Friday, December 23, 2005

BBC correction

A couple of days ago, in an article about the Dover/Intelligent Design/Evolution court case, the BBC wrote that:
A majority of US states have seen some form of challenge to the pre-eminence
of Darwinian evolution theory in the curriculum of publicly-funded schools since
This struck me as fairly unbelievable, so I wrote to the BBC requesting the data to back up the claim. Today I received the following e-mail in response:

Dear Mr Callahan

Thank you for your e-mail.

You are right - this is a mistake that appears to have slipped through our checking process. What the article should have said - as it does now - is that some 20 states have seen challenges at local level.

Thank you again for your interest in our coverage.


BBC News Website

So, not only were the challenges in less than a majority of states, they were in fact local, not statewide, challenges. The difference is not insignificant. The original claim clearly instills, (and is almost certainly designed to instill) the impression that challenges to evolution are sprouting up all over the US. But to give you some perspective, there are 47 local school districts that begin just with the letter "B"... in New York State alone. Across the whole of the US there are literally thousands of local school districts. The fact that 20 states have seen challenges at the local level indicates nothing whatsoever about how common such challenges are, and in and of itself certainly does not merit the attention paid to the fact by the BBC.

I am willing to give the (anonymous) author of the BBC piece the benefit of the doubt, and accept that it was an honest mistake. But it is almost certainly a mistake that was born out of the same prejudiced view that so often finds its way into BBC pieces, and adds to the mounds of evidence which suggests the BBC is in dire need of some mindset and ideological diversity. It is instructive, I think, that these "slips" in the "checking process" inevitabely seem to err in the same direction. It is inconceivable that a similar BBC piece might err by claiming that the Dover case was the only of its kind in America, and hence portray it as an aberration. Even if a writer made the claim, it would almost certainly not get by a skeptical editor. Manifestly, the same cannot be said about inflated claims of American religiosity.

Crystal balls at the BBC

Bush suffers Patriot Act defeat blares a headline today on the BBC’s website. Such a headline is akin to one declaring that Arsenal suffers Carling Cup upset even as the game is tied and enters extra time. (For the record, Arsenal went on to win on penalties.) Such is the quality of reporting at the BBC these days that it attempts to write the story even before it has been played out.

The facts are as follows:

The Patriot Act was due to expire at the end of December.

President Bush wants Congress to extend the act indefinitely.

The House of Representatives passed an indefinite extension of the act back in July, precisely in accord with the President’s wishes.

A majority of the Senate favors indefinite renewal. However, some senators object to certain aspects of the act as it now exists, and want to rewrite or remove some of its provisions. Because they are in the minority and the president will get what he wants if it actually comes up for a vote, these senators have engaged in a filibuster, thus preventing a vote on indefinite renewal.

Given that the act will expire by law at the end of the month, and because the objecting senators are not entirely unserious, recognizing that the Patriot Act is a valuable tool despite whatever objections they may have with certain specifics, they voted Wednesday to postpone the argument over its existing provisions for now by extending the law by 6 months, by which point the specific objections will have to be addressed.

Since the law as passed by the Senate (6 month extension) was not in accord with what the House passed (indefinite extension), the bill had to go back to the House for passage there. The House, objecting to the efforts of the Senate to postpone making a firm decision, but mindful that it would be irresponsible to allow the law to expire altogether at the end of the month, voted to allow only a one month extension, thus keeping the law in effect, but forcing the Senate to re-address the issue sometime next month. The law then went back to the Senate, which hastily agreed to the one month extension.

Now, does this represent a “defeat” for Bush? Hardly. Whether or not the act ultimately gets renewed indefinitely, and whether or not certain provisions of it are ultimately removed or rewritten, remains an open question. Essentially, to return to our sports metaphor, the game has gone into extra time with the outcome still undecided. Yet the BBC, in its relentless campaign to diminish Bush in the eyes of its audience, disingenuously portrays this as a “defeat” for Bush.

What is most risible is the BBC’s deceitful suggestion that the move by the House to shrink the extension to only a month “is a rebuff to President Bush, who wanted the legislation extended indefinitely.” Given that the House had already passed precisely what the president wanted, and was in fact sending the Senate, not the president, a message in refusing to agree to the 6 month extension, and given the fact that the House agreed to the one month extension only after White House intervention and persuasion to do precisely that and prevent the law from expiring altogether, it is difficult to characterize the BBC’s narrative as anything other than an out and out lie.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Guardian's own creationism

Today The Guardian's editorial board uses the occassion of Kitzmiller v Dover School District, in which the Dover school district board of directors' attempt to introduce Intelligent Design into its science curriculum was ruled unconstitutional, to continue its campaign to deceive its readers about American religiosity.

Claiming that "biblical literalism is on the march in America", it presents as evidence the fact that:
A recent survey found only 26% of Americans believe, with Darwin, that life on earth has evolved through natural selection.
Clearly the implication is that the rest believe in the "biblical literalism" previously mentioned. Unfortunately, The Guardian didn't think it was necessary to reveal just what survey it was talking about. However, given that a Pew Forum survey from August produced precisely that 26% number on precisely that topic, it is probably reasonable to assume that it is this survey which The Guardian is talking about. A closer look at the survey, however, reveals that The Guardian is not being entirely upfront with its readers.

In fact the survey showed that, far from a small minority, fully 48% of the people surveyed accept the notion of evolution, or put another way, an even larger population than the 42% which believe that living things have only ever existed in their current form. From whence, then, comes The Guardian's 26% figure? Well, it turns out that the survey broke down the population of evolution believers into two further categories: those who think that a supreme being guided the evolutionary process (18%) and those who accept only "natural selection" and no divine guidance (26%). (4% did not know).

This deceit by omission is bad enough. Far worse is The Guardian's repeated attempts to convince its audience that biblical religiosity in America is on the rise. At various points it claims that biblical literalism is "on the march" and is "growing" and it refers to a "tide" of Christian fundamentalism. At no point, of course, does The Guardian offer any evidence at all of this growing tide of biblical literalism. And it is no wonder.

Gallup has been doing the same poll and asking the same questions, regarding beliefs about evolution, since 1982. The results (page down a couple of times) are remarkably consistent year after year, with those who reject the notion of evolution ranging between 44% (1992, '97) and 47% (1999), and those accepting either theistic or natural evolution ranging between 46% (1993) and 51% (2004). Whatever one may think of American views of evolution, it is clear they have not substantially changed.

And indeed other statistics suggest that not only is The Guardian's portrayal of the US as a nation increasingly under the sway of religious belief wrong, it is the direct opposite of the truth. One major study of religious trends in America showed that between 1990 and 2001, the percentage of adults who identified themselves with one religious group or another actually dropped from 90% to 81%; the percentage of Christians dropped from 86% to 77%; those who subscribe to no religious identification rose from 8% to 14%.

Although The Guardian warns its readers about "the kind of country that George Bush's America is becoming", those readers would do better to be warned about the kind of journalism that is being practiced at The Guardian. Ironically enough, its own view of America has no more basis in reality than does the creationism that it finds so derisory.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Fat America

The BBC’s Matthew Davis has been working overtime, with two pieces over two consecutive days, to reinforce yet another caricature of America, that of the obese American. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans are not obese, yesterday Davis wrote about the US obesity “crisis”, and today he travels to Jefferson County Mississippi, the “fattest part of the fattest state” in the US.

Frankly, I don’t understand at all the interest in this subject. Davis writes that “most agree that the unhealthy lifestyles of many in the US need to change.” Unfortunately he never gets around to answering the rather obvious question: Why? So what if they don’t change? The societal importance of preventing people from getting fat escapes me.

But with the BBC’s embrace of national stereotypes as the basis of serious and on-going reporting, perhaps we can look forward to the BBC doing a series on the questionable bathing habits of the French by sending one its crack reporters to the smelliest part of the smelliest country in Europe (“most agree that the malodorous lifestyles of many in France need to change.”) And then maybe a story on the deplorable state of dental hygiene in the UK by visiting the most toothless pub in the most toothless county in the British Isles (“most agree that the unhygienic brushing habits of many in the UK need to change.”)

Monday, December 19, 2005


You may have noticed the posting has been very light for the last week. This has not been for want of things to say - how could it be given John Simpson's on-going campaign to sow defeatism amidst the clear victory represented by the recent Iraqi elections, and Newsnights farcical Allies on trial stunt? No, the time of year and other obligations have regrettably gotten in the way. Expect the light posting to continue through Christmas, and TAE will hopefully pick up the slack before the New Year starts. Keep checking in, though.

BTW, isn't it just great the way that UK tax payers have to shell out compensation to victims of the BBC's lack of journalistic scruples? (Hat tip to TAE reader Qaz)