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Terry Mattingly: In the Evolution Debate, Clear Definitions Are Among the Casualties

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The point cannot be hammered home too often: In media coverage of the evolution debate, a standard trick, the one that stands out the most for slipperiness, is the refusal to define common terms. What is "evolution," or "creationism," or "intelligent design"? Readers may think they know. The reporter may think he knows. Usually, the shades of meaning get blurred, with the suspiciously consistent effect of casting evolution skeptics into a bad light.

Weighing in incisively on this theme, journalist Terry Mattingly examines the New York Times article on the Texas science textbook battle that John West wrote about the other day. Mattingly is editor of the Get Religion blog and a columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.

Note how Times education reporter Motoko Rich silences the skeptics and quotes only from the approved voices, like Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education. Beyond this, there is usual cloudiness as to definitions. Writes Mattingly:

[T]he committee that produces the Associated Press Stylebook needs to urge mainstream journalists to be more careful when using the words "evolution" and "creationism." Each of those terms has a half dozen or so finely tuned definitions, depending on who is using them at any given moment.

For example, a person who accepts a creation narrative with a "young earth" and a timeline with seven 24-hour days will certainly embrace the creationist label. But what about a person who believes that creation unfolded over billions of years, involved slow change over time, a common tree of descent for species and ages of micro-evolutionary change?

Similar things happen with the term evolution, which as the Blessed Pope John Paul II once observed, is best discussed in terms of different schools of evolutionary thought, some of which are compatible with Christian faith and some of which are not...

The word "evolutionist" certainly applies to someone who believes life emerged from a natural, materialistic, random process that was without design or purpose. But what about someone who accepts that theory on the biological front, but believes that there is scientific evidence that our universe was finely tuned to produce life? What about someone who says that creation contains evidence best thought of as the signature of its creator (Carl Sagan, for example). What about people who insist they are doctrinaire Darwinists, but still see cracks in the old neo-Darwinian creeds? Are "theistic evolutionists" really believers in "evolution" in the eyes of the truly secular academic powers that be? And so forth and so on.

This brings us to the recent Times piece about the ongoing textbook battles in the Lone Star state.

As you read it, please note that the terms "evolution" and "creationist" (or "creation science") are never defined...

[T]he key ... is that the dependence on undefined labels by the Times team prevents readers from actually knowing what the key voices ON BOTH SIDES of the debate are actually saying.

A reporter might think that evolution skepticism is sheer bunk -- but at least tell us something about what the skeptics say, you know, the words that come out of their mouths!

As a veteran reporter and critic of reporting, Mattingly is a stickler for clarity, for asking and answering relevant questions, precisely the questions that often do not get asked (he calls them "ghosts"). What an eccentric! Obviously Terry Mattingly hasn't spent enough time getting schooled in the Hank Campbell theory that sees insisting on lucid definitions -- "it depends on how you define X" -- as a diagnostic sign that you "distrust science" and seek to " undermine science."

Mattingly cites former New York Times editor Bill Keller's

proclamation that the world's most powerful newspaper no longer feels obligated to offer balanced, accurate coverage of voices on both sides of moral, cultural and religious issues.

I don't know whether it's bias, complacency, laziness, incompetence or all four that results in an article like the one under consideration here by Motoko Rich. Certainly it does a disservice to any readers who follow the news because they actually want to know what's going on in the world as it is, rather than as some prefer to imagine it is. Maybe, in fact, few do.

Image credit: gadgetgirl/Flickr.