Facts and false equivalence – reporting on evolution disputes
British biologist Richard Dawkins, one of the leading voices of the “neo-atheist” movement, has taken the latest book-sized shot at the “intelligent design” movement. You can read my interview with Dawkins’ here about his new book: “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.”
For a scientist of Dawkins’ caliber, intelligent design is a barn-door sized target. In a nutshell, it maintains that life is so complex that it must be the work of a creator. Its boosters claim their view is based in science and not influenced by religion, but it is widely seen as a thinly-veiled attempt to give a scientific gloss to creationism. That claim to science is the key here — most religions believe that God created the world, of course, but they state this as an article of faith and not a scientific fact.
On this blog, we often report on issues related to science and religion. We have to remain agnostic on the biggest question of all — does God exist? — and take fundamental dogmas as the starting point for each faith. This sometimes strikes readers as strange or biased. Some think it already shows a prejudice against belief. But just imagine what would happen if we took sides on teachings such as the resurrection of Jesus or the divine origin of the Koran. We would not be practicing journalism anymore, but some kind of theological analysis or deconstruction, and our readers would not be getting the information they want about religion news around the world.
That said, we can’t just take everything on faith alone. As journalists, we have to stick to facts on the ground. It’s hard to question some beliefs, but we can hold people responsible for what they profess. For example, if a Catholic priest has an affair with a woman, that violation of his vow of celibacy makes his affair different from one between two lay people or two non-Catholics. And if he is prominent enough, like the charismatic Miami television preacher Father Alberto Cutié, it’s worth reporting. The same applies to Islam. The scriptures of most if not all religions can be vague and sometimes seemingly contradictory, so Reuters cannot say whether the phrase “Islam is a religion of peace” is true or false. But we can report if a Muslim known to preach that belief is found to be involved in some violent activity. In both cases, we don’t question the basic tradition or belief but we hold the believers responsible to it in their actions.
Which brings me to the question of evolution. While preparing this post, I had a lively Dallas-to-Paris email exchange with Religion Editor Tom Heneghan about how we cover an issue in which two sides are so opposed. We agree with how we’ve been doing it so far, but setting outour approach in words took some consultation. Here’s our view of the issue.
(Photo: Portrait of Charles Darwin, 12 Feb 2009/Gordon Jack)
All serious scientists accept evolution as a fact because of the overwhelming and verifiable evidence that supports it. Much of this evidence is laid out in Dawkins’ new book and a book published earlier this year by University of Chicago scientist Jerry Coyne called “Why Evolution is True.” I regard the latter, by the way, as more readable, especially for a layman. These came out now because this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th of the publication of his major work “On the Origin of Species,” which originally laid out the case for evolution by natural selection. They have also come out because the authors are clearly irritated by the intelligent design movement.
How does that play out when we report about evolution? For example, when we write about the wildlife of Madagascar, we usually include a background paragraph saying something like: “Madagascar separated from the rest of Africa tens of millions of years ago and so its species evolved in isolation from its mother continent.” In a story about its lemurs, we don’t write: “Scientists say Madagascar broke off from Africa tens of millions of years but some people, taking the Bible as their reference, believe it can only be 10,000 years old and that its lemurs were made in their current form by a supernatural creator.” That would create a false equivalence between the two views. The scientists have empirical evidence for their view of these natural phenomena but the religious view is based on scripture and does not stand up to empirical analysis. This is a case of comparing apples and oranges.
Does this mean we have taken sides and are not being balanced? Hardly. In fact, we would lay ourselves open to that charge if we did give equal credence to arguments such as intelligent design. For instance, some boosters for intelligent design, trying to get their perspective taught alongside evolution in U.S. public schools despite repeated defeats, have shifted their approach and argued that for the sake of balance it is necessary to “teach the controversy” between evolution’s supporters and skeptics. But the world of science sees no serious issue to discuss, just a false equivalence created by campaigners trying to claim the seal of scientific approval for arguments that do not stand up to empirical testing.
So why do we “report the controversy” if we think one side has no case? We do it because creationists are numerous and politically and culturally influential in parts of the United States. They’re challenging science teaching in some states and opening museums that claim to prove evolution never happened. We also do it because their influence is spreading to other countries, most notably to Muslim countries through the work of Islamic creationists like Harun Yahya. And we do it because their arguments, flawed though they may be in the eyes of science, challenge scientists, religious leaders, philosophers and other thinkers to refine their arguments for whichever view of mankind they support. These are serious adult questions and attempts to wedge them into high school biology lessons miss the mark by a mile.