Wednesday, August 10, 2005

BBC weighs in on a non-controversy

As highlighted at the top of this website, BBC reporter Justin Webb has admitted to trying to paint the US as an "ignorant, unsophisticated" place "ruled to a dangerous extent by...religious bigotry", and "a place lacking in respect for evidence based knowledge". Today the BBC has a classic example of just how it goes about painting that picture, and how it does so by misleading its readers.

The culprit this time is not Webb, but Jonathon Beale, who has written this article about the ongoing debate regarding intelligent design and whether it ought to be taught in schools. Beale leaves the clear impression that George Bush has pro-actively taken up the cause of intelligent design, and is attempting to get it introduced into science classes at school. The headline on the article proclaims "Bush weighs into evolution debate", and Beale writes that:

President George Bush has started a national debate in the US over the teaching of evolution in school.

The president has suggested that a theory known as "intelligent design" should be taught in the classroom...

President Bush's championing of intelligent design will be interpreted as further evidence of the growing influence of the religious right.
[Interpreted by who? Jonathon Beale and the BBC, of course - TAE]

The US president told newspaper reporters in Texas that children should be taught about intelligent design so they could better understand the debate about the origins of the universe.

Again, by saying that Bush has "started a national debate" and is "championing" the theory, Beale leaves us with the undeniable impression that Bush is embarking on a new policy of introducing the theory of intelligent design into the classroon, and has recently announced it to reporters.

In the first place, it is simply false to say that Bush has started the national debate about intelligent design in the classroom. The debate was begun primarily by the goings-on in Kansas, which itself has been being played out in the national press for years.

Neither is it true that this is a policy that Bush is "championing", or that it is an issue that has been raised by Bush in any way at all. In fact, Bush’s comments on the issue came strictly at the prompting of a Knight-Ridder reporter, Ron Hutcheson, who asked him for his "personal views" on the subject. Bush then gave him those views, even though, as Hutcheson himself reported, "Bush didn’t seem eager to talk about the topic."

And what, exactly, is he so reluctantly "championing"? Beale studiously avoids quoting Bush directly, even as he quotes others in his article, so BBC readers must take Beale at his word about Bush’s thinking. But a look at what Bush actually said throws new light on the impressions that Beale provides. The exchange between Bush and Hutcheson, as related by Time magazine (which, it is worth noting, also uses the false "champion" characterization):

The President laughed when Knight-Ridder’s Ron Hutcheson asked for Mr. Bush’s "personal views" about the theory of "intelligent design", which religious activists advocate should be taught in U.S. schools as an alternative to theories of evolution. After joking that the reporter was "doing a fine job of dragging me back to the past," to his days as governor of Texas, Bush said: "Then, I said that, first of all, that decision should be made to local school districts, but I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught..."

"Both sides ought to be properly taught?" asked Hutcheson.

"Yes," Bush answered, "so people can understand what the debate is about."

Hutcheson followed up: "So the answer accepts the validity of ‘intelligent design' as an alternative to evolution?" Bush replied, "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought, and I'm not suggesting — you're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."

Hutcheson tried one more time: "So we've got to give these groups—" But the president cut him off: "Very interesting question, Hutch," which provoked laughter.

The first thing worth noticing is that Bush plainly says that the decision of what to teach should be made by local school not him. So the implication that Bush is somehow actively pressing for intelligent design to be taught is false.

The other thing to notice is that Bush never actually takes a position on the validity of intelligent design theory. He merely suggests that it is worth knowing about, and therefore worth teaching. He is clearly reluctant to be seen as staking out firm position on the notion of intelligent design, a fact which is quite at odds with the impression left by Beale and the BBC.

Far more interesting, to me anyway, than the thought that a known-to-be-religious president might harbor personal views that, shocker!, reflect the teaching of his religion, is the way in which reporters create news and controversy for themselves. In the case at hand, we have a reporter posing a question out of the blue to the president which is designed to produce controversy and headline making news. Once the question was posed, there was almost nothing Bush could say, short of a rude refusal to answer in any way at all (and perhaps not even then), that would not have subsequently been portrayed as big news.

Imagine that Bush had said that, in his personal view, intelligent design should not be taught in schools. The headlines the next day would then have shouted out "Bush snubs intelligent design, angers his religious base". As it is, Bush gave a rather anodyne, politically nuanced non-answer on a controversial subject, an answer with which few could take offense - It’s up to others to decide, but if you're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is they should be - and yet still the headlines have blared with the notion that Bush has made some important political proclamation on the issue.

This in an entirely media-created controversy, at least with regard to Bush's involvement in it. And the BBC, through Jonathon Beale, has taken advantage of it in order to perpetuate its malignant and false view of the US as a land ruled by religiously-induced ignorance.


Anonymous Richard John said...

The fact that children can be informed of competing ideas is often heresy to the educational and scientific establishment tough for different reasons.

In the case of intelligent design, the educational establishment (a very pernicious influence in both US and UK) will resist anything that can be seen as right-wing or linked to right-wing groups.

In the case of the scientific establishment, there exists a very worrying resistance to anything that is outside of prevailing consensus. In fact, science becomes religion - there are believers and non-believers, the faithful and heretics. Time and again over history the establishment has attacked any attempt to challenge orthodox views. And time and again the prevailing orthodox view has been proven wrong by new people and new ideas - whether this is Gallileo, Einstein et al.

This is not to say that intelligent design is true or not true. I do not know. But science should be self confident enough to allow new ideas to be explored without the usual knee-jerk response that tries to prevent exploration and discussion - thereby preventing people (including me) from finding out enough to get to an opinion.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

The science establishment is incredibly dogmatic: look at the reaction to Bjorn Lomborg's questioning of the science behind the environmentalist movement. Yet as Michael Crichton points out, many scientific breakthroughs in the past were bitterly opposed by the scientific "consensus" at the time (the most recent of which was the bacterial cause of stomach ulcers).

Now science opposes any explanation of how the world works, if there is no verifiable proof of it. For this reason the scientists rejected the Genesis account of the origin of the Universe in favour of a "steady state" theory (ie that the Universe had always existed and had no beginning) until evidence forced them to change their minds.

Perhaps the awareness of this very uncertainty makes them so dogmatic: a need for certainty causes denial of the fallibility of theories, and the lack of self-confidence pointed out by Richard John.

What is most interesting is that the secular liberal establishment is now so entrenched that it is the religious and the conservative who are the dissenters now: it takes real courage to articulate these views against the smug certainty of the ex-radicals. The main stream media parrot the party line, confident in their illusory "dissent", while conducting witch-hunts against the real independent thinkers.

11:48 AM  

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