A truly consequential figure in the history of the 20th century, Walter Cronkite, passed away on Friday 17 June. He received the appropriate praise a figure of his integrity and cultural influence deserved – that is to say, some small fraction of the voyeuristic obsession we lavish on pop stars.
This was a man who hit the beach with troops in North Africa and Normandy, who landed in a glider with the 101st Airborne in operation Market-Garden, who covered the Battle of the Bulge and reported the Nuremburg Trials. His announcement of John F. Kennedy’s death at 2:38 PM on 22 November 1963 is etched into the memory of a generation. His pronouncement, after visiting Vietnam in February 1968, that he didn’t think we could win that war, spelled the beginning of the end of the war and the Johnson administration. Can you imagine a contemporary news anchor having that same effect on the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts?
Cronkite was a rock, and the entire country took him at his word when he signed off every night with his trademark “and that’s the way it is.”
And now for a terrible segue, an editorial in the Oregonian last Monday 13 July, and subsequent letters to the editor this past Sunday, underline how far we’ve come from trusting a person of integrity to tell us “the way it is.” The subject of the editorial is the disconnect between scientists and the public on basic scientific reality.
A Pew Research Center survey of 2533 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and 2001 randomly selected U.S. citizens, found that 87 percent of scientists, but only 32 percent of the general public, believe humans and other living things evolved over time due to natural processes. Only 2 percent of scientists, but 31 percent of the general public believe humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.
On climate change, 84 percent of scientists, but only 49 percent of the public, think the earth is warming due to humans. Seventy percent of scientists think this is a very serious problem, whereas only 49 percent of the general public agrees with that assessment.
The good news, or maybe the odd news, is that the public regards scientists very highly, despite the not agreeing with scientists on basic stuff like evolution and climate change. Scientists rank just behind the military and teachers in terms of how the public views their contribution to society, just ahead of doctors and engineers, and far ahead of lawyers and business executives, who have favorability ratings in the Dick Cheney range.
What’s the connection between the Pew survey and Cronkite? Simply this: we no longer have a media that will stand up and say “that’s the way it is.” Sure, the Oregonian covered this story in its editorial section, but how about leading with it on the front page? (This is important, jarring news after all.) Or in its Science Section? Oh wait, the O, which bemoans the lack of science literacy in this editorial, killed its science section a few years ago.
Instead of reporting reality, we have a media that feels compelled to report both sides of a story. Fine and well. But maybe covering “both sides” should include the observation that nearly nine out of ten experts are actually on one side, and that the “debate” on evolution and climate change, at least among most scientists, is not much of a debate any more.
In the end, our media have failed us, and we have failed our media. We don’t demand thorough, thoughtful coverage of science. In part because a lot of the information we get from science is “inconvenient.” We want the fun stuff – celebrity deaths, break-ups, fires, murders and puppy rescues. And the media, in all its various forms – print, broadcast, digital – just wants to us to look, please look, so they can stay in business. So they give us what we want. We need to start wanting different stuff. And that’s the way it is.