June 24, 2008

Legitimizing pseudoscience in the NYT

In lieu of ever getting back to my friend Thomas Joseph on the larger question of famed blogger PZ Myers' contributions to the so-called culture wars, I'm able to note in the meantime that Prof. Myers' criticism of the New York Times here is very much misplaced.

Or, more to the point, his reasons are sound, but the Times' item about Philadelphia's Darwin Year commemorations is not the most appropriate place to proffer them. Myers complains that where only science is at issue, reporters needn't solicit the observations of some random creationist fruitcake, in this case, the high wanking Antipodean jackanapes Ken Ham of "Creation Museum" fame.

Myers is certainly correct about that, and the example he gives of Jerry Coyne's inquiry of the NYT's science editor is much more suited to its object, which was an otherwise straight news report on a fossil discovery.

For the Times to ask the notorious Duane Gish what he thought of Tiktallik is irresponsible. Gish is a young earth creationist so adept at comically dissembling evasion he even has his own "debating" move named after him: the Gish Gallop. If credibility may be expressed in negative numbers, Gish's is in the triple digits.

I also agree with Myers that the Times science editor's reply to Prof. Coyne was unsatisfying. Because when it comes to reporting science, creationists like Gish and Ken Ham are the functional equivalents of mentally unbalanced panhandlers muttering gibberish on street corners.

That the Times sees fit to memorialize the alleged insights of these deliberate ignoramuses confers a patina of legitimacy where absolutely none is warranted.

And that effect is compounded when their statements are placed alongside those of professional credentialed scientists in the interest of supposedly presenting "both sides" to the story. Sometimes, there aren't "both sides" to a story and the goal of trying to invent one of them is not well served by soliciting the opinion of a thoroughly discredited crankpot who harbors borderline psychotic delusions.

As a general press criticism, that much is fair. Newspapers do assume some measure of responsibility simply by presenting themselves as newspapers.

But as for the Philadelphia Darwin exhibits, it was their own spokeswoman who opened the door:
The intent of the citywide event, said Janet M. Monge, one of the organizers, is to increase public understanding of evolution and science in general at a time when polls show that a majority of Americans believe God created man in his present form and that the number of people who accept the evolutionary model of human origins is declining.

She said the Philadelphia events were also intended to encourage people to consider the evolutionary alternative to the biblical account of the origins of man, as represented by the new Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., a $35 million institution that has attracted more than 400,000 visitors since it opened in May 2007.
Enter Ken Ham necessarily who, despite his undeniable grasping idiocy, is the chief minister of the said "museum."

Thus the question is whether Ms. Monge should have adopted the defensive pose, and not whether Ken Ham should be invited to disgorge yet more absurdist effluvia.

If the foregoing implied statistics from polls are any indication, proponents of sound science will likely find them alarming. I have little doubt that PZ Myers would — and does — and so Ms. Monge's declaration of intent is at least well intentioned.

What's troubling to me about the Times piece is that evolution is depicted as an "alternative" to the "biblical account," as if the latter was the reigning scientific paradigm, which it hasn't been for several centuries, if it ever was.

But if a majority of Americans really do believe that about the "biblical account" and whereas sound, valid science is merely an "alternative" to ancient Mesopotamian folktales, then I submit we have bigger problems than the occasional New York Times reporter offering an undeserved megaphone to a jumped up street preacher.

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