UPDATED: Alt-Ctrl-Scopes or How the Newshour Repeated Every Other Story on the Debate Over Evolution - Evolution News & Views

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UPDATED: Alt-Ctrl-Scopes or How the Newshour Repeated Every Other Story on the Debate Over Evolution

Last year the producers of The Newshour with Jim Lehrer were seeking out the people hunkered down at ground zero in the debate over evolution: the National Center for Science Education.

As soon as the call to the Darwin defenders at the NCSE was placed and the interviews booked the Newshour turned their sites on the NCSE’s counterparts, the anti-Darwin scientists at the Center for Science Culture. But not without scheduling a lot of interviews and camera time with biblical creationists --and their dinosaur theme parks-- in between.

After months of discussion with the producers of the Newshour about whether or not they would fairly represent the theory of intelligent design, and the larger debate over how to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, Dr. Stephen Meyer agreed to an interview . He spent several hours with Jeffrey Brown as PBS rolled up nearly two hours worth of tape. The Newshour with Jim Lehrer said they were going to do a story on intelligent design and we tried to help make it accurate. Needless to say our legs are tired from pushing uphill.

(ASIDE: The upshot of all this is a lesson to anyone who deals with the media. Meyer got not quite 30 seconds of airtime in a report that lasted 14:32 seconds, or about 13 minutes longer than your average network news segment. To get that thirty seconds he traveled several thousand miles and spent hours preparing and then conducting the interview. Enter into media relations at your own risk.)

Why did Dr. Stephen Meyer, arguably one of the central figures in the national debate over origin of life issues and what we teach in high school biology classes, get only a handful of seconds and a few measly sound bites?

The answer isn’t all that hard to fathom -- it is as simple as alt-ctrl-scopes. That’s the universal macro for journalists reporting on the debate over evolution. Alt-ctrl-scopes brings up the old trope about evolution, that this is just religion vs. science.

If you’re a journalist writing about this issue what more needs to be said than was said at the Scopes Monkey Trial almost a hundred years past? Alt-ctrl-scopes, fill in the names and you’re done.

Apparently, for many modern journalists, nothing in the debate over evolution makes sense except in the light of the Scopes Trial. What was the case then in 1925, must be the case now. Too many reporters stick to this tried and true trope, and unfortunately The Newshour’s Jeffrey Brown did as well.

That’s not to say that Brown didn’t try to do a good story. I don’t think he set out with a nefarious agenda to undermine the theory of intelligent design, or to criticize the Center for Science & Culture. I think he was just incapable of getting past the inordinate amount of misinformation and propaganda that is being thrown at members of the media such as himself each and every day they deal with this story.

Early on in the story he says: “Students learn that natural selection is the key mechanism by which evolution takes place.” What he didn’t do was to define his terms so that viewers knew exactly what he was talking about when he says “evolution” or even natural selection.

The story moves quickly to the typical stereotype of religion vs. science saying that is an issue mostly focused on religion and faith. To bolster that they have lots of high school students who express their doubts about Darwinism in overtly religious terms. The story leaves no doubt that evolution is under an attack led “mostly by religious conservatives.” Interesting. David Berlinski would be surprised to hear that. So would Stanley Salthe. Or, Giuseppe Sermonti. Or any number of other non-religious scientists skeptical of the claims of Darwinism. Contrary to the Newshour’s premise at the outset, doubting Darwinism is not solely a consequence of religious belief.

The next step –after making sure the viewer is aware it’s purely a religious issue—is to use the political environment to keep the focus off of the scientific evidence and instead on peripheral things like the “red state rampage.” Or in this case where historian Ed Larson explains this is all just a part of the typical pattern of evolutionary discontent that arises with the election of a republican presidents.

"We had Harding and Coolidge in the 20s. We had Reagan in the 80s. And now we have George Bush."
Now we have George Bush? That's the reason that Darwinism is in trouble? When did they start handing out Pulitzers from pez dispensers for any old sweet idea? Of course, the scientific evidence between Harding and Bush probably made little or no difference at all. But, I digress. (Can I still get some candy?)

What is different now is the modern scientific evidence that supports the design hypothesis, as well as that which has cast doubt upon Darwin's theory. But, somehow for many journalists that is lost in filling out the macro.

Next in this typical story comes the inevitable –and arguably too long by half— interview and series of clips from fire-breathing biblical creationists like Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. Inevitably, instead of pointing out that creationists like Ham find little to like about design theorists, the story goes on to conflate the two vastly different theories of creationism and intelligent design.

(Is déjà vu setting in? You’ve probably seen this report a hundred times before. But you know what they say about lies repeated . . . . )

Next up is Eugenie Scott of the NCSE teaching teachers about how evolution is not “just a theory” as some textbook stickers would have you believe. “This is how evolution opponents misuse science,” proclaims Scott. Of course, she dodges any of the real issues of the evidence for the theory of evolution, and instead goes for the politically inept jugular of school districts that have relied on such stickers to try and improve the teaching of Darwin’s theory.

Because they are tied to the stereotypes in the old trope about evolution, the Newshour makes an egregious error of omission: the Newshour was doing a story about the teaching of evolution and yet they missed one of the biggest developments in the issue in the past year. In 2002 the state of Ohio adopted science standards that require students to know "how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory." The Ohio state board of education followed that up last year by adopting a mode lesson plan entitled "Critical Analysis of Evolution." Yet, the Newshour visited schools in Kentucky when they could have just as easily gone to Ohio. And, they used tiny Dover, Pennsylvania's decision to insert the theory of intelligent design into the curriculum as a backdrop to their story. Why focus on a tiny school district, however controversial, without mentioning the great success that an entire state has had in wrestling with such a difficult issue? Because it fits the stereotype.

This all leads inevitably to the point where intelligent design is proclaimed as just another form of creationism.

“The newest attack on evolution claims to come from a strictly scientific perspective.”
Rather than define the theory of intelligent design in its own words, the Newshour presents the idea along with creationism and lets a student set the tone by saying: “this talks about how all life around you is just so complex it has to have had some intelligent designer.”

Well, unfortunately that student would have failed many classes if their grade was dependent on an accurate description of the theory. Much of design theory is based on the experiential nature of the world and what we know of cause and effect, not on what we don’t know. Rather than being an argument from ignorance as the student defines it, it is an argument from what we do know empirically of the world around us, much more so in fact that Darwin’s theory.

To the Newshour’s credit they finally let Dr. Meyer weigh in on the issue and briefly explain the theory.

“The theory of intelligent design says that life arose as the result of a designing intelligence and you can tell that from certain key indicators … that are present in the cell like the presence of digital information in molecules like DNA and RNA. And the presence of exquisite little molecular machines, little rotary engines and turbines and pumps that we now find in cells.”
This is followed by a brief clip from Unlocking the Mystery of Life that is unfortunately inadequately explained as a result of having such a short time frame in which to set it up.

Eventually this leads to the CSC's “teach the controversy” approach to science education, and the typically vague criticisms from the NCSE and elsewhere. According to the NCSE’s Scott, there is no debate among scientists. Specifically concerning the controversy over Darwinian evolution’s ability to explain the complexity of life – and that is the controversy – Scott says of the debate: “this is not happening.” She might want to tell that to the relatively small, but extremely courageous, group of nearly 400 scientists who have signed the “Scientific Dissent From Darwinism” statement.

Brown eventually does make clear that ID proponents are distinctly different from creationists saying:

“In fact intelligent design proponents distance themselves from creation scientists. They use only the language of science and avoid speaking of God as the ultimate designer.”
By saying we “use only the language of science” as if we were trying to be sneaky Brown betrays his assumption that he knows what we’re really doing, regardless of what we say we’re doing. He makes this assumption based on his reliance to the old stereotype that this is just an argument between religious creationists and enlightened scientists.

Because of that mistaken presumption there is a glaring error of commission -- the Newshour presents Dr. Steve Meyer's description of intelligent design, without ever presenting his comments about the fact that CSC does NOT favor what the Dover school board has done, and that we do not advocate requiring the inclusion of intelligent design in the classroom. Dr. Meyer made this point repeatedly in his interview, but it was left on the cutting room floor, leaving viewers with the incorrect assumption that he must support that position.

Dr. Meyer gets the last direct quote saying:

“We argue that from the science you can tell that intelligence played a role, but we don’t think that from the science you can tell the nature or the identify of the designer.”
In the end, like too many recent reports, The Newshour missed the big story because they seemed to be more taken with the question of who the designer is than the intriguing scientific evidence in the natural world that points to some intelligent design.

So, what about my original question: Why did Dr. Stephen Meyer, arguably one of the central figures in the national debate over origin of life issues and what we teach in high school biology classes, get only a handful of seconds and a few measly sound bites?

He got little time because the issue for the media isn't about the science involved, it's about making this a culture war issue. This is about blue state vs. red state, atheist vs. fundamentalist, educated vs. uneducated. In order to tell the story without delving into the intriguing world of molecular machines or explaining the cutting edge findings in molecular biology and nanotechnology, the media simply tries to modernize the story of good old Clarence Darrow being trounced by the status quo. Only this time around they don't even recognize who Darrow is, or that they're fronting for the status quo.