It has only been whispered before, but finally an article in The Columbia Journalism Review publicly and overtly recommends a policy of bias in covering the evolution issue. Let us thank “Undoing Darwin,” by Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet, in CJR’s September/October issue.
Here is a candid, unapologetic case for even greater media spin in reporting science issues and assuring viewpoint discrimination on oped pages and in letters to the editor columns. Mooney and Nisbet want critics of Darwin’s theory and advocates of intelligent design silenced and shut down on principle. We have read and heard that the strategy has been proposed to editors in recent months; but now it is in print.
Scientific arguments that rely on the authority of their advocates, the authors contend, must be assumed conclusive when subjects like euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and especially evolution come up. Dissenting scientists and other citizens who lack backing by leading scientific organizations need not be given a chance to have their views accurately reported. And there surely is no need to let them use their own definitions of their ideas or defend the ideas in their own words.
If a reporter must cover a controversy about evolution, it is “inappropriate” (a scolding nanny word the authors seem to have borrowed from social work manuals) to treat it as a scientific controversy. Instead, religious or political motivations must be imputed to the dissenters. It is totally “appropriate”, indeed, to inform the reader that the critics are just plain wrong on scientific grounds. For models of effective put-downs in supposedly objective news coverage, Mooney and Nisbet salute Cornelia Dean of the NY Times and Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution. The Atlanta Constitution also is praised for disallowing opeds that dispute Darwinism and for possibly minimizing letters to the editor with that view. (The writers’ candor in showcasing the bias of Dean and Tucker is especially welcome, even though they mean it as a compliment.)
David Horowitz of the Center for Popular Culture (www.cspc.org) does an admirable job of cataloguing attempts on other subjects to stifle academic freedom on university campuses. In such vulnerable venues, “speech codes” and other Orwellian instruments are used to rule dissent out of order in advance. What Mooney and Nisbet want, and the CJR seems to sanction, is the adoption of similar codes for media.
“Perhaps journalists should consider that unlike other social controversies—over abortion or gay marriage, for instance—the evolution debate is not solely a matter of subjective morality or political opinion,” they write. “Rather a definitive standard has been set by the scientific community on the science of evolution, and can easily be used to evaluate competing claims. Scientific societies, including the national Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have taken strong stances affirming that evolution is the bedrock of modern biology. In such a situation, journalistic coverage that helps fan the flames of a nonexistent scientific controversy (and misrepresents what’s actually known) simply isn’t appropriate.”
Mooney and Nisbet go on to tell journalists that they should “contextualize” the subject by examining the question, “First, is ID religiously motivated and does it feature religious content? In other words, would it violate the separation of church and state if covered in a public school setting? Second, does ID meet the criteria of a scientific theory, and is there strong peer-reviewed evidence in support of it?”
If we “unpack” the above assumptions (as academics like to say), we find them based on factual fallacies. For example, Dr. John West of Discovery Institute researched the process by which the American Association for the Advancement of Science executive board adopted its resolution against ID several years ago. Succinctly put, several members essentially admitted that they did no independent reading or research about intelligent design before waving through a resolution denouncing the the theory. Indeed, they couldn’t even cite one article they had read by a proponent of intelligent
design. (See “Intelligent design is based on science, not religion,” Dallas Morning News, September 4, 2005.)
Anyone who has been on the board of a busy organization where subgroups like to present tendentious resolutions whenever the mood strikes is well aware of how cavalier those decisions can be. It is a temptation for all institutions, from community clubs, to faculty senates, to church conventions and, alas, professional science groups. But Mooney and Nisbet want to drape Roman togas over the shoulders of bodies like the AAAS board of directors and give them arbitrary and capricious powers to decide what is and is not scientifically “appropriate” in public debate. And everyone else is supposed to go along. “The Great Oz has spoken.”
West (and several other recent papers on the Discovery Institute website, such as “The Darwinian Declension”, and “Intelligent Design is Falsifiable” by Jay Richards) amply answer Mooney and Nisbet’s bogus claims about religion and science.
Mooney and Nisbet are intellectual rent seekers out to corrupt journalism as well as science. Unfortunately, regardless of all of the above, these suggestions by Mooney and Nisbet already are evident in the mainstream media. We have even found reporters who import their very words. This should alarm all friends of freedom, regardless of scientific, political or religious views. This is the illiberal consequence of a tradition of self-referential, self-justifying philosophy that Herbert Marcuse and others—themselves borrowing tactics from the Stalinist Left of yore—promulgated in the 60s for the purpose of substituting force and manipulation for reason and civil discourse.
Critics of Darwin’s theory and advocates of design are more than willing to debate on the scientific evidence. That the Darwinists would rather try to silence their critics than engage them is a sign of sure intellectual vulnerability. It is also a mockery of true science, and, one might add, a mockery of true journalism.
Who next will be ruled objectively “out of order” in the public square?
Discovery Institute President Bruce Chapman is a former Director of the United States Census Bureau, and former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna.