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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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    “(A)mendments to science standards that call for students to “analyze and evaluate” some of the basic principles of evolution.”

    Well, I can’t comment about American schools, and it’s thirty years since I was in secondary school, but we had to do that – we were taught the broad principles of Darwin’s theory versus Lamarck’s, and asked to compare and contrast them, and what evidence (if any) for either theory.

    I mean, you don’t just learn in science “Green particles clump together to form boomium”, you get taught why, and how, and asked “How would you demonstrate that boomium is made up of green particles?”

    Sample question from higher-level biology paper from 2009 nation-wide secondary school examination for last year of school (emphasis mine):

    (c) (i) Explain the term species.
    (ii) Within a species a considerable degree of variation is usually seen.
    1. What is meant by variation?
    2. State two causes of variation.
    (iii) What is the significance of inherited variation in the evolution of species?
    (iv) State two types of evidence used to support the theory of evolution. (24)

  • Julia B

    The NYT’s guy said the paper is “liberal” as in “liberal arts”. He needs to consider the history of liberal arts. It doesn’t mean what he thinks it means. Originally, in Greece and Rome, it meant a curriculum to provide a free person with the skills to function well as citizen. The subjects studied expanded to include the sciences over time, (Middle Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment, the present), but still meant to be what is needed to be a well-functioning member of society. “Liberal” as in liberal arts, does not mean (and never meant) a political label with a Leftist social bent.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_arts_education

    I have a Masters in Liberal Arts from Washington University in St Louis. Harvard and other places also have that program. It is definitely not politically liberal.

  • cvg

    “a number of its members do not accept evolution and climate change as scientific truth”

    A journalist would have to be very scientifically naive to use the word truth here. It just makes my ears burn.

    “Science educators and advocates worry that this language can be used as a back door for teaching creationism.”

    Like you, I think the “back-door” term needs some exploration. With a fiar bit of experience in K-12 and post-secondary education and administration, I suspect much of the worry is that creationist minded teachers will over-extend discussion about the fuzziness associated with well established theories like evolution. Few control mechanisms operate within real classroom walls. Because of this, I suspect the accurate framing requires exploring why balance on nuanced topics is beyond the scope of large scale curricular endeavors.

  • Julia B

    Part of the problem is that many scientific theories are now incapable of being tested in the historical way. Now we go by what explanation is the most plausible and best fits the evidence for many phenomena. Scientists stand ready to accept a new and better explanation if it appears – or they should.

    It’s not a lot different from the concept of “settled law”. It takes a lot to overcome “settled law”, but that does happen. Witness: “separate but equal” was overturned by Brown v Board of Education.

    I’ve not seen any reporters deal with this core problem. “Fuzziness” is a way of explaining it, but doesn’t really capture the difference between situations that can be tested and other situations where actually testing is not possible (now). This is also at the root of the dispute about “global warming” now known as “climate change”.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    What gets me is that the NY Times doesn’t seem to grasp that evolution is a THEORY. Yes, it’s pretty well accepted in the scientific community, but it is still a THEORY. The same goes with climate change and/or global warming. And since these are THEORIES, they can be challenged. Like cvg, the idea of claiming absolute scientific truth on THEORIES rubs me the wrong way. Heck, if I’m not mistaken, gravity is still considered a theory. When will they GetScience never mind GetReligion?

    • AudioSuede

      The common misconception you’re falling into is the misuse of the word “theory.” In everyday life, a theory is an assumption, a guess. In science, a hypothesis is a guess. It all goes back to the basic scientific process taught to every science student: Hypothesis, experiment, theory. The theory is how you interpret the data from the experiment. And the more evidence you have, the stronger the theory becomes.

      When we talk about science, there really are no such things as “laws.” You’re right that even gravity is a scientific theory, it’s just that there’s so much evidence to support gravity’s existence that we accept it as the truth. Evolution is at roughly the same point in scientific study; there’s no one in the field of biology who’s making any actual progress that doesn’t already assume evolution as the truth, because there is so much evidence to support it, just as physicists have a basic formula which calculates Earth’s gravity and its effect on objects. Scientific theories are based on observation, and evolution has been observed enough at this point to be accepted as fact by anyone who studies it.

      • http://www.andrewhidas.com/ Andrew Hidas

        Thanks for this. Wanted to—but couldn’t have—said it better myself. I have a PhD physicist nephew working on the CERN project who told me recently he and his colleagues are still trying to figure out gravity, but they’re not the least bit confident they ever will. Yet apples continue—this very morning—to fall from my tree in the front yard.

      • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

        I’m quite aware that the theories of evolution and gravity are working assumptions for most scientists. Nonetheless, that does not take away their status as theories, possible explanations for empirical observations made. There are other possibilities for those same empirical observations. With gravity, I’m clueless as to what they could be, but I’m sure they’re out there. Evolution has plenty of other alternatives, which is why there’s still controversy over it. And climate change — well, we don’t need to go into that.

        What I was trying to say is that journalists need to treat these things as they are — scientific theories that are plausible, but not the only, explanations for empirical observations.

  • wmrharris

    This is a somewhat confused article: is the story about the evolution battle? Or is it about the political battle for the textbooks (and the waning power of social conservatives)? Put another way, are the Texas social conservatives playing defense or offense?

    The political story seems to be the weakened state of the social conservatives, and that went largely un-noted. A sympathetic interview with a political scientist from Houston Baptist or Baylor might have shed some light on the players.

    As to the ill-chosen term, “creationist,” that’s a hard term for outsiders to appreciate since it used internally by evangelicals as a short-hand for young earth creationism. That said, the Times did begin with the stances of the opposition, and so at least framing something of its character.

    The Longview News-Journal report, I thought, covered the two sides well:

    “Battles over how to teach evolution versus the idea that a higher power
    created the universe, as well as whether climate change is
    scientifically accepted, have been raging on the board of education for
    more than a decade. Previously, a bloc of board social conservatives
    insisted Texas students be taught “all sides” of matters such as
    evolution, and pressured textbook publishers to insert skepticism over
    global warming.”

  • Silverback

    I’m not sure that you can fault the Tiems here. The disagreemtn is over the tteachign of evolutionin school textbooks. Those who oppose it are all fairly considered creationists. What flavor of creationism is not that important to this story.
    Similarly, nobody is argung that some form of materialism is part of the science curriculum in this case. The distinctions made above regarding the varieties of evolution are irrelevant to this issue. The Pope’s incorrect and now outdated thoughts on scicence are not part of the curriculum, either.
    The issue is simply whter olid sciece is to be taught in high school or will we instead teach some form of creationism as science? Oh yes, “Free speech,” “First Amendment” and “academic freedom” are all raised as well. They are subterfuges.