It's unfortunate when the supposed "newspaper of record," The New York Times, presents the public with errors of interpretation and fact in a special section of the newspaper devoted to science: the so-called Science Times. The problem is that the section is touted by the newspaper as an educational device when the reality is that a few blatant errors can confuse the public enough to wipe out any educational benefit of whatever science reporting appears in the newspaper. Here are two separate teeth-grinding instances in the same section of the newspaper.
In today's New York Times (Nov. 27, 2012), senior science writer Nicholas Wade presents an essay about the public conflict between science and religion concerning what both sides call the "theory of evolution." His essay was provoked by the recent fiasco over Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) attempt to avoid any answer to a question about the age of the Earth that might lose him some votes. But never mind Sen. Rubio. The problem is that Mr. Wade apparently does not understand in any precise way the use of the word "theory" in science as opposed to the use of the same word in the public arena. Mr. Wade points out that biologists say that evolution is both a theory and a fact, with emphasis on fact, which makes any rapprochement with biblical religions difficult, because biblical religionists need to insist that evolution is only a theory and that other theories exist. Unfortunately, Mr. Wade's essay only confuses the public more than it is already confused. Mr. Wade writes:
Evolutionary biologists are furiously debating whether or not natural selection can operate on groups of individuals, as Darwin thought was likely but most modern evolutionists doubt. So which version of evolution is the true one?
By allowing that evolution is a theory, scientists would hand fundamentalists the fig leaf they need to insist, at least among themselves, that the majestic words of the first chapter of Genesis are literal, not metaphorical, truths. They in return should make no objection to the teaching of evolution in science classes as a theory, which indeed it is.
The above analysis is totally and unfortunately misleading and misrepresents the important difference in the use of the word "theory" by scientists and by the public. In science, a "theory" is a current conclusion based on a set of facts, the adjective "current" indicating that if and when the facts change, the theory may need to be altered. But in the public domain, the word "theory" is usually used to imply speculation -- a usage foreign to science -- and speculation that may not have any facts at all as an underpinning. To compare the scientific "theory" of evolution with a biblical "theory" of evolution in a classroom (or in a newspaper) is a travesty of reason, and Mr. Wade ought to know better than to suggest that "by allowing that evolution is a theory, scientists would hand fundamentalists the fig leaf they need." That is not the solution. Fig leaf or no fig leaf, corrupting science by misuse of the word "theory" is not a solution to the current conflict between a view of the world based on fact and a view of the world based on revelation. It's not, it never was and it never will be -- and it would be a public service for Mr. Wade to write a second essay correcting the distortions in his first essay.
Also in the same section of The New York Times is the following statement by science reporter Sindya N. Bhanoo about the beyond-Pluto planet Makemake: "Makemake occupies a portion of the solar system with very few stars, so a stellar occultation is rare, Dr. Pinilla-Alonso said." Yeah, well, we need to doubt that any astronomer would say that, given that the only star in our solar system is the Sun -- no other stars, thank you, few or many, because even one more star might destroy all of us and the whole system. It's an egregious error that leads readers of the "newspaper of record" (including students) to a totally false idea about the Solar System. We do not need baloney science twisting the minds of the public -- especially not the minds of our children.
So where is the science editing necessary to preventing significant distortions and errors from ever getting into print?