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Chris not Christians

By Steven | February 19, 2009

I’m not a Christian. I think the Biblical creation story is daft. I don’t think it should be taught in schools. But I do think that when a serious radio programme debates the issue “Should creation be taught in schools?” the station should at least find someone who thinks it should to include in the discussion.

Chris Laidlaw’s “Sunday Group” slot last weekend took up this question. Chris posed the issue as:

should creation stories be taught as part of the science curriculum or any other part of the curriculum in New Zealand schools?

Laidlaw described creationists as “those who believe in a literal six-day creation of the earth, as described in Genesis”. Nope. The essence of creationists is that they think God created the earth. Some allow a bit of literary wiggle room with the 6-day thing. But heck, let’s lump them all in the extreme basket.

Laidlaw then said creationists were “battling to have evolution removed from the curriculum and to have the creation story taught in schools”. Not so much. The more sensible ones are simply arguing that creation should be taught as a theory alongside evolution. That almost starts to sound reasonable, so we’d better not mention that.

So, how many of Laidlaw’s three guests argued for creationism to be taught in schools? Not one. All of them, it seems, agreed with Chris’s position. (At one point he asks: “Why is it so hard to persuade so many people that evolution is utterly logical?”)

He’d got guests, it seems, from a recent conference in Christchurch on biological education celebrating Charles Darwin. They were certainly qualified to talk about the issue, and said some interesting things. But it was no real debate about the issue. As I understand it, creationists have some good points about holes in the theory of evolution. We didn’t hear about that. They have some arguments to support their concept of intelligent design. We didn’t hear any sympathetic treatment about that either. They presumably have a view that what they argue is sensible and well-motivated. Laidlaw was reduced to asking his guests about the motivations of the creationists. The guests were polite, but not surprisingly thought the creationists were confused and misguided. Those guests’ views would have been much more interesting and vigorous had they been contrasted with someone speaking thoughtfully for the creationists.

Oh, and having a creationist in the discussion would also have complied with the balance standard in the broadcasting code of practice. I think this programme was in breach. No matter how the BSA twists things to avoid balance in talkback, it seems hard to escape the conclusion that the Sunday Group was a discussion of a “controversial issue of public importance”, and an obvious “significant view” was lacking. Listeners surely did think they were going to get a discussion not a venting of one-sided opinion.

The broadcaster might argue that it was merely supplying “background information” that casts light on the issue, as in this case, which involved a RNZ programme called “Outspoken” about the foreshore and seabed issue that lined up speakers from one side only. I think that case was wrongly decided – another part of the BSA’s trend toward whittling away the balance standard. But even if you think they got it right there, it’s hard to conclude that Laidlaw’s show was merely providing factual background, or historical, legal and factual context.

Topics: Broadcasting Standards Authority, Media ethics | 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “Chris not Christians”

  1. Andrew Geddis Says:
    February 19th, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    “As I understand it, creationists have some good points about holes in the theory of evolution. We didn’t hear about that. They have some arguments to support their concept of intelligent design. We didn’t hear any sympathetic treatment about that either.”

    Alternatively, Stephen, you may have been so burnt by the Caro case that you’re seeking “balance” even where there is only one legitimate side to the argument. “Balance” in broadcasting is predicated on there being a “CONTROVERSIAL issue of public importance”. And the only real “controversy” here is that some religious believers want their worldview put into science education. But what should/shouldn’t be taught in science classes isn’t a popularity contest/matter of parental choice/etc – it’s a matter of what the scientific community recognises as being science. So I have absolutely no problem with a discussion on “should science classes have to teach intelligent design” being held with three evolutionary scientists and no religious believers … just as I would have no problem with a discussion on “should English literature classes have to teach bridge building” only talking to Professors of English Literature.

    If you have the time, you can read the judgement in the Dover Area School District case, which pretty thoroughly debunks any claim that intelligent design is a “scientific” theory. (Sample quote: “To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.”)

  2. Steven Says:
    February 19th, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    That’d be the Kiro case. Yep, I’m burnt. But I have made the same point before that about the Outspoken case in my book. I still think it applies here.

    Yes, the BSA says that some issues don’t trigger the standard because they’re not “controversial”. A good BSA example is the proposition that smoking has harmful effects. Another, actually, is the theory of evolution itself. Broadcasters can assume these things as factually correct without providing balance from creationists and smoking advocates every time they do so. And rightly so.

    But this is rather different. Laidlaw specifically raised the issue about whether creationism should be taught in schools as the topic of discussion: it’s pretty hard not to call this topic controversial. He did it in a way that suggested a debate, and on a segment that usually contains debate, and that ran for 20 minutes.

    I’m all for the judgment you cite. But surely you’re not suggesting that because a judge rules on a particular issue that settles the issue? My bet is that the creationists disagree with it, and would adamantly point to arguments the court ignored or misunderstood.

    The balance standard is supposed to guard against complacent “truths”. Sure, I’d fully expect a creationist to be shot down by the other experts in the Sunday Group (at least in my eyes). But as Milton puts it, my appreciation of truth would be all the more vigorous for its clash with falsity. Perhaps I’d learn something – I could stand to learn about the theory of evolution and its flaws from an articulate critic even if I wasn’t ultimately persuaded that creationism should be accorded parity as a theory. At least I’d get insight into a perspective that seems to motivate millions of Americans and some slice of New Zealanders. Perhaps they’d make some good points. Perhaps I’d be won over. Someone might be. That’s the rationale for the balance standard.

    And frankly, it would have made much better radio.

  3. Andrew Geddis Says:
    February 19th, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Yes. It would be Kiro, not Caro. It’s just my accent. Or my stupidity.

    If the theory of evolution is not “controversial” (as you now seem to admit), and there is no good scientific basis for Creationism/Intelligent Design (ID) as a theory (as the Dover School Board case found … it’s not just one judge’s view, incidentally, but reflects the near consensus view of all the scientic community), then exactly what controversy is there here to be “balanced”? You conflate the fact that some people call for Creationism/ID to be taught with there being a genuine debate as to whether it or evolution provides the best SCIENTIFIC account for the development of life. And the question of what should we teach as science in schools is a SCIENTIFIC question … not a religious one, or anything else. Simply put, I think Chris Laidlaw would have been doing his listeners a DISSERVICE by putting up an ID proponent on an equal footing with proponents of evolution in a discussion of what should be taught as science in our schools. People shouting loudly about a topic does not in and of itself make it controversial.

    As for Milton, let’s not get carried away. He was, after all, the same guy who called for the Catholic belief to be “extirpated” (i.e. “to destroy totally; exterminate”). And the confrontation between truth and falsehood doesn’t always lead to greater enlightenment. It may lead to (i) confusion, or (ii) falsehood winning. Nothing impossible in that.

    As for the claim that having a Creationist/ID proponent on the programme “would have made much better radio”: wouldn’t a letter to the producers of Sunday Morning be better than a BSA complaint? Or you could listen to Radio Sport instead.

  4. Steven Says:
    February 19th, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Smackdown! Cool!

    Do you feel the same about the non-controversiality of global warming (there’s a pretty similar scientific consensus)? Do I need to invoke Galileo on the subject of scientific agreement?

    If it’s so obvious that creationism shouldn’t be taught in schools, why’s Laidlaw wasting our time with it? Why’s he presenting it as an issue to be resolved?

    Teaching in schools is a question of policy. Sure, I think it should be grounded purely in science, and I think that excludes creationism. Millions of people (including some in NZ, and some scientists) disagree with me. They pose some questions about evolution that even your vaunted scientific consensus can’t explain away. I’d quite like to hear their views. In any event, you clearly have a controversy. I think a public broadcaster that’s raising those issues in a serious way should at least let someone sympathetic explain their point of view, instead of leaving it to three who aren’t, and effectively trashing the creationists.

    On the bigger question, no doubt falsehood can triumph. But what Milton stands for (and almost all free speech theorists I’ve read) is that open debate is our best hope of getting at truths and good policies. Our worst hope is setting ourselves up as arbiters of what points of view are true.

    I’m not going to complain to the BSA. Yes, I’d be inclined to write a letter first. If RNZ used such a letter, they may be able to satisfy the balance standard that way.

    I absolutely agree that there’s a limit to how far broadcasters have to go to provide balance. But RNZ effectively billed this as a controversy – it can’t wriggle out of balance requirements by saying it’s not.

  5. Andrew Geddis Says:
    February 19th, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    “Do you feel the same about the non-controversiality of global warming (there’s a pretty similar scientific consensus)?”

    I think it’s getting close to that point, yes. And I actually think the media is coming to reflect that, too. When was the last time you heard a climate skeptic turned to for the obligatory “it’s not really happening” quote on a story about the effects of global warming?

    “Do I need to invoke Galileo on the subject of scientific agreement?”

    Only if you want to make a joke! Galileo’s use of the scientific method produced evidence that undermined the received religious wisdom of the times. (So did Darwin’s, for that matter!) In response, the Church sought to extirpate his findings (see what I did there?) But the science won through, because it is a better lens for understanding the external, natural world than the Bible is. (And then Galileo’s insights were refined first by Newton, then Einstein.) OTOH, Creationism/ID believes the Bible must be true, so manufactures theories that confirm that pre-determined “truth”. These are then declared to be the case irrespective of whatever evidence is brought to bear on them. So, in fact, the example of Galileo stands for exactly what lies at the base of Creationism/ID theory – the triumph of doctrine over open, scientific enquiry.

    “Teaching in schools is a question of policy.”

    True. But the content of what is taught is (once again) a matter of consensus amongst the relevant experts in the field. We’re not (nor should we be) the USA, where parents get to vote (in effect) on what will be taught. So I simply do not agree there is a “controversy” in any relevant sense with respect to whether or not creationism/ID should be taught. There are some folk who are unhappy their religious beliefs aren’t taught in science class. But so what? Change the science (i.e. show how evolution is wrong), then they’ll have a point.

    Perhaps the real problem is Chris Laidlaw’s packaging. Posing “should creationism be taught in our schools?” as a question actually is rhetorical (when applied to science classes). The segment might have been better put forward as “why creationism has no place in our schools (as a scientific theory, anyway)”.

    As for “what Milton stands for (and almost all free speech theorists I’ve read) is that open debate is our best hope of getting at truths and good policies”, this again depends. I simply don’t think a radio discussion programme is the best place to establish scientific truth/falsity. And I think this is the only criteria for determining what should/shouldn’t be a part of the schools science cirriculum.

  6. Paul Williams Says:
    June 25th, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    On topic, if not on the issue of broadcasting standards, you might be interested to note that the NSW Board of Studies, the body that sets curriculum for all schools in NSW, recently stated: “creationism and intelligent design are not part of the Board’s science syllabus. If taught as part of a school-based program, it must be made clear that creationism and intelligent design (a) are not scientific nor evidence-based …”


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