What Darwin should stand for
The 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln also was the bicentennial of Charles Darwin. The media, with its love of pseudo-events and contrivances, was ready to talk about how Darwin's legacy lives on. Every article that day on general news Web sites mentioned how Darwin's writings pushed science forward and were the basis of modern biology today. Yet the articles decided to give a generous amount of lip service to how some people do not believe in evolution.
The reporting on the history of science ends up suffering from the same problems as current events politics. Similar to how the media prefers to report on people's perceptions of political actors rather than what they would do if elected, the media decided to give as much commentary on how people feel about Darwin as what he actually did. These commentaries on the naturalist's bicentennial shied away from calling out critics by telling them that they were, at least from a scientific perspective, essentially wrong. They merely just say critics of evolution are merely and dramatically outnumbered, as if the majority was guilty of mob rule.
One such example was CNN.com's article "Darwin still making waves 200 years later." The top of the article gives us four highlights. One says a Gallup poll reported that 39 percent of Americans believed in evolution. The other is "the debate between evolution and creationism still rages in some places," forcing the reader to search below the scroll for the who's and the what's of this framed conflict. With that, we have another article where the media informs us how we are thinking.
The spokesman that the article chose to represent the anti-evolution (or whatever you want to call it) perspective is Michael Egnor, a neurosurgery professor, proponent of intelligent design and a member of the Discovery Institute. Upon looking up this think tank and similar organizations with equally Orwellian names, I was provided with books that were essentially anti-academic. A better title would be the "Confirmation Institute," as it is clear that it is these folks who are the true perpetrators of ideology in academia, rather than noble watchdogs.
As someone who is not a major in any science, I admit that, at least in the undergraduate student capacity, there is plenty of bullshitting involved in learning about liberal arts and humanities, especially in the Internet age. (This criticism does not extend to professors and academics in liberal arts fields, who take their research seriously and make real contributions to society.) The strategy of people such as those in the Discovery Institute is to portray the scientific "establishment" in the same category as the pseudo-intellectual garbage that unscientific people like me are guilty of preaching in The Daily Targum.
It is not to say Darwin was not wrong. He has been wrong, the same way Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton were wrong. Their models of space and time needed to be revised by later astronomers and physicists. It is despite their mistakes that modern science owes them for their substantial contributions. "On the Origin of Species" is certainly not the holy scripture that subscribers of the so-called "Darwinism" religion blindly subscribe to, despite what Ben Stein wants you to believe.
If the CNN article had any redeeming qualities, it would be how it acknowledged Darwin's "disdain for slavery, prejudice and human suffering," much like Lincoln. The theory he developed was a representation of how he thought life has developed and will continue to develop. Unlike Karl Marx's writings, there was no manifesto of how the world ought to function. Darwin explicitly rejected deliberate social engineering that attempted to use evolution as a moral basis to advance the strong and punish the weak. Altruism, along with competition, is one of many factors in determining what results in evolution.
The media's conflict bias has dangerous effects on scientific reporting. While I can only be so worried about how life developed billions of years ago, issues like energy and global warming have clear importance in what needs to be done in the immediate present. Our politics have not caught up to our science.
Newsweek decided to confront the anti-science efforts with their story "The Truth About Denial" a year and a half ago, pointing the specific institutions that try to manipulate public opinion and manufacture controversy over the truth of global warming. Despite its sensationalistic cover, "Global Warming is a Hoax*" — with an elaboration on the asterisk — it was a service to the public.
Unfortunately, it did not last. Within a week or two, Newsweek gave a platform for those same think tanks with an opinion piece that pretty much undid the previous article if taken at face value. Once again, the noble media that we needed became the spineless media we despised with the surrender to the manufactured controversy.
That is why when people talk about the prospects of science regaining its rightful role in society once again it should be considered more than just pandering toward the science community, which, last time I checked, was not a big voter constituency anyway. Considering how politics and sensationalism have tainted the public's trust in science, it is pretty surprising that the demotion of Pluto was not used as another wedge for the public to rise up against science. Every moment in my limited education in scientific subjects in college and grade school involved a ridiculous amount of lessons as to what science is, what procedures and ethical precautions a scientist must obey. Considering the amount of crap Darwin still receives, it is not surprising.
Roger Sheng is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science and journalism and media studies. His column, "The Echo Chamber," runs on alternate Mondays.