The Adoring Younger Brother
The main pillars of academic study, while differing widely in the knowledge they seek, all share a number of things in common. Science, history, philosophy and mathematics, across the spectrum, are all built on similar foundations. First and foremost, they are a quest for the truth. They all aspire to ask the right questions and to seek the correct answers, whatever they may be. They all require tireless hard work, hours of study and meticulous, painstaking graft for only the smallest steps of progress. Saintly patience and unimpeachable integrity over the course of an entire individual’s career are required, perhaps only to make the smallest advance on behalf of their discipline, and perhaps without ever gaining recognition for their work. They all demand a constant vigilance against ulterior motives and political influences that could dilute, or even poison their efforts. They are all disconnected from trade and industry, and therefore rely on government grants and private donations in order to fund their projects. Budget and time constraints are usually severe, and so, for the majority, salaries and lifestyles are modest. Finally, but by no means less significantly, they all reward a passionate, intellectual love of discovery, learning and knowledge.
This is not to say that all scientists, historians, philosophers and mathematicians live up this ideal, it is simply to say that these are the ideals held within the academic studies. You can have bad scientists, just like you can have bad plumbers. Perfection itself is an ideal that can only ever be striven for and never reached, but it is the effort to strive as if it could be reached that is the catalyst for progress.
Journalism is not an academic discipline in itself. It should, however, uphold all the same principles and values of an academic discipline. Journalism should be like a smaller model of an academic discipline, upholding all the same goals and ideals but on a smaller scale, appropriate to the task in hand. Journalism should be like an adoring younger brother, forever looking up to and idolising its hero, academia. It should aspire to mimic the integrity, and emulate the quest for the truth that the academic studies entail.
Sadly, it does not take a detailed examination of the popular media to see that this is far from what we have. I have already said we can have good and bad scientists, and the same applies to journalists. There are a few who really do credit to the pillars of any academic discipline in their approach to their work, but they are few and far between.
The popular media is a monster, composed almost entirely of greed, opportunism, sensationalism, manipulation and ego. The tabloid newspapers in particular have no interests beyond their own. They pander to their readers prejudices, no matter what they are. They play on their emotions, using scare tactics or deliberately creating false perspective. They talk constantly about celebrities and their private lives as if they are a major concern of ours. They are quite happy to print even the most dubious of rumours, gained from the most suspicious sources, and create every illusion of fact when presenting them. They either assert their distorted morals in order to manipulate politics to their own ends, or speak in a voice so weakly neutral on every moral issue, that they refuse to condemn absurdity, tragedy and atrocity when it stares them in the face. They have no interest in the truth, only their own projection of it. They go through the motions of regret and apology when they are sued, and convicted of libel, while sniggering behind closed doors at the relative pittance they are forced to pay out, and laughing all the way to the bank with the obscene profits their extra sales have garnered from deceit.
The majority of the public in Western cultures either believe in, or are extremely open minded to paranormal phenomena. And so, the popular media is rife with pro-paranormal propaganda. From daily horoscopes to wildly speculative, sensational reporting of supernatural stories, and promotion of TV programs about ghost hunting and mediums. They never stress the importance of scepticism when analysing paranormal claims.
And yet, you can be sure that if a shift towards scepticism were to make itself apparent within society, the media would seamlessly switch to a pro-scepticism stance as if it had always been that way.
The popular media is one of the most powerful cultural forces in the world, almost equal to the governments of the richest countries and the UN. It has money to burn, and an unprecedented amount of influence on public opinion. With the threat that religious faith and other non-rational thought systems pose to the well being of society today, we have never needed the media on our side more than now. We need it to change its ways, to grow from being the selfish, belligerent, delinquent that it is, to the adoring younger brother of academia.
As long as there is money to be made though, I fear that nothing will change. So, as far as influencing society and making people aware of the need for scepticism and the flaws in religious faith, who can make a difference? We can! The work of the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris leads the way at the front line, but we can make a difference too. The internet is a wonderful invention, and speech is never freer than it is here. Blogs like this one can make a difference – if they won’t say what needs to be said in the media, then we’ll say it here. There is also continued growth in the number of people reading news online. Leave comments, and email the reporters. Crticise them when they are wrong, and praise them when they are right, for the good ones need to know we appreciate their efforts. We are in a minority, but if we all shout the same lines at the same time, our voice will be loud enough to be heard. No doubt, there’s a lot of hard work ahead, and we’ll have to be patient and persistent. But if we look up to and uphold the ideals of our academic heroes, and all pull together, we really can make a difference.