This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.
President Harry Truman is alleged to have said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Though it is unclear to whom the aphorism should actually be attributed, there is no doubting its veracity. The truth of the statement, however, extends far beyond DC and politics. Just ask a journalist.
I have warned prospective journalists that you do not go into the field to make friends. The American public has a particularly low opinion of newspaper journalists and TV reporters; according to Gallup, only about 20% give both groups a rating of “very high” or “high” for honesty. Notably, that’s still 2.5 times higher than the rating given to Congressmen. (In your face, Congress!)
To an extent, such a dismal reputation has been earned. Far too many news outlets engage in advocacy journalism, and others are so politically skewed one direction or the other that truth takes a back seat to partisanship.
Here at RealClearScience, we are trying our absolute hardest to rehabilitate the reputation of journalism, specifically science journalism. Previously, I have noted the politically one-sided nature of science journalism. The science media regularly looks the other way when Democrats endorse anti-science policies, and it was clear that many science journalists in 2012 were openly rooting for President Obama. Even worse, political correctness continues to trump actual science, even among science journalists.
RCS has a very different philosophy. For starters, we did not endorse anybody in 2012 because we felt neither President Obama nor Governor Romney deserved our endorsement. In an effort to promote full disclosure, we have openly and unashamedly published our editorial positions. And, most importantly, we promise to strive to deliver news and opinion that is based solely upon the most up-to-date science.
Yet, that mission does not please everybody. We read email and social media. We have upset a lot of people.
In October 2013, RCS assistant editor Ross Pomeroy wrote an article titled, “Massive Review Reveals Consensus on GMO Safety,” which was based on a literature review that examined 1,783 GMO-related documents. This comment is typical of the criticism we receive on anything related to GMOs:
Did Monsanto write this article for you or did they pay you to write it?
This is infuriating. We would rather be called a series of four-letter words than to be accused of corruption. It is thoroughly indecent to make such an accusation, yet we are subject to this sort of defamation on a regular basis. And to answer the question directly, no. We are not paid by Monsanto, and neither were the authors of the review. Personally, as a PhD microbiologist, I have been pro-GMO before most people knew what GMOs were.
In February 2014, our physics blogger, Tom Hartsfield, wrote an article titled, “Cool Down, Climate Alarmists and Skeptics!” which called for an end to the extreme polarization in the climate change debate. The truth, he maintained, rests somewhere in between hoax and apocalypse. His calm, even-handed article elicited these responses:
#1. Communism will embrace any propaganda to forward it’s expansion. AGW is a perfect vehicle for the forces to control the conversation and usurp political power… They use contrived consensus to quiet dissent. Directly from Stalin’s playlist.
#2. There is a pattern. Every couple of days, the Real Clear website posts an article on Climate [sic] change. Most articles deny the existence of Climate [sic] change.
#3. No, I will not stop demonizing the shameless frauds who have been beating me up and demonizing me for more than 20 years. The wheels are falling off their theory and [sic] intend to enjoy every moment of watching them squirm.
#4. The author of this article is a student, not even a working scientist — he is listed as a “PhD candidate.” Not exactly an authority who should be advising the public about policy or much of anything else.
It is difficult to believe that comments #1 and #2 were for the exact same article. Commenter #1 argues that, by accepting anthropogenic climate change, RCS is enabling a global communist regime, while Commenter #2 is accusing RCS of being climate change deniers. Commenter #3 rejects Mr. Hartsfield’s call for peace and instead embraces hatred and demonization of political adversaries. And Commenter #4 doesn’t seem to understand what a PhD student actually does.
It is worth further elaborating on comment #4. A few days ago, I was a guest on the Michael Medved Show. A caller told me that I had been “educated to imbecility.” In other words, scientists are so educated, they have become stupid. The willingness of many of our fellow Americans to mock academics and educated people — while unabashedly embracing and revering ignorance — is troubling, to put it mildly.
Last week, I wrote a provocative piece in USA Today titled, “Jail ‘Anti-Vax’ Parents,” in which I argue that refusing vaccination for your child on “philosophical” grounds is tantamount to child abuse and reckless endangerment. To clarify, I do not endorse prison, but — as a last resort — a weekend in the local jail while the health authorities vaccinate the kids. Just like drunken drivers, anti-vaxxers pose a serious threat to public safety, and there ought to be serious consequences. Why? Because your right to be sick ends where my right to be healthy begins.
I have never received so much hate mail in my life. Here is just a small (but representative) sample:
Your right to not have your face punched in ends when you infringe our rights. (Posted with a photograph of a militant pointing a gun at the screen.)
I’d love to run into him in a dark alley, let’s say that.
You fascist scumfu**.
Measles outbreaks [sic] they got it from the vaccine you moron.
hey Alex go f*** yourself. You NWO shill pos. (For the uninitiated, NWO = New World Order, a mass conspiracy by global elites to take over the world and implement a one-world government. POS = piece of sh**.)
If I was driving and you were in the road, my car would have a simultaneous brake failure and stuck throttle failure, and you would be a distant memory. We don’t need more Hitlers, [sic] do us the favor of having to put you out of your misery, and overdose on a lethal dose of your vaccines.
Die mother f***er.
The last comment was pithy, at least.
Sadly, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. By now, we have received literally thousands of pieces of hate mail. When I gripe about this to friends and colleagues, I usually get the same answer: It’s part of the job.
However, in my opinion, the fact that such abuse is simply accepted as a “normal” part of the job says something very sad about our culture. The Internet, which is one of the greatest achievements of mankind, is simultaneously one of its biggest failures. It seems for every message of love, you can find ten of hate and ridicule. The anonymity of the Internet has brought out the worst in all of us.
If there is anything to be learned from internet communication, let it be this: Regardless if you are emailing a friend, a bitter enemy, or even a lowly journalist, always remember that there is a human being on the other side of the computer screen.