Published September 30, 2002
Won't old stereotypes ever die?
More than 40 years ago, the film "Inherit the Wind" presented the controversy over the teaching of evolution as a battle between stick-figure fundamentalists who defend a literal reading of Genesis and saintly scientists who simply want to teach the facts of biology. Ever since, journalists have tended to depict almost any battle over evolution in the schools as if it were a replay of "Inherit the Wind"--even if it's not.
The media's latest attempt to recycle "Inherit the Wind" is taking place in Cobb County, Georgia. On Sept. 26 the Cobb County school board unanimously approved a policy encouraging teachers to discuss "disputed views" about evolution as part of a "balanced education."
Critics of the policy are already crying foul, asserting that the policy is a thinly-disguised attempt to smuggle the Bible into science class. Parts of the national newsmedia have followed suit, setting up the Cobb County conflict as a classic battle between science and Biblical creationism. CNN declared that the school board had voted "to allow creationism in class," and the Associated Press made a similar claim. Science Magazine proclaimed that "The forces of creationism scored a victory in Georgia last night."
The only problem with this contention was that the school board explicitly said the opposite-- but the media didn't bother to report that fact!
"We expect teachers to continue to teach the theory of evolution," said school board chair Curtis Johnston at the meeting during which the policy was adopted. "We do not expect teachers to teach creationism... Religion has no place in science instruction."
Lest Mr. Johnston's comments leave any room for ambiguity, the entire board then adopted a statement expressing its intent that the new "policy not be interpreted to restrict the teaching of evolution" or "to promote or require the teaching of creationism...."
How does an explicit statement denying any intent "to promote or require the teaching of creationism" get translated by the newsmedia into an effort to teach creationism?
Unfortunately, by clinging to old stereotypes, the national newsmedia have missed the real controversy in Cobb County, which is a whole lot more interesting than a cardboard battle between religious fundamentalists and the defenders of science. National news accounts have played up the fact that some scientists from Georgia universities have opposed the Cobb County policy to expose students to diverse scientific views on evolution. What the national newsmedia have failed to report is that a group of 28 scientists from the very same educational institutions (places like the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech) wrote the Cobb County board expressing their skepticism of Darwinism and urging "careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory."
The scientists supportive of the Cobb County policy came from such fields as biology, biochemistry, chemistry, medicine, and agriculture, and even included a professor who has been nominated multiple times for the Nobel prize. The 28 Georgia scientists were backed by more than 130 scientists from around the country who share the same view.
But scientists supportive of teaching the scientific controversy over evolution don't fit the stereotype of science vs. religion, so the national newsmedia neglected to mention them.
Journalists should relinquish the "Inherit the Wind" stereotype and update their knowledge about what is really happening in the natural sciences. Today, growing numbers of scientists are raising serious questions about Darwinian theory.
Some of them, like biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University and mathematician William Dembski of Baylor University, are proposing a scientific alternative to Darwinism known as intelligent design. Other scientists are simply pointing out that the underlying evidence for Darwinian theory is a lot more complicated--and controverted--than is usually presented to students. Biologist Jonathan Wells points out that biology textbooks routinely cite "evidence" for Darwin's theory that even many modern Darwinists no longer accept as legitimate. The textbooks also ignore the serious disagreements that exist among modern biologists on major issues such as the fossil record and embryology.
There is nothing anti-science about informing students about these disagreements among scientists. Indeed, science is supposed to prize a critical examination of competing hypotheses and evidence. There is no reason why that critical examination shouldn't include Darwinism.
The School Board in Cobb County apparently agrees that a complete education requires students to be exposed to the complete scientific discussion and debate. This real story is far more newsworthy than any revival of "Inherit the Wind."
Dr. John G. West, Jr., is a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and an associate professor of political science at Seattle Pacific University.