Thursday, January 20, 2005

Evolution on Scarborough Country

Compared to the complete insanity of the O'Reilly segment, last Friday's edition of Scarborough Country was a model of erudition and scholarship. The transcript is available here.

The topic was the Cobb County “sticker” decision. Here's Scarborough introducing the segment:

But, first, imagine that your child comes home from school and one of his science books has a sticker that reads—quote—“This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

Should red states be teaching kids creationism, while blue states are teaching evolution? Has the ACLU gone too far in demanding any that trace of religion be removed from our schools? And why is a federal judge stepping in and telling schools what they should put in their textbooks?

It's interesting that Scarborough takes it for granted that the Cobb County stickers were an attempt to bring religion into the classroom. After all, defenders of the sticker prefer to talk about things like “critical thinking” and “good science”.

Scarborough went on to introduce the panel:

With me now tonight are Marjorie Rogers. She‘s a Georgia parent who wants the stickers on science books. And we have got Dave Silverman. He‘s of American Atheists, who obviously does not.

Compared to other “public atheists” I've seen, Silverman does a reasonable job on these shows. But he should realize that he is simply allowing the Scarboroughs of the world to cast the issue in their own terms. From the moment he was introduced as an atheist nothing else he said mattered. Scarborough got across the message he wanted to get across: that accepting evolution is a religious position.

Let's see what Ms. Rogers had to say:

MARJORIE ROGERS, PARENT: Well, I opened up my student‘s science book and—the science books that were proposed to be purchased by Cobb County, and I was astonished at what I saw. If any parent wants to look in them, I think they will be also overwhelmed by the way that evolution is presented as an unquestioned fact supported by mountains of evidence, which it just is not. It is a theory. And it is presented unfairly.

They parade out all of the tired old icons of evolution that they have been putting out there for years as support for the theory, in the light of all of the new scientific evidence that has come forth, DNA discoveries, all the complexities of life that scientists are discovering of late. (Emphasis Added)

Rogers gave herself away with that boldface comment. She lifted that from Jonathan Wells' book of the same title. Of course, every major point Wells made in that book has been shown to be totally, ridiculously wrong.

It would have been great if Scarborough had come back with “New DNA discoveries? Really? Name one.” But I suppose that was asking too much.

From here Rogers went on to hit all the usual talking points: A growing number of scientists are embracing ID (she even had the Discovery Institute list!), this isn't about religion, blah blah blah.

I really despise people like her. I have spent most of the last five years reading everything I could get my hands on about evolutionary biology. I started with popular level treatments, moved into higher level books and articles, made a point of reading Darwin and Huxley and Fisher and Mayr and countless others. I have read almost everything the ID folks have put out and I have read everything scientists have written in reply. I have even read a large number of research articles on the subject, and often discuss this issue with my biological betters. And I would still be nervous discussing the issue on television, for fear of making a mistake on some scientific question.

Yet here is Ms. Rogers, who knows nothing about the subject beyond a few talking points she's absorbed, happily going on television and acting for the world like she knows what she is talking about. How do people like her become so shameless? How is is that they care so much more about their fifteen minutes of fame than they do about getting the facts right?

The only other interesting part of the segment was Scarborough's closing:

And I want you all to know out there, this is a big issue. It is not just affecting Georgia schools. Last night on “Nightline,” they were talking about a school in Ohio. It‘s happening all across America. Now, again, think about this, all right? This is not about whether you are a Christian or whether you are an atheist. It not about whether you believe in creationism. It is not about whether you believe in evolution.

It is about whether you believe a federal judge should decide what we put in our textbooks in our schools. I say leave it up to the school boards, leave it up to the local officials, not the federal judges.

Now, we are going to be following this case closely and talking about it more in the coming weeks.

At no point did Scarborough ever endorse creationism. In fact, he seemed to go to great lengths to present this as an issue of judicial activism. I take this to mean that Scarborough has little sympathy for creationism himself, but doesn't want to incur the wrath of his mostly right-wing viewers.

Of course local school boards have broad discretion over their curricula. But as noted by Judge Cooper in his decsion in the trial, they are not completely unfettered. They can do almost whatever they want, but not quite everything.


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