Why Journalists Interview the Loonies

Watch for my weekly column to appear tomorrow. In the afternoon I leave for Penn State University, where I’ll be interviewing various scientists about evolution and talking to biologist Andrew Read’s class in science for non-majors. He asked me address the following questions:

- how you balance stories esp when one side is loony
- how do you do complexities in 200 words - e.g. complex non-science implications, or the science itself is complex
- health stories
- you could also talk about the Mike Mann saga - how you handled that etc. 
- why you do an evolution column
- what are the main challenges for science journalists?
- if you guys are doing such a good job, why is the standard of public discourse in science so poor?

I have some ideas for answering the first question. We journalists usually do interview the creationists, or the UFO abductees, the quack medicine peddlers and other hucksters. We do it to tell a complete story and make sure we aren’t basing anything on faulty assumptions. We can't get away with just calling someone a liar or a loony. We have to show it.

Journalists often get criticized for presenting both sides with equal weight when one side is wacky. And it's true that being too even-handed can lead to what a journalist friend of mine used to call a “Thumb Sucker”. That was his term for a story that wavers from one side to the other without drawing a conclusion or advancing an argument.

Presenting all sides isn’t what makes a story a thumb sucker, however. In fact, it’s imperative that we give people with seemingly loony or dishonest ideas a chance to explain themselves. You never know what they’re going to say. They might say they were on crack, or they were paid to promote creationism/homeopathy/magnet healing, or they were misquoted, or they changed their minds. Anything is possible. If a reporter does enough research, the story should go somewhere, and allow readers to draw some conclusion or at least learn something new.

And you can't debunk something without explaining what the bunk is. In last week's column debunking a Darwin/Hitler connection, I could have just started by saying historian Robert Richards wrote a paper explaining that Darwin had nothing to do with Hitler. Readers would have wondered why Richards was wasting his time, unless I explained that other people were making this claim on popular websites and in "Expelled". 

Read's last question is a little harder. I’m not sure the level of discourse in science is any worse than it was 10 years ago. Is it?  Or does technology simply allow more uninformed opinions to get out in front of more people.