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Origin of the Specious

Last night, a funny thing happened on the way to a Seinfeld re-run: I grazed past the PBS Newshour and got sucked into a report on the god-botherers’ latest incursion into America’s classrooms.

Usually, watching the Newshour‘s fair and balanced roundtables of pale, male thinktank flacks, national security hawks, and below-the-beltway practitioners of Kissingerian realpolitik debate the issues from every angle—feckless center, right, far-right, and kill-’em-all-and-let-God-sort-’em-out ultra-right—is my idea of blunt cranial trauma.

But “Creation Conflict in Schools,” Newshour correspondent Jeffrey Brown’s look at “how some biology teachers are handling the hot-button debate” over Darwinian evolution and creation “science,” got my attention.

For those not up on late-breaking news from the Bronze Age, creationism is the so-let-it-be-written, so-let-it-be-done version of the origin of life, dearly beloved of flat-earth fundies everywhere. In my ponderous opinion, the heartland taliban’s tireless attempts to roll back what few gains the Enlightenment has made, here in God’s Country, merit constant media vigilance. So, gnawing the bloody-rare remains of the paschal lamb left over from Easter, I watched the Newshour report, praying that the religous right—the poster children for our Age of Unenlightenment—hadn’t managed, at last, to snuff out the candle of rationalism.

The segment was the usual Snoozehour fare, long on whats, wheres, and whens and short on whys. It gave way too much airtime over to excerpts from a slick, computer-animated video produced by The Discovery Institute, ID’d by Brown as “a Seattle-based think tank” that promotes the theory of intelligent design, voguish in anti-Darwinian circles. “Today, powerful technologies reveal elaborate microscopic worlds,” the video’s scientific-sounding Voice of Authority intones. “The complexity of the cells is such that Charles Darwin could never have imagined.” Brown explains, “In this DVD, intelligent design proponents claim that newly identified mechanisms of cell structure suggest more intricacy than natural selection can account for. And this, they say, puts Darwin’s theory in doubt.”

Yeah? And that whackjob two straphangers to your right—the wall-eyed Jeremiah in the handcrafted tinfoil skullcap, gibbering incoherently about MK-ULTRA—knows, just knows, that CIA mind controllers are broadcasting, live, to his pineal gland. Do we give him equal time, too? Since when do we allow pre-Copernican quack science to go unchallenged in the name of a specious journalistic “balance”? The Newshour‘s refusal to whistle in some Santa Fe Institute poindexter to rebut the Institute’s wetbrained balderdash with a crash course in Complexity Theory for Dummies (yes, Virginia, complex phenomena can arise from the interaction of seemingly simple elements) is as inexcusable as it is inexplicable, a big, fat failure of journalistic nerve.

But more disturbing still is the program’s silence on the crypto-creationist agenda of The Discovery Institute. Brown’s blandly matter-of-fact ID (“a Seattle-based think tank”) leads viewers to infer that the Institute is a dissident voice within the scientific community, boldly going where the unfashionable evidence leads it, Darwinian orthodoxy—irony of ironies, the new secular fundamentalism—be damned. A quote from Institute spokesperson Stephen Meyer underscores that impression: “We’re seeking the best explanation of the phenomenon, whatever that might be. Follow the evidence wherever it leads.”

Nothing could be further from the truth than the implication that the Discovery Institute is merely a “Seattle-based think tank.” In her April 2002 article “The Newest Evolution of Creationism: Intelligent design is about politics and religion, not science” (in Natural History magazine, published by the American Museum of Natural History), Barbara Forrest asserts that the Institute, through its Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (CRSC), is a prime mover in the creationists’ stealth campaign to insinuate biblical literalism into public-school science curriculums:

Launched by Phillip E. Johnson’s book Darwin on Trial (1991), the intelligent-design movement crystallized in 1996 as the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (CRSC), sponsored by the Discovery Institute, a conservative Seattle think tank. Johnson, a law professor whose religious conversion catalyzed his antievolution efforts, assembled a group of supporters who promote design theory through their writings, financed by CRSC fellowships. According to an early mission statement, the CRSC seeks “nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its damning cultural legacies.”

Conceding defeat on the traditional killing field of peer-reviewed scientific journals, where anyone with a B.A. in evolutionary biology could hand the creationists their heads, the CRSC has cannily done an end-run around the scientifically literate, conducting its battle for the hearts and souls of the American public in the media arena, where journalists (like the Newshour‘s Brown) too often give them a pass in the name of a false “objectivity” (not to mention their own ignorance of scientific subjects). Forrest describes the CRSC media strategy as a “wedge” strategy, “analogous to a wedge that splits a log—meaning that intelligent design will liberate science from the grip of ‘atheistic naturalism.'” She writes,

Ten years of Wedge history reveal its most salient features: Wedge scientists have no empirical research program and, consequently, have published no data in peer-reviewed journals (or elsewhere) to support their intelligent-design claims. But they do have an aggressive public relations program, which includes conferences that they or their supporters organize, popular books and articles, recruitment of students through university lectures sponsored by campus ministries, and cultivation of alliances with conservative Christians and influential political figures.

In a media age, truth is forged in the foundry of public opinion. By presenting the Institute as an “objective”—nay, even scientifically courageous—actor in the pitched battle between the voices of sweet reason and those who will not rest until every knee bows and tongue confesses that Darwin’s dangerous idea is a rotting heap of falsehoods, the PBS Newshour deprives its viewers of an essential piece of this story. Worse yet, it (unwittingly?) furthers the covert agenda of the crypto-creationist Institute.
If you’re On a Mission From God about this sort of thing, let the Newshour know, via e-mail to newshour at pbs dot org. (Bear in mind that your comments are more likely to be taken seriously if you maintain a civil, reasoned tone.)

4 Comments

  1. Matt_C wrote:

    Here’s another case of right wing alienation from the “elite” who control the country. Creationists honestly believe that it’s tyrannical to have science be decided by scientists (atheistic, effete, Eastern volvo-drivers that they are). Scientific understanding is to be decided by what parents want their children to learn, not what the scientific discipline would suggest is probably true. And when scientists and educators make the Hitler-like insistence that science classes focus on actual fucking science, they get added to the list of fake-elites, along with the lefty judiciary (like all those Republican judges who ruled on the Schaivo case) and Hollywood, as tryants imposing values on the good, common-sense infused volk who know that they didn’t evolve from no damned monkeys.

    Wednesday, March 30, 2005 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  2. Stefan Jones wrote:

    An interesting piece about the relationship between Neoconservatives and creationists:
    http://reason.com/9707/fe.bailey.shtml

    Wednesday, March 30, 2005 at 7:07 pm | Permalink
  3. M. Dery wrote:

    Good stuff. I’ll read the REASON article, Stefan; thanks much. Matt, the irony, here (to my mind) is that I find myself increasingly more sympathetic to the Carl Sagan/SKEPTICAL INQUIRER/Richard Dawkins crowd than ever before. Back in the day, when postmodernists and the identity politicians of the multiculti left were hyperventilating about the cultural hegemony of science, I applauded their critique of the racist, gendered assumptions of too much of what passed as “value-neutral” scientific truth. The infamous SOCIAL TEXT hoax, in which NYU professor Alan Sokal snookered the left-wing critics of the culture of science, was the Waterloo of that theater of the culture wars. But now, in a country that looks more and more like a cross between Caligulan Rome and Cotton Mather’s Salem, I find myself pining for the Enlightenment and nursing a hitherto unimagined sympathy for THE NEW YORK TIMES and, hell, even Dan Rather. Sure, we’ve all read Chomsky’s fulminations about the TIMES, and we’ve all endured the tub-thumpings of a billion “citizen journalists” howling for the head of CBS’s sweater-wearing pinko, but at least those two hoary outlets *feign* respect for fact, for Bob’s sake.

    Thursday, March 31, 2005 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  4. Matt_C wrote:

    It really seems as though the right wing in this country has become the bastion of post modernity. Although they continue to thunder about “objective truth” and the absolute infallibility of the bible and all that rot, their approach to actual FACTS in the public square is jaw-droppingly po-mo. For them, creationism v.s. evolution is a battle of ideologies, with both sides marshalling and manipulating “facts” in order to promote their agendas. The evolutionists are seeking to destroy religion and enshrined godless materialism as the only creed on earth, while the creation-folk are bravely standing for faith and religion and against all the horrors that materialism breeds (abortion, pornography, etc.) In this death-struggle, FACTS are wholey mutable, to be put in the service of whichever side they are most useful for. It would literally boggle the mind of an ID zealot to think for a moment that the reason that scientists support evolution is due to a clear-eyed examination of the evidence. For them, evolution is a conscious Trojan horse for Atheism and its attendant evils.

    Thursday, March 31, 2005 at 12:36 pm | Permalink