NYTimes reverts to using vague labels in Texas science war

It's time for a GetReligion post linked to press coverage of biology, textbooks, God and Texas. Before I jump into the fine details, I'd like to make two observations. First of all, since my goal is to discuss a story in The New York Times, it is important to note that stories about this topic fall under former editor Bill Keller's proclamation that the world's most powerful newspaper no longer feels obligated to offer balanced, accurate coverage of voices on both sides of moral, cultural and religious issues. You may recall that, two years ago, Keller was asked if his newsroom slanted news to the left.

“We’re liberal in the sense that ... liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. “We’re an urban newspaper. ... We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.”

Moderator Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, jokingly shushed his guest and added: “You may not be in the right state for that.” ...

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

My second preliminary statement is this: I've been following press coverage of debates about religion and science for 40 years and my primary journalistic observation remains the same. I think the committee that produces the Associated Press Stylebook needs to urge mainstream journalists to be more careful when using the words "evolution" and "creationism." Each of those terms has a half dozen or so finely tuned definitions, depending on who is using them at any given moment.

For example, a person who accepts a creation narrative with a "young earth" and a timeline with seven 24-hour days will certainly embrace the creationist label. But what about a person who believes that creation unfolded over billions of years, involved slow change over time, a common tree of descent for species and ages of micro-evolutionary change?

Similar things happen with the term evolution, which as the Blessed Pope John Paul II once observed, is best discussed in terms of different schools of evolutionary thought, some of which are compatible with Christian faith and some of which are not (addressing those who believe that man was the product of a process that did not have Him in mind).

The word "evolutionist" certainly applies to someone who believes life emerged from a natural, materialistic, random process that was without design or purpose. But what about someone who accepts that theory on the biological front, but believes that there is scientific evidence that our universe was finely tuned to produce life? What about someone who says that creation contains evidence best thought of as the signature of its creator (Carl Sagan, for example). What about people who insist they are doctrinaire Darwinists, but still see cracks in the old neo-Darwinian creeds? Are "theistic evolutionists" really believers in "evolution" in the eyes of the truly secular academic powers that be? And so forth and so on.

This brings us to the recent Times piece about the ongoing textbook battles in the Lone Star state.

As you read it, please note that the terms "evolution" and "creationist" (or "creation science") are never defined.

Note that the titles of groups on the purely secular side of the matter appear without labels, while outside voices on the other side are always given critical labels.

Note also that -- while there are clearly political, social, academic and scientific voices on both sides of this debate -- the Times team never quotes a single person whose beliefs would clash with those of the newspaper's confessed doctrines.

Here is a sample of the language used:

As Texas gears up to select biology textbooks for use by high school students over the next decade, the panel responsible for reviewing submissions from publishers has stirred controversy because a number of its members do not accept evolution and climate change as scientific truth.

In the state whose governor, Rick Perry, boasted as a candidate for president that his schools taught both creationism and evolution, the State Board of Education, which includes members who hold creationist views, helped nominate several members of the textbook review panel. Others were named by parents and educators. Prospective candidates could also nominate themselves. The state’s education commissioner, Michael L. Williams, a Perry appointee and a conservative Republican, made the final appointments to the 28-member panel. Six of them are known to reject evolution.

Some Texans worry that ideologically driven review panel members and state school board members are slowly eroding science education in the state.

Once again, how is the word "evolution" used in that chunk of the story? Are there theistic evolutionists alongside their secular brothers and sisters? What does it mean to "reject evolution"? Does that include science teachers who want to discuss articles in mainstream, secular scientific literature about debates in the field?

Here's my favorite part:

By questioning the science -- often getting down to very technical details -- the evolution challengers in Texas are following a strategy increasingly deployed by others around the country. There is little open talk of creationism. Instead they borrow buzzwords common in education, “critical thinking,” saying there is simply not enough evidence to prove evolution.

If textbooks do not present alternative viewpoints or explain what they describe as “the controversy,” they say students will be deprived of a core concept of education -- learning how to make up their own minds. ...

Four years ago, a conservative bloc on the state school board pushed through amendments to science standards that call for students to “analyze and evaluate” some of the basic principles of evolution. Science educators and advocates worry that this language can be used as a back door for teaching creationism.

It would be interesting to note if other buzzwords were used, such as "free speech," "First Amendment" and even "academic freedom."

However, the key -- once again -- is that the dependence on undefined labels by the Times team prevents readers from knowing what the key voices ON BOTH SIDES of the debate are actually saying. For example, what does the word "creationism" actually mean, in the pivotal "back door" passage? What are the specific accusations here?

Come to think of it, what do the Texas science standards actually say? Might a quote or two from these documents help readers understand the debate?

But, there I go again, asking for journalistic information about the beliefs of people on both sides of this critical academic debate. The leaders of The New York Times are SOOOO past that kind of thing. One side is smart. One side is dumb and dangerous. That's Texas, for you. Moving on.

It goes without saying that the goal, when leaving comments on this post, is to address ways for journalists to do accurate and fair coverage of the views of all of the activists, scientists and citizens involved in this debate -- voices on both sides. That remains the goal here at GetReligion.

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