Humans to Mars: a deeply disturbing idea


Credit: “Mining Mars,”

One of many cultural phenomena that worry me as much as the U.S. presidential campaign (I voted for Bernie in the primary, and I am voting for Hillary on election day) is the persistent public cheerleading for the human colonization of Mars. The media repeat every bit of the libertarian narrative of progress and freedom that they’re feed with virtually no critical analysis.

I will not repeat much of what Elon Musk said yesterday about his “vision” for colonizing Mars, as it’s plastered all over the mass media. If you want to read a level-headed account of yesterday’s announcement, see Marcia Smith’s report on Space Policy Online.

As Marcia notes, “Elon Musk has made no secret of his passion to make humanity a multiplanetary species by creating a self-sustaining society on Mars as a backup plan in case Earth is destroyed in a cataclysmic event.” NASA’s embraced Musk and his wacky ideas as a way to promote its own “journey to Mars.” Musk said yesterday he wants to accomplish his goal by public-private partnership.

Really? I don’t want a penny of my tax dollars going into such a project. (Musk has already benefited from millions of dollars in direct subsidies, not to mention contracts, from the federal government.)

Musk said he will take people to Mars for $200,000 apiece, transporting 100 to 200 people at a time, starting in a few decades.

First, I don’t believe for a minute that he will accomplish that goal in the foreseeable future.

Second, I have deep moral qualms about this idea, as it appeals to a small fraction of humankind and proposes what would inevitably be an elitist enterprise. Would it be ethical to enable people with enough money to buy a ticket to leave our troubled Earth behind? Would it be ethical for government(s) to subsidize such an enterprise? In Musk’s disturbing “vision” – a nightmare in my mind – how many poverty-stricken Bangladeshis or Congolese, how many permanently displaced Syrian refugees, will come up with $200,000 – or $2,000, for that matter – to “start anew,” as the colonization zealots say they want to do?

I participated in a conference this past weekend about “social and conceptual issues in astrobiology.” Among the questions we 30 attendees were asked to consider in our discussions were:

“Should humans seek to exploit and/or colonize space? If so, how should this be done? Are there truly universal principals of biology, psychology, morality, etc. that would apply to extraterrestrial life?”

My views on these questions are: No. We should not do it. No.

Right now, at this point in time, humanity is too immature to leave home. We can’t even figure out how to take of ourselves – that is, all humanity – on our home planet. It’s crazy talk to claim that simply by moving to another planetary body we’ll reinvent society.

Human social behavior, intellectual capability, and psychology, will not “evolve” in any noticeable way over the next 10 or 40 or 50 years – probably not even in 100 years. We have not changed noticeably in these respects over the past 100 years, after all. What we have accomplished over the past 100 years is more technology. Hence, crazy talk about colonizing other planets and mining the asteroids.

Last year I blogged about these issues in a post about last year’s Mars Society conference. I’ll repeat what I wrote then: “As a taxyaper, citizen, and space policy analyst, I continue to be baffled by the current administration’s fondness for the ‘space libertarian’ crowd. Is it evidence of what neoliberals call the ‘triumph of neoliberalism’ – free trade, downsized government, lower taxes, privatization? It’s time to take a critical look at U.S. space policy and practice.”

More views on exoplanet terminology



In cleaning off my desk this morning, I unearthed the August 12 issue of Science, which contained yet another paper about a new exoplanet discovery (K. Wagner et al, “Direct imaging of a Jovian exoplanet within a triple-star system”).

Also in this issue was a lovely Perspective on the Wagner et al paper, “Making sense of the exoplanet zoo,” by astrophysicist Rebecca Oppenheimer at the American Museum of Natural History. Following up on my post of September 7, I though I’d share some of her thoughts.

“The single most certain statement about” exoplanets is “expect the unexpected,” she says. I certainly agree. As to the newly discovered Jovian exoplanet in a tripl0-star system, Oppenheimer observes, “Many such solitary objects…are being discovered routinely. All are different from each other, straining current classification schemes.”

She mentions another star, HD 41004, “that exhibits the ‘unexpected’ and draws into question what constitutes a solar system.” HD 41004 is “somewhat smaller than the Sun, with an object 2.5 times as massive as Jupiter on an orbit slightly more than Earth’s about the Sun. In addition, another star orbiting HD 41004, at the equivalent of Uranus’s orbit, has a substellar object orbiting it with about 20 times the mass of Jupiter.” “So,” she asks, “is our labeling of HD 41004 as a ‘solar system’ accurate?”

As I noted in yesterday’s post, Oppenheimer notes, “categorizing is an age-old practice in scientific thought.” However, she comments, “after 22 years of working on substellar objects, I suspect that” the labels now used to sort them may have lost their utility in advancing knowledge. Labels can become obfuscating terms.”

Hear hear.

“With fascinating discoveries, such as Wagner et al’s…and the thousands of objects intermediate between it and stars, what we know is that they consistently fail to conform to the stellar classification system intrinsic to the history of astrophysics. In such a confusing situation, the best we can do is rethink the basic assumptions,” Oppenheimer says. (Pardon me for such extensive quoting, but her piece is so well written….) She cites a paper by Chen and Kipping ( that proposes a new nomenclature: “Jovian, Neptunian, and Terran worlds. Whether this scheme will certainly be debated, but it is a fresh alternative to the confusing terms in use today.”

Finally, she notes – wisely, I think – “Perhaps it is too early to define classes of objects” in the universe. To do so may obscure their commonalities and differences, urging overspecialization in the study of objects assumed to be unrelated because of thought-constraining labels.”

Thank you, Dr. Oppenheimer!

The University of Surrey put out a press release today about newly published research that “has shone light on a globular cluster of stars that could host several hundred black holes, a phenomenon that until recently was thought impossible.” A September 7 press release from the Carnegie Institution for Science reports, “Dwarf galaxies are enigmas wrapped in riddles. Although they are the smallest galaxies, they represent some of the biggest mysteries about our universe. While many dwarf galaxies surround our own Milky Way, there seem to be far too few of them compared with standard cosmological models, which raises a lot of questions about the nature of dark matter and its role in galaxy formation.” Every day I read of new research findings about things we didn’t know existed or didn’t believe could exist. It’s what gets me up in the morning….

Earth-like, Earth-sized, Earth-mass: habitable?




Maybe. Maybe not.

Dear readers, by now you must have heard or read news reports about the discovery of an “Earth-like” planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the star that is closest to our solar system (4.5 light years away).

I put “Earth-like” in quotes because the term appears in many stories (especially in headlines) reporting the discovery. But what exactly does “Earth-like” mean? (See my blog post of July 23, 2015, about another announcement of a “near-twin” of Earth.) In this post I do not intend to criticize the research under discussion here or the media reporting on it. I am interested in exploring the optimistic and somewhat confusing framing of the discovery, the fuzzy terms used to describe it, the minimizing of considerable uncertainties.

The discovery of this “Earth-like” planet, Proxima b, apparently was first reported August 12 by the German magazine Der Spiegel. In the following week or so, a few science news outlets reported on Der Spiegel’s story. Some of the headlines: “Proxima Centauri may host Earth-like planet” (Spaceflight Insider), “Does an Earth-Like Alien Planet Orbit the Sun’s Closest Neighbor?” (, “Newly Discovered Earth-Like Planet Is Orbiting Proxima Centauri” (Nature World News), “Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri discovered” (

The research paper reporting on this discovery – “A terrestrial planet in a temperate orbit around Proxima Centauri” – was published by Nature August 24 (Anglada-Escude et al, doi: 10.1038/nature19106): “we report…the presence of a small planet with a minimum mass of about 1.3 Earth masses… Its equilibrium temperature is within the range where water could be liquid on its surface.” In the last paragraph of their paper, the researchers note: “The habitability of planets like Proxima b – in the sense of sustaining an atmosphere and liquid water on its surface – is a matter of intense debate. The most common arguments against habitability are tidal locking, strong stellar magnetic fields, strong [stellar] flares and high ultraviolet and x-ray fluxes; but none of these have been proved definitive…. Proxima b suffers from X-ray fluxes that are approximately 400 times that experienced by Earth.”

A commentary in Nature on this paper (“Earth-like planet around Sun’s neighbor”) describes Proxima b as “Earth-like,” “Earth-mass,” “in the temperate zone” that “could theoretically support liquid water. ” Author Artie Hazes suggests that, “Until we understand what makes a planet habitable, it is better to say that Proxima…b lies in a temperate (the right temperature) rather than a habitable zone.” An accompanying news report in Nature (“Nearby star hosts planet”) describes Proxima b as “Earth-sized” and “potentially habitable,” though possibly “unlivable.”

Also on August 24, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) issued a public announcement (what we used to call a video news release) about this discovery: “the planet, Proxima b, falls within the habitable zone of its host star. The newly discovered Proxima b is by far the closest potential abode for alien life.” ESO defines “habitable zone” as a location in a planetary system where liquid water could (might?) exist. Toward the end of this announcement, uncertainties about habitability are mentioned.*

Media reports on the paper followed suit, emphasizing Proxima b’s alleged similarity to Earth and closing with a mention of uncertainties. Here are some headlines from August 24: “Potentially Habitable Planet Found Orbiting Star Closest to Sun “ (National Geographic), “Proxima b By the Numbers: Possibly Earth-Like World at the Next Star Over” (, “Proxima b: Alien life could exist on ‘second Earth’ found orbiting our nearest star in Alpha Centauri system” (The Telegraph).

You get the idea.

On August 26, Wired reported, “Y’all Need to Chill About Proxima Centauri b…. Astronomers have found other quote-unquote Earth-like planets in the habitable zone in recent years. According the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, there are 15 “Earth-size” (in terms of mass or radius) potentially habitable exoplanets. And while, yes, Proxima Centauri b has the mass closest to Earth’s so far, its other characteristics may not be very earthy….” Also on August 26, my friend and colleague Sten Odenwald (who is an astronomer) blogged for the Huffington Post, “Proxima Centauri b: Earth-sized? Earth-like? Or Habitable?... The terms Earth-sized, Earth-like and habitable might sound very similar, but in fact they are not, and they are also not astronomically precise terms….”

Thank you, Sten.

On August 29, Popular Mechanics (predictably) asked about Proxima b, “How will we travel to that promising new planet?” On August 31, the Voice of America went way over the top with “Colonizing Proxima b, It’s Complicated.”

On September 4, Cosmos magazine addressed “The many potential lives of ‘Earth-twin’ planet Proxima b.” on September 6, Nature World News reported, “Co-Discoverer Says Proxima B is a Life-Friendly Planet; Life Outside Earth Possible?” And also on September 4 (I’m throwing this in just for fun), an alleged news website called Clapway claimed that the lead author of the Proxima b paper in Nature is “meeting with aliens from Proxima b.” (Sigh.)

So, Proxima b is described as habitable, Earth-like, Earth-mass, Earth-sized, terrestrial…have I forgotten anything?

I know that exoplanet scientists have thought about the imprecision of these terms – I’ve witnessed many a conversation among them on the subject (and thanks again, Sten, for your blog post). We all use fuzzy terms from time to time, knowing exactly what we mean in our own heads but not knowing what they might mean to others. In the case of the search for another Earth, I’m doubtful that we’ll find one. Over the 25-year course of the discovery of now 3,000-plus exoplanets, what amazes me most is not how many planets have been discovered but how different they all are. It appears to me that what scientists have discovered (so far) is that there’s no such thing as a typical planet or a typical planetary system.

We humans – and especially scientists – love to label and sort things into groups, in a never-ending effort to create order. In the case of exoplanets, we have “hot Jupiters” and “mini-Neptunes” “Earth twins” and “super-Earths” and so on and so on. I do hope that exoplanet scientists continue to work on more precise terms for characterizing their discoveries – especially when it comes to discussions of potential habitability.


* Habitability is complicated. As I noted in my blog post of July 1, 2015, among the many Big Questions yet to be answered by space science are: What is “habitable”? What is a “habitable zone”? How do we define the habitable zone of a planetary system?

Wise guidelines for space policy making



As we approach a presidential transition, I’ve been thinking, a lot, about whom the next president will listen to about issues in space policy. (I’d still like to know exactly how, and why, President Obama and his science advisor John Holdren embraced the idea of sending humans to an asteroid and paving the way for asteroid mining.) Today I offer some wise guidelines for space policy, presented by my mentor and friend Eilene Galloway (b. 1906-d. 2009) at a 2003 space policy symposium.* They all sound good to me today. See what you think.

  1. There should be a complete statement of this total problem for which solutions are proposed. Clarify the general policy framework into which specific applications must fit. Clarify the understanding of such words as “peaceful” and “military” so all participants agree on a common meaning.
  1. Do not discard 46-year old [now 59-year-old] concepts that have built up international confidence in outer space as a safe orderly place for the conduct of beneficial activities—humanitarian and commercial.
  1. Avoid chopping up space activities into parts that are not coordinated with the overall goal of maintaining outer space for peaceful purposes.
  1. Avoid embedding political, economic and philosophical concepts which tend to divide nations conducting activities in the naturally international environment of outer space.
  1. Make sure that those in government who are responsible for legislation on organization, programs and budgets understand the unique characteristics of the outer space environment which determines what can be effective in achieving the goal of maintaining outer space as a safe orderly environment.
  1. Include planners with imagination to estimate the probable consequences of proposals for action.


#1 is a no-brainer.

As to #2, Eilene was referring to the work of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), established in 1957, including the production of a collection of treaties that effectively function as foundational international space law (the 1967 U.N. Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space). Many advocates of so-called “private” space development claim this body of international law establishes no barriers to “free-market” activity in space (read: whoever gets there first gets to take it all). Others disagree. I endorse Eilene’s recommendation.

As to #3, I don’t think we’re there….

As to #4, the United States certainly hasn’t followed this recommendation – see my many previous posts on the neoliberal/libertarian/Western-Christian ideology that propels the human exploration and development of space (July 25-27, 2016; December 28, 2015; August 12, 2015; July 27, 2015; March 27, 2015; etc.)

As to #5, the fact that Congress passed and the President signed the SPACE (Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship) Act of 2015 is an indication, to me, that responsible parties in government may not fully grasp the physical, technological, and political complexities of operating in the space environment – especially with humans in the mix.

As to #6, NASA and the aerospace industry have many intelligent, well-educated, and starry-eyed “planners with imagination” – but IMHO too many of them don’t bother with estimating the probable consequences of acting on those plans. My question is, as always, how will the colonization of other planets and the exploitation of space resources benefit all people of Earth? How will such activities narrow the gap between the rich and the poor?

Deep in my brain and in my heart I think and feel that colonizing other planets and exploiting extraterrestrial resources would be immoral at this stage of human development. I’m not at all sure that Eilene Galloway would agree with me. I wish I could talk with her about it.

Do we govern algorithms, or do they govern us?



Earlier this year, one of my professional journals, Science, Technology, & Human Values, published a special issue on “governing algorithms.” What are those, you might wonder? So did I. Now I know. And in some ways I wish I didn’t. They’re just one more thing to fret about….

According to the American Heritage Science Dictionary, an algorithm is “a finite set of unambiguous instructions performed in a prescribed sequence to achieve a goal, especially a mathematical rule or procedure used to compute a desired result. Algorithms are the basis for most computer programming.”

The term “governing algorithms” refers to the ways in which algorithms affect our lives  and also to whether algorithms warrant some sort of governance. Guest editor Malte Ziewitz of Cornell University observes, algorithms are a sort of “modern myth…. They have been depicted as powerful entities that rule, sort, govern, shape, or otherwise control our lives,” and “their alleged obscurity and inscrutability make it difficult to understand what exactly is at stake.”

We’re all familiar with this situation: we want to download a new application, but before we can do that we must agree to a set of terms and conditions and privacy policies. “Providers claim they are acting legally because they have the user’s consent…. When asked why they do not read [these documents], users often reply that they make no sense,” writes Lucas Introna of Lancaster University. “If consent is given, does it cover handing over data to governments?”

Algorithms, deployed as software, are “inscrutable” – at least to the vast majority of us who cannot either write or read code. “They become black boxes.” Decisions made by human coders become “encapsulated in complex inscrutable algorithms that enact (in millions of lines of source code) our supposed choices based on complex relational conditions, which after many iterations of ‘bug fixing’ and ‘tweaking’ even the programmers often no longer understand,” Introna says.

(Are you fretting yet? Just a little bit uneasy? I am.)

Introna examines the “algorithmic actor” Turnitin, which offers a computerized method for checking academic writing for sourcing and plagiarism. Turnitin claims its system “fosters critical thinking.” (I’ll have to think about that claim….)

Turnitin’s sister company iThenticate offers a similar system for academic publishers. “This is the algorithmic governance of academic writing on an unprecedented scale,” says Introna. “When did academic writing come to be seen as a ‘problem’ in need of such governance?

Think about a search engine’s indexing and ranking algorithms – or a news feed’s, or, say,’s….

To wrap up, let me mention some other papers and articles about algorithms, published elsewhere – their titles alone will give you something to think about:

“’Why do white people have thin lips?’ Google and the perpetuation of stereotypes via auto-complete search forms” (Baker and Potts, Critical Discourse Studies, 2013)

“Automating the news: how personalized news recommender system design choices impact news reception” (Beam, Communication Research, 2014)

“Want to be on top? Algorithmic power and the threat of invisibility on Facebook” (Brucher, New Media and Society, 2012)

“Financial news and market panics in the age of high-frequency sentiment trading algorithms,” (Kleinnijenhuis et al, Journalism, 2013)

“NSA uses Google cookies to pinpoint targets for hacking” (Soltani and Gellman, The Washington Post, 2013)

Talk amongst yourselves….

The practices of journalists: what scholars have to say


Credit. R. Crumb, 1977


In the current cultural environment, which inundates us with media content whether we like it or not (airport lounges, elevators, gas pumps…), much of it unfiltered (Twitter, Facebook, blogs), it might be useful to consider what scholars have observed about how journalism and journalists work.

Studies of the practice of news production provide many insights. While some of these studies were done decades ago (e.g. Gans, Gitlin), they are still relevant.

“News” is not something that journalists find but something that journalists participate in constructing, and journalists construct “news” through discourse. In the late, great James Carey’s (1992) ritual conception of communication, “the purpose of news is not to represent and inform but to signal, tell a story.” News is both a form and a product of culture, maintaining culture (values, norms…) over time, through story-telling. Media content is a source and a manifestation of culture, a form of cultural mapping that contributes to the construction of social norms and deviance, and journalistic standards and practices are means of defining media content, constructing news. As sociologist of journalism Michael Schudson has explained, journalists are “cultural actors” who produce news according to a system of “stored cultural meanings and patterns of discourse.”

The professionalization of journalism has enabled journalists to construct and maintain cultural authority for themselves — a role in defining what is news and what is not, a gate-keeping function. Journalists construct their cultural authority by employing their “god-terms of facts, truth, and reality,” as mass communication scholar Barbie Zelizer put it, to construct depictions of social reality. Journalists make choices in constructing the news that favor the interests of elites, in ways that are not necessarily intentional but simply “embedded in professional routines. By adhering to professional standards, practices, values and conventions, journalists participate in constructing and reconstructing social norms, and deviance from those norms.

While what journalists are expected to do is explain things, what they actually do is ritualistically construct and enforce social norms. By engaging in what communication scholar Carolyn Marvin has called “the ritual practice of yielding interpretive authority to experts,” journalists can convey the appearance of distancing themselves from the worldviews and values they depict in their stories. Media content tends to lean toward official stories, and journalists tend to rely on official sources inclined to maintain the status quo.

Sociologist Herbert Gans observed that the maintenance of social order is a key news value. He found that journalists routinize news selection by following conventions regarding sources (who counts as official, authoritative, and credible), substance (timeliness, controversy, prominence, the unusual), value (utility, entertainment), and audience appeal (human interest) in deciding what is news; and that they employ story selling, story buying, and story highlighting – the construction of what he called a highlighted reality — in the process of deciding what is news.

Gans observed that journalists engage in self-censorship by cooperating with people in power, and he noted that they do not appear to be aware of conforming to social norms. Journalists reaffirm the ideological status quo…by ridiculing deviance from the accepted “norm.” Journalistic practices that contribute to maintaining the status quo range from organizational-level media routines (pack journalism, reliance on other media, adherence to a standard set of news values) to professional conventions (objectivity, balance, fairness) to individual biases rooted in factors such as gender and class. Among personal values and beliefs that contribute to journalists’ decisions about what counts as news are ethnocentrism, “responsible capitalism,” individualism, and a belief in the need for social order.

Journalists adhere to professional conventions of objectivity, skepticism, and verifiability as a way of sustaining their cultural authority. The journalistic convention of objectivity has been deemed the most important in the profession, and journalists employ it as a “strategic ritual,” as sociologist Gaye Tuchman characterized it, a defensive routine to protect themselves from criticism.

Though journalists subscribe to the convention of objectivity as a means of avoiding bias, objectivity it has become a sort of bias in itself, according to Schudson (1978), an element of the social construction of news that keeps journalists dependent on official stories and sources. “News routines are skewed toward representing demands, individuals, and frames which do not fundamentally contradict the dominant hegemonic principles,” as social critic Todd Gitlin has said, including “the legitimacy of the social order secured and defined by dominant elites…. Simply by doing their jobs, journalists tend to serve…elite definitions of reality.” Most journalistic accounts “are presented from the inside out,” as mass communication scholar Meenakshi Gigi Durham has explained. “Information is collected and interpreted by people who are inside the dominant social order about those who are either inside or outside it, with no overt acknowledgment of these social locations or the implications thereof.”

Read Mother Jones, Off Our Backs, The Monthly Review , The Nation, The Progressive, Truth-Out, or listen to “Democracy Now” and you’ll get a different depiction of social reality than you will on CNN or in The Washington Post.

As a media analyst, I have a few suggestions. Know who owns your media (see for details). Know which media conglomerates are investing in the campaign to make us pay for access to the Internet – Comcast, for example (2011 revenues, $55.8 billion), which owns, among many other outlets, NBC Universal, Telemundo, USA, SyFy, CNBC, Bravo, Oxygen, Fandango, 50 percent of, and 32 percent of Hulu). Know that the Walt Disney Company (2011 revenues, $40.1 billion) owns, among many other media outlets, ABC TV, ESPN, Lifetime, 227 radio stations, Marvel Publishing, Pixar, Hollywood Records, Mammoth Records, Buena Vista Records, Lyric Street Records, Buena Vista Concerts, and Disney Theatrical Productions.

Diversify your sources. Develop your own media filters – don’t let mathematical algorithms do it for you (more on this topic in a future blog post). Become a critical consumer of media content. Check out the products of the Media Education Foundation – titles include “Advertising and the End of the World,” “Behind the Screens: Hollywood Goes Hypercommercial,” and “Rich Media, Poor Democracy.”




Berkowitz, D. (Ed.) (1997). Social meanings of news: a text-reader. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Boudana, S. (2016). Impartiality is not fair: Toward an alternative approach to the evaluation of content bias in news stories, Journalism July 2016 17: 600-618.

Carey, J. (1992). Communication as culture: essays on media and society. New York: Routledge.

Durham, M. G. (1998). On the relevance of standpoint epistemology to the practice of journalism: the case for ‘strong objectivity.’ Communication Theory, 8(2), 117-140.

Gans, H. (1979). Deciding what’s news: a study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time. New York: Vintage.

Gitlin, T. (1980). The whole world is watching: mass media and the making and unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pan, Z. & Kosicki, G. M. (1993). Framing analysis: an approach to news discourse. Political Communication, 10, 55-75.

Schudson, M. (1978). Discovering the news: a social history of American newspapers. New York: Basic Books.

Schudson, M. (1995). The power of news. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press.

Schudson, M. (2003). The sociology of news. New York: W.W. Norton.

Shoemaker, P. J. & Reese, S. D. (1996). Mediating the message: theories of influences on mass media content (2d ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Singer, J.B. (2016). Transmission creep: media effects theories and journalism studies in a digital era. Journalism Studies, Published online: 31 May 2016, DOI:10.1080/1461670X.2016.1186498.

Soloski, J. (1989). News reporting and professionalism: some constraints on the reporting of the news. Media, Culture and Society 11, 207-228.

Steenson, Steen (2016). What is the matter with newsroom culture? A sociomaterial analysis of professional knowledge creation in the newsroom, Journalism 1464884916657517, first published on July 8, 2016 as doi:10.1177/1464884916657517.

Tuchman, G. (1972). Objectivity as strategic ritual: an examination of newsmen’s notions of objectivity. American Journal of Sociology, 77, 660-670.

Zelizer, B. (1997). Journalists as interpretive communities. In D. Berkowitz (Ed.), Social Meanings of News: A Text-Reader (pp. 401-419), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Zelizer, B. (2004). Taking journalism seriously: news and the academy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.



Danger: beliefs embraced as facts



As a social scientist, I’m interested in how people distinguish between what they know and what they believe. For some, there is no difference. For me, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference, but I think about it all the time. In the current cultural environment, I’m especially concerned about the human tendency to accept beliefs as facts. I urge some critical thinking, especially in regard to the consumption of media content.

In The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966), Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann explained the concept of social constructivism. As summed up nicely in Wikipedia, “Its central concept is that people and groups interacting in a social system create, over time, concepts or mental representations of each others’ actions, and that these concepts eventually become habituated into reciprocal roles played by the actors in relation to each other. When these roles are made available to other members of society to enter into and play out, the reciprocal interactions are said to be institutionalized. In the process, meaning is embedded in society. Knowledge and people’s conceptions (and beliefs) of what reality is become embedded in the institutional fabric of society. Reality is therefore said to be socially constructed.”

Two decades before Berger and Luckmann, sociologist Robert Merton published an essay in The Antioch Review (Vol. 8, No. 2, 1948) entitled “The self-fulfilling prophecy,” explaining how “a false definition” of a situation can prompt “behavior that makes the originally false conception come true.” I observe this process occurring all too often in our social world, and so I re-read Merton’s essay frequently.

“It is the social or public self-fulfilling prophecy that goes far toward explaining the dynamics of ethnic and racial conflict in the America of today.” Keep in mind that Merton’s “today” was 1948, and also consider the state of our social world 70 years later….

As to how to invalidate a self-fulfilling prophecy, Merton suggested, “The initial definition of the situation which has set the [belief-to-fact process] in motion must be abandoned. Only when the originating assumption is questioned and a new definition of the situation introduced, does the consequent flow of events give the lie to the assumption.”

In this essay Merton also explained how the dominant culture in a society defines “out-groups” according to misguided beliefs and then systematically condemns members of these groups both for embracing and rejecting the values – the beliefs – of the dominant culture. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t, as Merton wrote. “The systematic condemnation of out-groupers continues largely irrespective of what they do” (emphasis in original).

Merton argued that “moral scruples and a sense of decency” are not enough to invalidate “false definitions.” Institutional change is necessary to turn things around. I agree.

The self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby fears are translated into reality, operates only in the absence of deliberate institutional controls” [emphasis in original], he wrote. “And it is only with the rejection of social fatalism implied in the notion of unchangeable human nature that the tragic circle of fear, social disaster, and reinforced fear can be broken.”

I provide this post as food for thought. You can read the full text of Merton’s essay on Jstor – you’ll have to register, but reading is free.