Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Equal time for nonsense?

I don’t write about the evolution/creation argument here, because many people are covering it far better than I would, and I find it tedious. Incessant arguing among people who will fail to convince each other of anything reminds me too much, sometimes, of other pursuits than this blog. But there’s one aspect of it that I do want to say something about.

Eric Rescorla, over at Educated Guesswork, comments about a BBC radio programme, called Heart and Soul, that gave equal time to a real scientist and a young-Earth creationist:

In this second programme we hear from Dr Henry Morris III. He is Executive vice President of the Institute for Creation Research, founded by his father. He believes a literal interpretation of the biblical book of Genesis, suggesting that the Earth, life and humans were created over six days less than 10,000 years ago.
Not to go all PZ Myers on you here, but this is nuts. As far as I can tell, Morris indeed believes that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, but, put simply, he’s wrong. Yes, it’s true that a bunch of other people agree with him, but they’re wrong too. Yes, yes, it’s of course possible that the entire universe was created with fake evidence of age, but there’s no evidence for this whatsoever absent Morris’s preexisting religious commitments. We might as well consider the possibility that the world sits on the back of an invisible turtle. So, while I don’t dispute Morris’s right to believe what he believes, it would be great if the media would stop acting like it’s in any sense epistemically valid.

Eric gets the key point in his final sentence: no matter who believes it, the media do not have the responsibility to give it credence, and for them to do so debases them and abdicates their true responsibility.

I’ve talked before (and here) about the media’s habit of taking misguided steps toward “fairness”. While there may always be two sides to every argument, it’s not always the case that everything each side says is equally valid. In the case of the second link above, the media should be using the accepted medical term for a medical procedure, and should refuse to use an emotionally charged term that opponents made up for the purpose of deprecating the practice. Using the contrived term begs the question, very much like “How long have you been beating your wife?” does.

The entry in the first link suggests that the media stop publishing false statements with the notation that the subject denies them. They should check their facts, and refuse to give “ink” to claims that don’t check out. That is how they best serve their consumers.

Where does that put us in this case? I think it’s reasonable to tell people that some folks believe certain things, beyond all evidence. But it’s not reasonable for media outlets that base their reporting on verifiable facts to treat these beliefs as equal to conclusions drawn from evidence. We can find people with all manner of degrees and titles who support any side of any argument... the fact that they have degrees and titles doesn’t make them right, doesn’t make their beliefs true, and doesn’t make what they say newsworthy.

If a young-Earth creationist, with or without a title, should come up with evidence for his belief that can stand up to scientific scrutiny, that would be news. I would want to see that. Any scientist would want to see that. And if it continued to hold up, we’d have to re-evaluate our explanations for how things are.

But repetition of the standard talking points, none of which hold any water unless you close your eyes and believe them, is not news, not a second side of the argument, not an opposing viewpoint, not something that deserves equal time in the interest of fairness.

Young-Earth creationism is just made-up nonsense, and the media have no business giving it any credibility.


Laurie said...

I was disgusted the other morning when NPR gave gave credence to a fortuneteller. Maybe I should have done a post about it...

It's as annoying as the programs about UFOs and Atlantis on the History Channel.

Lisa Simeone said...

Touché, Barry.

Laurie, that report was tongue-in-cheek. It wasn't meant to be taken seriously.

Michelle said...

Do you think that they do it partly to make the "news" and documentaries more entertaining? I know I'm entertained by these buffoons and the debates that come out of them talking to actual scientists, even though I agree they shouldn't be given credibility.. just a thought.