On the virtue of skepticism

Oh to be a reporter in Kansas these days. In early November, the Board of Education there modified state science standards to include critiques of evolutionary theory. Later in the month, a controversial Kansas University professor -- the chair of the religious studies department, no less -- announced he would offer a class that attacked intelligent design theory. Only problem is, he forgot to keep a lid on his motivations for the class. Here's how Lawrence Journal-World's Sophia Maines covered it:

In a recent message on a Yahoo listserv -- a venue where groups of people post questions and comments on a particular topic -- Paul Mirecki, chairman of KU's department of religious studies, described his upcoming course "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationisms and other Religious Mythologies."

"The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category 'mythology,'" Mirecki wrote.

He signed the note "Doing my part (to upset) the religious right, Evil Dr. P."

Whoopsie! So much for encouraging intellectual inquiry and civil discussion. Ms. Maines' piece is good but I wonder why she didn't tell readers the name of the list-serv: Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics at the University of Kansas. Nevertheless, the Lawrence Journal-World did do a great job of posting page after page of Mirecki's comments(.pdf) on their website for readers to evaluate.

In any case, tons of people flipped out about the comments. He apologized, his critics weren't appeased and the university was forced to cancel the class last Thursday. And that was the end of the firestorm . . . until today. Lawrence-area media are giving heavy coverage to the latest development: Mirecki said he was driving on a rural road yesterday morning, thinking, and ended up getting beaten up by . . . Creationists. He drove himself to the hospital and reported the attack to police.

Eric Weslander, also of the Journal-World, covered Mirecki's account but also managed to introduce another possible angle:

One of Mirecki's most vocal critics, conservative activist John Altevogt, said he couldn't imagine anyone he knows doing such a thing.

"This should be investigated thoroughly, and whoever did this should be punished to the full extent of the law. You don't beat people for either their faith or their lack thereof," he said.

But Altevogt said he was skeptical about whether Mirecki's report was legitimate.

"He (Mirecki) has very little credibility left," Altevogt said. "The one thing that could save his bacon is to become a martyr of sorts, or to elicit sympathy from being the victim rather than the persecutor."

When told that some people were questioning the truth of his report, Mirecki fired back.

"The right wing wants blood, period. They're not going to stop until they see blood. They're not into anything else," he said. "Whatever I do, whatever I say, they don't believe anything because that's the way they are... I know what happened. I got the hell beat out of me. They can say what they want."

Far too many stories about politically-motivated attacks on professors make the news twice: first when the attack occurs and later when the attack is revealed to have been self-perpetrated. While a roving band of intelligent designers might very well have attacked Mirecki, Weslander's approach of gently including a bit of skepticism in the story is a great use of inches.

It's also a good reminder for reporters to question motivations on all stories. When I was studying economics, the idea that humans have incentives for just about everything was pounded into us, and I'm glad. Reporters should be healthily skeptical and consider the motivations of everyone they cover.

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