NPR’s Ira Flatow: Truth, Deception, and the Myth of the One-Handed Scientist
Ira Flatow, the long-time host of NPR’s Science Friday, wrote his first science story in 1970 while an engineering student at SUNY Buffalo and working at the campus radio station, WBFO, to “twist the dials and knobs, as an engineer would.” But the anti-war movement was sweeping through Buffalo and WBFO recruited him to cover demonstrations. His boss, Bill Siemering, left that same year to start National Public Radio and was its first director of programming. After graduating in 1971, Flatow says, “I begged him to get me out of Buffalo,” and Flatow’s been reporting on science for NPR ever since. His TV credits include six years as host and writer for the PBS show, Newton’s Apple, science reporter for CBS This Morning, and frequent appearances on popular talk shows. He’s moderated numerous academic science forums and written three books on science and nature.
Flatow was presented with the Isaac Asimov Science Award at the American Humanist Association’s 71st annual conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 9, 2012. The following is adapted from his acceptance speech.
I personally knew Isaac Asimov, undoubtedly the most prolific science writer I’ve ever met. In fact, he wound up writing or editing something like 500 books in his lifetime. He was just a great writer, a great popularizer of science, and it’s an honor to accept this award from the American Humanist Association in his name.
I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned in my nearly forty years of covering science and technology, and the politics that go along with doing so. The first is that you can very rarely change someone’s mind when it’s already made up. If someone believes that people walked on the earth at the same time the dinosaurs did, there’s nothing anyone can do to change that belief, no amount of evidence you can show that will shake their conviction. If people believe the earth is 6,000 years old and the Grand Canyon was created by the flood, there’s not a lot you can do to convince them otherwise.
A few years ago we did a Science Friday program on autism and vaccinations. We had the world’s leading authority on the topic as a guest, and he confirmed that there’s no connection between vaccinations and autism. A woman called in and said, “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe the things you’re saying or quoting.” She went on and on, and my engineers were motioning for me to cut her off. But I didn’t want to cut her off. She was an intelligible person and I wanted to hear her thinking. After ten minutes I finally asked her, is there any amount of research in any form—from any person, any government, any university—I could show you that would change your mind? She said no. Her mind had been made up.
Part of the problem is that reporters don’t ask good follow-up questions, these days more than ever. A science journalist would never write or broadcast something without a good piece of research to back it up. Yet every day on the news, political reporters fail to say, “Excuse me, could you show us the data that backs up this claim you make about the economy?” or whatever it is. I used to argue with my White House correspondent friends about this, how members of Congress would make claims and the reporters would never ask to look at the data. They would just quote the politicians verbatim. We need to ask people to think critically about these public statements and ask for the data to back stuff up.