Monday, May 18, 2009

This I Don't Believe

Let's suppose you had the opportunity to interview a judge who had recently published an opinion on an important criminal case, one in which she had found, for purposes of concreteness, in favor of the defendant. Your questions turn to the matter of the judge's objectivity, and then it is revealed that the judge has had a long-standing prior relationship with the accused.

Pressing the issue you ask whether this relationship may have influenced her decision. "No, not at all," she responds. "On the contrary, my acquaintance with the defendant didn't skew my judgment, it helped to inform my decision."

At this point in the interview you may begin to doubt - not necessarily the judge's personal integrity, since she may, after all, have had no untoward interest with regard to the outcome of the case - but her judicial faculties. Does she understand the concept of objectivity well enough to realize that it requires that she distance herself from her prejudices and, most certainly, not rely on them?

Such a failure to appreciate the meaning of objectivity is illustrated in a recent interview with Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR reporter and author of the forthcoming book, Fingerprints of God, by Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen. By virtue her authorship Hagerty has positioned herself as a judge of the question, "is spiritual experience real or a delusion?" Although Hansen broaches the issue that Hagerty's upbringing as a Christian Scientist might have affected her analysis, Hagerty proceeds to insist that, in fact, "Christian Science really helped me with my research."

Hagerty goes on to claim that "Christian Science was about 100 years ahead of its time," based on her dubious equation of Mary Baker Eddy's belief in prayer-healing with the emerging field of mind-body studies called psychoneuroimmunology. In this regard, she succeeds, somehow, in demeaning both religion and science. We would all agree that Christian Science is more than simply a theory about emotional health affecting physical well-being (that was hardly breaking news in the 19th century) and, likewise, we would agree that nowhere do contemporary scientific studies of the human brain presuppose supernatural influences on neurological function.

What is, perhaps, more troubling about the interview, having nothing to do with Hagerty's particular take on the religion-science debate, is that it calls into question whether NPR is adhering to its own professional standards. Specifically, the piece opens with the statement:
The golden rule of journalism decrees that reporters take nothing on faith, back up every story with hard evidence, and question everything. NPR's religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty kept that rule in mind when she decided to explore the science of spirituality.
This is hardly borne out by the exchange between Hansen and Hagerty that follows.

Is it appropriate for NPR to bestow the imprimatur of objectivity on Hagerty's tendentious opinions about religion and science without criticism? It would be one thing if she had simply endeavored to report on the contemporary scientific understanding of the origins religious experience, but Hagerty goes much further. She concludes in the interview, explicitly, that belief in God is a rational choice. This is a profound, and profoundly contentious, question that should not be presented without challenge.

Indeed, the interview and the 5-part series that it previews, Is This Your Brain on God, could be confused with a promotional campaign for Hagerty's upcoming book. Here NPR's own standing as fair "judge" could be called into question. Is Hagerty's book being featured for its merits or is it, to some extent, receiving the spotlight based on its author's long relationship as a reporter for the news organization? To the extent that Hagerty takes a disputed position on a matter of public importance, isn't it incumbent on NPR to present alternative points-of-view? I'm not sure whether NPR, like the New York Times, has a public editor to consider such concerns, but it would seem that its own journalistic standards would demand such consideration.