On common denominators between scientists and journalists: integrity in dealing with complex matters

Since my recent experience in posting a first blog entitled Academic Boycotts, Science and Hypocrisy on Occam’s Corner at The Guardian’s science blogsite, I have spent a good deal of time thinking about the parallels between good scientists and good journalists. The reason for this is that although I am certainly not trained as a journalist, and the views I express are my own and not necessarily an objective worldview (if such a thing truly exists), as a scientist I frequently find myself having to deal with complex issues. And yet to my astonishment, I found comments from some bloggers, who ostensibly call themselves journalists, refusing to admit that most issues are complex and not merely ‘clear-cut black-and-white’ ones that can be resolved into “the good side and the bad side.”

As scientists, most of us adhere to Occam’s principle, and do our best to sketch the simplest model that will fit our observations. Sometimes the model holds up to many experiments–even a lifetime of experiments. More frequently, however, we scientists need to factor in new data, variables and points, and to expand our model. As the information at our fingertips grows, inevitably our model grows more complex.

In journalism, many of these same principles hold true. The ability to reject simple models as one accumulates more knowledge is crucial in both science and journalism. A scientist who has decided that his/her own model is correct is neither humble nor realistic, and is in danger of making interpretations to fit his model. This can spiral into poor science, or in worse cases, even ethical breaches.

A journalist who ignores the complexities in focusing on a story or issue is in danger or sliding away from journalism to the desperate realm of propaganda.

The issue of boycotting Israeli academics serves as a backdrop for one of the most complex territorial disputes known. While I don’t want to rehash the entire argument against the boycott in my Occam’s Corner piece, I do feel the necessity of pointing out how taking an entirely one-sided approach to such a complex issue is really just espousing propaganda.

As any of you who will have read my blogs over the past year and a half can attest, having frequently rather criticized a variety of Israeli policies including human rights issues on this very site, you will realize that I am not a mouthpiece for the Israeli government. I have always been part of the movement in Israel that supports removal of settlement from Gaza and the West Bank, and I support a fair negotiated solution for a two-state solution. One can lump all Israelis into a single “colonizing entity” of vicious and heartless barbarians–as pseudo-journalists may do–but this is a wholly unrealistic depiction of a hugely complex situation.

The view held by the current Israeli government is wrong. The government  does not seem interested in relinquishing territories, and continues to support the presence of Israelis in the territories–which is not only wrong, but bad for Israel in many ways. As for the rest of the Israeli population- the views vary greatly. Terror attacks on Israel and Israelis push people to stances that oppose territorial concessions. How? When Israel pulled out of Gaza, the takeover of that strip of land by Hamas and their insistence on attempts to eradicate Israel’s existence and continuous firing of indiscriminate rockets on Israeli civilian towns is fodder for Israeli right wingers who can then maintain that this will happen in central Israel too if more territories are conceded. But then, groups like Hamas don’t really want a peaceful two-state solution; their goal is the obliteration of Israel. Perhaps journalistic-propagandists have similar goals? Send the Jews, all 7 million of them, back to Europe and N. Africa, where they have been harassed for centuries, and their existence in Europe nearly wiped out by the Holocaust. This is also wholly unrealistic, and perpetuating this type of mythical future event, the dispersal of Jews from Israel, will not help the Palestinian cause.

In examining how one-sided and simplistic propagandists try to make the scenario: the big bad Israelis vs the hapless helpless victims (and yes there is some truth in that), the key technique used by such propagandists is ignoring anything that doesn’t fit the model. Just as bad scientists do.

For example, regardless of how the Middle East got to its miserable situation today, propagandists will have you believe that Israel is entirely at fault. That the conquering of the West Bank and it’s colonization (wrong and bad for Israel, I fully admit) is the ONLY cause of the trouble. This is simply not backed up by facts. At the very least, one needs to remember that these territories were conquered because Israel’s neighboring Arab states never accepted the 1947 UN mandate for the creation of two states, and incessantly shelled and attacked Israel. Shelled and attacked Israel that had not yet conquered the West Bank. So attempts to convince Israelis that it’s only the West Bank that is a barrier to peace clearly ignores facts and data.

I could go on with tens or hundreds of examples of how the situation in the Middle East is a complex and complicated affair–but I won’t. World events such as attacks on embassies, riots, and the recent violence spreading across countries in the Middle East further depict a complex and difficult scenario.

Israel is no different in its complexity. There are huge disparities in wealth, and education within the country. The citizens are polarized between “right and left,” and between secular and religious. And everything in between. There is no typical Israeli. To arrive at a conclusion that Israeli universities are “complicit with occupation” is truly a ridiculous comment. Yes, there are isolated instances where Israeli scientists have developed equipment used by Israel’s military– as propagandists will likely point out. But Israel’s military defends the country against existential threats from a dozen surrounding countries, some of which vow even today to wipe Israel off the map. Can one deny any country the opportunity to prepare itself against such existential threats?

Any scientist worth his or her NaCl will admit that in vitro experiments carried out in test tubes, essentially in a vacuum, can be informative. But the same scientist will also agree that in order to see if the model fits overall, one needs to to look at the greater context. Typically this will involve experiments done in cells, or even living organisms. Ignoring the context makes for bad science. And in journalism it makes for bad propaganda.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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3 Responses to On common denominators between scientists and journalists: integrity in dealing with complex matters

  1. cromercrox says:

    The elephant in the room is ‘antisemitism’. Because Israel is (to use the BBC’s charming phrase) ‘The Jewish State’, the intensity of hatred towards Israel is far greater than for any other nation involved in a territorial dispute. There are still people who think of us Jews as having a distinct smell, if not actually horns and a forked tail, and among the Left – that bunch of hypocrites so quick to remind you of their self-importance in espousing the causes of any interest-group, whether that group wants its support or not – antisemitism is deeply ingrained. Antisemitism is the unconscious bias that dare not speak its name.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I don’t disagree with you, Henry. Not that antisemitism and racism don’t exist in the US, but my experiences here in the US over the past 12 years are remarkably positive, and I do feel that there is extensive tolerance for other religions, cultures, nationalities, races, etc.

      In this comment, my goal was not to focus on the root cause of “journalistic bias” (or in the case I refer to, more accurately, propaganda) but rather to portray how it such bias unethically ignores complex situations and a variety of facts. My point specifically was that if we scientists did that, our work would end up in the annals of poor science.

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