Facts and false equivalence – reporting on evolution disputes

October 5, 2009

greatestshow_jacketBritish 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.

darwinm-portraitWhich 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.

creation-museumSo 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.

(Photo: Ken Ham, president of the group Answers in Genesis, at a creation museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, 26 May 2007/John Sommers II)

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160 comments

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Some of the best evidence of evolution and survival of the fittest is played out right in front of our eyes in human history.Throughout human society the evolution of science has drastically altered certain countries and cultures ability to survive and dominate others.The US relies completely on scientific achievements to dominate the world militarily.Indeed if a creationist is looking for ‘missing links’ in evolutionary theory you need only look at religion.. It is literally the link between primitive man and modern man, that is why religious stories have gradually become less popular and influential as the science of discovery takes over.Science itself can easily be seen as an advantageous ‘adaptation’ to our surroundings on a conscious level, which offers the enormous advantage of physical knowledge of cause and effect and the world we live in.I don’t say this to insult anyone, there’s just no other way to say it.. religion may still be seen as an advantage in the ‘afterlife’, but it holds no patents on morality, and as long as it is combined with true moral values (belief in ourselves) science is an advantage in the real world.

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

O.K. Brian, I copied and will paste my original comment: Brian, I don’t have any theories. There are only two possibilities to explain the existance of our world and the universe: evolution (without any help from any ‘god’, or special creation by the all powerful God of the Bible.”You claimed I said “two versions”; I replied that I said “two possibilities. either special creation or evolution.” Please show where and what I “completely changed”.You persist in disavowing any connection between evolution and the “Big Bang.” That must surely be news to Isaac Azimov, Carl Sagan and other eminent scientists. In another post I will paste another comment from an evolutionist for you to argue with.

Posted by Wayney | Report as abusive

Brian, here is the quote from an evolutionist scientist:\”The standard Big Bang model does not give rise to lumpiness. That model assumes the universe started out as a globally smooth, homogeneous expanding gas. If you apply the laws of physics to this model, you get a universe that is uniform, a cosmic vastness of evenly distributed atoms with no organization of any kind. \’No galaxies, no stars, no planets, no nothing\’.\’ Needless to say, the night sky, dazzling in its lumps, clumps, and clusters, says otherwise.\”How then did the lumps get there? No one can say—at least not yet and perhaps not ever. The prerequisite for a cosmos with clusters of concentrated matter is inhomogeneity—some irregularity, some departure from uniformity, some wrinkle in the smoothness of space-time—around which matter, forged in the primordial furnace, could accrete.\”For now, some cosmologists all but ignore this most vexatious conundrum. They opt, instead, to take the inhomogeneity as given, as if some matrix of organization, some preexistent framework for clumping somehow leaked out of the primeval inferno into the newly evolving universe. With lumpiness in place, the laws of physics seem to work fine in explaining the evolution of the cosmos we\’ve come to know.\” —*Ben Pabusky, \”Why is the Cosmos Lumpy?\” Science 81, 2:96, June 1981.Please note, he said \”evolution of the cosmos\”. I\’m afraid your understanding of the theory of evolution is much too narrow, going along with the current efforts of evolutionists to restrict \’evolution\’ to merely changes that can be observed right now.Since the theory of evolution is an effort to explain every thing from the beginnings of the universe down to present day phenomena without any supernatural assistance, there is no way you can divorce evolution from the \’Big Bang\”.For all of you who have accessed the \’evolution-facts.org\’ website, wherever an evolutionist scientist is quoted, you will see an asterisk in front of his/her name.

Posted by Wayney | Report as abusive

1st post:”There are only two possibilities to explain the existance of our world and the universe: evolution (without any help from any ‘god’, or special creation by the all powerful God of the Bible.”changed post:”Brian, I did not say there were two VERSIONS; I said there were only two POSSIBILITIES, either special creation or evolution. From what you say, all the other religions have some kind of creation story. So, where or what is any third possibility?”You did not say special creation, you said:”special creation by the all powerful God of the Bible.”Then you tried to change it back to special creation in general, which is fine it means we’re getting somewhere but just admit it gracefully.Possibilities, versions… makes no difference to me what you call it, doesn’t change the point.Evolution is NOT a possibility for the origin of creation, neither does it pretend to be.You seem to be having REAL!!! trouble understanding this.The theory doesn’t even belong to the same branch of science as the ‘Big Bang’ theory.All scientists are ‘evolutionists’, I don’t think it’s a profession..You also need to understand there are different definitions to the word evolution. One is the theory of evolution in science dealing with living organisms, and another is a common way to describe the way in which something grows and changes, like the evolution from a child to a man, a pentium 133 to a pentium 3000, and as you said the evolution of physical matter in the cosmos after the big bang.If you want to learn more about REAL science join the scientific community and listen to the scientists and theories WE respect, not some crackpot website made by Christians to attack logic.

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

It should be made known that the ‘evolution-facts’, website you keep promoting on this thread is a religious site, not a scientific site.It has no basis in popular science, is not in any way endorsed or recognized by the scientific or intellectual community and has a strictly religious agenda.

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

Look I’m going to have to exit this debate wayney sorry, I just had a look at the website and it’s creators and although I had originally predicted it would be Christian propaganda of some sort I had no idea the extent of what I was dealing with here.The level of fanaticism and fraud that I uncovered in 10 minutes leaves me no option but to save my attention for a more constructive debate, it’s actually highly embarrassing to admit I’ve allowed myself to be drawn so far into this…

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

Brian,You are engaging in a tactic known as “elephant hurling”, making wild charges you cannot or will not document. You charge “fanaticism and fraud” but you cannot give one example. To say that evolution-facts.org is a religious site, not a scientific one shows you either have not really examined it or you are desperately trying to avoid the real science presented there.You are probably right that we should end this debate. I am trying to establish the truth but you seem fanatically committed to defending evolution, impervious to real scientific facts. It is obvious there can be no end to it.As to your charge that I tried to change my argument, What other “special creation” could there be but by the all powerful God? You seem to be grasping at straws to try to refute my argument. It isn’t working.

Posted by Wayney | Report as abusive

From your site:”The material for this site was taken from two books, compiled by free-lance Reporter Vance Ferrell.”Feel free to look him up anybody, and his co-conspirator Carl Baugh. Known fraudster and author of the ‘iron hammer’ on the homepage of your website.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Car l_baugh

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

So, your logic is: If anyone can be proved wrong once, twice or more, everything he says can be rejected.The author shows many claims by evolutionists that go against modern scientific knowledge. He quotes many evolutionists who reject standard evolutionist dogma. The facts he highlights are still facts. The fact that he has been found wrong on some things does not justify pooh-poohing everything he says. If it did, I would be justified in rejecting carte blanche everything you say, or do you claim to never have been wrong in anything?As Matt has said, there in not one shred of evidence that PROVES that evolution occurred. Evolutionists INFER evolution from the evidence they cite but their inferences are built on the shaky foundation that evolution is a fact (even though it cannot be observed). The changes they cite (natural selection) have never been shown to produce one kind changing onto another. Darwin’s finches are still finches; peppered moths are still peppered moths; the coelacanth (living fossil?) supposedly millions of years old is still a coelacanth, unchanged. None of the claimed “transitional” fossils can be demonstrated to have evolved from the supposed previous animal. It is nothing but speculation, pure and simple.

Posted by Wayney | Report as abusive

I think there may be a difference between Sunni and Shiite on this. If you believe in 12 prophets starting with Adam it follows that he was a real person.It is in fact the Sunnah that encourages Moslems to seek knowledge.http://www.sunnah.org/sources/ hadith_utlub_ilm.htmA Sunni should be living according to the Sunnah.There were loads of faults in the account presented by AlJazeera.1) You can only make sense of Evolution by looking at a sequence of fossils. If we look at the Grand Canyon for example we have different times stratified and we can look at species chance in that sequence.2) In Evolution, and human Evolution is no exception to this, there are blind alleys, there are different species existing at the same time some of which survive and some that don’t. Not every species on the “human family tree” has survived to the present. Neanderthal man is a case in point.3) No mention is made of DNA.http://www.answersingenesis.org/tj/v 17/i1/DNA.asphttp://en.wikipedia.org/wik i/Chimpanzee_genome_projectThe human and chimp genomes are between 95 and 99% similar depending on how you count them. One interesting fact that may help to explain why there are no Neanderthal DNA around today is the fact that the Chimpanzee has one more chromosome. This is similar to the horse and the donkey. Hybrids are viable (the mule) but are not fertile.As for time-scales. The Qur’an talks about “days” which are in fact epochs of time. The Sun, Earth and planets arose from smoke (dukhan of dxn in the Buckwalter transliteration, details of this on my website). This can mean vapour. This is emphatically what happened 4.6 billion years ago. I see no problem.