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Mooney and Nisbet Recommend: Drop the Science, Up the Rhetoric

Casey Luskin

Over at ARN’s Literature Update, David Tyler has an excellent post titled “An Orwellian framing of the debate about evolution and ID,” reporting on an article in Science by Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet, who tell scientists how to discuss controversial scientific issues. This same pair wrote the cover article for the influential media journal Columbia Journalism Review just before the Dover trial in September, 2005, encouraging news media to avoid “a quest to achieve ‘balance'” when covering evolution. They even stated, “newspaper editors should think twice about assigning reporters who are fresh to the evolution issue and allowing them to default to the typical strategy frame, carefully balancing ‘both sides’ of the issue.” We have noted that this provides unambiguous “Proof that the Media is Biased Against ID.”

Mooney and Nisbet’s latest piece continues the trend of encouraging scientists to dumb down science and avoid lending any legitimacy to viewpoints which might lie outside of the scientific consensus. They assume that neo-Darwinism is correct and suggest that scientists avoid “science-intensive responses” but should rather “frame” the debate over evolution in terms of “‘public accountability’ that focus on the misuse of tax dollars, ‘economic development’ that highlight the negative repercussions for communities embroiled in evolution battles, and ‘social progress’ that define evolution as a building block for medical advances.” The problem for Darwinists is that all of these arguments, when properly “framed,” would lead one to support teaching Darwin objectively, and not to their viewpoint:

(1) “Economic development”: By far the largest negative repercussions for communities embroiled in debates over how to teach evolution are those inflicted by the pro-Darwin-only legal groups like Americans United for the Separation for Church and State or the ACLU, which force small school districts into hundred-thousand to million dollar settlements because they dared to question Darwin. Moreover, the root-cause of community angst over how evolution is taught is caused by those who insist upon teaching such a sensitive and important topic as biological origins in a one-sided, dogmatic, pro-evolution-only fashion; it is not caused by those who recommend teaching evolution in an objective, balanced fashion. After all, polls consistently show that a supermajority of Americans support teaching evolution objectively. Who is really going against what the people want here and causing community strife?

(2) “Public accountability”: Education is supposed to educate, not indoctrinate. Good educators who are accountable to the public will recognize that the vast majority of public wants both scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolution taught in schools, because that is both good science and good education. Good educators will us not use tax dollars to teach evolution dogmatically, but will rather teach students more about evolution, not the one-sided watered-down pro-evolution-only science which is so prevalent in classrooms.

(3) “Social progress”: Good educators will teach students about both the uses and misuses of evolution, not excluding the horrific and significant history in our country of using Darwinism to justify eugenics. This should be done if for no other reason than helping to ensure it does not happen again. Moreover, good scientists will inform people about where evolution gives insight and where it doesn’t, so that students realistically understand how to solve vital medical problems.

For example, we need to train students how to solve problems like fighting super-bugs caused by anti-biotic resistant bacteria. As neurosurgeon Michael Egnor explains regarding Darwinism and solving anti-biotic resistance:

Microbiology tells us that bacterial populations are heterogeneous. Individual bacteria differ from one another. Molecular biology tells us that some bacteria have molecular mechanisms by which they can survive antibiotics. Molecular genetics tells us how these resistance mechanisms are passed to other bacteria and through generations of bacteria. Pharmacology helps us design new antibiotics that circumvent the bacterial defenses.

What does Darwinism add to the sciences of microbiology, molecular biology, molecular genetics, and pharmacology? Darwinism tells us that antibiotic-resistant bacteria survive exposure to antibiotics because of natural selection. That is, bacteria survive antibiotics that they’re not sensitive to, so non-killed bacteria will eventually outnumber killed bacteria. That’s it.

If we just teach students “Darwinism is the total answer to solving anti-biotic resistance,” students may be missing many key pieces of this important puzzle. Moreover, as Jerry Coyne stated in Nature:

…if truth be told, evolution hasn’t yielded many practical or commercial benefits. Yes, bacteria evolve drug resistance, and yes, we must take countermeasures, but beyond that there is not much to say. Evolution cannot help us predict what new vaccines to manufacture because microbes evolve unpredictably. But hasn’t evolution helped guide animal and plant breeding? Not very much. Most improvement in crop plants and animals occurred long before we knew anything about evolution, and came about by people following the genetic principle of ‘like begets like’. Even now, as its practitioners admit, the field of quantitative genetics has been of little value in helping improve varieties. Future advances will almost certainly come from transgenics, which is not based on evolution at all.”

(Jerry Coyne, “Selling Darwin: Does it matter whether evolution has any commercial applications?,” reviewing The Evolving World: Evolution in Everyday Life by David P. Mindell, in Nature, Vol 442:983-984 (August 31, 2006).)

Finally, David Tyler writes in response to Mooney and Nisbet’s piece:

These two communicators realise that they are advancing ideas that could be seen as manipulation of the media to keep the masses submissive. They conclude: ‘Some readers may consider our proposals too Orwellian, preferring to safely stick to the facts. Yet scientists must realize that facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate and decision-making. In short, as unnatural as it might feel, in many cases, scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it.’ The fundamental problem evident here is that the authors have failed to grasp that all three of their illustrative cases relate to contested issues within science, as well as having major ramifications for society. … The authors are seeing these controversies through their personal ideological “frame”. They qualify their advice on strategy using these words: “without misrepresenting scientific information”. However, their analysis of the controversial issues reveals that they have already misrepresented scientific information – by failing to acknowledge the reality of scientific debate and by linking dissent only to political and religious agendas.

(David Tyler, An Orwellian framing of the debate about evolution and ID)

Tyler concludes: “This is a sure sign of Orwellian control police and a sad day for science.” It’s also another instance of Darwinists attempting to dumb down evolution and fudge their arguments in order to de-legitimize the viewpoints of scientists who hold viewpoints outside of the consensus.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Chris Mooney