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No. 1788:
Embedded Reporters

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 Book, shouting
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 own conclusions.

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 own hopes.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

For the song I mention, see:

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition