Mama mia, that’s a spicy deity

meatballs 01My oh my, am I scared to blog about this story from the Telegraph right now. Nevertheless, rest assured that if I were to interview Bobby Henderson about his faith, I would do my best — iTalk is a wonderful thing — to quote him accurately and make sure that people know where he is coming from. That is what journalists do. Luckily, it does appear that he is rather candid about his views (even though his summary of the Intelligent Design mainstream is laugh out loud funny). But, hey, he is trying to be funny.

In an open letter to the Kansas Board of Education in July, Mr. Henderson wrote: “I think we can all agree that it is important for students to hear multiple viewpoints so they can choose for themselves the theory that makes the most sense to them. I am concerned, however, that students will only hear one theory of Intelligent Design. “I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

Oh, one more thing: I am 99.9 percent sure that the Scopes trial took place in Tennessee, not Kansas.

I will go hide now.

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CJR: Undoing journalism?

05 05coverThe current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review contains an essay that is must reading for anyone who cares about the future of American newspapers and the classic “American model of the press,” which is (or was) built on the concept that newspapers promised readers fair and accurate coverage of both sides in heated debates.

The piece is called “Undoing Darwin” and the authors, Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet, argue that American journalists must stop acting as if there is any kind of scientific argument left to cover related to Darwinism. Thus, “fairness” does not apply, since there are no critics of Darwinian orthodoxy worthy of being treated fairly. Thus, all the critics are religious nuts and there is no need to take their claims seriously or present their arguments accurately. It is a lengthy and highly detailed piece, and I urge readers to take the authors seriously and read what they have to say.

Here is the lead:

On March 14, 2005, The Washington Post‘s Peter Slevin wrote a front-page story on the battle that is “intensifying across the nation” over the teaching of evolution in public-school science classes. Slevin’s lengthy piece took a detailed look at the lobbying, fund-raising, and communications tactics being deployed at the state and local level to undermine evolution. The article placed a particular emphasis on the burgeoning “intelligent design” movement, centered at Seattle’s Discovery Institute, whose proponents claim that living things, in all their organized complexity, simply could not have arisen from a mindless and directionless process such as the one so famously described in 1859 by Charles Darwin in his classic, The Origin of Species.

If you read on, you will note that Mooney and Nisbet are arguing that the position newspapers should advocate goes even further than the language now being used and defended by the National Association of Biology Teachers.

There was a time then this group officially defined evolution as an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process . . . that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.” However, in 1997 the association’s board — amid fierce argument and controversy — removed the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal,” saying that this kind of language could not be proven in a lab and, thus, was a kind of faith language for agnostics and atheists. Here is a quick overview by Dr. Eugenie Scott, who is hardly a leader of the Religious Right.

There continue to be echoes of this controversy in the CJR piece and in the wider public debate about Intelligent Design.

Note again the words of Mooney and Nisbet — “mindless and directionless.” How does one prove the lack of a mind? How does one document that a process is “directionless”?

You can, by logic, argue for such a position, and many scientists do. Many openly argue that Darwinism supports atheism or some form of deism. People on the other side — the Intelligent Design crowd — are trying to use the same sequence, arguing by data and logic for a philosophical position (that evidence points to a Creator) that cannot be proven in a lab. Once again, we see this science/ logic/philosophy sequence.

However, it seems that CJR is saying that newspapers must protect the public from this debate over philosophy and science.

Personally, I think journalism is a good idea. This is not to say newspapers cannot show that the overwhelming majority of scientists in this nation back Darwinism. But it would also help if these same newspapers demonstrated that many of the Darwinian authorities cannot agree on what the word “Darwinism” means and to what degree Darwinism does or does not “prove” that humanity is the result of a random and meaningless process that did not have humanity in mind.

I would also love to see editors justify to readers — from sea to shining sea — their decision to embrace advocacy journalism on such an important and controversial issue. It seems, to me, like a quick and easy way to further weaken the newspaper industry. I do not think this is what most editors want to do.

A note to those who wish to comment: Let’s try really hard not to turn this into another row over science and religion. Please try to focus on the journalism issues involved. Thanks.

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Who’s calling who a creationist?

GodAdampurAnyone who has read GetReligion for a while knows that, as a rule, we are fans of the work of religion-beat star Laurie Goodstein at The New York Times. Click here for a flashback to her fine work on a story that other papers we could mention have been, well, oversimplifying a bit.

It has been a busy week for me and I have been struggling to catch up the whole time, at work and here at the blog. Dozens of stories I wanted to write about have come and gone. One of them was Goodstein’s coverage of a July poll — done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press — on what Americans believe about creation.

As so often happens on the Godbeat, language is everything and the problems start right there in the headline: “Teaching of Creationism Is Endorsed in New Survey.” It turns out that this is the rare story in which it is possible to use the term “creationism” and have it mean something more than a slur. You betcha, there are real-life “creationists” in this poll and lots of them.

More on that in a minute. The key is that Goodstein is caught in a thicket of words, trying to draw lines between two very different groups of people and her newspaper seems to want to describe all of them with the same word — creationists. In fact, I would argue that the story centers on three or more different groups.

According to the poll, nearly two-thirds of all Americans say they think “creationism” should be taught alongside evolution in public schools. But things get more complex right there in the second and third paragraphs.

The poll found that 42 percent of respondents held strict creationist views, agreeing that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

In contrast, 48 percent said they believed that humans had evolved over time. But of those, 18 percent said that evolution was “guided by a supreme being,” and 26 percent said that evolution occurred through natural selection. In all, 64 percent said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution, while 38 percent favored replacing evolution with creationism.

Well now, that’s complicated. In other words, there are strict biblical literalists and millions of them. Then there are people who believe that the mechanism of evolution could not have been random and impersonal. Some of these people probably call themselves “theistic evolutionists,” except that the Darwinian establishment is not going to allow that definition of “evolution” in any educational space that is meaningful. There also appear to be true evolutionists who are in favor of free speech on issues of science and philosophy in the public square — even if the idea is tainted with the word “creationism.” Thus:

John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, said he was surprised to see that teaching both evolution and creationism was favored not only by conservative Christians, but also by majorities of secular respondents, liberal Democrats and those who accept the theory of natural selection. Mr. Green called it a reflection of “American pragmatism.”

The problem, of course, is that Goodstein and her editors have only two words to use — evolution and creationism — and they have a number of other camps to describe, on both sides of the divide.

There are evolutionists who truly believe that schools should lurch beyond science and teach that the evidence proves that evolution is random and impersonal, thus locking the God of Judiasm, Christianity and Islam out of the equation. There are other evolutionists who believe that they should just stick with the facts and remain neutral on the theological questions. They do not behave the same in these debates. There are young-earth “creationists.” There are other “creationists” who think the world is millions and millions of years old and that God has worked in ways that produced evidence — big word, evidence — of design in that process. There are other “creationists” who affirm some aspects of Darwinian dogma and reject others. This pope and the last one fit in this particular “creationist” camp, even if journalists hate to say so.

So what is a “strict creationists” and what is a “creationist” and what is a “creationist” who accepts some Darwinian doctrine and rejects other parts of the canon?

What in the world does “creationist” mean, anyway? Is this puzzle something like the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of “pornography”? New York Times editors cannot define the word “creationism,” but they know one of these crazy people when they see one (or millions and millions of them)?

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Where are you on the creation scale?

Has anyone else taken Beliefnet’s “creation” test yet? Let us know how you score.

But I have a question for our friends at Beliefnet about one of their questions. It looks like this:

Q8. If it were true that humans evolved from other animals by random chance and were not intentionally created by God, then . . .

1. My religious faith would be shaken.
2. It would not affect my religious beliefs.
3. It would reinforce my belief that only matter exists

This gets us right back to one of the big questions raised in our still evolving thread here about the New York Times’ mega-series about the competing priesthoods in the Darwinism debate. The Beliefnet question assumes that someone can prove randomness in a lab. They can create evidence that helps them make the case, but they are going to have to interpret the data — a process that involves worldview and belief.

So this question short-circuits the science/logic/philosophy sequence. This is, of course, the heart of the story that jouralists are struggling to cover.

Did the ghost of Dr. Carl Sagan write that question?

You want to know my results on the 0 to 70 scale? You can probably guess. I am not a “Young Earth Believer,” of course, but I could not help but notice that, on the “results” page that popped up, the Beliefnet editors had described that option with the following information:

0 – 27 — Young Earth Believer: When it comes to the origins of the universe and of life, the Bible is your guide. Read William Dembski’s case for teaching intelligent design in classrooms here.

Now wait a minute. I know Dr. William Dembski — an Orthodox guy with a stack of earned degrees including a doctorate in math from that famous fundamentalist institution called the University of Chicago — and this is not a “Young Earth Believer” kind of a guy, although he is now linked to a Southern Baptist seminary.

Did someone on the Beliefnet staff do the coding on that page wrong? Was it a mistake for Dembski to be linked with that stance?

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The Times speaks: “No miracles allowed”

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

This is, of course, the famous credo used time and time again by the late Dr. Carl Sagan. What has always fascinated me about this statement is its open use of religious — even creedal — form and its willingness to launch beyond the rules of science and into a kind of anti-theology.

How, in a lab, can one prove under the rules of science that the material world is all there is? How does one run scientific experiments in the past? And how in the world does one claim to be able to test the future?

Sagan knew what he was doing, of course. I had a chance to ask him about it. He knew his famous Cosmos series was making an argument that the scientific evidence backed up these sweeping truth claims that carried him far outside the rules of research. He believed he had the facts on his side and, thus, he was willing to make a leap of faith from facts to a larger philosophy. Then he became an evangelist for this philosophical point of view.

I was reminded of Sagan while reading the massive New York Times series on how the priesthood of modern science is responding to the rebels gathered under the banner of Intelligent Design. Click here to go to a clearinghouse page for all of the Gray Lady’s efforts on this issue in the recent past.

Clearly we are in the midst of a blitz. Cages have been rattled.

As I have stated before, I try to stay on the fringes of this issue because I have so many close friends who are at the heart of it. So take what I say here with a grain of salt. It should also be noted that the scope of this Times series is so large that it would take days to respond to it point by point.

On the whole, I think it is a rather mixed bag. There is some give and take by the most intelligent voices on each side of the debate and that is a good thing. I am sure the powers that be in the newsroom believe it is a totally balanced package. For example, the reports do stress that the ID leaders are, if anything, trying to increase the amount of attention evolution is given in the classroom, not ban the theory. They simply want students exposed to the debates that are already taking place within the scientific community. They also do not think the religious implications of these debates — on either side of the table — should be included in public classrooms. The ID leaders want this to be a scientific discussion. However, this would apply to Darwinian philosophy as well as to deism or theism.

I digress. There are times in the Times, however, when it is clear that the scientific arguments at the heart of the story simply cannot be covered in depth in a newspaper series. When this happens, the Times uses this formula: The controversial religious people make this claim. The real scientists make this response, based on facts. That’s that. There is no need to let the critics respond to their critics.

At one key moment, reporter Jodi Wilgoren even slips into the old “fundamentalist” trap, violating logic, the facts and The Associated Press Stylebook all at the same time. Here is the context, speaking of the ID leaders:

Their credentials — advanced degrees from Stanford, Columbia, Yale, the University of Texas, the University of California — are impressive, but their ideas are often ridiculed in the academic world.

“They’re interested in the same things I’m interested in — no one else is,” Guillermo Gonzalez, 41, an astronomer at the University of Iowa, said of his colleagues at Discovery. “What I’m doing, frankly, is frowned upon by most of my colleagues. It’s not something a ‘scientist’ is supposed to do.” Other than Dr. Berlinski, most fellows, like their financiers, are fundamentalist Christians, though they insist their work is serious science, not closet creationism.

What does the word “fundamentalist” mean in this context, when speaking of a group that includes Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and a dozen other faith traditions? Why use this word? Is the goal to underline a basic assumption that one side uses faith and the other intellect?

Let me conclude by returning to Sagan. The various Times writers seem to glimpse, every now and then, the larger fact that Darwinian orthodoxy makes truth claims that are based on claims of logic as well as laboratory results. What they seem to miss is that the Intelligent Design people want to use the same sequence as Sagan. They believe that laboratory evidence and logic point to an unknown designer — something that cannot be tested in a lab by science. But what they also want people to note is that the ultimate claim made by many in the Darwinian priesthood also cannot be tested.

In academic circles, evolution has been defined as an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process . . . that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.”

The controversy centers on the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal.” That is the heart of this story. These are the words that Sagan and others cannot test in a laboratory, yet many still believe they are at the heart of all legitimate science. For, you see, any involvement whatsoever by a Divine Person — any meaningful role for a Creator — is called a miracle. That is bad. Millions and millions of taxpayers, representing (cue: Sagan voice) billions and billions of tax dollars, must be shown the light.

Thus, the Times notes:

. . . (M)ainstream scientists say that the claims of intelligent design run counter to a century of research supporting the explanatory and predictive power of Darwinian evolution, and that the design approach suffers from fundamental problems that place it outside the realm of science. For one thing, these scientists say, invoking a higher being as an explanation is unscientific.

“One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed,” said Douglas H. Erwin, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution. “That’s a fundamental presumption of what we do.”

That does not mean that scientists do not believe in God. Many do. But they see science as an effort to find out how the material world works, with nothing to say about why we are here or how we should live. And in that quest, they say, there is no need to resort to otherworldly explanations.

Thus, one side gets to use the equation — science, logic, philosophy — but the other side does not. One side gets to make leaps of faith in the public square, but the other side does not. Rules are rules.

Dr. Sagan would be proud.

P.S. For a lively discussion of the terms that journalists are tossing about in this coverage, click here for a visit with William Safire.

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Of ducks & zealotry

DucksEarlier this month, GetReligion mentioned that Stephen Meyer of the intelligent design movement had published an essay in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, mentioning only briefly the indignation that Meyer’s article caused.

Today’s Washington Post describes how the fury about that article has affected the life of Richard Sternberg, the editor who decided to publish it:

Within hours of publication, senior scientists at the Smithsonian Institution — which has helped fund and run the journal — lashed out at Sternberg as a shoddy scientist and a closet Bible thumper.

“They were saying I accepted money under the table, that I was a crypto-priest, that I was a sleeper cell operative for the creationists,” said Steinberg, 42, who is a Smithsonian research associate. “I was basically run out of there.”

An independent agency has come to the same conclusion, accusing top scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History of retaliating against Sternberg by investigating his religion and smearing him as a “creationist.”

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which was established to protect federal employees from reprisals, examined e-mail traffic from these scientists and noted that “retaliation came in many forms . . . misinformation was disseminated through the Smithsonian Institution and to outside sources. The allegations against you were later determined to be false.”

In one amusing detail, Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education takes Michael Behe’s “If it walks like a duck” argument and subjects it to a non-evolutionary adaptation:

An e-mail stated, falsely, that Sternberg had “training as an orthodox priest.” Another labeled him a “Young Earth Creationist,” meaning a person who believes God created the world in the past 10,000 years.

This latter accusation is a reference to Sternberg’s service on the board of the Baraminology Study Group, a “young Earth” group. Sternberg insists he does not believe in creationism. “I was rather strong in my criticism of them,” he said. “But I agreed to work as a friendly but critical outsider.”

Scott, of the NCSE, insisted that Smithsonian scientists had no choice but to explore Sternberg’s religious beliefs. “They don’t care if you are religious, but they do care a lot if you are a creationist,” Scott said. “Sternberg denies it, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it argues for zealotry.”

Hats off to the Post for not ducking out on a story of intrigue.

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Would Dallas readers care about creation?

I need to wrap up some unfinished business from last week, which was a busy one. So let’s take a flashback to a major story.

Anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows what it means when a reporter briefs an editor about what happened in an event or an interview and the editor says, “That’s not all that important. Just do some bullets and put it at the end of the story.”

Bullets are those little stars, bold dots or other graphical devices — “bullets” — that copy desks put in to break up the leftovers that may or may not make it into the final editions of the newspaper. Just look for the telltale words “In other business.” Then come the bullets.

With that in mind, compare the following leads from major newspapers about President Bush’s interview with a cluster of Texas journalists, the interview that veered into his thoughts on God, science and education.

Here is the Los Angeles Times:

Advocates of an alternative to the theory of evolution took heart Tuesday from President Bush’s remarks that “both sides ought to be properly taught” in public schools.

Nicely done. Now, here is The Washington Post:

President Bush invigorated proponents of teaching alternatives to evolution in public schools with remarks saying that schoolchildren should be taught about “intelligent design,” a view of creation that challenges established scientific thinking and promotes the idea that an unseen force is behind the development of humanity.

As Texans would say, that’s close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades.

This was a big story, so there are many other newspapers we could take a look at. But let’s check out how The Dallas Morning News covered the story, since that is such a powerful newspaper in the state of Texas — home to George W. Bush and a couple of zillion other people who care deeply about this issue (just ask the people who publish school textbooks).

Here is The Dallas Morning News’ lead on this hot story:

WASHINGTON –- President Bush expressed “complete confidence” in adviser Karl Rove on Monday, offering the first public endorsement since his embattled aide’s name surfaced as one of the administration officials who may have had a hand in unmasking an undercover CIA agent.

Wait a minute! Is this the same Bush press conference with that circle of Texas journalists? To answer that question, you need to do some digging. Sure enough, 15 paragraphs down into the story we get to those crucial words “On other topics, Mr. Bush” and the dreaded “bullets.” There are quite a few of them and there — not in the first, second, third or fourth bullet, but in the fifth — we learn that the world’s best known Texan

• Waded gingerly into the evolution vs. creationism debate, saying local school boards should decide whether to teach evolution or “intelligent design,” an alternative creation-of-life theory promoted by religious conservatives. “You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes,” he said.

This was a mere one bullet ahead of Bush’s remarks about the summer weather in Central Texas. He still likes to visit Texas, even if it’s hot.

Something tells me that the average citizen of the Bible-Belt Mecca called Dallas might have been more interested in the God and science story than the average Dallas Morning News editor. You think?

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The skunk at the Darwinian garden party

I missed a Boston Globe profile of science philosopher Michael Ruse at the beginning of this month, but Rich Poll’s Apologia Report has pointed it out. Ruse, a vigorous defender of evolution, distinguishes between evolution and evolutionism, and he criticizes fellow academicians who do not see the clash of worldviews behind the public debates.

Profile author Peter Dizikes of Arlington, Va., quotes generously from Ruse’s critics who believe he’s helping the Intelligent Design movement too much, but he doesn’t bother talking with any proponents of I.D. Dizikes mentions that Ruse edited a book with Intelligent Design proponent William Dembski, and that he entertains no hopes of persuading I.D. advocate Phillip E. Johnson’s mind. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what Dembski and Johnson think of Ruse’s work? The Washington Post certainly didn’t leave its readers guessing what Johnson’s critics think of him in its recent thoughtful profile.

Nevertheless, Dizikes provides an engaging portrait of a man who clearly enjoys being a contrarian:

In his latest book, “The Evolution-Creation Struggle,” published by Harvard University Press later this month, Ruse elaborates on a theme he has been developing in a career dating back to the 1960s: Evolution is controversial in large part, he theorizes, because its supporters have often presented it as the basis for self-sufficient philosophies of progress and materialism, which invariably wind up in competition with religion.

While scientists and creationists often square off over the scientific evidence for evolution, the source of the ongoing dispute is deeper. “This is not just a fight about dinosaurs or gaps in the fossil record,” says Ruse, speaking from his home in Florida. “This is a fight about different worldviews.”

. . .Virtually every prominent Darwinian in recent decades has eschewed social Darwinism, and most believe that evolution itself, while responsible for the increased complexity of organic forms over time, cannot be regarded as a linear process driving toward a particular endpoint. But Ruse asserts that popular contemporary biologists like Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins have also exacerbated the divisions between evolutionists and creationists by directly challenging the validity of religious belief — Dawkins by repeatedly declaring his atheism (“faith,” he once wrote, “is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate”), and Wilson by describing his “search for objective reality” as a replacement for religious seeking.

All told, Ruse claims, loading values onto the platform of evolutionary science constitutes “evolutionism,” an outlook that goes far beyond the scientific acceptance of evolution as a means of explaining the origins and development of species. Provocatively, Ruse argues that evolutionism has often constituted a “religion” itself by offering “a world picture, a story of origins, and a special place for humans,” while its proponents have been “trying deliberately to do better than Christianity.”

To be sure, Ruse acknowledges, some biologists are religious, while a significant portion of religious believers are willing to accept the concept of evolution at least to some extent. But, he argues, the way evolutionists have often linked their science to progressive politics has, in recent decades, become anathema to many believers, especially fundamentalist Christians whose biblical literalism leads them to believe that worldly change will only arrive with the Second Coming. The advocates of evolution, Ruse argues, have thus been “competing for space in the hearts and minds” of many religious believers without even realizing it — much to the detriment of their cause.

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