On Todd Akin, the alternative media, and the call to leadership

We’ve seen it happen time and again. An earnest neophyte graduate student publishes her first scientific paper identifying evidence of a newly identified correlation or trend. Maybe it’s another compound that can be associated with increased cancer risk, or a newly observed environmental impact of some common industrial byproduct. A few weeks later some newspaper that’s looking to fill white space reports on the study and before long, the news of what had once been a mere argument for more research funding is carried as if it were some sort of widely accepted scientific law. People are going through contortions to change their diets and city councils are passing new laws. The Congressional leadership, seeing a new scientific basis for its preconceived policy goals, is holding expedited hearings.

A year or two later, further research fails to confirm the original findings. The original outcry fades into the vagueness of history, save for a few occasional individual recollections that are easily dismissed as the remnants of yesterday’s popular science. And so it is as academics intersect with the mainstream of political and media culture.

How often do we hear folks reminisce about the good old days of a great gatekeeper media? While many of us with conservative or libertarian leanings for good reason see new and emerging forms of media to be the last bastion of a free press, perhaps we should take a moment to appreciate the great benefit that William F. Buckley’s presence in the arena of the mainstream press had to the development of a sound conservative argument. How would things have been different if he were making his case in today’s balkanized media culture?

Perhaps Todd Akin is in a way a victim of that balkanization. I have no reason to doubt his sincerity when he says that he read some magazine articles that referenced a reputable scientific study that documented a sharp reduction in fertility following a traumatic experience. It also would not be surprising to hear that at some point in the past such a finding was jumped on by some in the pro-life alternative press, in much the same way as the rest of the culture is inclined to overreact and misinterpret scientific literature. In fact, it is almost certain that the articles of which Rep. Akin speaks were published by that alternative press.

Does that mean that pro-life publications are bad? Of course not, but as a leader Mr. Akin has a responsibility to get out of the bubble that such publications create. He is called to engage the culture. An uninformed adherence to a policy position may be partially excusable for a rank-and-file congressman, but certainly not for a U.S. Senator. Todd Akin has failed conservatives this weekend not because he misspoke, but because he could not rise to the occasion. At that level it is not good enough to have the correct position or to vote the right way. One must be able to either win support or to form coalitions. It’s not about preaching to the choir, and it’s not about being one of hundreds of votes mostly following the leadership.

Maybe we need more folks who can be role models and show us how to engage the mainstream media and political culture? I think that might be why Paul Ryan has had such a surprisingly warm reception. Congressman Ryan has won the respect of those across the political spectrum. He cannot be dismissed as unintelligent or heartless. And so he is in a position to engage the culture in the way Buckley pioneered.

Let’s not spoil that opportunity.