Last night, a funny thing happened on the way to a Seinfeld re-run: I grazed past the PBS Newshour and got sucked into a report on the god-botherers’ latest incursion into America’s classrooms.
Usually, watching the Newshour‘s fair and balanced roundtables of pale, male thinktank flacks, national security hawks, and below-the-beltway practitioners of Kissingerian realpolitik debate the issues from every anglefeckless center, right, far-right, and kill-’em-all-and-let-God-sort-’em-out ultra-rightis my idea of blunt cranial trauma.
But “Creation Conflict in Schools,” Newshour correspondent Jeffrey Brown’s look at “how some biology teachers are handling the hot-button debate” over Darwinian evolution and creation “science,” got my attention.
For those not up on late-breaking news from the Bronze Age, creationism is the so-let-it-be-written, so-let-it-be-done version of the origin of life, dearly beloved of flat-earth fundies everywhere. In my ponderous opinion, the heartland taliban’s tireless attempts to roll back what few gains the Enlightenment has made, here in God’s Country, merit constant media vigilance. So, gnawing the bloody-rare remains of the paschal lamb left over from Easter, I watched the Newshour report, praying that the religous rightthe poster children for our Age of Unenlightenmenthadn’t managed, at last, to snuff out the candle of rationalism.
The segment was the usual Snoozehour fare, long on whats, wheres, and whens and short on whys. It gave way too much airtime over to excerpts from a slick, computer-animated video produced by The Discovery Institute, ID’d by Brown as “a Seattle-based think tank” that promotes the theory of intelligent design, voguish in anti-Darwinian circles. “Today, powerful technologies reveal elaborate microscopic worlds,” the video’s scientific-sounding Voice of Authority intones. “The complexity of the cells is such that Charles Darwin could never have imagined.” Brown explains, “In this DVD, intelligent design proponents claim that newly identified mechanisms of cell structure suggest more intricacy than natural selection can account for. And this, they say, puts Darwin’s theory in doubt.”
Yeah? And that whackjob two straphangers to your rightthe wall-eyed Jeremiah in the handcrafted tinfoil skullcap, gibbering incoherently about MK-ULTRAknows, just knows, that CIA mind controllers are broadcasting, live, to his pineal gland. Do we give him equal time, too? Since when do we allow pre-Copernican quack science to go unchallenged in the name of a specious journalistic “balance”? The Newshour‘s refusal to whistle in some Santa Fe Institute poindexter to rebut the Institute’s wetbrained balderdash with a crash course in Complexity Theory for Dummies (yes, Virginia, complex phenomena can arise from the interaction of seemingly simple elements) is as inexcusable as it is inexplicable, a big, fat failure of journalistic nerve.
But more disturbing still is the program’s silence on the crypto-creationist agenda of The Discovery Institute. Brown’s blandly matter-of-fact ID (“a Seattle-based think tank”) leads viewers to infer that the Institute is a dissident voice within the scientific community, boldly going where the unfashionable evidence leads it, Darwinian orthodoxyirony of ironies, the new secular fundamentalismbe damned. A quote from Institute spokesperson Stephen Meyer underscores that impression: “We’re seeking the best explanation of the phenomenon, whatever that might be. Follow the evidence wherever it leads.”
Nothing could be further from the truth than the implication that the Discovery Institute is merely a “Seattle-based think tank.” In her April 2002 article “The Newest Evolution of Creationism: Intelligent design is about politics and religion, not science” (in Natural History magazine, published by the American Museum of Natural History), Barbara Forrest asserts that the Institute, through its Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (CRSC), is a prime mover in the creationists’ stealth campaign to insinuate biblical literalism into public-school science curriculums:
Launched by Phillip E. Johnson’s book Darwin on Trial (1991), the intelligent-design movement crystallized in 1996 as the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (CRSC), sponsored by the Discovery Institute, a conservative Seattle think tank. Johnson, a law professor whose religious conversion catalyzed his antievolution efforts, assembled a group of supporters who promote design theory through their writings, financed by CRSC fellowships. According to an early mission statement, the CRSC seeks “nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its damning cultural legacies.”
Conceding defeat on the traditional killing field of peer-reviewed scientific journals, where anyone with a B.A. in evolutionary biology could hand the creationists their heads, the CRSC has cannily done an end-run around the scientifically literate, conducting its battle for the hearts and souls of the American public in the media arena, where journalists (like the Newshour‘s Brown) too often give them a pass in the name of a false “objectivity” (not to mention their own ignorance of scientific subjects). Forrest describes the CRSC media strategy as a “wedge” strategy, “analogous to a wedge that splits a logmeaning that intelligent design will liberate science from the grip of ‘atheistic naturalism.'” She writes,
Ten years of Wedge history reveal its most salient features: Wedge scientists have no empirical research program and, consequently, have published no data in peer-reviewed journals (or elsewhere) to support their intelligent-design claims. But they do have an aggressive public relations program, which includes conferences that they or their supporters organize, popular books and articles, recruitment of students through university lectures sponsored by campus ministries, and cultivation of alliances with conservative Christians and influential political figures.
In a media age, truth is forged in the foundry of public opinion. By presenting the Institute as an “objective”nay, even scientifically courageousactor in the pitched battle between the voices of sweet reason and those who will not rest until every knee bows and tongue confesses that Darwin’s dangerous idea is a rotting heap of falsehoods, the PBS Newshour deprives its viewers of an essential piece of this story. Worse yet, it (unwittingly?) furthers the covert agenda of the crypto-creationist Institute.
If you’re On a Mission From God about this sort of thing, let the Newshour know, via e-mail to newshour at pbs dot org. (Bear in mind that your comments are more likely to be taken seriously if you maintain a civil, reasoned tone.)