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.