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National Public Radio needs the drama, the science not so much


Further to Media’s methane-based life: No it is NOT just sensationalism, it is cheerleading for a worldview (one that permits, even encourages, fiction to stand in for fact):

At Forbes, philosopher of science Henry Miller identifies a similar pattern at National Public Radio, which receives federal funds:

Among the most egregious transgressions of fair, professional journalism was a series of programs called “The DNA Files” which set up a false moral equivalence by juxtaposing the views of Princeton University Professor Lee Silver against those of Margaret Mellon, long-time NGO-dweller, troglodyte and antagonist of any and all applications of biotechnology. This pairing was a paradigm of NPR’s notion of “balance”: a mainstream, non-ideological academic versus an intransigent, anti-industry, anti-technology, uneducable activist.

Guy sounds angry, but then he used to be director of the US FDA biotechnology office. And here’s the kind of thing that annoys him:

Where water is scarce, the development of crop varieties that grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could boost yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive. Even where irrigation is feasible, plants that use water more efficiently are needed. Agriculture accounts for about 70% of the world’s freshwater consumption- and more in areas of intensive farming and arid or semi-arid conditions, so the introduction of plants that grow with less water would free up much of it for other uses.

Where does genetic engineering come in? Plant biologists have identified genes that regulate water use and transferred them into important crop plants. These new varieties grow with smaller amounts of water or with lower-quality water, such as recycled water or water high in natural mineral salts. For example, Egyptian researchers have shown that by transferring a single gene from barley to wheat, the plants can tolerate reduced watering for a longer period of time. This new, drought-resistant variety requires only one-eighth as much irrigation as conventional wheat and in some deserts can be cultivated with the meager rainfall alone. More.

Which, one assumes, would be, at least in principle, less harmful to the natural environment. One need not change that environment, thus displacing native fauna and flora, if one can adapt one’s own activities instead. But grandstanding about the a-crockalypse accords more with the Whole Foods worldview, whose celebration is on display.

As we know, science is not in the business of “scientific certainty,” but of demonstrable and replicable evidence. And, as noted earlier, popular media – once they decay to the point of seeing themselves as zealots for a righteous cause instead of idle sensation-seekers (a position in which they are vastly less harmful)* – can become major advocates for suppression of evidence and even of civil liberties. And, one might add, opponents of balanced discussions, as above.

See also: Darwin’s followers are going to have to limit access to public records. New Mexico museum edition: Such requests create needless contentions about the use of public money 😉

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*Note: Idle sensation-seeking media do not have the same interest as zealous-for-the-cause ones do in the suppression/misrepresentation of contrary views. For sensationalists, yesterday’s witch could be today’s superwoman—and tomorrow’s fallen idol, in her “brave last days.” They may dumb down their readers (hard to say, for a number of reasons). But they need the drama of conflict the way the zealot needs the certainty of death.

We care because this is the atmosphere in which we must reach the public with the real state of evolution research. – O’Leary for News


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