Slate’s Science Page Has Gone Crazy

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Something has happened at Slate. Until relatively recently, Slate‘s science page produced so much amazingly good content that we were tempted to link to them multiple times per day. In our 2013 list of the Top 10 Science News Sites, we awarded them an honorable mention.

But, that was then. Now, for some reason, Slate‘s science page has partially abandoned its strong tradition of in-depth analysis to promote an angry, opinion-driven reportage that is mostly aimed at insulting Republicans and Christians.

This is counterproductive. Science journalism that forsakes its primary mission of science communication to engage in partisan culture wars does a grotesque disservice to the scientific endeavor and is doomed to fail. Just ask ScienceBlogs, which has become a shell of its former self because, as the New York Times described, it became “Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd” that utilized “redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric.” Slate‘s science page is heading toward a similar path.

Take Phil Plait, for example, an accomplished astronomer. When he so chooses, he can be an excellent science communicator. Too often, however, he chooses to be a shrill partisan who is more interested in promoting the Democratic Party than thoughtful science policy analysis. In between posting selfies (Hi Phil! Hi Neil!), he provides readers with one-sided rants about how stupid he thinks Republicans are. That is such a common theme for Dr. Plait that he recently managed to post three such screeds in merely five days.

In the first, he criticizes Rep. Lamar Smith and other Republicans for wanting to cut NASA’s earth science budget. Of course, Dr. Plait’s analysis is tainted by aconflict of interest (since he once worked at NASA and still indirectly makes his living from the institution). He also neglected to mention that, historically, Republicans and Democrats are roughly equally generous in their funding for science. In his second article, he blames Republicans for not taking climate change seriously. Absent from his critique is the fact that when, under President Obama, Democrats had control of the House and a filibuster-proof Senate, they chose to take no action on climate change. In his third piece, Dr. Plait absurdly implies that Louisana students are too uneducated to apply to universities because of the state’s Republican policies on the teaching of evolution and Intelligent Design. Dr. Plait, however, neither shows contempt for the Democratic governor of Kentucky, who approved tax incentives for the Creation Museum, nor for the 27% of Democrats who accept creationism.

Along similar lines, Slate has given a platform for Zack Kopplin, a science activist, to attack the Republican governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal. While I agreewith Mr. Kopplin’s latest piecethat Louisiana ought not promote Intelligent Design (ID) in biology classrooms, his purposeful conflation of creationism and ID is clichéd and tiresome. ID is not creationism. Many people who consider themselves ID advocates accept evolution, often to a fairly large extent. Though Christian biologists (like me) prefer the concept known as theistic evolution and take issue with ID on scientific and theological grounds, it is patently unfair to call ID “creationism.” Referring to it as such betrays either dishonesty or ignorance of ID’s actual claims. And, of course, Mr. Kopplin remains silent about the aforementioned creationists in the Democratic Party.

Finally, Slate has recently published a piece by Dr. Jerry Coyne, an influential evolutionary biologist, about the danger of religious exemptions for vaccinations. He is absolutely correct about this, however the article is also promoting his new book on the incompatibility of science and religion. It’s difficult to accept that an educated person could hold such a belief in the year 2015, particularly because the historical consensus rejects it. Dr. Coyne’s animosity toward religion is so great that it leads him to endorse a revisionist history of science, which Dr. James Hannam, a science historian, and I thoroughly debunked. Furthermore, Dr. Coyne is on the record calling Dr. Francis Collins — one of the most successful living scientists who helped sequence the human genome and currently serves as the director of the NIH — “deeply, deeply superstitious,” and a person whose Christian faith “contaminate[s] his scientific views.”

Yikes. If Dr. Coyne had said that about any other religion besides Christianity, he’d be ridiculed as a bigot. Despite that, Slate has given him a pedestal from which he can proclaim what is essentially a fringe minority viewpoint.

The pattern is clear: Slate‘s science page has decided to single out Republicans and Christians for scolding, while ignoring the plethora of anti-science beliefs that come from Democrats and (yes, even) atheists. If their goal is to educate the public about science, this is a terrible way to accomplish it.

Now, wait a second, some of you may be thinking. Doesn’t RealClearScience also harshly criticize unscientific beliefs? Yes, we do. Frequently. But the key distinction is that we do not make this about political parties (or religion). Any fair-minded observer of American politics knows that both Republicans and Democrats (or the religious and non-religious) use science as a wedge issue to score political points. Politicians from both parties eagerly throw science under the bus if they think it can score them a few extra votes.

Because we have made a purposeful decision to remain politically agnostic, we can do our jobs as science journalists properly. That is why, on RCS, you will find articles that criticize anti-vaxxers, anti-GMOers, climate deniers, evolution deniers, Dr. Oz, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN,The Atlantic, New York Times, Shark Tank, and anybody else who stands in the way of good science. It’s the only intellectually honest way to be a science journalist.

In its current form, Slate‘s science page appears more interested in scoring cheap clicks by feeding red meat to a left-wing audience. It risks alienating whatever conservative or religious readers it has left and, along with them, any constructive role it might have played in advancing the nation’s scientific discourse. That would be a shame.

Slate, bring back the old science page. We miss it.

(Photo: “Paris Tuileries Garden Facepalm statue” by Alex E. Proimos via Flickr/Wikimedia Commons)