One of the most prevalent myths in modern society is the idea that most scientists are unbiased and do their research in a vacuum devoid of bias or lack of objectivity. Nothing could be easier to disprove, as only a cursory look at history will reveal. Never the less, neither scientists nor the media, particularly the magazines that popularize science, appear to be in any big rush to educate the public of the problem.
What evidence does history offer us about bias among scientists and the media? Two things in particular; direct evidence of scientific hoaxes or frauds, and evidence of over-zealousness or lack of caution in dealing with data. An early example could be, ‘the Piltdown man’, originally discovered in 1915 in England. The main evidence for the Piltdown man was the lower part of an orangutan jaw carefully fitted to a human upper jaw and skull. The teeth had been filed to match those of the upper part of the jaw and other bones were strewn around to fool the gullible investigators and public. This “find” came at a critical time for the acceptance of human evolution among scientists and the public in general. It made headline news and was a cornerstone for human evolution for 40 years.
Another timely fraud was the production by Ernst Haeckel of his wood block prints of embryos used to support his theory of embryonic recapitulation’. He altered the prints to make them look more alike and his changes were so obvious that even his fellow colleagues noticed them. He was tried by his own university and found guilty of fraud. Yet drawings identical to his prints are still found in most high school text books, including the one used here in Republic. There are others, but let’s move ahead to a more recent example, the coverage of the alleged ‘archaeoraptor’ by The Nat’l Geographic. This was supposed to be a feathered dinosaur and was hailed as proof that birds had indeed evolved from reptiles. It turns out that the tail from one fossil (a dinosaur) had been stuck on the body of another fossil (a bird). The bird fossil had evidence of some small fiber structures on it. The fossil itself had been procured illegally. Artist representations of the archaeoraptor appear in the magazine fully feathered, giving a very false impression of the actual find.
The curator of ornithology of the Smithsonian Institute was so outraged he wrote a long open letter to the Nat’l Geographic, Nov.1, 1999. In it he took them to task for being active promulgators of faith in the dinosaur to bird theory and for deliberately misleading the public. He accused them of distorting the truth and having totally disregarded caution in their crusade to convince the public. He also castigated them for omitting any mention of the glaring problems facing the theory of reptile to bird transition. The March 2000 issue of the Geographic did admit the fossil was a fake but didn’t go very far in undoing the damage.
Yes, honest scientists do exist, but they will almost always admit their biases out front. Beware of those scientists and media outlets and textbooks or TV shows that aren’t so forthcoming. (Unfortunately it’s understood that if a scientist admits to being even slightly open to the idea of a non-evolutionary beginning of the universe, he may never publish again…. so much for the tolerance of atheism, lol) But that’s another subject.
(Storrs Olsens letter to the Nat’l Geographic can be found in the pages section of this blog)