Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Darwin in Serbia, the He said/She said journalism, and the debate between the Democratic Party and the Un-Democratic Party

Eric, over at Total Information Awareness, writes a nice post on the religion vs. science controversy here (thanks for the plug, Eric):

Scanning the Serbian media, I see several repeated issues at stake there:

First is the obvious: struggle between rationality and superstition, empiricism and dogma, science and religion. The question is framed in a manner similar to the ways Creationist efforts are discussed in the USA. Some Serbian papers actually quote at length translations of the (U.S.) National Academy of Science conclusions on Creationism in schools, some court decisions from the U.S. cases, as well as the Pope's statement that evolution is a well-supported scientific truth. The outcry was massive and coming from all quarters, which in turn reassured everyone that the country is still generally sane - a big question for the past decade or so.

Second is the more general worry over the influence of the church in Serbia. As I wrote in the previous post, this is a new thing for Serbia, and something they will have to struggle with for years to come. After several decades of secular tradition, religion is making big inroads and nobody seems to know how to deal with it.

Third worry is the effect this controversy will have on the relationship to the EU. Apparently, the Serbs gave up on the USA. They duly report (whil shaking their heads) recent wild rantings by Richard Holbrooke who, after all those years dealing with the region, still has no idea what he's talking about. Unlike most of the world, Serbs are quite ambivalent about the US elections. On one hand, they can see what a totalitarian regime is being built by Bush, Cheney, Aschcroft et al., and do not like what they see. On the other hand, they like the way Bush left the Balkan region alone and is going after militant Islamists everywhere (still a big problem in Bosnia and Kosovo - places that are new HQ for Al Qaeida since they lost ground in Afghanistan). They like the democratic worldview of Kerry, but are deathly afraid of his foreign policy advisors - those are the very same people who drove Clinton into foolish decisions on Bosnia and Kosovo (the anti-Serb hawks like Holbrooke, Berger, Albright, Christopher, Shelton, Clark...). They are also afraid of the way Albanian, Hungarian and Croatian lobbies in the USA work together to fund now and influence later President Kerry. Not being able to do anything about the USA, the Serbs are setting their sights towards smoothing their relationship with the rest of Europe and hoping for inclusion into the EU one day in the future. Even after more than a decade of wars, sanctions and horrible mismanagement by the Milosevic regime, Serbian economy is still by far the biggest in the Balkans and it needs good relations with European countries no matter what happens in the USA or elsewhere. The fear is that the Darwin flop will have negative consequences in this regard. The country's reputation, on a slow rise after its lowest point in history, is damaged again.

However, the greatest emphasis in the media was on the questions of PROCESS. The country is still reeling from the events of the past decade and is trying its hardest to build an efficient democratic government that the population can have confidence in. The population is very sceptical of the government and the way it conducts its business. Most of the media comments pertain to the fact that Mrs.Colic's order was illegal (i.e., that kind of decision is not in her job description), and that the decision to reverse her order was also illegal (i.e., that kind of decision is not in the job description of the committee that did it). Thus the whole episode is seen as seriously undermining the claim of the government that it is following the word of law in the way it operates, thus greatly diminishing the confidence Serbian people can have in their government.

But back to Darwin and science/religion tensions. Of course, there are good places online to look for such stuff.
The premier science blog is Chris Mooney's who always provides good links, too (
For science/religion struggles, especially concerning Creationism, the place to go is Panda's Thumb (
Skeptic. com is, of course a great resource, too.
Another good site (with an excellent collection of links to other good sites and blogs) is the Raving Atheist (
In a recent post (, Raving Atheist discusses the issue of Dan Rather/CBS/fake-or-not documents/typesetting controversy. Here are a couple of excerpts that I found interesting from my perspective:

The networks do not yet, on their national news broadcasts, promote faith
healing over medicine, or creationism over evolution. Nor do they pretend, yet,
that there is no difference whatsoever between science and pseudoscience. But
that may all change, depending on which side prevails in the ongoing political
dispute. Make no mistake about it: if the wrong side prevails, the violence done
to the credibility of the already tottering mainstream mass media will be such
that it will be absolutely impossible to distinguish its pronouncements from
those of the 700 Club. Once authentic documents are excluded with false
evidence, or forged documents are embraced as an acceptable part of the public
discourse, or, anything goes. Every political discussion will resemble a debate
with a fundamentalist mullah.

But before you consider the experts, atheist
partisans on both sides of the aisle should consider that if Dan Rather is
forced to affirm or the documents based upon phony expert reports (or to give
equal time to phony experts), the networks may soon be at the mercy of those who
carbon-date the origin of the earth age to 4004 B.C. and the Shroud of Turin to
33 A.D. Conversely, if Rather is forced to retract the documents based upon
false evidence, we may be faced with a suppression of truth equivalent to
Galileo’s recantation.

This gets me thinking about the whole He said/She said style of journalism, currently dominating the USA media. This issue has been recently discussed in various contexts and here is a sampling of recent links:

Rethinking Objective Journalism

The problem with U.S. coverage is not political bias but a misplaced adherence to a shallow definition of objectivity.

Media Culpa

Campaign coverage needs to read between the lines
The media are awash in "he said/she said/we're mum" journalism, "the practice of reporters parroting competing rhetoric instead of measuring it for veracity against known facts."

The Campaign '04 information war is fast, deep, and fraught with lies. The press must rethink its coverage, or drown in a toxic tidal wave

Media Bias on Climate Change
Climate scientists have long complained that when reporters cover global warming in a "he said/she said" fashion, the result is sheer inaccuracy as fringe viewpoints get the same treatment as the mainstream scientific understanding.

Think Again: False Objectivity in Science Reporting
In its most simplistic version, journalistic objectivity means that both sides on an issue should be balanced out against one another. But this definition collapses when it comes to scientific issues. Science isn't a democracy, and in practice, one side in a scientific debate is often much more reputable than another.

So, the science "types" are saying that most scientific controversies are very lopsided and that having representatives of both sides misrepresents the issue to the viewers. If 99% of scientists believe that global warming is real and aided by human activity, while the remaining 1% are suspect for their motives anyway, having both on the TV show every time the issue is discussed is de facto misleading the public. In essence, they say: "This is not politics - there is nothing fair and balanced about scientific truths".

On the other hand, the political "types" are saying that the political reporting should follow the example of scientific reporting. If there are news in science, they say, the TV anchor will invite an expert to explain it and there will be no opposing view aired. If the news are from biology or geology, the TV shows do not automatically invite a Creationist or a Flat-Earther to provide "balance". Thus, if one side of a political issue is correct and the other is not, or if one speaks the truth and the other speaks talking points or outright lies, then only the "correct" side should be represented on the show. And if someone from the "other side" is on the show and starts saying nonsense, it is up to Wolf Blitzer (for example) to jump in an correct it. As a journalist, he has greater credibility with the audience than either one of his two guests, and it is his duty to tell hs audience which side is lying and which side is telling the truth. In essence, they say "Politics is like science - there is nothing fair and balanced about political truths".

Now, if you subscribe to Lakoff's explanations (and I do), then you believe that the conservative worldview is based on notions about the world that are scientifically proven to be incorrect. The conservatives are not crazy - they are just wrong. If you follow that logic, there should never be a conservative guest on any TV show. Actually, the GOP should not be considered a legitimate political party worthy of reporting on, worthy of being given opportunity to air its views in the media, have its candidates participate in debates etc. If the conservative view is essentially elitist and non-democratic and this is a democratic country, then conservative parties should not be seen or heard in the media at all, ever. If you do not want to see a Creationist on TV every time a new finding in biology is published, do you also not want to see a representative of the Un-Democratic Party wasting the time of the Democratic Party member who came on TV to say something about news in the world of politics and government? And if the Un-Democrats are constantly posing on TV and debating Democrats, does that very fact undermine the reputation of the media, and will this degradation of journalistic criteria in politics lead to degradation of journalistic criteria in science, thus bringing the Creationists back on TV every time a biologists shows up to say something?

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 3:23 AM | permalink | (1 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink