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The late Gene Patterson, who was then editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, in 1963 wrote an editorial in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that was a major catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Speaking to his fellow Southerners, he said it was too short-sighted to blame only those who blew up the church; it was the fault of everyone who allowed racism to persist in the culture:

It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.

Only we can trace the truth, Southerner — you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.

We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.

This column was also read aloud by Walter Cronkite on the “CBS Evening News.” It was a time when news media leaders condemned not only those who directly perpetrated acts of terror but also those in society who let racism persist. I’m saddened by the fact that today not only don’t we see this kind of condemnation from some news media leaders for systemic causes of what happened in Charleston, but instead we see from some overt attempts to find alternative explanations other than racism for this act of terrorism.

As I sit reading weak-ass editorials from some of our nation’s largest newspapers — decrying the shooting in Charleston as “tragic” and “incalculable” while barely if at all acknowledging our collective cultural complicity in allowing such racism to occur — I am relieved that at least we still have someone in the professional media who plays a role as our collective moral compass. Too bad that person is a comedian.

I hate the adage that “Opinions are like a**holes; everybody has them.” It’s correct, in that opinions are simply judgements that don’t necessary have to be supported by fact or logic. But good opinions are different; not everyone has those. I don’t mean “good” in the sense that they are good because they correspond to my worldview. I mean good in the sense that they are formed through some process of deep and critical thought and that they are supported by something other than a gut-level notion.

How do we know what we know? We all want truthful information, but deciding what is truthful is no simple task. More importantly, information is rarely completely truthful or completely untruthful. In other words, things are rarely black or white; they’re almost always gray.

I’ve read quite a bit about the concept of epistemology, which is the part of philosophy that deals with the questions of what is knowledge and where knowledge comes from. Without getting deep into philosophical babble, I want to share some thoughts on how one type of knowledge — scientific knowledge — is misinterpreted.

Recently, KOMU, the local NBC-affiliate owned by the School of Journalism, posted on its Facebook feed a link to a story about a new study that shows a relationship between being a child of a deployed soldier and being more prone to violent and anti-social outcomes. They included a comment that asked readers, “Does this study exemplify your personal experience with a deployed soldier’s child? Or, is this completely stereotypical and an affront on military families?” To suggest that this study is possibly “stereotypical and an affront to military families” suggests that a reader simply sharing his or her own anecdotal experience suffices as sufficient evidence that the study is wrong.

This is the kind of thing that pundits do — present something in the news and then try to stir up the pot by getting people to argue about the story. Asking people about their experiences with military children localizes and perhaps adds some context to the story. But the latter part, asking if the study is “stereotypical and an affront,” forgets that this study was conducted under some presumed scientific rigor.

This is why the public is distrustful of science. Because the implication from pundits (and I guess now, one local TV station) is that scientists might have some bias because the findings are what we don’t want to hear.

Don’t get me wrong. Scientists do have biases that unfortunately shape their studies. And even scientists who go to great lengths to control the influence of that bias have other sources of error creep into research. Lots of research is quite error-prone. Journalists should question scientific findings. But it must be done in the context of understanding the scientific process.

But, to frame the story as a dichotomy, that the study is valid because readers’ experiences add credence to it OR that experiences do not exemplify findings AND THEREFORE the study must be simply a stereotypical representation is wrong. And it’s certainly not good journalism.

Science has its problems. And it should be questioned. But it needs to be questioned on the basis of its methods and not on anecdotal gut feelings.

I’ll end this rant with a nod to the Daily Show for a recent piece on this very issue:

 

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Weathering Fights – Science: What’s It Up To?
www.thedailyshow.com
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