Nightline exposes that local evolution fights are often hurtful

Bruce Chapman

Sadness is the emotion that ABC’s Nightline tried to inculcate last night with its “War in Dover” episode and, if my reactions are any judge, they succeeded.
First is the sadness one feels for all the good people of Dover who have behaved badly toward one another. John Donvan showed that people in that little town really are afraid to talk to one another, and that everything anyone says has to be filtered through a legal screen (perhaps we need a set of Miranda Rights from now on that will be read to citizens who presume to express themselves on public policy).
Worst of all, Donvan demonstrated that any personal moral suspicion one has of his neighbor in Dover these days is fair game to bring into the combat over evolution. All of this is because of a rather tame and otherwise irrelevant statement about intelligent design. The culture wars have come to this.

So, I congratulate John Donvan and his producers for producing the insight that these evolution fights in localities are enormously divisive, leaving very hurt feelings all around.
The same we read in today’s paper is true of the “stickers” issue in Cobb, County, Georgia. The sticker itself, in my personal opinion, trivializes a real disagreement about evolution that, unfortunately, the Cobb officials (including their lawyer) did not understand. Rather than inform themselves, as the state school board did in Ohio, they tried a quick fix that they imagined would suffice. Instead, their quick fix turned into long term pain–for them and the cause they thought they were helping. The judge’s ruling makes no sense: how can he decide that the purpose of the stickers is appropriately secular, but then go on to rule the stickers unconstitutional on grounds that someone somewhere might draw a religious inference that causes them to feel disadvantaged? Only for liberal judges and the ACLU does such a world of reality exist.
Still, Cobb County officials should have seen it coming. It is instructive that they had no willingness at all to talk with us about any of this. They didn’t want to become confused about their clever stratagem.
But if Nightline conveyed in a fairly poignant way the human dimension of the issue in Dover (and, by inference, Cobb County and the whole country), Ted Koppel could not resist concluding with a flippant and snide old joke about the elderly lady who believed that the world rests on the back of a turtle–and “it’s turtles all the way down.”
Koppel and the producers and John Donvan also could not help describing the battle as “revealed truth versus classroom science.” And they didn’t even live up to that analysis. The biggest gap in the program was any explanation of the scientific issues at all. The mention of textbook ‚��Of Pandas and People‚�� was offhand.
I liked John Donvan when I met him six weeks ago and I held out hope that he might make use of the materials we sent Nightline. We didn’t trust them enough to urge ID scientists to be interviewed on tape, however, and it seems we were right. I’m afraid they just would have been edited illustrations for the “revealed religion versus classroom science” trope.
The program asserted that the Dover school board members are really creationists who have seized on the term intelligent design and are using it as a mask for their true position. That may be so, I don’t know. (The Dover board is a bit more willing to talk with outsiders than the board in Cobb County, but no more willing to take advice, alas.) They certainly couldn’t explain the term intelligent design, even though they propose to read a statement about it to students. They are willing to endure national media scorn, apparently, for this concept that they do not understand. (That is sad, too!)
Meanwhile, however, what Nightline lost sight of, along with almost all the major media, was the content of the real issue facing educators; namely, what is the scientific evidence against Darwin’s theory, as well as for it? And shouldn’t students know what it is?
Reporters err if they think that people can’t understand the debate or that it is not a debate that actually is going on within science. Hundreds of scientists say it is a debate (including many who do not support an alternative theory of intelligent
design) and some have been willing to risk their careers over it as a matter of academic integrity. That, it seems, is of too little interest to Nightline at this time. Indeed, there was no interest in such a subject last night.
My post from yesterday therefore is worth underscoring, especially as regards the value of actual live discussion–and, if you, will, live debate–about Darwin’s theory. Nightline should follow its “War in Dover” program with a live discussion among Darwinists and Darwin-critics. Let viewers know what really is at stake. Then do a separate program on the alternative of intelligent design, since it is a subject of growing interest, but not one that its primary proponents are calling for instruction in public schools.
The ACLU, the National Center for Science and Education and the major media all want to talk instead about the supposed religious motives of local people who have appropriated the term intelligent design. They want to emphasize religion because that is the only basis on which the Darwinists can win the fight. They are wrong–long term, and even short term.
But the major media’s unwillingness even to engage on the core matter makes me sad nonetheless. I was raised reading metropolitan newspapers and watching TV, and I always appreciated public affairs programs like Nightline above all. Now they are fading in importance. Readers are deserting the legacy media of staid newspapers and magazines. Declining viewership is endangering the whole public affairs genre represented by Nightline. The movement among the young, and the conservative, is to blogs, to talk radio, to niche magazines and newspapers.
Nightline, the trade press reports, is likely to go out of business soon. I find that prospect lamentable. Even if the producers and news team are all on opposite sides from me on many issues, they at least share a concern for the same kind of topics that interest me and every serious citizen. They want to continue in business, of course, but they are not willing to change. They seemingly would rather lose the journalistic genre they have pioneered than to make their program more open to dissent, to the clash of data and views.
Like dinosaurs, they can’t see the climate of opinion changing.
This is a mistake for them that constitutes an imminent loss for the rest of us and for the whole field of civil discourse–for all of us, I say, even, I would assert, the Darwinists. If there is no place for at least middlebrow debate on real topics, we are going to be reduced increasingly to raw power struggles based largely on arrogance and ignorance.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.