When the conversation turns to science and scientists, and the tone threatens to get a bit elevated, I try to keep my feet on the ground by remembering the most down-to-earth, human account of science I've ever read: John D. Watson's The Double Helix. It's a quirky tale. On the one hand, it's the story of one of the great scientific discoveries of our time, the structure of DNA. On the other, it's a sort of comedy of errors about how a pair of overconfident, underinformed young men—Watson and his collaborator Francis Crick—could skip the preliminaries, get the chemistry wrong, play a little fast and loose with other people's data, generally blunder around, and still come up with a heartbreakingly elegant insight about the world. It is inspiring, not because it shows human beings transcending their natures, but because it shows what you can accomplish even with a raft of imperfections.
I should send a copy to the New York Times. Judging by the issue on my desk as I write, they could use one.
The story I have in mind announced the startling truth that scientific journals are sometimes wrong. Sometimes they even publish articles based on fraudulent (or completely nonexistent) data. As a result, newspapers, which rely heavily on journal articles for their science news, sometimes publish untruths. And that, according to the Times, has newspaper editors worried.
I'm not disagreeing, mind you. I'm just trying to figure out what planet all those newspaper editors lived on before they came to earth and became journalists. And while we're at it, what they've been doing since they got here—because they obviously haven't been paying much attention. Have they already forgotten Jayson Blair, and the inconveniently missing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and cold fusion, and the amazing life-saving properties of oat bran? Or what about the Sokal Hoax, just a few years back, in which an NYU professor submitted deliberate gibberish to a peer-reviewed journal and got it published? Have they never heard the old journalistic truism: Doctors bury their mistakes. Newspapers print theirs.
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