Today, I worry about scientific objectivity. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I write this during the third
week of the second Gulf War, and I'm now dizzy from
reports by news people "embedded" in the various
American military units. Never have we had this
much intimacy with any war. Yet I'm not certain
whether their presence tells me more or less about
what's going on.
A news reporter at my own radio station also
teaches radio journalism at a local college. She's
as doggedly determined as anyone I've ever met to
remain unallied with any viewpoint. Naturally, this
embedding of reporters sets off her alarm bells.
She tells about one newsman who would not even vote
in public elections because to do so would taint
his journalistic detachment.
That's a bit of a stretch, but it says much about
the discipline of detachment. Reporters embedded
among troops who are under constant threat would be
less than human if they were not sympathetic. One
reporter was seen holding a blood-plasma bag during
a battlefield transfusion. Not to've done so
would've been barbaric; yet that was not watching
and reporting with detached objectivity.
As I watch the reporting of war, I think about
every time I've gone into a lab hoping that new
data would justify my government funding or become
the basis for my grand theory. Scientists live in
grave danger of willing the data to say
what they hope it might. It takes the saving terror
of being wrong to sustain objectivity. Our harshest
critics become our best friends.
But you don't have days to think things over in the
war zone. During the Pearl Harbor attack, a Navy
chaplain was heard saying to the gunners, "Praise
the Lord and pass the ammunition." That was soon
made into an immensely popular song. It went:
Down went the gunner, a bullet was his fate
Down went the gunner, then the gunner's mate
Up jumped the sky pilot, gave the boys a look
And manned the gun himself as he laid aside The
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
That wasn't what really happened. But if it were,
it would've been the worst possible breach of the
rules of war. Chaplains are protected noncombatants
because they can be trusted to take no part in
combat. Once that trust is violated -- by
chaplains, medics, or reporters -- they all become
legitimate targets. That chaplain should've kept
his mouth shut.
And so it is in science as well. If, in the pursuit
of knowledge, we have any stake in the outcome, it
is a daunting struggle to leave our wishes outside
the door. That's why Creation Science can
never be science: Belief precedes the outcome.
Science is only science as long as its
practitioners keep looking for ways to negate their
Reporting war is like the four reports of a murder
in the movie Rashomon.
All were in error, because each teller had
something to gain. Whether we're researchers or
reporters -- chaplains or creationists, our
constant task must be nothing less than keeping
ourselves from becoming embedded in our
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For the song I mention, see: http://my.execpc.com/~dschaaf/praise.html
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.