing about which the media is a truly objective reporter these days. It reminds me yet again of this quote from the late great Michael Crichton about the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

We are all by now conditioned to accept the fact that when the media reports about politics, they are likely doing so from a left-leaning angle. It’s long past time we realized that the media is perhaps at its least insidious when reporting about politics. After years and years reading sports media, it is blatantly obvious to me that sportswriters are lazier, less intelligent, and more liberal by and large than their political news counterparts. And now the problem has very obviously crept in to science reporting, with predictable results.

Alex Berezow notes today three instances of enforcement of left-wing orthodoxy in scientific journals, two of which bear special mention here because the orthodoxy in question runs contrary to verifiable scientific fact. The first concerns the journal Science, which depicted the bodies (but not faces, for privacy reasons) of transgendered prostitutes for a special issue about AIDS. A sampling of the condemnation can be found here and here. As Berezow notes, actual science confirms that Science magazine had a point, but left wing orthodoxy intervened:

Of course, banging a hooker is a risk factor for acquiring HIV, and the spread of HIV via prostitution has become a giant problem in places like China. Initially, the faux outrage was directed at the supposed objectification of women, particularly because the photo does not show their faces. But, the photos were of transgendered individuals, not biological women. Besides, showing their faces surely would have been criticized as a violation of privacy. Either way, Science loses.

This particular episode is alarming for a number of reasons. Even if you are a dedicated proponent of the camp that people should be allowed to do more or less as they please from a sexual standpoint, you should be in favor at the very least of the public having maximum free information at their fingertips about the health related consequences of those choices. Study after study has shown that certain sexual behaviors carry increased risk of negative health outcomes, to the point that it is not a matter of actual scientific controversy at all. Yet, it has become so politically taboo to criticize sexual behaviors at all that you cannot even apparently print scientifically verifiable warnings about the dangers associated with them without being shouted down in the alleged name of science. Neither the public nor the scientific community is well served by this.

The final example noted by Berezow is this insane article by Jeffrey Kluger of TIME entitled “The Myth of the Diseased Immigrant” which purports to show that immigrants in general do not present an increased risk to our health system. This is a good idea in theory; in reality it is demonstrably false. Both the prevalence and incidence of diseases like Tuberculosis, Hepatitis B, and MERS are markedly higher in almost all of the countries of origin of some of the most common feeder countries. Unsurprisingly, Kluger cites no actual data in support of his claim other than the fact that most central American countries are vaccinated against measles.

As Berezow notes, the fact that America is a developed nation means that we are in a position to effectively handle the challenge presented, but that is a completely different suggestion from saying that we should pretend that the problem does not exist:

Simply put, an increasingly globalized world poses the very realistic threat of exotic diseases coming to the United States. It would be naive and irresponsible to pretend that immigrants, especially those from developing countries, pose absolutely no challenge to our public health system. Yet, that’s what Mr. Kluger implies when he refers to the “myth of the diseased immigrant.” He ought to know better; a brief scan of medical headlines proves he is incorrect.

Mr. Kluger is correct about one thing, however: We shouldn’t fear or demonize immigrants. Any diseases that they might carry are usually curable or at least controllable. That is one of the benefits of living in a fully modern society. Therefore, we can welcome the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses without worrying excessively about any microbes that might be coming along with them.

But, that’s not what Mr. Kluger wrote. Instead, he absurdly claims that “immigrants have more to fear from us than we do from them.” Then, he calls you a xenophobic bigot if you disagree.

It’s worth remembering that nothing the media reports to you is truly free of its institutional biases – even when it purports to report verifiable scientific fact. This of course has relevance to numerous allegedly scientific debates being held in the media right now touching on both public health issues and “climate change.” Everything – and I mean everything – must be filtered with a health dose of skepticism if it touches the media’s hands.

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