Outbreak of Political Correctness in Science Media

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

The American media is widely perceived to lean to the Left. Though most journalists won’t openly admit the fact, it is indisputably true. As reported in the Washington Post, a 2014 study showed that among journalists Democrats outnumber Republicans by four to one. (The exact numbers were: 28.1% Democrat, 7.1% Republican, 50.2% Independent, and 14.6% “other” — whatever that means.) It is impossible to know exactly what to make of the roughly 65% of journalists who refused to put a label on themselves, but it is perhaps safe to assume that Left-leaning independents outnumber Right-leaning independents by the same margin. After all, about 93% of DC-based journalists vote Democrat, and 65% of donations from journalists went to Democrats in 2010.

For science journalists, political affiliation shouldn’t be a problem because the job of a science writer is to report data and facts. Yet, it is a problem. As Hank Campbell and I detailed in our book, Science Left Behind, science journalists are quick to point out unscientific flaws in Republican statements and policies, but shy away from doing the same for Democrats. (Thankfully, this is slowly beginning to change, as more journalists are rebuking Democrats for being opposed to GMOs.)

The left-wing echo chamber that is the modern-day science newsroom has resulted in some very troubling controversies. A recent outbreak of political correctness has resulted in the termination of a Scientific American blogger who committed the unspeakable crime of giving a favorable review to a controversial book on genetics by New York Times writer Nicholas Wade and for defending Richard Feynman against exaggerated accusations of sexism.

Then, the science writing community expressed bewildering outrage over a cover photo from the journal Science that depicted transgendered prostitutes for a special issue about AIDS. Of course, banging a hooker is a risk factor for acquiring HIV, and the spread of HIV via prostitution has become a giant problem in places like China. Initially, the faux outrage was directed at the supposed objectification of women, particularly because the photo does not show their faces. But, the photos were of transgendered individuals, not biological women. Besides, showing their faces surely would have been criticized as a violation of privacy. Either way, Science loses.

Finally, science writer Jeffrey Kluger penned an article titled “The Myth of the Diseased Immigrant” for TIME. In regard to the refugee crisis on the border with Mexico, he provocatively writes:

Now the nativists and xenophobes have played their nastiest — and least surprising — card: the border must be secured and the immigrants sent back because they are, of course, diseased.

In his entire 700-word screed, he states precisely one fact in support of his argument: In most Central American countries, people are vaccinated against measles at higher rates than U.S. citizens. It’s hardly a relevant difference, however; 92% of Americans are vaccinated, while the rate of measles vaccination in Central America ranges from 93% to 99% (with the exception of Costa Rica at 90%).

It’s a little strange that this needs to be pointed out, but measles isn’t the only disease with which we need to be concerned. The World Health Organization estimates that around 2 billion people (nearly 1/3 of the planet) is infected with tuberculosis, a disease that still kills 1.5 to 2 million people annually.

In the U.S., the prevalence (i.e., the proportion of people currently infected) is 4.7 per 100,000, and the incidence (i.e., the rate of new infections) is 3.6 per 100,000. Compare that to Central American countries (all data per 100,000):

Mexico: Prevalence: 33; Incidence: 23
Belize: Prev: 51; Inc: 40
Guatemala: Prev: 110; Inc: 60
Honduras: Prev: 82; Inc: 54
El Salvador: Prev: 34; Inc: 25
Nicaragua: Prev: 55; Inc: 38
Costa Rica: Prev: 12; Inc: 11
Panama: Prev: 64; Inc: 48

The data speaks for itself. Central America has a vastly higher burden of tuberculosis than the U.S. In the worst-case scenario, 90,000 children (mostly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) cross into the country. Based on the prevalence data, we can expect several dozen refugees to be carrying tuberculosis. Fortunately, long-term treatment can cure the disease, so hopefully these kids are being screened properly.

Beyond Central America, many developing countries are veritable Petri dishes of infection. Thankfully, many of the diseases, such as malaria, do not spread from person-to-person. But, some do. Hepatitis B, which is transmitted through body fluids like blood and semen, infects about 240 million people in the world, and more than a quarter of a million die every year. The virus is particularly prevalent in Africa and East Asia.

MERS, the deadly new virus similar to SARS that has killed at least 282 people, has already shown up in the U.S. Granted, the patients were travelers, not immigrants, but the threat is precisely the same. Many experts believe that it is merely a matter of time before Ebola — which has killed more than 600 in the ongoing outbreak in West Africa — turns up in the United States.

Simply put, an increasingly globalized world poses the very realistic threat of exotic diseases coming to the United States. It would be naive and irresponsible to pretend that immigrants, especially those from developing countries, pose absolutely no challenge to our public health system. Yet, that’s what Mr. Kluger implies when he refers to the “myth of the diseased immigrant.” He ought to know better; a brief scan of medical headlines proves he is incorrect.

Mr. Kluger is correct about one thing, however: We shouldn’t fear or demonize immigrants. Any diseases that they might carry are usually curable or at least controllable. That is one of the benefits of living in a fully modern society. Therefore, we can welcome the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses without worrying excessively about any microbes that might be coming along with them.

But, that’s not what Mr. Kluger wrote. Instead, he absurdly claims that “immigrants have more to fear from us than we do from them.” Then, he calls you a xenophobic bigot if you disagree.

Why on earth would a science journalist write such unmitigated nonsense? Could it be because Mr. Kluger places more emphasis on political ideology than on epidemiology and medical microbiology? Could it be because of political correctness? Given the other events this past week, these are tempting explanations.

Unfortunately, political correctness is a disease with no cure.