A Breathtaking Exercise in Journalistic Dishonesty
Just to get this out of the way, I know that bloggers are not necessarily journalists but David Mona-Smith, writing at Indian Country Today back in July of 2012, advertises himself as a journalist-in-training and so I’m holding him to a higher standard. Mr Mona-Smith not only deliberately misinterprets what a geneticist is saying but does so in an egregiously dishonest fashion all in the service of preserving his creation myth. To set the stage:
Back in July, a geneticist at Harvard, David Reich, published a paper in Nature stating that Native Americans arrived in the Western Hemisphere in three successive waves of migration instead of in one big one as had previously been the thinking on the matter. The article was picked up by Global Post which, one can only presume, is where Mr. Mona-Smith comes into this sorry little tale. Smith, quite pleased with himself, spoke to Reich and asked what seemed like perfectly reasonable questions. Here is Mona-Smith’s account as published on his blog.
Reich, the lead author of the research, said he was quick to buzz me back specifically because I was the first person from an American Indian publication to contact him about the study.
“Well,” I said. “This interview’s going to be a little different. I’ve got questions that a white journalist wouldn’t ask you.”
“OK,” he said with an obvious medley of confidence and concern.
“We all know the Bering Strait theory as just that—a theory,” I said. “When did people … when did scientists elevate it to fact? Is it a fact?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t think it is considered fact. I think that it’s a hypothesis about history, but no, it’s not fact.”
Later, in the same piece, Mona-Smith writes:
“There’s a chance that Indians are not from Asia,” Reich continued. “So far [the Bering Strait theory] is consistent with the data, but it’s possible that it’s wrong. … Further research may prove that it’s wrong.” (All emphasis is mine)
This is Duane Gish, misquoting Steven Jay Gould territory here! Mona-Smith goes on to conclude that because Dr. Reich said that the theory could possibly be wrong it is wrong. Mr. Mona-Smith, by his own admission, was so excited that he exclaimed loud enough to startle a colleague. Why? Because he thought, quite incorrectly, that Reich’s statement meant this:
Right now I’m still high from Reich’s public declaration, one that bloodies the Bering Strait theory like a schlocky shill found fleecing folks in a crowd at a seedy carnival. It’s all smoke and mirrors, bub. And I have yet to encounter a single First Nation conscientious objector who buys into what Bering Strait advocates are doling out in classrooms and university lecture halls across this land … our land.
Now, does ‘it could be wrong’ sound like the Bering Strait theory has been bloodied? One would have to be using a very loose definition of the word to get there or one would have to already decided that one didn’t like the theory and that any old raft in a storm will do to keep a cherished belief afloat.
Later in the piece, Mona-Smith puts his cards fully on the table. Namely, that the Bering Straits theory conflicts with his favored Native American creation myth and so the possibility that it could be wrong means that his creation story is true.
At this point in this screed I think it’s imperative for me to state that I’m not religious, but I am heavily spiritual. And I’ll continue to have faith in the creation story that was told to me as a curious kid by my elders: We Lakota have been on this land since time immemorial, which is oodles longer than 15,000 years. We emerged from the earth, a wind cave deep in the Black Hills. That’s our creation story, slick, and until theories are made facts, I’ll stick to it … or not. I’m a stubborn creature who gorges on fry bread and brazenly questions Harvard Medical academics just for kicks. (Emphasis mine)
So instead of buying into the idea that Native Americans, like every other member of Homo sapiens, originated in Africa and radiated out from the ancestral, evolutionary homeland onto the rest of the globe he wants it to be true, if he wishes really, really, really hard that Native Americans (or perhaps just the Lakota) emerged, fully formed, from the Earth at some point in the past.
If one wants to believe hokum because it makes one feel a bit better about being an ethnic minority in a majority-white nation, I suppose that is one’s own lookout. It is another thing entirely to hijack the words of a scientist in order to bolster one’s faith in a comforting fairy tale but one that has no more chance of being true than the kind of creationist nonsense promoted by the aforementioned Gish or any of his creationist fellow-travelers.
Because people said that the above was insensitive and I don’t want to let the point I was making get lost in folk’s belief (mistaken and condescending as I think it is) that somehow non-whites living in majority-white nations need to have things said to us in such a way as to not rub salt in the wounds, I am rephrasing the last paragraph. To that end:
If someone wants to maintain that a non-evidentiary belief is true because it is emotionally satisfying, all the science on the subject be damned, then that is their own lookout. It is another thing entirely to hijack the words of a scientist in order to put a patina of intellectual respectability on a position that, at the end of the day, is no more rational and backed up by no more evidence than anything that Gish or any of his creationist fellow travelers espouses. We wouldn’t say it was okay if the speaker were, say, a white Southern Baptist insisting that creationism be taught in public schools or simply that creationism was scientifically accurate. I see no reason to let it slide if the person making such a statement is either non-white or non-Christian.