Here’s another outtake from the book. It couldn’t be included for several reasons, but I’m glad to find a home for it here. I thought of it because a friend of a friend made a crack about reading my book to see how ‘balanced’ it was.
Let me pre-empt such talk by saying right now, proudly: My book is not balanced at all, at least not in the sense our media uses when it comes to the Middle East. Unlike most journalists today, I don’t bend over backwards trying to ‘balance’ an apple and an elephant. I simply call it like I see it.
Critique of Pure Balance
If there’s anything living in Palestine has taught me, it’s:
(a) the importance of being balanced and seeing the big picture,
(b) the extreme difficulty of doing so when people you know are suffering and/or your own interests are somehow at stake, and
(c) that when you have a choice between being ‘balanced’ and telling the truth, it’s better to tell the truth.
The following illustrates what I mean by (c).
We feel so ashamed
There’s no easy way to admit this. For years, helpful letter writers told us to stick to science. They pointed out that science and politics don’t mix. They said we should be more balanced in our presentation of such issues as creationism, missile defense and global warming. We resisted their advice and pretended not to be stung by the accusations that the magazine should be renamed Unscientific American, or Scientific Unamerican, or even Unscientific Unamerican. But spring is in the air, and all of nature is turning over a new leaf, so there’s no better time to say: you were right, and we were wrong.
In retrospect, this magazine’s coverage of so-called evolution has been hideously one-sided. For decades, we published articles in every issue that endorsed the ideas of Charles Darwin and his cronies. True, the theory of common descent through natural selection has been called the unifying concept for all of biology and one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time, but that was no excuse to be fanatics about it. Where were the answering articles presenting the powerful case for scientific creationism? Why were we so unwilling to suggest that dinosaurs lived 6,000 years ago or that a cataclysmic flood carved the Grand Canyon? Blame the scientists. They dazzled us with their fancy fossils, their radiocarbon dating and their tens of thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles. As editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence.
Moreover, we shamefully mistreated the Intelligent Design (ID) theorists by lumping them in with creationists. Creationists believe that God designed all life, and that’s a somewhat religious idea. But ID theorists think that at unspecified times some unnamed superpowerful entity designed life, or maybe just some species, or maybe just some of the stuff in cells. That’s what makes ID a superior scientific theory: it doesn’t get bogged down in details.
Good journalism values balance above all else. We owe it to our readers to present everybody’s ideas equally and not to ignore or discredit theories simply because they lack scientifically credible arguments or facts. Nor should we succumb to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or best-selling novelists do. Indeed, if politicians or special-interest groups say things that seem untrue or misleading, our duty as journalists is to quote them without comment or contradiction. To do otherwise would be elitist and therefore wrong. In that spirit, we will end the practice of expressing our own views in this space: an editorial page is no place for opinions.
Get ready for a new Scientific American. No more discussions of how science should inform policy. If the government commits blindly to building an anti-ICBM defense system that can’t work as promised, that will waste tens of billions of taxpayers’ dollars and imperil national security, you won’t hear about it from us. If studies suggest that the administration’s antipollution measures would actually increase the dangerous particulates that people breathe during the next two decades, that’s not our concern. No more discussions of how policies affect science either — so what if the budget for the National Science Foundation is slashed? This magazine will be dedicated purely to science, fair and balanced science, and not just the science that scientists say is science. And it will start on April Fools’ Day.
— The Editors
This article is about junk science, but it works just as well for junk journalism. No serious person would suggest that Scientific American give equal space to creationism and evolutionary theory.
And no serious person should suggest that newspapers print every official statement made by the Israeli government and army without comment regardless of its merit and leave out or downplay the testimony of their victims, so that it sounds like both sides are ‘equally wrong’ (at best). But that’s precisely what our pistol-whipped media does these days.
To paraphrase the above article, “As journalists, we have no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence.”
As journalists, maybe we don’t. Maybe our business is to enjoy our job security by deferring to current standards of journalistic orthodoxy.
But as human beings, we do. It would have been a crime of omission to be ‘fair and balanced’ about the views of both the powerful and the oppressed regarding issues like Apartheid, slavery, and women’s rights. Inaction and obfuscation favor the powerful, and it escapes me how that can be called ‘balanced’ when time heavily favors the oppressors and justice demands action. And the most basic human action in the service of justice is telling the truth.
Israeli historian Ilan Pappe once said in an interview:
“Every so often there is a bold crew of Israeli journalists who will film something. One such crew had heard that some of the Israeli soldiers at the Erez checkpoint (Erez is the highly militarized checkpoint which is the sole entry and exit point to the Gaza strip) were playing a game of roulette with the lives of Palestinians. This was a time when a very small number of Palestinians were being allowed to enter Israel through the checkpoint in order to go to work. The gate at the Erez checkpoint is an electric fence, with interlocking ‘teeth’ that make a complete seal, controlled by remote control. The soldiers would play a game to see if they could catch a Palestinian worker in the gate. One worker had died this way. The film crew investigated and filmed the game being played in secret.
“When the film was broadcast, the studio got hundreds of letters protesting that the crew should not have filmed this, that it was helping the enemy and sapping the morale of our soldiers when they need support! This is another way of denial, of not facing the barbarization of society. This is very similar to the American public reaction to what happened in Abu Ghraib.”
When I lived in Palestine, I engaged in an email correspondence with another white person living in another Muslim country. Here’s my favorite of our exchanges:
I used to think CNN was just a shade below God. I lost my blind faith in God when I was 15, but it took until I was 23 to lose all faith in CNN. All it took was a trip to the Middle East.
Oddly enough, it was even more upsetting to lose faith in CNN than in God. Because many intellectual people whom I respect a lot still believe that CNN is authoritative, and the things I’ve seen with my own eyes must be wrong because they contradict CNN. (Kind of like the people who think evolution must be wrong because it contradicts the Bible.)
Even religious people will sometimes indulge you in a spirited debate about the existence of God. But when you try to tell ordinary upstanding citizens that Israeli soldiers and settlers deliberately target Palestinian children with outrageous impunity, or that the Israeli government engages in torture and ethnic cleansing, they look at you like you’re a raving lunatic.
My personal epiphany came when I was about five. My grandmother had taken me to see some gripping Western. When there was a lapse in the action, I looked down, and there, plain to see, were M&Ms that had melted in my hand.
I guess I’ve been a bit of a skeptic ever since.