A long-time science reporter wrote a questionable book on genetics. Can we trust his other work?

The case of Nicholas Wade and reporting on a lively field with a dishonorable past

In the 10 weeks since veteran science journalist Nicholas Wade penned a book claiming that genetic difference between the races account for social behavior like work ethic and obedience to authority, the clamor over his assertions has steadily climbed.

Critics have pointed out that A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History mixes correlation and causality, makes generalized assumptions about entire ethnic groups, and draws speculative, unintended conclusions from cherry-picked studies. The New York Times, Wade’s former employer, itself stirred the pot again last Sunday, reviewing his work for the second time, and calling it “a deeply flawed, deceptive and dangerous book.”

The case raises a classic newsroom question: When a reporter, especially a highly regarded one, is so roundly panned for his methods in one piece of work, does it raise questions about his methods in another? And is that something the Times should be evaluating in its continuing freelance relationship with Wade?

Doubts have certainly been raised about Wade’s journalistic scruples.

“It makes me think this guy clearly has an agenda, and he’s pushing it, possibly in defiance of the facts,” said Michael Marshall, environment and life sciences news editor at New Scientist. “It does certainly make me distrust anything he writes on this subject in the future.”

“I regard books like this as kind of the academic equivalent of trolling. It’s scoping for a reaction and I don’t regard it as inherently serious scholarship.”

Alondra Nelson, a sociologist and dean of social sciences at Columbia University, said: “One might have anticipated that Wade knew a lot about genetic science, because he’d been covering it for a long time. He read a lot of papers.  I think what the book suggests, unfortunately, is he probably didn’t know it at the depth we thought.”

While his reporting at The New York Times reads impartially, Nelson said, Wade would often give prominence to the “most extreme” end of the spectrum of academic research on racial difference.

Wade has written about the intersection of race and genetics multiple times among his over 1,000 bylines for The New York Times dating back to the early 1980s. He has reported on, for instance, a gene that increases the risk of heart attacks in African Americans, and a DNA mutation that gives East Asians thicker hair and more sweat glands.  He remains a regular freelancer for the Times.

Barbara Strauch, science editor for The New York Times, says that there’s no reason to doubt Wade’s work for the paper. “We believe his reporting for The Times has been solid and accurate,” she responded in an email. Wade’s last published Times piece was on May 27, and Strauch did not say if the paper’s working relationship with Wade would change. “I honestly have no idea if we will use Nicholas more or less frequently,” she wrote.

In his book, and a subsequent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Wade emphasizes that he is not arguing for political systems of racial superiority, but for social scientists to see the world as it is and not how they want it to be through a slavish devotion to political correctness. A reasonable assertion on its face, if only Wade’s reporting backed it up. But a sense of nuance, of what is known and unknown within a field of research, and an awareness of hypothesis-disrupting external factors, are paramount to science reporting—as to any good journalism. On a topic with as dishonorable a history as gene-based racial differences that applies especially.

Ian Steadman, a science reporter for the New Statesman who reviewed Wade’s book said: “I think there’s definitely a good book to write on that topic, and that wasn’t it.”

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Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw. Tags: , , , ,