CJR: Undoing journalism?

05 05coverThe current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review contains an essay that is must reading for anyone who cares about the future of American newspapers and the classic "American model of the press," which is (or was) built on the concept that newspapers promised readers fair and accurate coverage of both sides in heated debates. The piece is called "Undoing Darwin" and the authors, Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet, argue that American journalists must stop acting as if there is any kind of scientific argument left to cover related to Darwinism. Thus, "fairness" does not apply, since there are no critics of Darwinian orthodoxy worthy of being treated fairly. Thus, all the critics are religious nuts and there is no need to take their claims seriously or present their arguments accurately. It is a lengthy and highly detailed piece, and I urge readers to take the authors seriously and read what they have to say.

Here is the lead:

On March 14, 2005, The Washington Post's Peter Slevin wrote a front-page story on the battle that is "intensifying across the nation" over the teaching of evolution in public-school science classes. Slevin's lengthy piece took a detailed look at the lobbying, fund-raising, and communications tactics being deployed at the state and local level to undermine evolution. The article placed a particular emphasis on the burgeoning "intelligent design" movement, centered at Seattle's Discovery Institute, whose proponents claim that living things, in all their organized complexity, simply could not have arisen from a mindless and directionless process such as the one so famously described in 1859 by Charles Darwin in his classic, The Origin of Species.

If you read on, you will note that Mooney and Nisbet are arguing that the position newspapers should advocate goes even further than the language now being used and defended by the National Association of Biology Teachers.

There was a time then this group officially defined evolution as an "unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process . . . that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments." However, in 1997 the association's board -- amid fierce argument and controversy -- removed the words "unsupervised" and "impersonal," saying that this kind of language could not be proven in a lab and, thus, was a kind of faith language for agnostics and atheists. Here is a quick overview by Dr. Eugenie Scott, who is hardly a leader of the Religious Right.

There continue to be echoes of this controversy in the CJR piece and in the wider public debate about Intelligent Design.

Note again the words of Mooney and Nisbet -- "mindless and directionless." How does one prove the lack of a mind? How does one document that a process is "directionless"?

You can, by logic, argue for such a position, and many scientists do. Many openly argue that Darwinism supports atheism or some form of deism. People on the other side -- the Intelligent Design crowd -- are trying to use the same sequence, arguing by data and logic for a philosophical position (that evidence points to a Creator) that cannot be proven in a lab. Once again, we see this science/ logic/philosophy sequence.

However, it seems that CJR is saying that newspapers must protect the public from this debate over philosophy and science.

Personally, I think journalism is a good idea. This is not to say newspapers cannot show that the overwhelming majority of scientists in this nation back Darwinism. But it would also help if these same newspapers demonstrated that many of the Darwinian authorities cannot agree on what the word "Darwinism" means and to what degree Darwinism does or does not "prove" that humanity is the result of a random and meaningless process that did not have humanity in mind.

I would also love to see editors justify to readers -- from sea to shining sea -- their decision to embrace advocacy journalism on such an important and controversial issue. It seems, to me, like a quick and easy way to further weaken the newspaper industry. I do not think this is what most editors want to do.

A note to those who wish to comment: Let's try really hard not to turn this into another row over science and religion. Please try to focus on the journalism issues involved. Thanks.

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