The Corner

The Washington Post, Life & the Trouble with Experts

My only criticism of this Mollie Hemingway piece is that at some point, about two-thirds in, she basically has to have her opponent lifted off the canvas and held there, limp, as she beats him some more. She’s rebutting the Washington Post’s incredibly lame attempt to ridicule Senator Marco Rubio for saying there is scientific unanimity — not just consensus — that life begins at conception. I can’t add anything to the main argument she’s making. But I think there’s a useful related point to make.

Basically, what happened is Marco Rubio — in a bit of clever trolling — responded to some of the grief he’s been getting on climate change by saying:

All these people always wag their finger at me about ‘science’ and ‘settled science.’ Let me give you a bit of settled science that they’ll never admit to. The science is settled, it’s not even a consensus, it is a unanimity, that human life begins at conception. So I hope the next time that someone wags their finger about science, they’ll ask one of these leaders on the left: ‘Do you agree with the consensus of scientists that say that human life begins at conception?’ I’d like to see someone ask that question.

In response, the Washington Post’s Phillip Bump contacted the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for comment. And, as Mollie explains in painstaking detail, the group came back with an answer about pregnancy that was drenched in abortion politics. Among her list of problems with the Post’s behavior, Mollie writes:

2) It’s probably a good time to mention that ACOG is a group known for its strenuous support of abortion. Beyond the question of why Bump used this group instead of embryologists as sources, there’s also the issue that he’s not identifying them as vehemently pro-choice (as in, they even support partial-birth abortions).

3) No one is mentioned in this piece other than ACOG. Yet Bump claims, “the scientific experts we spoke with didn’t offer any consensus.” This is a difficult claim to swallow. Had he spoken to anyone with even a cursory understanding of what happens, scientifically, when a penis enters a vagina, he would have found consensus. Is there any evidence whatsoever that he spoke with anyone other than the pro-choice group?

As I say, she’s goes on as if someone is standing behind her yelling, “Hit him again!”

But here is my general point. We are entering into an era of so-called “explanatory journalism.” I’ve been very skeptical of this fad (though I think some of the new data journalism, which is often lumped-in with “explanatory journalism,” is interesting and helpful). And this episode with the Post is a perfect example of just one way things can go wrong with it. As Mollie notes, ACOG — like so many trade associations, guilds and lobby groups — is wildly politicized. Calling it up to settle a politically fraught issue isn’t good journalism. It’s not even good opinion journalism. It’s simply handing the microphone off to a fellow partisan in a fight.

And the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is probably much less political than some other groups with axes to grind. For instance, the Southern Poverty Law Center is routinely sought out as a dispositive authority on issues about “hate” and “hate groups.” The problem is they are a deeply dishonest and ideologically partisan organization that tries to make many mainstream conservatives into Klansmen. It’s also money-hungry, so it works overtime to gin up fears it can exploit. The Women’s Sports Foundation is constantly invoked as the argument-settler on issues having to do with women and sports, particularly Title IX controversies. But they are in fact advocates and ideological partisans (as my wife can attest). And don’t even get me started on the American Bar Association.

The mainstream media still has a near unique power to create experts in our culture. The normal reader trusts that the journalist has picked an expert because of their expertise, not their ideological reliability. And let’s be clear, even straight-up academics have agendas. They want funding. They want exposure. Some may even want to get called back by liberal journalists.

Now there’s nothing wrong, and much that is right, with being an advocate or ideological partisan. The Right has plenty of them too. And there’s nothing wrong with contacting advocates and lobbyists for their opinions. It is often the case that the activists have the most knowledge and the best arguments for their side. But calling up one advocate — or even five on the same side of an issue — to show “consensus” and passing that off as nonpartisan expert authority isn’t explanatory anything. It’s propaganda passing itself off as reporting.


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