The prejudiced journalist

The media interview is sometimes problematic for the scientist. There’s all the problems of getting one’s message across in a way that the public can appreciate and in the allotted time span provided by news bites.

But one problem that really annoys me is the motivated, or dogmatic, journalist. You know, the one who has an ideologically motivated picture of your science, has probably already written the headline and conclusions, and is just trying to get quotes to fit their prejudices.


Dr. Maggie Turnbull – a freelance Astrobiologist

In this respect I have mentioned Suzan Mazur before (see Self-exposure – a journalist out of depth and  Suzan does a mini- Monckton). Well she has surfaced again, and again the creationist/intelligent design echo chamber have latched on to her. They are making a lot of her interview of Dr. Maggie Turnbull,  a freelance Astrobiologist who does some contract work for NASA (see Is Life an “Artificial Category”? for the interview and At NASA, Another Crack in the Darwin Consensus? for the misrepresentation of the interview).

Turnbull’s answers are relatively common sense and straight froward – but some of Mazur’s questions are real woozies. She is so clearly trying hard to generate responses she can quote to undermine evolutionary science, and science in general. Here are some examples:

Suzan Mazur:You’ve indicated that the laws of life are being drawn too narrowly, saying you “mentally resist” defining the parameters of life because so far we only have one example of it — life on Earth. You’ve also said that “as scientists we always want to categorize everything, but is it possible that it’s just a continuum of a one-based system?” Would you expand on those comments?

Maggie Turnbull: It’s a very human tendency to want to put things in categories: This is alive and this other thing is not alive. But those categories are artificial. The Universe does not know anything about those categories.

We want to be thinking in terms of a continuum. That continuum can be along whatever parameter — different behaviors, different relationships with other parts of the system. But defining life as a category — as something in a box and whatever is outside the box is non-life — will continue to produce exceptions.

By some definitions, a human would not even be considered to be alive. If only one human were in a box in space, there’d be no way that human could reproduce. A single human would in that instance not fully qualify as a life form.

Even though categorizing things according to specific characteristics is useful for organizing human thought, it will never allow us to describe the whole system. We need to get over our obsession with defining things as living and non-living.

Suzan Mazur: NASA’s official definition for life is no longer still limited to “a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution,” is it?

Maggie Turnbull:
All I can say is, if NASA has an official definition of life, I don’t agree with it, and neither does life.

Suzan Mazur:
Would you know if NASA is still financing and otherwise supporting research pegged to the Darwinian model?

Maggie Turnbull:
I don’t know exactly what you mean by “pegged to the Darwinian model.” NASA supports research in genetics and in mechanisms that allow for survival in extreme conditions.

It’s really all about our collective desire to investigate things and the technology catching up as well as our understanding of how the Universe works. Scientists in many ways are their own worst enemies. There’s so much disagreement in the scientific community because of all the objectives being pursued simultaneously. Often the result is a loss of focus. Scientists end up rehashing the same questions and the mission disappears.

For example, the mission concept I’ve been developing the past few years is one where most of the technologies are now available and it’s a matter of organizing those technologies to demonstrate that they can be effective in combination to observe Earth-like planets around nearby stars. Not far-away stars like with Kepler, but the stars you can see with your naked eye. In order to do that we need a more collective agreement that we’re going to invest in such a mission.

Suzan Mazur: Funding of origin of life research is increasingly a contentious issue because there’s a schism between the neo-Darwinists on one side and on the other many of the evo-devo scientists, symbiogeneticists, geologists, mechanical engineers, natural scientists, cognitive scientists, linguists and others. Would you comment?

Maggie Turnbull:
I don’t know much about it. I’m really an astronomer at heart. My focus is on the stars. I have very simple objectives when it comes to finding habitable planets and whatever the biologists want to say about the evolution of life is fine with me. At the end of the day though nothing matters until we find it.

Suzan Mazur:
Until we find what?

Maggie Turnbull: Until we find life on another planet.

Suzan Mazur:
So you don’t think that much about origin of life issues.

Maggie Turnbull: I think about origin of life, but personally I’m more interested in exploring other environments and finding out whether there are life form systems there. Evolutionary biologists would get a lot out of that search as well. I’m looking for the variety of life in the Universe.

Suzan Mazur: How much of science would you say is social momentum, i.e., not objective?

Maggie Turnbull: I would say a lot of it is social momentum because science is about a community of thinkers. By thinkers I mean scientists as well as non-scientists. Because when the American public is keenly interested in something, it is much easier for Congress to make the case for funding it. What scientists want, however, often does not concur with what the public wants. I don’t mean to be harsh in saying this, but the truth is that when scientists want to do what they want to do, they try to sell it as something the public should care about.

It takes so long to get a PhD and to build a career in science. Once that’s achieved, a scientist is hemmed-in as far as what they’re expert at and able to work on. A scientist can’t easily reorient their research just because the American public wants to study something else. So scientists try to persuade Congress to pay for the research they want because that’s what they know how to do. Scientific progress thus is 99% a wait for consensus.

Currently the Discovery Institute (intelligent design headquarters) is working hard to spread these questions and answers through their creationist internet silo. But you have to wonder why – because Suzan Mazur does tend to discredit herself with her questions, doesn’t she?

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One response to “The prejudiced journalist

  1. How many times do you beat your wife?

    But one problem that really annoys me is the motivated, or dogmatic, journalist. You know, the one who has an ideologically motivated picture of your science, has probably already written the headline and conclusions, and is just trying to get quotes to fit their prejudices.

    Funny how that keeps on happening. Science deniers always go for the blog article or the Daily Mail headline or the isolated comment from the TV.
    Primary sources of information are not their friend.

    Birth of a Climate Crock

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