Archive for the ‘Opinions’ Category

Just what do we want from the liberal media anyway?

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

When the horrifying Creation Museum opened a few days ago, science bloggers responded with a pro-science carnival, edited and organized by champion advocate for rationality PZ Myers. Not surprisingly, a lot of the bloggy attention focused not just on the Creation Museum itself, but on coverage of it in the mainstream media. New to blogging but old to science, and thoroughly, deeply, proudly embedded in the furious set of sane-minded folk who hate the efforts of Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis, the fundamentalist Christian group sponsoring the museum, I was pretty surprised to find myself disagreeing with the other evolution bloggers.

What do we want from mainstream media? (You know, the liberal media, the media that report the facts.) Do we want truth, or do we want passion?

Two mainstream articles on the Creation Museum that have received critical attention from science bloggers include the May 24 NY Times article and today’s Salon article. Both have received heavy thumping for “softball,” “credulous” reporting that “could have been written by Ken Ham himself.” But in the articles, the journalists make it clear that the Creation Museum directly challenges established scientific facts and promotes a specific, biblically literal agenda. So what don’t the articles do, according to their science critics? In a response I left in Evolution Blog’s comments section, I wrote that they don’t convey outrage:

Is it necessarily a bad thing for a reporter to give such a factual account of a news event that people from both sides of the spectrum find it essentially truthful? (Although in fairness this probably isn’t the case—I disagree that “Those paragraphs could have been written by Ken Ham himself” and obviously you are unhappy with this report.)

It’s an interesting problem. I stand by my position that reporting bald facts can be the most powerful method of revealing truth. These articles don’t passionately defend established science, they simply reference it without equivocation. The Times‘ description of this museum as “a kind of relief” for some people, “without the distortions of secularism and natural selection” is an effective way of conveying that our culture is undergoing a terrible polarization, which is one of the most important facts the article reports. Tinged with outrage, an article can lose credibility—and maybe it should. But an article that incites outrage with facts—that’s effective journalism.

Yes, THIS is why conservatives should love evolution

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

NOTE: This post was originally published on February 27, 2007, on an old version of this site.

An article by David Brooks recently published in the Philadelphia Inquirer offers a tantalizing morsel of controversy, which is begging for a good swipe. Brooks’ essay starts out with a thesis: The notion that humans are fundamentally good, and that our virtuous natures are made venal by corrupt institutions, has been gradually eroded and replaced with science’s sinister declaration that we’ve evolved from conflict-stricken, status-contesting ancestors and we thus embody inherently animalistic, not-so-good predispositions. He makes an intriguing case. The zinger comes at the end: “Many conservatives resist the theory of evolution even though it confirms many of conservatism’s deepest truths.” Yikes.

So taking this argument apart, we have:

  1. Science teaches us that we are wicked by evolutionary inheritance.
  2. Many who advocate the philosophy of a fundamentally wicked human nature are conservative.
  3. Perversely, many conservatives reject evolution.

barbedwire.jpgWell, I agree that rejection of evolution is perverse, no matter who you are. And the claim that conservatives prefer a world view of inherit wickedness, while perhaps endlessly debatable, does obviously coincide with the Christian concept of original sin. But there is a problem with distilling the evidence-based truths of science into an argument that we’re bad by nature. In a wider context (and to be fair, one that Brooks outlines), perhaps it’s notable that science motivated a sea change against the naive and hopeful philosophy that things in their most natural form will make peace and exhibit good behavior. So long as we’re talking about shifts in broad, popular perspectives, this makes a lot of sense.

However, in precisely this kind of broad, popular perspective, science offers so much more. After the initial crushing disappointment that we are, after all, vulgar animals, shouldn’t we realize the liberation this invites? If evolution can teach us anything, it’s that things are the way they are due to natural forces—not good, not bad. Moreover, these natural forces have shaped an ever-shifting, diversifying and changing biological landscape. After all, evolution is a reactionary force—it can only act on existing variation. There’s no destiny involved. How liberating! Don’t like that your ancestors developed a ravenous preference for simple carbohydrates? At least it’s not your destiny to consume nothing but bread and pasta. Lessons from science suggest an exploration of gastronomical preferences to find a diet that sates both your inherited appetite and your modern self-interest in being skinny. Along these lines, I think that discerning our natural, human instincts within an evolutionary context can be liberating: as we come to understand why we are the way we are, we can develop agency for becoming who we want to be.

Brooks’ whole point about conservatives and evolution is interesting compared to Michael Shermer’s point about how liberals and conservatives understand the basis for sexual orientation.


Thursday, April 19th, 2007

NOTE: This post was originally published on December 13, 2006, on an old version of this site.

Twice in the last two days I have heard the word “sectarian” used to describe the efforts to dissolve the separation church and state and the zealous promotion of fundamentalist Christianity.

In yesterday’s panel discussion on Science, Faith and Darwin at the Franklin Institute, panelist Stephen Harvey argued that, far from being valid science, “intelligent design is not just religious, it is sectarian.”

And in today’s cover story for Salon, former Air Force officer Mikey Weinstein argues that the unconstitutional proselytizing of evangelical faith within the military is “as much of a national security threat to this country as al-Qaida” and calls a video of senior officers promoting their faith “blatantly and vociferously sectarian.”

I think the use of this word is appropriate and smart. The arguments of the very conservative Christian right are not representative of most Americans, nor even most American Christians, and the word denotes the political motivation and connotes the perilousness of their agenda.