If I were assigned to cover the upcoming cricket matches between Australia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, I’d be writing without knowing how the game is played or scored. Or without knowing that “the injured Shane Watson and rested opener David Warner [are] not making the trip.” What’s an “opener”?
I probably wouldn’t do very well. Sadly, that happens too often when general-assignment reporters–even the best of them–try to write science or medical stories. It’s tough to do if you don’t have the background.
Last week, Scott Farwell–a general assignment reporter at the Dallas Morning News and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for feature writing this year–wrote a story about creationism that shows exactly what I mean.
Farwell might know more about creationism than I know about cricket–not a very high bar–but he seems to have completely missed the decades-old battles between creationists and scientists about how the world works. It’s like writing a story about cigarettes without mentioning cancer. There is a lot you can say, but you’ve missed the most important stuff.
Here’s Farwell’s lede:
Most scientists believe Darwin got it right: Single-celled creatures evolved into complex ones, a process of natural selection and genetic adaptation that over eons turned a primordial swamp into shape-shifting cells, into ape-like primates, into people.
We’re already in a bit of trouble. It wasn’t the swamp that turned into cells; it was the stuff in it. And what exactly are shape-shifting cells? That’s closely followed by this:
Scientists call evolution a unifying theory, a weight-bearing wall that frames our understanding of the natural world.
But at the Institute for Creation Research in northwest Dallas, a group of nine Ph.D.s from places like Harvard and Los Alamos National Laboratory say all that molecules-to-man stuff is nonsense. And they’re out to prove it.
It sounds like a rip-roaring adventure story–a good old-fashioned scientific debate. With people from places like Harvard and Los Alamos!
A word about the writing: Were the people actually from those places, or from places like those places (as Farwell wrote)? And scientists don’t call evolution a weight-bearing wall; Farwell does. Furthermore, a wall doesn’t frame understanding; it doesn’t frame anything. It’s the backdrop. That’s enough about the writing; we’re interested in more substantive issues here. But shouldn’t we expect better in a reporter who nearly won journalism’s top award for feature writing?
Almost all of the rest of the story could have been written by the Institute for Creation Research–it simply repeats the institute’s views. Farwell eventually gets to the “spirited scientific debate” over creationism and evolution, and I thought we were finally on solid ground. But he isn’t talking about the debates that have raged for the past few decades and are still raging. Instead, he recalls the Scopes monkey trial in 1925.
The folks from the ICR take a literal view of the book of Genesis–“that argues humans lived alongside dinosaurs, that Noah loaded the adolescent Jurassic-era creatures on the ark in pairs with every other animal species on the planet, and that natural wonders like the Grand Canyon were formed in months instead of millions of years,” Farwell writes. It shouldn’t be too hard to distinguish these folks from scientists.
Farwell doesn’t quote an actual scientist until grafs 40-42 in a story in which I counted 43 paragraphs. (I might be off by one or two.) The scientist is a local guy who provides only a tepid response. “’The problem is, they’re not scientists,’ said Ron Wetherington, who teaches human evolution and forensic anthropology at SMU. ‘They cherry-pick data in order to use it to justify the Genesis account of creation.’”
Farwell might have done better to quote, say, Laurence Krauss, a physicist who has spoken and written widely about creationism, and who says teaching it to kids “is child abuse.” And he should have devoted far more of the article to the institute’s critics.
Farwell reports that the institute sued Texas to have its master’s degree program certified; he doesn’t say what happened. He repeats some of creationism’s familiar “scientific” claims, including the assertion that spiral galaxies can’t be billions of years old or that oceans should be saltier if they’ve been around a billion years. Farwell doesn’t ask scientists to respond to these claims; they stand unchallenged in the story. And much has been written about what’s wrong with them.
A small annotation at the top of the story notes that it was published on Aug. 14 but updated on Aug. 18. But it doesn’t say why. I asked Farwell in an email. “The update was a correction of the graf about how long evolution has been taught in colleges and universities,” he said. “The original story said 200 years. That’s wrong. We changed it to say nearly 200 years.” Closer, but still not right. “On the Origin of Species” was published in 1859; you can do the math. And it was probably a while before evolution was taught in a lot of colleges and universities.
The issue here deals with more than evolution. We’ve seen the same thing with climate change–isolated scientists who claim a unique hold on a truth that clashes with nearly everyone else’s. We’ve seen it with anti-vaccine campaigners.
Farwell is sadly wrong on the details and wrong on the big picture. He’s unfair to the scientists who should have been asked to respond to the claims the Institute for Creation Research made, and he is unfair to his readers, who will come away from the story with a blinkered and inaccurate view of “creation research.”
Faye Flam wrote on the Tracker two weeks ago that the reaction to the ebola outbreak shows why science writers are necessary. So does Farwell’s coverage of “creation science.” Maybe he would do better with cricket.