Journalist Virginia Heffernan displayed incredible courage coming out as a creationist. Well, incredible courage and incredible foolishness.
Heffernan has had a successful career in her chosen field. She has written for The New York Times and the website Slate in the past. Currently Yahoo! News features her work, where she mostly writes about technology.
Last week she departed from her normal content. In a piece that ran to nearly 1,000 words, she explained why she rejects science in favor of a biblical view of things.
She does not have a scientific problem with the Big Bang theory because that is not how she thinks about these things. Rather, it is a boring story, in the most literal sense of ‘story.’
Heffernan judges cosmology and evolution based on how they stack up against other stories in terms of entertainment value. In the case of the Big Bang, Heffernan writes, it can be reduced to a single sentence – “Something exploded.” It lacks the characters and action that the Bible offers. It has no Adam and Eve, or Cain and Abel to keep her interested.
“I guess I don’t ‘believe’ that the world was created in a few days, but what do I know? Seems as plausible (to me) as theoretical astrophysics, and it’s certainly a livelier tale,” she concludes.
In other words, a story told around campfires by primitive humans who lacked the framework to explain the baffling universe around them is superior to scientific frameworks refined by centuries of observation, theorizing and rigorous testing because the former is a better yarn. Heffernan also says she sees no problem with a technology writer who rejects science and lacks the intellectual curiosity to try to understand what makes all of the gadgets she loves work. “It might as well be angels,” she writes.
Instead, let’s look at this from a journalism standpoint.
There are two schools of thought among journalists about how to handle bias and personal beliefs.
One camp argues that journalists should keep their personal beliefs private, lest they muddy the waters. They are professionals whose job is to report the facts. The rest is irrelevant. Their ethics should guide them when they cross a line.
The other camp argues that personal beliefs and biases cannot be so easily divorced from reporting. How we view the world affects how we write about things, even if only subconsciously. We try to keep them separate, but out of deference for disclosure and respect for readers’ intelligence, journalists should put everything on the table. Let readers judge if the product is tainted.
Heffernan chose option two. She bravely exposed her views on deeply personal topics that arouse passions in people. Now readers get to decide whether she remains credible.
It’s not a hard decision.
Hamilton Nolan at Gawker pulled no punches:
“We are not saying you’re a bad person, Virginia, but you should probably expect that, from now on, when people read your musings on, say, the future of internet communications, they might stop, in a moment of gathering doubt, and recall that you are a science-phobic angel-believing climate change skeptic, and that therefore your dedication to facts is somewhat in question. This could, and should, erode your credibility, in the eyes of those elitist readers who value things that are based on ‘evidence.’”
The next time Heffernan goes looking for a job, which if there is any justice in the world will be very soon, she will wear a scarlet letter “I” for irrational. Editors and publishers can choose from plenty of other up-and-coming writers who understand that science has something interesting and useful to say about the world.
Let’s just hope that this does not affect how those editors view other women writers. Women already face an uphill struggle in the field. Most journalists are still men, and they tend to get the plum assignments. The last thing anyone needs is the intellectual failures of one writer to taint many.
Yet, maybe Heffernan is more clever than she now appears. Sure, she destroyed her credibility as a serious journalist, but there are plenty of unserious journalists making a good living. She could already have sent her resume to Fox News and other conservative outlets where rejecting science and reason is not a problem — it is a prerequisite.
Christian Trejbal is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes freelance and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.
Image Sources: Heffernan’s Twitter account.