In the Guardian on Thursday, Martin Robbins (sadly, not Marty Robbins — that would be cool) writes about the paucity of actual scientists in BBC reporting on, errr, science. The column is strong and outraged, as it might well be. As he observes, ‘All political questions lie at least partly within the domain of scientific or empirical study, but the idea that policy might actually have something to do with “facts”or “evidence” is one of the biggest taboos in modern politics.’ Hear, hear!
My cavil — and you knew there would be one — arises just at the point where science and its allies want both to be represented in public discourse, and to have a privileged prerogative to determine what counts as a fact. Wait, wait: I’m not defending creationism or climate-change deniers. I am, though, underscoring the problem that the status of ‘factuality’ is never quite as clear-cut as one might like, especially with regard to controverted facts, especially when lay mediators have to report on these matters of scientific fact. And especially especially when a particular, limited cadre of people hold the letters patent to determine which are the facts that must be reported, and which the follies that should be ignored.
There’s no need to trot out the cases in which scientific knowledge underwent convulsive change (nor to explain that in every such case, it was actually scientific process that brought about the convulsive change, so it’s all really okay, not a problem). The principle is simply that a polis is poorly served by the notion that a particular limited body of spokespeople determine the facts. Who would have been credentialed to name the facts in the days before the Great Recession began a few years ago? The received wisdom from Those Who Should Know held that there was no need to worry, and they had the facts to support their conclusion.
Again, I believe that climate-change science is both sound and urgently important; I am no creationist (old-earth, young-earth, or otherwise); and I encourage a greater representation of articulate, engaging scientists in the media. Go, team!
But at the same time, let’s seek out more than one angle on facts, especially when those other angles have the backing of more than one scientist, especially when the other angles have track records of being grounded in broader scientific reasoning. ‘Scientist’ isn’t a synonym for ‘infallible oracle’; they make mistakes, they change their minds, and so do reporters (who are not less fallible than scientists).
And much the same could be said about theology and theologians, where (in part through an atmosphere cultivated by some spokespeople for science) just about anyone with a cockamamie notion can get coverage, as though their sentimental fancies and conspiracy theories were as noteworthy as a Regius Professor’s deliberations. Scorn from the cultured despisers notwithstanding, there are distinctions in the quality of theological discourse, just as in scientific discourse.
It doesn’t befit the advocates of making those distinctions in one field to disregard them in another.*
* Not accusing Martin Robbins here, but simply taking his column as a point of departure.