In Presidential Coverage, Framing Evolution as Belief

At the History News Network, my American University colleague Lenny Steinhorn teams up with his brother Charles, a professor of Mathematics at Vassar College, to point out the misleading nature of the framing of evolution in presidential coverage. As they argue, political reporters overwhelmingly tend to describe evolution as a "belief" akin to believing in Virgin birth or miracles.

Lenny Steinhorn, author of The Greater Generation, a defense of Baby Boomers, is one of the most sought out strategists in Washington. [Of interest to readers, his work and teaching was recently profiled in the USA Today.]

Below, I've excerpted part of their main argument but the full essay is a must read:

Consider the Republican presidential candidates who said they didn't "believe in evolution" at a debate earlier this year. They may have been onto something - but for all the wrong reasons.

The truth is, we don't believe in evolution either. But we don't have to, because we know it to be factually true. And that's the nugget of insight that's too often been missing from the public debate ever since Darwin first laid out his theory of evolution almost a century-and-a-half ago.

As a natural phenomenon based on scientific evidence, evolution is not a matter of belief or faith, any more than gravity or genetics, and to ask whether someone believes in it is a nonsensical question, much like asking if someone believes in subatomic particles.

Yet read the popular press and you'd think that the truth of evolution is based not on science or knowledge but on one's personal worldview irrespective of evidence or proof, as if one's approach to evolution should be no different from the act of believing in, say, immaculate conception or the existence of God.

Recently we conducted a newspaper database search of the phrase "believe in evolution" and found nearly a thousand citations from the last five years. Typical is a New York Times article that describes a married couple as "Christians who believe in evolution," which suggests that scientific evidence and facts, like religion, can be true or false based on whether we believe in them or not.

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If you ask the inappropriate question of the general public, "Do electrons exist?", most if not all people will say yes. When you explain to them no one has ever "seen" an isolated electron they are usually puzzled. So much of their everyday lives involve the manipulation of a particle identified by the "Atomic Theory." Creationists and Id'ers either exploit the language discrepency between what the commonly used useage of the word theory is and the scientific use of the word theory is or they truly do not know the discrepency. This is the consequence of the lack of science literacy in this country and the world. As a secondary science teacher I do my best to have students leave with an understanding of the terminology and process of science.

By JM Caldaro (not verified) on 04 Jan 2008 #permalink

Thanks for this. Although I expect a number of people will be arguing over ID and evolution because of the release of the NAS report, I am heartened to see scientists and non-scientists analyzing and responding to the situation.

I do not believe in evolution. I have studied the matter for many years and I am convinced of it.

Visiting with a colleague in Amsterdam, I started a sentence with, "I believe . . ." He responded, "I don't want to know what you believe. I want to know what you think." I've thought about that a lot.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 06 Jan 2008 #permalink