BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. For a publication that is rooted firmly in faith - faith, that is, in empirical evidence, these can be frustrating times. Since 1845, Scientific American has offered its readers rigorous and compelling articles that are admittedly partial - partial, that is, in favor of science. But all that may soon change. In an editorial dated April 1st - note the date - Editor-in-Chief John Rennie wondered if perhaps the magazine should, in proper journalistic fashion, offer a little balance. John Rennie, welcome to the show.
JOHN RENNIE: Oh, it's my pleasure to be here. Thanks very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Scientific American has thrown up its hands and said "Okay! We give up." [LAUGHTER] You wrote that scientists have, quote, "dazzled us with their fancy fossils, their radiocarbon dating and their tens of thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles. As editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence."
JOHN RENNIE: We were just sick about it, [LAUGHTER] as we look back on it. What were we thinking?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you say, essentially, that readers are charging you with having been scammed and scamming others. Give me some examples of issues that they feel that about.
JOHN RENNIE: Oh, it is, really, it's quite a list. The obvious one, of course, is creationism and evolution, where they feel that we have become nothing but toadies for the evolution biology establishment, and that we are ignoring the obvious flaws in Darwinism and ignoring the truth of intelligent design and that kind of scientific creationism. But it's not just that. People also talk about similar controversies having to do with missile defense, global warming, of course; that's always a good one. Really, almost any time you get into any kind of science that, heaven forbid, bears on social welfare or health issues, you can always be accused of having a political agenda.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that the calls for more media, quote/unquote "balance" are becoming louder?
JOHN RENNIE: It's not a completely new phenomenon. I mean you can actually go back I think, oh, back into the, the '20s and '30s and even still find some kinds of charges to the effect that the media were biased, and even that the scientific community was biased in what it was doing. But, it's my impression that I'm sorry to say maybe especially under the current administration, that we're starting to see that used more effectively as a tool to keep scientists in their place, so to speak.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Your editorial, which was rather snarky, said that "we should not succumb to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, US senators or best-selling novelists do."
JOHN RENNIE: But, this is exactly what we've seen. For example, you, you have people like Senator James Inhofe, who have repeatedly stood on the floor of the Senate and have said, on the basis of their own vast knowledge of phenomena like global warming, that it's all a colossal sham, that it's in fact the greatest sham being perpetrated on the public. Similarly, you have somebody like Michael Crichton, who's a very smart man and has written about science fiction for lots of years, he suddenly manages to dip a toe into the, the world of environmentalism in recent years, and from that comes to the conclusion that it, too, is an enormous charade.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But do you think that the media have been complicit, by presenting established scientific doctrine as a he said/she said argument that requires balanced reporting on both sides?
JOHN RENNIE: There's nothing wrong with balance in principle. Balance is a very important thing to have in stories, in the same way that you want to have fairness, and - heaven forbid - accuracy. On lots of issues, it's very hard to know where the ultimate truth lies. So the best you can do is present lots of different views and leave it to the - your, your audience to try to piece together the truth for themselves. But on some scientific issues, that's really not the best you can do. Sometimes, for example, in the case of evolution versus creationism, on one side you have the entire mass of the biology community; you have tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles; you have masses of experiments going back more than a century and a half at this point - all of which have fit together to paint a picture of, of how very, very true evolution is. And on the other side, you have people who present no real evidence, yet still claim that their idea is just as good as evolution, and therefore they deserve equal time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So then, what is the responsibility of the media when it comes to reporting issues like evolution and global warming and species extinction and acid rain and missile defense - do reporters have a responsibility to quote the senators and the novelists, even when there is a clear scientific consensus?
JOHN RENNIE: There's certainly a proper way to represent these kinds of contrary views, but in perspective. You don't want to have stories structured in such a way that, for example, you have one global warming supporter who is quoted, representing 98 percent of the scientific community and then matched up against one other person who's a denier, who's given effectively the same amount of space. Because then people in your audience could be left with the idea that there is a more equal balance in how seriously those ideas are taken. You also want to be able to point out, for example, what kinds of affiliations do the people on both sides have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How about the writers who write for Scientific American who, I assume, are insulated from this highly charged environment that we've been talking about - do you find that sometimes they inject some artificial, what you'd call artificial balance into their pieces?
JOHN RENNIE: Actually, many of the authors for Scientific American are the scientists themselves, and, and I think in many cases they feel as they are just going to lay out the facts as they understand them. I think what we're seeing these days is people trying to make a fetish of balance. It's not just left and right, evolution versus creationism. It's not just global warming versus no global warming. There's a spectrum of ideas, and maybe one of the biggest lies that come out of this, this false attention to balance is that it's creating anything except an imbalanced view of what's going on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John, thank you very much.
JOHN RENNIE: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Rennie is editor-in-chief of Scientific American.