Sunday, August 28, 2005

Last week, the New York Times published a page 1 article by Kenneth Chang on the creationists' latest antiscientific propaganda campaign, the "Intelligent Design" movement. The article was criticized all over the web for letting the creationists ramble on at length before offering any refutation, and generally putting their hackwork and propaganda on a equal footing with over a century's worth of scientific investigation.

It's been asked whether the Times would give the same treatment to other false controversies --- whether a holocaust denier, say, would get similarly reverential treatment. And here in my very own comment section, is the answer, posted by someone who identifies himself as, well, Kenneth Chang, which I'll reproduce here with emphasis added on a few key points:

The reason we're writing about I.D. is because they have already managed to get onto the national stage and influence education policy around the country, and if you're writing about it, you have to explain what it is. Similarly, if there were a holocaust denier who was, say, running for mayor, then yes, we would write an article describing his (or her) views followed by the appropriate denunciations and perhaps a clarifying passage indicating there is no historical dispute that the Holocaust occurred. It would have a similar back-and-forth structure, and no one would come away with the impression that the Times approved of holocaust denying simply because that view was presented first. Rather, I would expect that most people would appreciate that these views had been exposed and they could easily judge for themselves how offensive they were.

Note the subtle shifting of the goalposts here. The Times has not been accused of approving of "intelligent design"; it has been accused of presenting the debate as legitimate when, in fact, it is not. If you're writing about I.D., you have to explain what it is, but you don't have to devote half your article to a respectful rehash of their idiotic non-arguments. (Though I'm not sure Chang's article actually did say in plain English what "Intelligent Design" really, objectively is: charlatans trying to get religious teaching into the classroom by dressing it up as science, while ignoring all standards for scientific evidence and review. For the most part, it treats them as if they were real scientists with an unorthodox theory. And if you think it's inconceivable for the Times to use language that strong in cases where it demonstrably fits, I invite you to review the Times's coverage of David Duke's run for governor of Louisiana -- like the Nov. 10th, 1991 page 1 piece headlined "Duke: the ex-Nazi who would be governor").

But, never mind that. Let's just think about that holocaust denial article for a minute, written in the same "back and forth" style as Chang's "intelligent design" piece, and see how we'd all like it. Starting at the top, Chang's article begins by explaining, at length, the argument of "leading design theorist" Michael Behe that the complex of proteins involved in blood clots could not have evolved. Which drove P.Z. Myers to ask

When Behe says, "if any one of the more than 20 proteins involved in blood clotting is missing or deficient ... clots will not form properly", why not point out right there, in that paragraph, that [Prof. Russell] Doolittle says that "scientists had predicted that more primitive animals such as fish would be missing certain blood-clotting proteins", and that Behe was shown to be wrong?

Instead, the fourth through seventh paragraphs of the Times article --- all on the front page, in my library's printed edition --- have Behe's argument, and Doolittle's refutation doesn't start till the fifteenth, for which the reader must turn to page 10. People who read only the grafs on page 1, of whom there are many, could easily be left with the impression that science had no specific refutation of Behe.

A similar treatment of a Holocaust denier would give a respectful restatement of his views, then go on for several more paragraphs to say, in general terms, that Jews find these sorts of views objectionable, before finally explaining, starting in the fifteenth graf, that we have pictures of mass graves and death camps, or that the once vibrant Jewish communities of Germany and Poland had essentially vanished after the war. It would put the denier on page 1 (along with a few statements of general distaste for his position), and leave a presentation of the evidence against him, for "balance", along with plenty more "evidence" in favor, for the inside pages.

Who could have a problem with that? After all, a similarly "balanced" treatment of Iraq WMD skeptics in the IAEA and foreign governments before our invasion, or of the people within our own military raising doubts about the administration's "cakewalk" postwar scenarios, would have been a marked improvement over what we actually got.

Looking over that last paragraph, I can imagine someone from the Times asking whether I want them to be more balanced or less. So to put my position in slightly plainer English: In each case here, the Times made a judgment about which views to present, and at what length. In each case, the friends of the present administration got more credit and respect than they deserved, and in each case, their opponents got less. That's the same bias both times, even if the result in one case was a piece which, measured crudely by word count, might appear superficially "balanced". The Times's coverage of the Duke campaign was largely free of this phony "balance", and better journalism for it.

12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

An excellent parody of "he-said-she-said" journalism is in Alexander Cockburn's Corruptions of Empire, a piece called "The Tedium Twins," about the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour. (Piece first appeared in Harper's.)

8:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a link to an online version of the Cockburn piece:
"When Tedium is Totalizing: The Political Function of PBS".

Vinettes include:
* "A Galilean preacher claims he is the Redeemer and says the poor are blessed. Should he be crucified?"
* "Should one man own another?"
* "Should one man eat another?"

8:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Mr. Change happens to read this comment, I hoppe he doesn't take this criticism personally. It is his editor's faulkt, entirely, for allowing the structure of his piece to be published in the format it was published.

The editor's job is to help the writer put out a better and more informative piece that gets to the truth of the matter.

So, I think Mr. Chnage's travel around the blogosphere in a defensive crouch is unwarranted. It's not his fault his piece was published the way it was.

After all, he's not a blogger.

8:44 AM  
Anonymous Richard Nathan said...

A few years ago, the New York Times published a fawning article about the belief that the Earl of Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare, written by one of the people who blieves this nonsense. To actual Elizabethan scholars, the belief that anyone but William Shakespeare actually wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare is as nonsensical as the idea of Intelligent Design is to biologists. I cancelled my subscription to the New York Times when they published this nonsense. Nothing they'll do surprises me.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Reb Yudel said...

Good point about the editor. I would love to see the editorial correspondence on this story.

In other words, if I thought it was Chang's fault, I wouldn't be cancelling my subscription.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Bob Davis said...

The NYTimes and the SFChronicle this weekend both published takedowns of ID on the oped pages with satiric alternate theories of evolution as examples of how ID has nothing behind it. Of course, that's the oped page for you.

11:39 AM  
Anonymous DAS said...

Starting at the top, Chang's article begins by explaining, at length, the argument of "leading design theorist" Michael Behe that the complex of proteins involved in blood clots could not have evolved. Which drove P.Z. Myers to ask

"When Behe says, 'if any one of the more than 20 proteins involved in blood clotting is missing or deficient ... clots will not form properly', why not point out right there, in that paragraph, that [Prof. Russell] Doolittle says that "scientists had predicted that more primitive animals such as fish would be missing certain blood-clotting proteins', and that Behe was shown to be wrong?"


I don't want to get into too much detail about unpublished research, but I am studying a system (not blood clotting) where in eukaryotes some 40 odd proteins are required (i.e. if any one of those proteins is knocked out, the critter will not survive), but some archaea have evolved the ability to do the same work with about 30 proteins rather than 40 -- so just because in one species, 20 proteins are required for clotting doesn't mean another species cannot evolve to have only 10 proteins required while the original clotting system had say 5 to begin with.

But even assuming clotting is evidence of design, the theory is not "Design" but "Intelligent Design". While I myself do not believe that "man is the measure of all things", if you use a term like "intelligent" it does tend to carry a specific meaning. And we can easily ask if clotting, for instance, is an intelligent design.

I would think it would not be too specific to human intelligence to ask, for instance, how efficient clotting is -- I would think any intelligence, human or not, would design a system which is as efficient as possible.

Now proteins are "expensive" to make. And the more and more complex parts a system has, the more likely it is for something to go wrong. OTOH, while one can imagine designing a clotting system based on merely two sensor proteins and an integrator protein which turns clotting "on", such a system would not have enough amplification to adaquately distingish clotting signals from noise.

One can ask, how many and what sorts of proteins would an optimal clotting system have in order to be effective at clotting when and only when clots are necessary, but to not have so many parts which are expensive to make and could go bad. My intuition is that biology tends to be extravagant here and that clotting could just as well occur with 10 proteins as with 20. But is having 2 fold too many parts to do a job really "intelligent" design?

Evolution, of course, explains the situation quite well: anybody who has worked for a corporation knows that even in a competative business, there is always duplication, overly complicated procedures, etc -- but if the business were pared down, even of its extra organizational flab, it would cease to function. So it is with living organisms: even if the biochemistry is overly extravagent, the organism becomes dependent on the extravagance and even evolutionary pressure is not enough to pare down the biochemistry to something reasonable. Evolution can explain not only the optimalities of organisms, but also the inoptimalities. OTOH - "Design" implies a rather petulant and un-intelligent Designer ... a hypothesis with theological implications some of us religious folk just don't like!

I do wonder though, is the "debate" over I.D. not so much about getting religion into science classes via the supposedly necessary "Designer" but rather about trying to act as if (evolved) organisms are designed intelligently. Is the ultimate goal of I.D. to muddy the waters so people think that competition and selection work miracles they don't work?

People who really understand evolution, understand the limits of optimization through competition and can see through a lot of "free market" bulls*&t theories. But if people are now believing living organisms are designed so well and they still might think evolution might be responsible ('cause they were taught the "debate" and hence both theories in their science classes), they might be more willing to swallow "free market" bs that they should know goes against any bit of common sense they might otherwise possess.

Or do I just have my tinfoil hat on too tight?

11:48 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

What? God is not intelligent enough to have invented evolution?

12:53 PM  
Blogger melior said...

God is not intelligent enough to have invented evolution?

Who said anything about God? The IDers insist that you are misconstruing them if you jump to the conclusion that the "Intelligent Designer" is the same as fabled Christian YHWH.

I'm leaning towards the Flying Spaghetti Monster myself, since revelation has already proven Him to be the Creator.

1:18 PM  
Blogger charles said...

(Just for clarity, the previous "Charles" in this thread isn't the blog author...)

1:23 PM  
Anonymous DAS said...

Who said anything about God? The IDers insist that you are misconstruing them if you jump to the conclusion that the "Intelligent Designer" is the same as fabled Christian YHWH.

The "Designer" patently cannot be the God of the mainstream elements of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition. After all, the Design is actually not all that intelligent which means that the Designer is not so intelligent, eh? The theological implication of I.D. then (assuming that God is not the Designer -- assuming otherwise, the response to Paley's assertion about learning of God from Creation is that we learn God is a petulant child or the same caliber of drunken civil engineer who "designed" New Jersey) is that there is a Creator other than God ... e.g. Plato's Demiurge or some similar Gnostic theology is correct.

That rubs at least some of us mono-Theists quite the wrong way!

1:33 PM  
Blogger gmoke said...

There's at least one book written about the NYTimes and how they were at least avoiding it not outright denying the holocaust while it was happening (Laurel Leff's _Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper_ published by Cambridge University Press).

6:26 PM  

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