May 1 2012

Discounting Expertise

How journalism embraces right-wing anti-intellectualism

James Inhofe--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Ars Skeptica

James Inhofe–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Ars Skeptica

From the Scopes trial’s crackdown on Darwinism to William F. Buckley’s famous preference for government by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book over the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty, from columnists George Will (Washington Post, 11/28/10) and Jonah Goldberg (L.A. Times, 8/30/11) lashing out at the “cult of expertise” to Rick Santorum’s rants against universities as “indoctrination centers for the left” (AP, 2/28/12), the American right regularly expresses contempt for expertise, education and other manifestations of “book learnin’.”

As if that’s not damaging enough to public discourse, corporate media outlets often seem to embrace the same anti-intellectual sensibility, frequently featuring inexpert sources on stories about highly technical or specialized issues.

After all, there isn’t a great deal that separates the conservative disdain for expertise and Ted Koppel’s decision to feature Rush Limbaugh in a discussion of ozone depletion on his then-prestigious news program Nightline (2/4/92). “What Rush Limbaugh has done is to breathe new life and controversy into the subject,” Koppel’s intro gushed. Limbaugh, with no understanding of atmospheric chemistry and a record of distorting scientific issues (Extra!, 7-8/94), challenged the overwhelming scientific consensus on the human role in ozone depletion: “There’s no ozone depletion, there’s no crisis. Thanks, Ted.”

Of course, the media don’t permit conservatives a soapbox to utter this kind of mindless drivel on just any old highly specialized issue. No one would dream of asking Limbaugh his views on quantum mechanics. The issue in question must first be politicized by relentless propaganda. Then—voila!—talk radio hosts and conservative activists alike are magically transformed into experts.

In 1985, Koppel featured far-right minister Jerry Falwell in a segment about HIV/AIDS. Falwell was already on the record calling the virus a divine punishment for gay men and asking why people with HIV were not quarantined like infected cattle (PBS’s With God on Our Side, 1996). Falwell’s views flouted the medical consensus on HIV—not to mention common standards of human decency.

In 1991, Koppel hosted Falwell on a Nightline segment (8/30/91) asking the question, “Is homosexuality biological?”

In 2000, Floridian Michael Schiavo was seeking to have his wife Terri removed from a feeding tube. A consensus of more than a dozen doctors caring for Schiavo judged her to be in an irreversible and persistent vegetative state. When her parents objected, a pitched political and legal battle played out in the national media, with several conservative and religious figures questioning the medical consensus on the state of Schiavo’s brain function. Appearing on MSNBC Reports (3/21/05), anti-choice activist Randall Terry contradicted the medical finding, insisting, “This woman does respond to her parents.”

The same day, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough (Scarborough Country, 3/21/05) also questioned the medical diagnosis: “But is she in a vegetative state? Because we hear that she’s in a permanent vegetative state. She can’t respond to anybody. But we’re hearing reports that she’s talking to her parents.”

On CNN (3/18/05), Larry King hosted conservative minister John MacArthur, who suggested the state was killing Schiavo and falsely stated that she’d never had standard diagnostic tests:

In terms of the heart and soul of that woman, she’s never had an MRI, as far as I know, never had CAT scan. The least, in this technological age, we could take a real hard look at her real cognitive character.

The “save Terri” movement not only challenged her medical diagnosis, they falsely argued that hers was a unique case, and that her removal from life support would amount to murder, as religious right broadcaster James Dobson asserted (Hannity & Colmes, 2/24/05). In fact, thousands of Americans are removed from life support annually (Health Matrix, 6/7/06).

A study of Schiavo coverage in the New York Times, Washington Post, Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times, published in the medical journal Neurology (9/23/08), found that even though Schiavo’s condition held no reasonable hope for recovery, a fifth of all articles contained statements suggesting that her condition could improve. In a press release for the study that ran in Science Daily (8/6/08), co-author Eric Racine said, “Our observations show that the press capitalized on the controversy to a large extent, and selling copies mattered more than delivering scientific information.”

In another study in the journal Health Matrix (6/7/06), Joshua E. Perry also faulted media coverage:

Beginning with the 2000 trial and continuing through October 2003, approximately two-thirds of all newspaper stories, including editorials and letters to the editor, and at least 35 television news programs reporting on Mrs. Schiavo’s case framed the discussion in the familiar rhetoric of abortion politics, including references to “murder,” “starvation” or “killing.”

Similar media debates have played out over the years regarding stem cell research, where right-wing pundits and activists argue that adult stem cells are as good as or better than embryonic stem cells for the purposes of science and medicine. On Hannity (5/20/09), ’50s pop star Pat Boone told host Sean Hannity, “Scientists have decided we don’t need embryonic stem cells. We can use adult stem cells for the same purposes.”

Conservative radio hosts, including Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh, were making the same arguments on national radio, while a CBS News Healthwatch story (8/2/10) included Deirdre McQuade, a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, saying that, compared to adult stem cell research, work on embryonic cells had proven “fruitless.”

McQuade’s view is not shared by scientific experts, who say that the two varieties of stem cells are likely useful in different ways (National Institutes of Health, 1/20/11). Nor does McQuade note that while adult stem cells are freely available for research, embryonic stem cells are mostly banned for research purposes, making progress in their applications difficult.

Since experts frequently differ on many issues, obviously they will often be wrong. The problem is that some on the right seem to be making an argument for ignoring the best-informed experts, and corporate media seem to think that this makes sense at some level.

In a muddled column about how experts can actually be wrong—for instance, about the adult moral panic over teen comic book reading in the ’50s—columnist George Will (Washington Post, 11/28/10) singled out progressives and what he called their “faith-based” belief in the “cult of expertise.” It’s fitting that Will should attack experts, considering all he has done over the years to distort the work of the world’s top climate scientists. Will’s loopy utterances on global warming have been well-documented by FAIR Blog (e.g., 4/2/09) and others (Washington Post, 3/1/09), but it hasn’t seemed to diminish his corporate media profile or his talent for crackpot science.

And climate change may be the single issue area where media offer the widest berth to crackpot commentators and activists with no relevant background. After years of politicization by the likes of Will and others, including Limbaugh and Hannity, the media have opened up to such a degree that a U.S. senator who dismisses climate science in favor of the Bible is one of the most quoted sources in stories on climate change.

According to Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.) (Voice of Christian Youth America, 3/7/12), claims of a human role in climate change are a hoax because “God is still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what he is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

And besides, Inhofe stated in a Senate speech (7/28/03), the best climate scientists don’t support the global warming thesis: “I have offered compelling evidence that catastrophic global warming is a hoax. That conclusion is supported by the painstaking work of the nation’s top climate scientists.”

As for those who cite the overwhelming scientific consensus (Skeptical Science, 1/24/12) that says anthropogenic global warming is actually happening, Inhofe (Tulsa World, 7/22/06) says they remind him of “the Third Reich, the Big Lie…. You say something over and over and over and over again, and people will believe it.”

That’s a principle the right is very familiar with.