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The war on science–and the Fairness Doctrine

by Bill Prendergast on March 22, 2012 · 1 comment

From an interview with Shawn Otto, author of
Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.

In your book you discuss the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. We know that repeal of the Fairness Doctrine affected public discourse in the United States. But how did repeal affect the American public’s respect for science and scientific truths?

It was a big part of the terrible slide away from reality and evidence that has happened in our national media.

The Fairness Doctrine was an FCC rule that basically said that in order to use the public airwaves, broadcasters had to cover controversial topics in the public interest, and they had to cover them in a fair and balanced manner, in the judgment of the FCC.

After the repeal shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh realized that they could make huge ratings – and huge piles of cash – by appealing to audiences’ adrenal glands – but by getting them upset and enraged.

Suddenly news was moved into a space where it had to compete with entertainment. Any time that happens, news loses. News often isn’t entertaining, and it isn’t something we turn into because it’s fun. Its job is to tell us – more often than not – things we’d rather not know but ought to know just the same.
This is sometimes justified as “the marketplace of ideas,” but that’s a myth put out there by those on the political right who are anti-regulation and have seen great benefits from the politicization of the media. They use it to confuse politicians and media executives, similar to the strategy of arguing that debate over evolution or climate change is a good idea.

It’s a confusion, again, of knowledge with opinion. There is, in fact, no real “marketplace of ideas” competing for our attention in today’s American news. It’s a marketplace of emotions – and newscasters, forced to compete in the entertainment space, now have to often couch the news using the four horsemen of entertainment – violence, drama, comedy, and sex.

That’s been a disaster for science communication because, like investigative journalism, it’s expensive. So we’ve seen science sections cut all across the country. It’s reaching the point where just about the only place you can get science news these days is on National Public Radio. The AP’s Seth Borenstein does a good job, but we are living in an age when science impacts all of our lives in powerful ways every day.

Almost every major challenge the United States if facing revolves in a very major way around our understanding of science, and yet we live in a time when, ironically, there is very little science coverage left.

That’s a disaster waiting to happen. To return to Jefferson’s dictum that I open the book with: “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” But if the people aren’t even seeing coverage of the real issues that are affecting their lives, and the media is obsessed with buying into the culture wars conflict frame instead of presenting journalism that is instead committed to portraying the truth–we have a major problem for democracy.

It’s reaching crisis proportions. This rhetorical approach of he-said she-said, where you get Brooks and Dionne at a table to argue “both sides” of an issue is BS. It’s given Americans a sense that everything is a political debate and you get at truth using the tools of Aristotlean argument, like dueling lawyers.

But we got over that with Bacon’s Novum Organum in the 1600s when he totally trashed Aristotle and showed how wrong and how authoritarian that approach tends to become – and how divorced from ultimate reality.

Apparently the baby boomers all had crappy civics teachers and have forgotten all this. Or: just because they are such a big population demographic and have always controlled the conversation since their teens, they think that the old rules don’t apply or something.

Look at it this way: here’s what the journalistic approach has become: Bob says 2+2=4.  Julie says no, it’s 6.  The controversy rages.

Here’s science: I can show using these apples that Bob is clearly right and Julie is wrong.  But the journalists (most of whom ducked college science classes, by the way) don’t give any more credence to Bob’s evidence than they do to Julie’s opinion. And so the public dialogue becomes skewed toward extremes and the public loses track of evidence as a criterion for making good policy decisions.

And that’s exactly what’s happening on a wide variety of science-related issues.  Then Congress gets involved and you wind up with a compromise: New Law: 2+2=5.

Fortunately, National Public Radio recently has taken a step – and I applaud this – of getting away from the politically driven, he-said-she-said model of false balance, false journalism, and getting back to the truth based on evidence instead of loudly voiced opinion, emphasizing “impartiality” over “balance.”…  

So there is some hope, and everyone should support public radio and applaud them for this.

Shawn Otto’s blogs:…

Buy the book here:

Vote for the book for the Reader’s Choice award daily through the end of March at…

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