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Here There Be Dragons: The Journalists’ War on Science

David Klinghoffer


Republicans reject science, they make war on it, they hate it, they spit on it, they want to repeal the 20th Century. Actually they want to roll back the 20th, 19th, and 18th Centuries. How many times have you heard this from a journalistic opinion-maker? Katrina vanden Heuvel sounds the refrain again in a Washington Post op-ed:

The 18th century was defined, in many ways, by the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement based on the idea that reason, rational discourse and the advancement of knowledge, were the critical pillars of modern life. The leaders of the movement inspired the thinking of Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin; its tenets can be found in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. But more than 200 years later, those basic tenets — the very notion that facts and evidence matter — are being rejected, wholesale, by the 21st-century Republican Party.

Facts? Evidence? You have to laugh at this coming from any of the vast majority of journalists, such as Ms. vanden Heuvel (who edits The Nation), whether those on the left, at the center or even from many on the right side of the spectrum. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from repeated uniform experience it is that on one scientific issue, the most contentious there is — evolution — it’s treated as taboo for writers to inform themselves properly, to know the facts and evidence behind the scientific challenge to Darwinian theory.
Never mind whether, having adequately informed themselves, they were to find the argument for intelligent design convincing or totally unconvincing. Either way, fine! In reality, most don’t even know the difference between ID and creationism. Say what you like about Young Earth Creationists, they at least could tell you that accurately enough. But Garry Trudeau, for example, the revered Doonesbury cartoon “journalist,” sure couldn’t. You may remember his cartoon last month that won plaudits from Darwin advocates.
I will never forget my personal experience with a journalist who often writes for The New Republic. In an email exchange he chastised me for thinking the universe was created a mere 6,000 years ago. He assumed that was the main issue for intelligent design advocates. I explained to him that wasn’t the case and that I’m not a YEC, that intelligent design assumes a universe more than 13 billion years old and a history of life going back more than 3 billion.
Not long after, he criticized me again on the very same point, for believing in a 6,000-year-old world. I don’t think he believed that I was lying in my previous email to him. He just could not surrender a plank in the platform of his own ignorance: The belief that this is all fight about whether in riding around on dinosaurs, cavemen went bareback or opted for more of a western saddle. He had that audio loop playing over and over in his head. He couldn’t hear a thing I said.
Other journalists might be able to characterize ID a little more accurately. They could repeat the dumb-dumb mantra that it says life is “too complicated” (the New York Times‘s formulation) or “too complex” (National Public Radio) to have arisen by Darwinian means. The more inquisitive among them, who have read the Wikipedia article, might tell you it all has to do with a bacterial fla-something or other.
Everyone knows the phrase “intelligent design” and they know it’s a vital idea in the wider culture but very, very few in journalism, including on the science beat, could tell you what evidence ID theorists actually offer for their views. Just glance at the headlines here at ENV, the new arguments and information offered every day, from cutting-edge science.
To the typical professional who purports however tangentially to comment on the evolution debate, intelligent design is an alien land with an unspeakable language. In the famous phrase from the Hunt-Lenox Globe of 1510, signifying dread of what lies beyond the edge of the world, the unknown and unknowable, Hic sunt dracones: “Here there be dragons.”
Not that this profound and cherished ignorance stops the commentators, in their modesty, from commenting. It often seems like it’s the ones who know the least who say the most, who come back to the subject most eagerly and often. And that is the point. They say Republicans are the anti-science party, the uninformed boobs and benighted monkeys, comfortable with and fiercely protective of their own cluelessness? Oh please!
In her Washington Post article, Ms. vanden Heuvel gives us other issues on which Republicans are supposedly hostile to science. Of course there’s man-made catastrophic global warming. Put yourself in the place of a thoughtful consumer of news who has taken the trouble to educate himself on the scientific case for and critique of Darwinian evolution, but who on global warming has not yet had the time to conduct similar scrutiny. You know that on evolution, it’s the mainstream media who, in reality, sit in the dark and resist knowledge.
If you know that to be the case on this one issue, why would you trust the word of Katrina vanden Heuvel and her colleagues on any other scientific question?