When you get a chance (not right now) have a look at this video. This is a piece done by Brian Rooney, a professional TV journalist with ABC News Nightline. He follows around Billy Jack and Rusty Carter, two young earth creationists who are leading a school group through the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. (Young earth creationists, or ‘YEC’s’ believe the earth and all forms of life that exist today were created over a six day period 4004 B.C.) In this piece, the YEC’s are showing exhibits to the young students, asking them questions, teaching them, and so on. Rooney also interviews the two YEC’s in the absence of the children, as well as Kirk Johnson, a scientist who works for the museum.


Although the reporter tries to be fair to “both sides” in this story, in the end, the YEC’s end up looking very foolish, and some who have seen this have gone so far as to suggest that this sort of thing is a form of child abuse. Unless one is already a YEC, one cannot watch this footage without thinking that the YEC’s are doing something very wrong here. In other words, it is a fair and balanced piece of journalism, pretty accurate, pretty truthful.

I can imagine this going very differently. I can easily imagine this story being done by a different reporter who leans towards creationism, or who feels the belief that the earth is only a few thousand years old is a social norm that must not be offended. Such a version of this story might be very different. It would not be hard to find a journalist – perhaps one who does not usually cover science, or who lives in a conservative region, or who is not very well educated in natural history – approaching a story like this with a “balance” that gives the YEC’s the same level of credibility as the experts in paleontology. But that is not what happened here. The reporter did a good job.

But how did the reporter know how to do a good job?

Background. Clearly, the reporter researched this story before conducting the interviews and, together with the production staff, before editing the final version. In doing this background research, one might run into a lot of YEC type thinking before finding the first real scientist, or real science writing. There is a lot of creationist rhetoric out there. Indeed, the entire creationist movement is based on one main strategy: To get the word out, through various outlets, about the creationist view of the world. There is no research being done by creationists. It is all about the rhetoric. All of the effort spent by creationists is spent on spreading the creed, not producing new knowledge. Therefore, a very small number of creationists can swamp a relatively much larger number of actual scientists when it comes to filling the available info-space with rhetoric.

But there are relentless communicators: teachers, other kinds of science educators, science writers, TV and radio personalities, bloggers, and so on who make it their business to get the word out about real science. They (we, if I may be so bold) do this for a number of different reasons. It is fun. It is important. Sometimes it is a job. But all of what they (we) do is shaped as well by the fact that there is so much anti-science or pseudo-science rhetoric out there that we have to work extra hard to counterbalance it, and hopefully, displace it.

If they (we) had not been communicating science, challenging the creationists, calling the Intelligent Design Proponents on their misrepresentations and lies, this video might have been very different. It might have given a “balanced” view that leaves the viewer thinking that the YEC’s may well have a point, and that the “expert” in the back room of the museum might be the fool.

But what about the person who is already a fairly well informed science-groupie, or already a well entrenched creationist? How would a person who already has an opinion on these matters react to the YEC’s biblical tour of this museum, or to a curator explaining how the creationists have it all wrong? Or to a movie like Expelled!, or a movie like Flock of Dodos? Or to a web site like Answers in Genesis, or a blog like this one, or Pharyngula, or The Panda’s Thumb? Well, the science-informed person will remain a science-informed person, and the creationist will remain as a creationist. Nothing will really change, most of the time (but not always).

But, the reporter, the news agency, the teacher, the uncommitted, the political staffer or politician, anyone who wants to orient themselves properly in relation to the science and the public debate, or to avoid embarrassment by being sucked into a particular misguided camp, will be properly informed, even swayed, by this background information. The available background information, which is distributed across peer reviewed journals, popular magazines like Seed and Natural History, in books, on blogs, and in the products of various news outlets provides the functional, active framework for interpreting this debate. If creationists appeased scientists … “Well, our view is just one view, and the scientists have a valid viewpoint as well, even though we think they are wrong” … then the creationists perspective would be considerably weakened. If scientists appeased creationists … “science is not about faith. Individuals who believe in the literal truth in the Bible have a valid point of view, and this point of view should be allowed equal footing with the science, which, after all, is just another form of religion” … then the scientific perspective would be considerably weakened.

The recent events that happened in connection with the pro-creationism movie Expelled!, whereby biologist and blogger PZ Myers was himself expelled from a pre-release showing of the movie, drew a lot of attention to the movie itself as well as to the issue of evolution vs. creationism. The event was covered in major press outlets. The blogospheric reaction to this was so intense that this event shows up as a perturbation on the Internet itself, with servers crashing or slowing down, and hundreds of thousands of people reading about it. When that happened, the Framing Fraternity (Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet, mainly) made the claim that the attention given to this event by bloggers (such as PZ Myers, myself, and a couple of hundred others) would only help the creationist cause by bringing attention to the movie. All publicity being good publicity is the guiding rule, they claimed. Pro-science bloggers should have ignored this event.

However, the expulsion of PZ Myers was only one of many aspects of the production and promotion of Expelled! that involved nefarious acts, lies, or unethical behavior. All of these aspects have been duly and diligently pointed out by pro-science bloggers and other writers. The background … the available rhetoric regarding this movie … is full of critical analysis of the movie itself, the way it has been produced and promoted, and what it contains. Without this diligent work to keep the truth in the media, the available background would be drenched with the creationist message. Reporters, teachers, policy makers, citizens in general, would be left with the impression that the creationist perspective is pervasive and normal. As it is, because of this diligence, the critique of creationism is very much part of the available information. It is part of the background. Because of this, news reports like that of Brian Rooney’s can happen. In the absence of this widely disseminated critique, they could not.

Comments

  1. #1 Jason Failes
    March 26, 2008

    Good post. Sorry to leave this comment contentless, but I think you about covered it.

  2. #2 randy
    March 26, 2008

    yes, but promoting science, attacking the creationist and other non-science and pseudoscience, is not the same as attacking all religious belief.

    PZ did great is framing the Expelled fiasco (I don’t know how great he was in the film) but at the same time the ridicule of religion, conflating almost all religious faith negative and harmful, will do nothing to spread science to moderates who have left (or choose never to engage with) fundamentalism or literalism.

  3. #3 TK Kenyon
    March 26, 2008

    Hi Greg, et al,

    Very nice article. You are absolutely right that, in the absence of detailed, accurate critique, the creationist movement gains credibility.

    However, religious folks ridicule science, often and loudly, and our silence is a couterproductive response. If we merely turn the other cheek, we get slapped twice. We need a few point people, like Myers, Dawkins, and Hitchens, to attack the religionists and breach their defenses.

    It’s not about destroying faith and taking something away from them. It’s leading the benighted into the light of reason so they don’t have to be afraid of the dark anymore.

    TK Kenyon
    http://science4non-majors.blogspot.com/
    http://rabidatheists.blogspot.com/

  4. #4 chezjake
    March 26, 2008

    An excellent perspective, Greg. Thanks.

    BTW, yet another “frame” for attacking Expelled! is pointed out in this comment over at Antievolution.org:
    http://www.antievolution.org/cgi-bin/ikonboard/ikonboard.cgi?act=ST;f=14;t=5383;st=30#entry101807

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    March 26, 2008

    I’m not convinced. A moderate who accepts evolutionary science but who then drops it because some people express their opinion about religion wasn’t very committed to the science.

    I’m made very uncomfortable by suggestions that a particular point of view should be toned down, avoided, or not spoken. disagreed with, great. But telling people to not express their views is not really a great idea.

    Freedom loving religious people should pray that Dawkins’ right of free speech is not infringed, even though he is a Brit.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    March 26, 2008

    “If we merely turn the other cheek, we get slapped twice. ”

    Brilliant

    That deserved to be added to an appropriate list of quotes!!!!! Just a tiny bit too long for a bumper sticker, though…

  7. #7 Umlud
    March 26, 2008

    I think this topic speaks to so many things. It speaks to the ability of religiously motivated nutjobs to home-school their children (see page 4); control of information/desire to learn; styles of pedagogy; blatant brain-washing of children (as seen in the video); and an inability to compromise on an absolute such as “Truth.” (Strange how religious truth isn’t subject to post-modernist ideas of subjectivity, but many sciences are…)

    How do we deal with all this? A part of me thinks the rationalists should use the same sorts of tactics as the fundamentalists: assert the truth, bash those who are patently wrong, and tell the people what they want to hear. (I don’t think one can force a person to become a rational thinker, but providing them with correct information from which they can draw their own opinions is much better than what we have now…) Another part of me just wishes the whole thing will blow over so we won’t really have to address it. The last part of me wishes that I could just force-feed them rational thought until they become mindless automatons spouting universal constants and scientific theories as if they were truth in scripture.

  8. #8 randy
    March 26, 2008

    and inappropriately not turning the other cheek leads to 4000 (actually countless others) dead.

    Its not that moderates drop evolution, it is that they could care less about it. They don’t become allies (of course you don’t want them as allies until they are atheists do you Greg.)

    Have you ever blogged on the clergy letter? Darwin Sunday activities?

  9. #9 randy
    March 26, 2008

    and inappropriately not turning the other cheek leads to 4000 (actually countless others) dead.

    Its not that moderates drop evolution, it is that they could care less about it. They don’t become allies (of course you don’t want them as allies until they are atheists do you Greg.)

    Have you ever blogged on the clergy letter? Darwin Sunday activities?

  10. #10 randy
    March 26, 2008

    and inappropriately not turning the other cheek leads to 4000 (actually countless others) dead.

    Its not that moderates drop evolution, it is that they could care less about it. They don’t become allies (of course you don’t want them as allies until they are atheists do you Greg.)

    Have you ever blogged on the clergy letter? Darwin Sunday activities?

    I am not agreeing with anyone who says you should ‘shut up’, but then how often have I read (maybe not from you but from others) claiming that the “Neville Chamberlins” should shut up.

  11. #11 randy
    March 26, 2008

    holy crap, how did that happen… I kept got an error from the site when I hit post, and then boom, it really gets posted, maybe when I hit the back key?

  12. #12 Martin
    March 26, 2008

    “Freedom loving religious people should pray that Dawkins’ right of free speech is not infringed, even though he is a Brit.”

    Why the random dig at Britain? Why would we curtail Dawkins’ right to speech?

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    March 26, 2008

    Randy: What is hapening here is that our servers are so overloaded because of the huge interest in the Expelled! fiasco that the commenting functionality is going crazy. I’ll delete your redundant posts when I can get into the system.

    What do you mean by “Dawkins’ Sunday Activities”?

    At some point, the storm troopers come marching into down and everybody wishes that Neville Chamberlain had shut up. (But the analogy is not well enough matched to apply here, I think.)

    Martin: That was not a random dig at Britain. If I did NOT say that, then certain people would complain that I’m speaking of and to a US situation only, because the reference to “freedom of speech” is usually taken as a reference to the US constitution.

  14. #14 randy
    March 26, 2008

    Darwin Sunday, not Dawkin sunday.

    Maybe it was Evolution Sunday. But there have been organized efforts to celebrate science on the sunday closest to Darwin’s Birthday in many churches for the past few years. Obviously not too often at the local community bible church or megachurches, but many ‘main stream’ protestant and catholic congregations have embrassed this with some success.

  15. #15 Jim
    March 26, 2008

    I took to freedom of speech comment not as a dig to the British. Instead that all people speaking in the US should have freedom of speech, regardless of their nationality.

  16. #16 randy
    March 26, 2008

    here is a link to one church,

    http://www.rcc-ucc.com/Darwin.html

    if you google it you will find others and of course the responses by creationists such as this by Kam Ham

    http://www.wposfm.com/HTML%20files/Darwin%20Sunday.htm

  17. #17 Greg Laden
    March 26, 2008

    Randy,

    OK, now I know what you are talking about. I was thinking this might have been about Dawkins’ singing of christmas songs, which I have blogged about.

    No, I have not written directly about the Darwin Sunday events. Partly because I can’t write about everything, but also, because these things really exist on the other side of a line I don’t often wander past. I’m glad that religious groups are working out how to reconcile differences between their beliefs and science. What I keep saying is that this is what they need to be doing, rather than makings science change to be allow for religious beliefs.

    (Luna? Are you reading this, kitty?)

    But while I think it is good that they are doing it, I don’t follow it very closely.

  18. #18 the real cmf
    March 26, 2008

    Jim, “Instead that all people speaking in the US should have freedom of speech..”

    Great idea, but it is still just an idea here. Both the exclusive left and the myopic right have clever ways of chipping away at the free speech right today that defy description.

    The left particularly the feminist left, chips away at pornography, equates it with enslavement of women “and children” ( the left always throws the children in the fire) and then attempts to limit speech, and the right–they wish free speech only applied to commercial interests, i.e. the right for corporations to not disclose whehter there are phthalates or dioxins in plastic toys, etc.

    Every day–especially during election cycles–each side attempts to invent new strictures on speech. Sad really, but in the end they generally agree on one thing: they can, and do limit debates between opposed viewpoints, and each side colludes to keep the staus quo.

  19. #19 the real cmf
    March 26, 2008

    Jim, “Instead that all people speaking in the US should have freedom of speech..”

    Great idea, but it is still just an idea here. Both the exclusive left and the myopic right have clever ways of chipping away at the free speech right today that defy description.

    The left particularly the feminist left, chips away at pornography, equates it with enslavement of women “and children” ( the left always throws the children in the fire) and then attempts to limit speech, and the right–they wish free speech only applied to commercial interests, i.e. the right for corporations to not disclose whehter there are phthalates or dioxins in plastic toys, etc.

    Every day–especially during election cycles–each side attempts to invent new strictures on speech. Sad really, but in the end they generally agree on one thing: they can, and do limit debates between opposed viewpoints, and each side colludes to keep the status quo.

  20. #20 Martin
    March 26, 2008

    Cheer Greg, complaint retracted, I guess I’ve just seen too many American bloggers take weird attitudes to Britain!

    Nice article. You also touch on an issue I keep finding myself drawn to – what happens at the point where the news hits the science editor.

  21. #21 Martin
    March 26, 2008

    Cheer Greg, complaint retracted, I guess I’ve just seen too many American bloggers take weird attitudes to Britain!

    Nice article. You also touch on an issue I keep finding myself drawn to – what happens at the point where the news hits the science editor.

  22. #22 Martin
    March 26, 2008

    @cmf

    Victories for freedom of speech in your country are basically, er, the OJ Simpsion trial; the stream of nonsense that is an American election campaign (even compared to ours!; creationism; oh, and Fox News. My God, I’m amazed you guys aren’t all campaigning against freedom of speech if this is what it leads to!!

  23. #23 Stephanie Z
    March 26, 2008

    Martin, when the alternative is letting whatever administration may have smarmed its way into power lately decide who gets to talk and who doesn’t, we’ll put up with the idiots. Well, I will, but it would take approximately 2/3 of the electorate in a long, ugly process to outvote me.

  24. #24 Bob
    March 26, 2008

    I spent most of last night thinking about the framing issue, responding specifically to Nisbet’s (http://overscope.cynistar.net/archives/155-Dead-Wrong,-Part-One.html) and Mooney’s (http://overscope.cynistar.net/archives/156-Dead-Wrong,-Part-Two.html) posts.

    The frame they fear is “Any attention is good attention” which while reasonable is not justified in this case. The frame that most people are picking up (including – surprisingly – the media) is “Moralizing blowhards are dangerous, hypocritical liars.”

    It’s not a matter of public perception of science or giving airtime to bad ideas, it’s all about hypocritical lying liars. It’s to Rooney’s credit that he doesn’t credulously cater to YEC stupidity out of ‘balance’ as if stupidity or evil are ever justifiable positions. Presenting young earth creationism, Expelled!, and nutty, disingenuous “academic freedom” bills within the frame “Moralizing blowhards are dangerous, hypocritical liars” makes it more likely that news media will dig deeper rather than taking it on faith that each bad idea’s promoter is telling the truth or that these bad ideas have any validity or are worth entertaining.

    Contrary to Nisbet and Mooney’s (self-serving?) assertions, presenting forceful, consistent challenges to bad science, woo, and lies (religious or not) makes it easier for journalists to ask hard questions and demand direct answers. An example has been set and there is an audience that knows the truth and wants it exposed.

    It’s been a standard right-wing strategy to have some nutjob say something really wrong and offensive then follow up with questions from the “fair and balanced” journalists presenting the lies as “balance”; the media is absolved of guilt since it’s only spreading lies, not creating them.

    Certainly the same rhetorical technique can be used, substituting blunt (and, to some) uncomfortable truths for lies and innuendo.

  25. #25 PZ Myers
    March 26, 2008

    Everybody keeps trotting out this Evolution Sunday thing as a win for the advancement of science and reason; it isn’t. I detest the nonsense.

    To see what I mean, read some of the submitted sermons. They’re the most amazingly inane crap — this isn’t a movement to promote science, it’s a movement to promote religion under the guise of science.

  26. #26 The Evolved Rationalist
    March 26, 2008

    “If you fail once, don’t give up, FAIL again.” —-The cdesign proponentsist anthem.

  27. #27 randy
    March 27, 2008

    pz, you may be correct in the “inanity” of the sermons, but in my experience with pastors and others is that this comes from naive understandings of science. they honestly want and welcome those willing to take time to help.

    Of course you will not be happy unless the sermon says—dump all our beliefs in god, gods and stories, they are all fantasy. In the name of science Amen.

  28. #28 Elizabeth
    March 27, 2008

    I would worry that preachers open to science will eventually regret that approach as they learn more, and scientists open to religion are going t find more conflict as they head in that direction.

  29. #29 the real cmf
    March 28, 2008

    Martin: re–>”I’m amazed you guys aren’t all campaigning against freedom of speech if this is what it leads to!”

    You are correct en spiritu, especially the OJ dealie;-) American rhetoric has lagged because pop culture has overcome meaningful debate. We don’t need to campaign against free speech because the right and left–in the diguise of debate, or discussion–take such radically opposed ‘sides’ that the vast middle of ‘other possibilities’ is obfuscated.

    At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what or who is ‘right’, but only what is ‘popular.’

    Two rights, making it all wrong, really, and using the same tactics, censorship, and clutter.

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