25 September 2005

Dover News carnival.

This morning, I took a few minutes to look at a number of the various news articles about the upcoming Dover Intelligent Design lawsuit. The articles that I looked at seem to present a wide range of views, and a few of them were actually quite good. Initially, I was just planning on commenting on one or two. After reading a few, I thought it might be a little more fun to present a bunch of them blog-carnival style.

So, without further ado, here they are: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good:

One of the best things about Google's News Search is that it allows you to read articles that you would not ordinarily have access to. In particular, it gives you access to local columnists at small newspapers. The quality of these columnists varies widely - almost as widely as the quality of blogs. However, there is at least one thing that can be said for the local columns: they give you a chance to see a take on a story that isn't the same as that in the endlessly duplicated wire-service stories.

The Dover coverage in the Sunday papers included a couple of pretty good articles from local guest columnists. In the South Carolina newspaper The State, there is an article by Furman University professor Wade Worthen. Worthen tackles, head on, the major reason that the debate over Intelligent Design has taken place in the public arena: "There is no debate within the scientific community; that's why intelligent design proponents seek to legislate their truth in the political arena."

A former high school science teacher wrote a good op-ed piece for the Springfield News-Leader. Mr. Cunningham, pulling no punches, begins his article by presenting his opinion of how Intelligent Design should be taught: "Since intelligent design has no scientific substance, there is no controversy with evolution to teach to a science student. What should be taught about intelligent design, if anything, is that it is a hoax." The wording may not be the most diplomatic I've seen, but I really can't argue with that assessment. He also makes a good point about the scientific status of Intelligent Design: "If intelligent design had any substance, young biologists worldwide would be straining to win laurels by disproving current evolutionary theory in favor of intelligent design." Truer words haven't been spoken. There's nothing like being right at the center of a big, massive, ugly, blood-on-the-floors scientific debate when it comes to making a name for your self.

Brad Kurtzburg, writing for Elites TV, put together a nice little piece that tells the story as-is, without searching for "balance". I particularly liked the way he juxtaposed two short paragraphs:
The Dover school board claims it just wants students to be aware of the existence of intelligent design as an 'alternative to evolution.' It also denies that intelligent design in 'religion in disguise.'

The school board is being supported by The Thomas More Law Center which uses litigation to promote what it calls 'the religious freedom of Christians and time-honored family values.'

Bill Toland of the Pittsburg Post-Dispatch has two articles, both good, on the upcoming trial. The first article starts out on a light note:
If "intelligent design" supporters weren't so quick to rebuke those who connect their mission to the Bible, it would be tempting to borrow from the Old Testament and describe the upcoming federal trial over the issue as a legal version of David vs. Goliath.

Instead, we'll let the defendants in this case, which pits Dover Area School District against parent plaintiffs, to describe the trial in their own words.

"It's almost David vs. Goliath," says Richard Thompson, of Michigan's Thomas More Law Center, which is defending the York County, Pa., district.
The rest of the article is a touch more serious, and raises some excellent points that have been overlooked in too much of the press coverage:
"It's an attempt by the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State to intimidate this tiny school district in Pennsylvania," he said. "They want to make an example of this small school district."

The parents, their attorneys and most scientists and educators see it the other way around.

Intelligent design is pseudo-science, they say, but a well-orchestrated one, funded by Christian literalists who oppose the theory of evolution and promoted slickly during the past 10 years by religious groups. They say intelligent design supporters are disingenuous when they claim their argument has no religious implications, because intelligent design's top advocates have already let the cat out of the bag. Intelligent design opponents point to the words of Phillip Johnson, devout Presbyterian and father of the theory:

"Our strategy has been to change the subject a bit so that we can get the issue of intelligent design, which really means the reality of God, before the academic world and into the schools."
Toland's second article is largely based on an interview with Ken Miller, and discusses the scientific failings of Intelligent Design in some depth.Perspectivess from other scientists are featured in a couple of more articles - one good example is from a North Carolina TV station.

Mary Warner, writing for the Newhouse News Service, has an a excellent article in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. She gives a nice description of the scientific standing of evolution:
Evolution - the theory that all life descended from common ancestors over eons through natural selection - is a mainstay of modern science.

"There are probably more scientists who believe Elvis is alive" than scientists who reject evolution, says Ed Larson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author on America's battles over evolution.
She then goes on, later in the article, to give a slightly different perspective on the matter, from one of the lawyers for the defense:
Attorney Richard Thompson, arguing now for the board, says its purpose was "valid and clearly secular" - to inform students of "the existing scientific controversy" about evolution.
That's a vitally important point that all too frequently is missed when reporters try to be balanced: this is not a controversy of two evenly matched sides, or even one where a significant minority is struggling against the majority. This is a "controversy" where an extremely tiny minority (the Discovery Institute claims 400; there are hundreds of thousands of scientists in the US alone) is waging a political battle against the vast majority of scientists. This point is also made in a column available on the News 24 website.

The York Daily Record continues it's extraordinarily good coverage of the Dover Biology policy with a few more noteworthy articles. One of these examines what is at stake in this trial. The other http://ydr.com/story/doverbiology/86717/ discuss the issues surrounding the testimony being demanded from reporters for two local papers.

Last in this category, but by far not least, there is an interesting column written by a Presbyterian pastor from Virginia. I'm not sure that I agree with everything that he's written in the article, but the overall perspective is definitely thought-provoking.

The Bad: (or at least not too good)

Two of the major wire services, AP and Reuters, have written articles that are, for the most part, factually accurate, but which make far too much of an effort to "balance" their coverage by presenting statements from both sides. As a result, both articles let some real whoppers from ID proponents slip by unchallenged.

The AP article has this doozy, from the head of the law firm representing the defense:
"All the Dover school board did was allow students to get a glimpse of a controversy that is really boiling over in the scientific community," Thompson said.
It might have been reasonable to note at this point that virtually every major scientific organization in the country has issued some sort of statement saying that Intelligent Design is unscientific, or that the body of peer-reviewed Intelligent Design research is small enough that even an incompetent carpenter could count it with ease.

In the Reuters article, the Discovery Institute's Director is given a pass on this bit of hyperbole:
"It's a disturbing prospect that the outcome of this lawsuit could be that the court will try to tell scientists what is legitimate scientific inquiry and what is not," West said. "That is a flagrant assault on free speech."
It really would have been reasonable for the reporter to note that the lawsuit does not seek to limit scientific research in any way. It simply wishes to limit material taught in public school science classrooms to actual scientific material, rather than badly-disguised religion.

A community columnist for the La Crosse Tribune seeks balance, as well:
There is one more rule to this debate. Students must listen to each other and be respectful of other ways of looking at the issue. Evolutionists need to give up their attitude of intellectual superiority. Intelligent design or creation advocates need to give up their attitude of moral superiority.

Debating evolution and exposing its flaws might inspire some young student to find the answers for those flaws. Then again, maybe some other theory is correct. Maybe this kind of critical discussion will show us that alternative answer.
Would that it were that simple. I'd personally love to see students taught about the controversies within evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, there are two problems with this approach. The first is that doing so would require students to learn far more biology than they have been. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it may not be realistic given time and resource constraints. The second problem is even simpler: none of the things that the Discovery Institute people claim are "flaws" in evolutionary theory actually are. Adding them to the curriculum would reduce the quality of scientific education, not improve it.

The Christian Post doesn't seem to be any more of a fan of balanced coverage than I am. Unfortunately, their lack of balance leans far to the other side - they include a lengthy section on Behe, but don't mention any of the scientific opposition to his claims.

The Ugly:
In addition to letting you see columns from places you never would have otherwise looked, Google News also lets you see letters to the editor that you never would have seen. I'm convinced that seeing the columns is a good thing. I wonder a bit about the letters.

A letter to the Danville Advocate-Messenger raises a number of old creationist talking points, then concludes with this gem:
Yet it [evolution] continues to be promoted as fact. Why? Because evolution is nothing more than the denial of the existence of a Creator.

The greatest asset evolutionists have is the reluctance of ordinary people to explore and learn the true scientific evidence - and therefore the deception continues to be perpetrated. You don't have to be a scientist or engineer to understand the facts. Many competent scientists have written a great deal about these truths in plain, everyday English.

My study of scientific research proves that "we are fearfully and wonderfully made," or in other words, we have been awesomely, intelligently designed by an infinite, benevolent God. The question is: Are we really looking?
His study of scientific research.... It's funny. I didn't find this sort of thing to be quite so irritating a couple of years ago. Of course, I've invested at least a couple of thousand hours in studying evolutionary biology over the past couple of years.
OK. It is true that you don't need to be a scientist or an engineer to understand the facts. But it helps. (Actually, I'm not sure why someone would expect an engineer to understand evolutionary biology. I don't necessarily expect them to not understand it, but it's not exactly something that they are trained in.)
The problem here is that the creationists are good at putting their message into simple and easily understood prose. Scientists are not as good at this. The fact that the entire message of creationism is simplistic plays a large part in this, as does the fact that science is vastly complex.

The final letter to the editor, and final entry in this post, comes from someone who has a very valuable message to share. Youwon'tt find it in the text of the message - it's just in the subtext. The message is this: there really are places for kooks outside of the internet.

That wraps it up for this brief and biased digest of the Sunday paper coverage of the Dover Battle. I hope you've enjoyed it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill Toland of the Pittsburg Post-Dispatch has two articles, both good, on the upcoming trial. The first article starts out on a light note:


The link in the above quote is incorrect.

2:26 PM  

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