Friday, October 10, 2008

The Devil In Dover

What does it mean to be objective? The current meme seems to be that objective means "unbiased" and balanced. The trouble is that no human thought is unbiased, and balanced coverage isn't always (or even usually) truthful. I firmly believe that it's important to get every side of a debate before making an informed decision, but He Said, She Said coverage makes opposite positions seem equal when most often there is quite a disparity. Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks likes to say that if sports reporters acted like the mainstream media, then every game would be a tie or a nail-biter--even when it was a clear blow-out! And New York Times columnist Paul Krugman famously said "If Bush said the Earth was flat, the mainstream media would have stories with the headline: 'Shape of Earth - Views Differ.' Then they'd quote some Democrats saying that it was round."

The above examples may seem like blatant hyperbole, but any informed reader who's familiar with the mainstream media's science coverage will recognize that they're not that far off. Science deals with verifiable facts. From a scientific perspective, "balance" means that every competing hypothesis (theoretically) gets the same chance to methodically test it's claims. But claims that fail the test don't get to sit at the same table as those that are tried and true. It would be nice if journalism worked the same way. But wait, it's supposed to. Here's a quote from an essay by the Committee Of Concerned Journalists that spells it out perfectly.

Perhaps because the discipline of verification is so personal and so haphazardly communicated, it is also part of one of the great confusions of journalism- the concept of objectivity. The original meaning of this idea is now thoroughly misunderstood, and by and large lost.

When the concept originally evolved, it was not meant to imply that journalists were free of bias. Quite the contrary. The term began to appear as part of journalism after the turn of the century, particularly in the 1920s, out of a growing recognition that journalists were full of bias, often unconsciously. Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information- a transparent approach to evidence- precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work.


This is quite different from the "balanced" approach that dominates the media today. This can clearly be seen in how the Intelligent Design "controversy" was covered. This attempt to be balanced and unbiased led to charlatans and prevaricators being given a stage that they neither earned nor deserved. One of the shining lights of truly objective journalism during the whole debacle was Lauri Lebo. Her newest book The Devil In Dover, details her account as a reporter covering the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial in central Pennsylvania over teaching Intelligent Design.



Lauri tells the tale of the trial from when the idea of teaching Creationism was first floated to the aftermath. The reader gets to meet all the defendants and admire them for their courage. You get to see the lawyers from the ACLU, NCSE, and Pepper-Hamilton plan their tactics and strategy for the trial. You get to really see the contrast between Brown Biology professor (and author of textbook Biology) and defense witness, Lehigh University biology professor (and author of the critically panned Darwin's Black Box).

This was exciting for me since I was one of those who followed the trial as it unfolded. Reading this book was like reliving the trial, but being there. What I really found to be new was that I also got to "meet" the plaintiffs. As a local, Lauri Lebo actually knew Bill Buckingham (who attended the same church as her born-again father) and other school board members. These were basically good people who were willing to lie to advance their agenda. I know, it sounds like an inherent contradiction, but when saving souls is more important than not bearing false witness (or just about any other virtue), than anything pretty much goes. I can't say that I particularly like any of those board members more since reading The Devil In Dover, but I do feel that I've been given a window (or at least a peephole) into their motives. I'm sure that I wouldn't much care for any of those characters (or even Dean Lebo) if I ever met them had I not been given that window. The defendant's lawyers from the Thomas More Law Center didn't come off quite as sympathetically. But that might just be that Lauri never quite got to know them as well--or maybe they were that much slimier.

But make no mistake, the heroes of the book are most certainly the parents, teachers and lawyers on the plaintiff's side. They stood up to ignorance and won! Here's a couple of paragraphs from the end of the book that talk about the atmosphere in Dover science classes after the trial.

Rob Eshbach sat with students in quiet classrooms after school, speaking of balancing science with his faith. Jen Miller inspired students to gaze down long hallways and into our past. But these children of pastors always taught evolution with trepidation, afraid of offending creationist beliefs. This year, that's changed. Miler has revamped the biology curriculum. The teaching of evolutionary theory will no longer be crammed into a handful of days out of the school year. Now teachers start with evolution—because everything in biology builds from the theory.

Bryan Rehm says Dover high school is now the safest place in the country to teach science. Attacks on evolution continue in other classrooms, in other places, quietly, out of sight of newspaper reporters and public scrutiny. But not in Dover. Too many people are now watching.


This is exactly right because as Theodosius Dobzhansky said, "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution." The fact that most high schools in this country still teach evolution as an afterthought or just a minor aspect of biology is criminal. Even more criminal (as stated in the second paragraph from the above quote) is that attacks on evolution are still widespread. Why can't it be "safe to teach science" everywhere?

Verdict: Buy the book!

UPDATED: Video of Lauri Lebo talking to the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia

1 comment:

JayMagoo said...

The loudest, least informed, and most doctrinaire among us are setting the agenda, not by calm deliberation, but by threats of disruption and condemnation. The fundamentalists bring so much pressure to bear that it takes a bold, courageous teacher to teach science honestly.
I don't know what it's going to take to change things. Fortunately, from my years as a journalist covering the federal courts, I know that Judge Jones' decision is being read in every US District Courthouse in the country, and is the model for future legal proceedings. But cases have to get to court before the law can be applied. Meanwhile, all the little fundamentalist, born-again ministers and church members all across the country are applying pressure at every opportunity, and the victim is science. And the chief architect of this widespread deception, the Discovery Institute, keeps changing both its tactics and its message to fit changing times. I'm not optimistic.