Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Dearth of Good Science Reporting

I sometimes find it curious that mainstream news in the U.S. is seriously lacking when it comes to in-depth science and tech reporting. I think part of this is because reporters are just that: reporters. They majored in journalism, not science. I know that is only a generality and not entirely true. However, I get angry and concerned when I read articles like this one on CNN.com about the new evolution trial/hearings/debate in Kansas. Toward the end of the article, there is this series of points:

Some evolution detractors say that the belief that humans, animals and organisms evolved over long spans of time is inconsistent with Biblical teachings that life was created by God. The Bible's Old Testament says that God created life on Earth including the first humans, Adam and Eve, in six days.

Detractors also argue that evolution is invalid science because it cannot be tested or verified and say it is inappropriately being indoctrinated into education and discouraging consideration of alternatives.

But defenders say that evolution is not totally inconsistent with Biblical beliefs, and it provides a foundational concept for understanding many areas of science, including genetics and molecular biology.

In short, there are 3 possible points: 1) Evolution conflicts with the Bible (which is Truth) and evolution is wrong. 2) Evolution cannot be demonstrated or verified, so it must be wrong. 3) Evolution is not inconsistent with the Bible if you don't interpret the book literally. There is also a subpoint to 3 (3a, let's call it) that evolution has value only because it helps with other concepts.

This sort of sloppy reporting gives more credence to the ID camp than the scientific evolution camp. Points 1 and 3 balance each other. Evolution either contradicts the Bible or it doesn't, and that depends on your perspective. However, the article offers no counter to 2. Therefore, this is seen as a point in favor of the ID view.

As an introductory note, it should be noted that I am not a biologist and my explanations below may be woefully inadequate. I majored in Mathematics and Computer Science and have only a rudimentary understanding of evolution, but I will try my best.

It is important to note that evolution is a scientific theory, not a "theory" in the common "hunch" meaning of the word. That means that it is an explanation that is based on observation and analysis. Hence, the misguided phrase, "Evolution is just a theory." In science, a theory is extremely well documented and validated. So, "Evolution is just a theory" is pretty close to saying "Evolution is a fact." Mike the Mad Biologist has a good post about evolution demonstrated in antibiotic resistance. He also has some wonderfully argued defenses of evolution in his archives that you can look through. The development of antibiotic resistance in microorganisms provide an example of the body of literature upon which the theory of evolution is based. I.e., observation (after genetic transfer, S. aureus is exhibiting a trait that was not found in S. sciuri) leads to analysis (resistance to triclosan and methicillin developed from mutation and change, not a pre-existing trait of the genes involved in the transfer). In other words, there are facts that led to the development of the theory of evolution.

The sticky point is that evolution cannot be easily reconstructed and demonstrated. With gravity, you can time various objects falling and demonstrate that acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 m/s^2. You can't make such an simple measurement regarding evolution because it is must more subtle and complicated. This is what the Creationists and IDers seize upon. Of course, they ignore the fact that 99.9% of the population cannot demonstrate that the symbol "2" when added to itself gives you the different symbol "4". Sure, you can show that if you have 2 crayons and put 2 more beside it, that gives you 4 crayons. But that is an example, not a proof. It also implies an understanding of the meanings of "2" "+" "=" and "4" [commas omitted so they are not interpreted as part of the symbols]. What do these symbols mean? I can show you that sometimes, 2 + 2 = 1 (in the field Z mod 3).

The point of all this is that the Creationism/ID side tries to capitalize on the abstract and complex nature of evolution as a means to disprove it in the eyes of the public. Since, by and large, the non-scientific community doesn't understand such abstraction (or many other scientific terms), it makes it harder for scientists to prove their point. And the mainstream press implicitly helps the IDers because the reporters cannot adequately rebuff such points. If the reporter did try to include a 4th point stating that the theory is based on sound analysis of observed facts, he/she would be facing a very large inbox of emails in order to respond. Most of them would probably be accusing him/her of liberal bias. Such is the woeful state of scientific reporting for mainstream media.


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