Readers tune out as journalism loses its rigour
Vancouver Courier
August 9, 1998

One of the biggest newsmakers today is the news. In the last couple of months, a Boston Globe columnist was found to have fabricated information and CNN was forced to repudiate a major investigative story. The story of Operation Tailwind, about the use of sarin nerve gas by U.S. forces in Laos in 1970, was found to be entirely unsubstantiated. The fallout of this admission is especially embarrassing: If the great all-news network can’t get it right, who can?

If the media aren’t making gross blunders, the way they report and select the news is breeding public apathy and cynicism. For months, obscenely excessive coverage of Monica Lewinsky has been blowing President Bill Clinton’s sex habits out of all proportion. How much has the American public tuned out the subject? Seventy percent still support him, even though they may not believe him.

The pejorative term “infotainment” was coined for good reason. The more news approaches entertainment, the less substantial it becomes. Thomas Jefferson said that the best guarantee of a democracy is an informed electorate, but how informed can an electorate be if it tunes out the information?

A July 20 Newsweek poll found that 49 per cent of Americans felt that media mergers compromised the accuracy and quality of news reporting, and 55 per cent thought news organizations were often inaccurate. It’s unfortunate that Newsweek didn’t consider its own poll before it ran Sharon Begley’s cover story “Science finds God,” which appeared in the same issue.

This story’s shortcomings may not be as scandalous as those of the CNN or Boston Globe disasters, but it’s laziness and banality nonetheless reflects the declining quality of serious journalism. The idea that some scientists believe in God or are awed by the inexplicability of certain things is neither interesting nor novel. A healthy regard for the limits of empirical research is expected of every scientist.

Scientists who insist that everything is knowable and that science can do anything are guilty of the same hubris as the religious zealot. The great gift of the Enlightenment was the freeing of knowledge from the fetters of religious superstition. This was the task Immanuel Kant set for himself in his 1781 masterpiece The Critique of Pure Reason.

He considered both religion and science to be important but knew that they could not influence each other. “I had to set limits to knowledge to make room for faith,” he said. After all, the laws of nature are the same whether one is atheist or Baptist. Modern science must be dispassionate and impersonal because it is concerned only with the physical world and how it works.

Why Begley was assigned this subject is a mystery. Her beat is science— astronomy, stellar evolution, space technology, new solar systems and such. Religion and ethics are covered quite adequately by reporter Kenneth L. Woodward, whose efforts have focused on Mary’s place within the Church; public attitudes toward prayer and belief; and the power of religion to help inner-city youth.

Forcing science and God (read: Jesus Christ) to fit together and deducing God’s existence form scientific enquiry merely serve to perpetuate the world’s most sterile debate, the debate that Kant successfully debunked. The most Begley is entitled to say is that scientists are discovering a respect for spirituality, but this is trite and therefore not newsworthy.

Not only is “Science finds God” conceptually flawed, it’s rife with self-contradiction. In fact, Begley does a better job of undermining the story’s premise than marshalling competent arguments in its favour. Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society rightly points out that science is a method, not a body of knowledge, and since God is a singularly unscientific concept, this fact alone should have told Begley the story was not on a sound footing.

In fact, the various newly religious scientists interviewed for the story do much to prove Shermer’s position. Biochemist-cum-priest Arthur Peacocke “infers” from evolution that God chose “to limit his omnipotence and omniscience.” One paragraph earlier, Begley noted that science “cannot prove” the existence of God. How then, can a scientist like Peacocke claim to make any positive statement about God? Also, how can an omnipotent being be limited?

From the story we learn that the motive behind this new-found need for God has nothing to do with science and everything to do with personal insecurity and circular reasoning. In a sidebar, astronomer S. Jocelyn Bell Burnell tells us she turned to God because she doesn’t like living in a an impersonal universe. As Begley writes, “She wills herself to accept Christian theology… because the absence of belief is too lonely and frightening a prospect.” God as an emotional crutch is hardly a fit subject for scientific discussion.

However, the most unforgivable part of the story is the attempt by some scientist-theologians to find a parallel between Jesus Christ and quantum physics. Just as light can simultaneously be both a wave and a particle, they say, Jesus can be both human and divine. Not only is this a grievous non sequitur, it’s likely the product of a linguistic fallacy.

In ancient Greek, the word pais meant “servant” or “child.” Thus, Jesus may well have been a servant of God, but the idea of him being the Son of God could be a matter of mistranslation. It wouldn’t be the first such error. The ancient Aramaic word for “rope” and “camel” is nearly identical, and the Bible tells us that a rich man has as much chance of entering heaven as a camel does of passing through the eye of a needle. Hmm.

At any rate, the attempt to read Jesus into science is unworthy of scientists, yet little attempt is made to hold these arguments up to scrutiny. One may certainly be a scientist and a believer, but to assume a connection between science and God is to confuse fact with metaphor and rationalizations.

Begley does her readers a disservice by not making this point clear. The result is something closer to infotainment than news, and another example of how facile journalism has become.