The New York Times may be going a little too far in trying to make its Tuesday “Science Times” section accessible to the mythical average Joe-and-Jane. I’m sure many of my (perhaps mythical) readers know the section I’m talking about: It’s the one with all the health care and technology/engineering articles with some occasional science thrown into the mix.
The beginning of two articles in today’s “Science Times” both take a chatty, “here’s what the in crowd thinks” approach to introducing the subject, a writing style that really belongs in gossip, society and fashion magazines. Neither article offers up any study or expert to support the assertions made at the beginning of the article, but rather presents them as self-evident, at least to those of us who are “in the know.” Both articles go on to present theories of experts that contradict or stand in contrast to the ideas presented as known gospel in the first paragraph(s).
The first article concerns recent theories on the “evolutionary” advantage of sleep. Before we go any further, I must state that I am a firm believer in the theory of evolution and the fact that humans and all living things descended through time and mass extinctions from single cell creatures. I just don’t like to see pop-Darwinism thrown around to make silly conjunctures about the complex behavior of humans.
“If there is a society of expert sleepers out there, a cult of smug snoozers satisfied that they’re getting just the right number of restful hours a night, it must be a secretive one. Most people seem insecure about their sleep and willing to say so: they would like to get a little more; maybe they wish they could get by on less; they wonder if it’s deep enough.”
This next story, from the same issue, also is about the evolutionary origins of an aspect of human behavior, in this case, the serial monogamy that many people in western societies practice. The assumption that “we” (or at least “our crowd”) believe the ridiculous sexist nonsense proffered in the first two paragraphs is its own kind of reinforcing ideological subtext, and an offensive one to my way of thinking. And note again the lack of any expert or study to support the “theories,” or even support the assertion that most people believe these theories.
“In the United States and much of the Western world, when a couple divorces, the average income of the woman and her dependent children often plunges by 20 percent or more, while that of her now unfettered ex, who had been the family’s primary breadwinner but who rarely ends up paying in child support what he had contributed to the household till, climbs accordingly. The born-again bachelor is therefore perfectly positioned to attract a new, younger wife and begin building another family.
“Small wonder that many Darwinian-minded observers of human mating customs have long contended that serial monogamy is really just a socially sanctioned version of harem-building. By this conventional evolutionary psychology script, the man who skips from one nubile spouse to another over time is, like the sultan who hoards the local maidenry in a single convenient location, simply seeking to “maximize his reproductive fitness,” to sire as many children as possible with as many wives as possible. It is the preferred male strategy, especially for powerful men, right? Sequentially or synchronously, he-men consort polygynously.”
While we’re on the subject of leads, I’ve seen another sign that cutbacks in newsrooms are leading to a lowering of editorial standards. Here are the first two paragraphs in today’s Associated Press story on the Yankees-Orioles baseball game last night:
“Andy Pettitte retired his first 20 batters before a lamentable seventh-inning sequence spoiled both his perfect game and no-hit bid, and the New York Yankees beat the Baltimore Orioles 5-1 Monday night.
“Pettitte (12-6) was poised to finish the seventh without allowing a baserunner, but former Oriole Jerry Hairston Jr. let a two-out grounder by Adam Jones slip through his legs for an error. Hairston was playing in place of Alex Rodriguez, who was given the night off.”
Now here’s the entire story about the game that ran in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and many other newspapers, which have taken up the practice of using the first sentence of the A.P. article as the compete story in a round-up section of baseball games:
“Andy Pettitte retired his first 20 batters before a lamentable seventh-inning sequence spoiled both his perfect game and no-hit bid, and the New York Yankees beat the Baltimore Orioles 5-1 Monday night.”
Someone at the Post-Gazette really should have taken the time to revise “before lamentable seventh-inning sequence” (not such a great phrase to begin with, but acceptable when followed by a sentence of explanation) into something like “before an error and a hit…”