Richard Dawkins and easy problems with science journalism

December 9, 2013

Famed biologist Richard Dawkins has responded to a science writer in “Adversarial Journalism and The Selfish Gene,” which respectfully outlines some of the problems with science journalism.

In response to a piece by David Dobbs, an accomplished science writer, Dawkins argues that Dobbs exemplifies an adversarial compulsion to “(presumably) boost circulation and harvest clicks by pretending to be controversial”.

“You have a topic X, which you laudably want to pass on to your readers. But it’s not enough that X is interesting in its own right; you have to adversarialise it: yell that X is revolutionary, new, paradigm-shifting, dramatically overthrowing some Y,” Dawkins writes.

Dobbs’ article in question, “Die selfish gene, die,” is a feature-length critique of Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene and the gene-centred metaphor that underpins it. By all rights Dobbs’ argument, that genes are expressed differently by multiple organisms and therefore their agency is generally overplayed by scientists, seems valid as does his supporting information; he offers historical contexts, a reading of The Selfish Gene and interviews with multiple scientists, including (limited) quotes from Dawkins himself.

But the information is admittedly framed in an adversarial manner; Dobbs positions Dawkins’ argument as both archaic and overly-simplified, and selectively uses quotes from other scientists to create both conflict and some kind of discourse over why the “gene-centric model survives”.

In response, Dawkins points to multiple examples where he has previously illustrated how genes are expressed differently, seemingly extinguishing Dobbs’ overarching argument and attempt to engineer controversy. Dawkins does not imply that Dobbs is factually incorrect, and  even states that his argument concerns the, “the important but far from new point that genes are not always expressed in the same way”.

Dawkins simply agrees that environmental context (of course) affects how genes are expressed, and explains how, in an attempt to create a “pseudo-event,” Dobbs proposes a “headline conclusion, namely that recent findings negate the thesis of The Selfish Gene, [that] is not just untrue but deeply and perversely untrue.”

The case illustrates how journalists emphasising an attitude towards a commonly held principle can only discredit themselves if they try to frame sources incorrectly simply to engineer controversy, especially when these sources accept the supposedly different attitude.

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