Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"Hatchet Job: PBS's Dishonest Assault on Intelligent Design"

It may be that what "Inherit the Wind" did for the Scopes Trial, PBS's "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial", which aired to a national audience last night, will do for the Dover v. Katzmiller decision: A highly biased treatment of a famous showdown between Darwinism and its detractors.

But I don't think so.

"Inherit the Wind," the play (and, later, the movie) was, despite its misportrayal of the actual events of the Scopes Trial, a compelling piece of theatre that continues, years after its writing, to be performed and enjoyed. It's unsuspecting audiences have little clue of how inaccurate it is as a piece of history, and don't seem to really care, so gripping is the story.

"Judgment Day," however, is not nearly as compelling in its storyline as its predecessor, and it is much more evidently a piece of propaganda, wearing its bias on its editorial sleeve.

The program could well have been called "Hatchet Job: PBS's Assault on Intelligent Design." If anyone was seriously hoping they would see an objective and impartial presentation of the debate over Intelligent Design, they were quickly disabused of the notion.

The people who are advocates of the Dover policy, which would have mandated the teaching of Intelligent Design in Dover science classrooms (a policy which a number of ID advocates actually opposed, although that fact was never mentioned in the documentary), are either ignorant or evil; the opponents wise and reasonable. The actors who portrayed evolutionists in the not very convincing dramatizations are self-assured and confident; those posing as ID advocates are shown as bumbling and confused.

Repeatedly, opponents of ID get the last word. Troops of ID opponents in the scientific community were interviewed, but no attempt was apparently made to take advantage of the numerous members of the scientific community who have voiced doubts about Darwinism.

In the incredibly cheesy dramatizations, cross examinations of ID witnesses were shown again and again, yet no cross examinations by pro-ID lawyers of opponents were to be seen. ID proponents were consistently cast in a bad light.

In one scene, the ACLU attorney hired by the parents who sued the Dover School District to overturn its pro-ID policy asked ID proponent Michael Behe (a scientist himself) if, under his definition, astrology counted as science. Behe said that, yes, it did. The attorney (or, rather, the actor playing the attorney) then asked if astrology hadn't been proven false, to which Behe (or, again, the actor playing Behe) again agreed.

The viewer, of course, was supposed to be appalled at Behe's ignorance.

But, of course, Behe was right, as anyone with a passing familiarity with the philosophy of science knows. Astrology, under most definitions of science, is indeed science. It's just that it is bad science--something very different from non-science: a distinction PBS propagandists either just didn't know or conveniently ignored for dramatic effect.

The problem is not that astrology isn't science, the problem is that astrology doesn't work. If everything that has been shown not to work is ipso facto not science, then we would have to say that fundamental features of Isaac Newton's system were not science, since they have since been shown not to work. But nobody would say that--not even the propagandists at PBS.

Nor did any representatives of one of the leading advocacy groups for ID, the Discovery Institute, appear in the program. Why? Because the Discovery Institute asked that they be able to tape the interviews themselves so they could hold PBS to account for any editorial shenanigans such as those conducted by ABC's Nightline in an earlier interview with Discovery representatives.

PBS's response? No way, José. Accountability? Who did Discovery think they were dealing with here? Objective chroniclers of actual events?

One segment followed Eugenia Scott of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) on her sober quest to see if any of the supporters of Intelligent Design were religious, a finding that would prove, she thought, that Intelligent Design itself was religious. Cameras closed in to capture her grim realization that, indeed, some of them were.

One wonders what would have been her facial expression had she realized that the argument could be turned around on Darwinists themselves if it could be determined (as it already has) that some of the theory's adherents are atheists. That, of course, would go against the repeated assertion in the program that Darwinism is consistent with religious belief--at least if we used Scott's reasoning.

Logic is apparently not a strong suit at the NCSE--or at PBS.

Important distinctions were repeatedly glossed over in the course of the clumsy mischaracterizations. In a sort of scientistic mantra the narrator kept repeating that Intelligent Design was just another version of creationism, despite the fact that its most famous adherent, Michael Behe, does not dispute common descent--nor do some other proponents of ID.

In fact, there was not a single accurate explanation of Intelligent Design in the course of the entire program.

But the most blatant evidence of the lack of balance in the program was when it went into a long and involved presentation of the Darwinist position uninterrupted by any refutation from anyone on the Intelligent Design side, while every assertion of Intelligent Design was accompanied by a swift refutation from an advocate of Darwinism.

It was enough to give shamelessness a bad name.

I have said before that the scientific layman is in a difficult position: he has to listen to people who know a whole lot more than he does about the actual science of the matter. Unless he is familiar with logic or propaganda tactics (and how to defend against them), the only thing he can really judge is the objectivity, competence, and honesty of those who are making their case.

If the advocates of Darwinism cannot be trusted to follow the canons of journalistic integrity, then how can we trust them to follow the canons of scientific integrity? If, when we can catch them at it, we find distortions, half-truths, and outright fallacies, what are we to believe about them when we can't catch them? If they lie when they speak about what can be publicly known, how do we know they are telling the truth about what they have found in the privacy of their laboratories?

The program correctly pointed out the deceitfulness of one of the pro-ID school board members (on matters that did not have anything to do with the major questions about ID). But the dishonesty and carelessness of the propagandists at PBS far overshadows the petty deceit of one Dover parent.

If I'm a scientist who believes in Darwinism, I'm going to find "Judgment Day" very disturbing, and here's why: I'm going to be sitting there waiting for calls from my Intelligent Design friends who are going to ask me if the kind of objectivity on display in the PBS program is the same kind of objectivity I employ when dealing with scientific questions that bear on Darwinism.

This question puts Darwinists in an awkward position: either they maintain that the show was, in fact, objective and impartial, in which case their own credibility on any question, including Darwinism, goes down the tubes, or they're going to admit that the program was biased, in which case they can't consider the program anything other than damaging for their cause.

So let's see what the opponents of Intelligent Design do now. Will they admit that the program was biased and preserve their own integrity? Or compromise their integrity by not admitting what to any reasonable person is fairly evident--that the show was a hatchet job?

It will tell us a lot about those who are always lecturing the rest of us about intellectual honesty.


Nick said...

Important distinctions were repeatedly glossed over in the course of the clumsy mischaracterizations. In a sort of scientistic mantra the narrator kept repeating that Intelligent Design was just another version of creationism, despite the fact that its most famous adherent, Michael Behe, accepts common descent--as do many other proponents of ID.

Oh really? Name a couple. Over here in reality, Behe is almost alone in the ID movement on common descent, and even he quibbles regularly. Read this article for an intro.

Cheers, Nick

PS: Have you ever read Of Pandas and People, the book at issue in the case, and which Behe coauthored? Wanna guess what it says about common ancestry?

Martin Cothran said...


Good point. I meant to say "does not dispute..." I have reflected that change in the body of the article. But my point stands: it was not acknowledged in the program.

And in regard to "Of Pandas and People," I did not say anything about the book one way or another.

But Dembski has been pretty clear that, despite his own doubts about common descent, the Intelligent Design theory itself does not address it one way or another--which is one reason why there are creationists out there who don't like ID.


Thomas said...

This is what Behe has to say about common descent:

Further, I find the idea of common descent (that all
organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and have no
particular reason to doubt it.

I guess this is a plus for Behe, given the fact that denying common ancestry at this point -- especially given what we know about genetics now -- is simply not credible.

And if IDers deny common descent, how is it that they aren't a species of creationists? If they believe God poofed into existence (in a style reminiscent of the old tv show "I Dream of Jeannie) creatures that were fully formed and functioning, I don't see all that much of a difference with regard to their status as creationists.

Anonymous said...

Eric Rothschild's affiliation is "Pepper Hamilton", not "ACLU".

Martin Cothran said...


You say, "if IDers deny common descent, how is it that they aren't a species of creationists?"

Are you saying that if someone holds two beliefs simultaneously, then one must be the species of the other? I don't think you want to say that.

For example, I hold these two beliefs simultaneously: 1) that Christ rose from the dead, and 2) that in a right triangle, the square of the measure of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the measures of the two legs.

Since I hold those two beliefs simultaneously, does that mean that one is a species of the other?

I don't think so.