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Glenn Beck and the Fog of Journalism

by Bryan on October 21st, 2010

Blogger’s Note: Every so often The Daily Wing detours from flying things toward culture and politics.

Glenn Beck’s ignorance, his failure to understand or accept the plain truth of evolution should come as no surprise to any evolved person. At best it reflects Beck’s Mormon faith. At worst it is his well-practiced demagoguery, his pandering to the undiscerning roots of his power and to the formidable sources of his paycheck. That Beck and his Tea Party of evolution deniers routinely make headlines is troublesome. What’s worse is the news media’s feeble defense of evolution.

Evolution is a fact. And the mass media’s mass stumbling here, particularly in the rash of Glenn Beck and Christine O’Donnell articles, is a betrayal of truth and accuracy. It is as if Beck and O’Donnell were denying gravity, with journalists failing to report what has been fair, balanced and undeniable since before Newton’s apple.

“I don’t think we came from monkeys,” Beck said yesterday. “I think that’s ridiculous. I haven’t seen a half-monkey, half-person yet.”

Setting aside Beck’s ignorance about how species arise (there never was and never will be a half-monkey, half-person), I think I know nonetheless what he means. Evolution deniers routinely ask for evidence of the missing link in our lineage from something resembling a chimpanzee millions of years ago to us. They often seize on the fraudulent Piltdown Man as proof of some evolution conspiracy among scientists.

Yep, Piltdown was a forgery. But the links aren’t missing. What’s missing is actual reporting of established evolutionary fact. Intermediate forms are abundant throughout the fossil record. Below are some examples, tracing the lineage of us (Homo sapiens) from a descendant, Australopithecus, which probably resembled a chimpanzee walking upright about three million years ago. Along the way, species appeared more “human” as we know ourselves to be today and at some point may even have resembled Beck’s “half-monkey, half-person.”

Date
(million years ago)


Species

3

Australopithecus

2.5

Homo habilis

1.8

Homo erectus

0.4

Homo heidelbergensis

0.3

Homo neanderthalensis

0.2 – today

Homo sapiens

I’ve only listed some of the species. Many others fill in those gaps in our history. I should point out that these dates are simplified and there is overlap and some healthy disagreement among scientists in the exact progression through the geological record. But the progression is undeniable. “What matters is that the links are no longer missing,” says the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. “Intermediates abound.”

So why is there feeble challenge to Beck and Tea Partiers among reporters in news stories? Perhaps reporters are letting the plain absurdity of the pronouncements stand alone as hard evidence of ignorance. But I suspect worse. Chalk it up to laziness and ignorance on the part of the press. Even some of evolution’s most ardent defenders don’t really know how evolution works. And plenty of science writers have no business writing about science. So here are a couple of talking points for reporters covering creationists:

1. Myth: There are no missing links.

Links abound. A better term for them is transitional forms. Beyond those for humans I’ve mentioned above, here’s a juicy example offering evidence of the evolution of life in the water (fishes) to four-legged life on land (tetrapods).

2. Myth: Evolution is “only a theory.”

This is a good one. In common parlance, a theory may have little merit. Creationists, in an artful deception, purposefully confuse theory with hypothesis. A hypothesis is a plausible explanation, usually one that has gone untested. A theory is a grand idea that assembles facts, laws, even well-tested hypotheses and, in the words of the evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma, “weaves them into a coherent fabric.” So a theory is a set of concepts that explain and predict natural phenomena (e.g. the Earth revolving around the sun or evolution by means of natural selection). It may not be proven as true beyond all doubts, but the overwhelming evidence makes it all but true, settle scientific law. That’s what evolutionary theory does for the origins of life on Earth. We know that the change in species over time is a fact. Evolutionary theory summarizes all the ways that evolution operates, which we have learned from countless experiments.

Even so, overwhelming evidence alone isn’t enough to make for a valid theory. A theory must also be falsifiable. This means the stated theory can be proven wrong by empirical evidence or scientific experiment. A good theory can be tossed to the scrapheap of science with but a single observation. Here’s a common example: the hypothesis that all swans are white. It seems valid. It is supported by a body of reliable evidence, which may even lend to its standing as a theory. We can test its validity, but only to a point because we cannot reasonably see every swan in the world. And it is falsifiable. Find me a swan that’s not white and there will be no need to seek out every swan in the world in order to disprove this theory. In fact, the theory is proven wrong because there are indeed black swans.

No valid science has yet emerged to disprove the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. That all life Earth evolved over the course of billions of years, descended from a common ancestor and shaped by the forces of natural selection is a theory that amounts to law. To be sure, we’ve refined it all since Darwin published On the Origin of Species 151 years ago. Still, it would take only one fossil discovery – a rabbit in the Precambrian, to cite an example attributed to the biologist J.B.S. Haldane – in order to blow evolution out of the water. It hasn’t happened. To the contrary, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming and continues to grow. Creationists can make no claim to valid science because their hypotheses are not falsifiable: there can be no way to disprove the existence of God. People of religious faith are certainly free to attribute the origins of life on Earth to the work of a supreme being, a creator, but they can in no way claim creationism (or intelligent design) is science or based on any observable facts. It is not.

Darwinism was a gift for the ages. It gave us no less than the insights and tools to understand nothing less than the origins of life on Earth. Unlike most other branches of science, which tend to experiment with the empirical, what’s in front of us now, Darwinism enables us to look backward through time, to map a course of events – survival and extinction, mostly – that took place over the course of this planet’s existence. Darwin brought science to history and history to science.

That would have been enough. But following Darwinism’s illuminated path was a new branch of philosophy. It espoused that the condition of life on Earth could be explained through the lens of evolution. Supernaturalism, the essentialism of Plato, the creationism of Glenn Beck, became unnecessary to explain how and why we’re here. The evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr described this well in a speech and later in an essay on Darwin’s philosophy of science. Determinism is repudiated, he said, which places our fate nowhere else but in our own evolved hands.

“To borrow Darwin’s phase, there is grandeur in this view of life,” Mayr said. “New modes of thinking have been, and are being, evolved. Almost every component in modern man’s belief system is somehow affected by Darwinian principles.”

It all becomes most evident in 1837, when in one of his notebooks Darwin drew a simple diagram, the shape of a tree with forked branches. With the most ancient forms at its base and descendents branching in various ways, this was Darwin’s draft roadmap to how life on the planet, at any point through history, could be described as descending from a single common ancestor.

And with that drawing Darwin wrote the words, “I think.”

If only more of our leaders, our journalists and even our false prophets would heed those two words.

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14 Comments
  1. We’re even more so on the same page, Dana. I don’t want newspapers to vanish either. I only hope the good ones can survive to their next incarnations. I read the New York Times every day on my Kindle. I’m happy to pay for it if it helps the paper evolve into something “sustainable.” My local newspaper, however, has become largely irrelevant in my life. I’m waiting for something new and better to emerge close to home.

  2. Dana Wilde permalink

    I think we are more or less on the same page, Bryan, with the exception that I guess I don’t want newspapers to go away, no matter how soft they get, when the only replacements so far are Fix, sorry, Fox News and political blogs, none of whose information can be trusted in even remotely the way newspapers’ still can. Also, for what it’s worth on the topic at hand, I think if we did a survey we’d find that there is more doubt among scientists about Neptune’s orbital parameters than there is about whether evolution happens or not.

  3. Chris permalink

    John Bauer,
    I don’t think in an experimental situation you are going to see big evolutionary leaps in things like fish and finches. Evolutionary change takes time, it goes step by step and you need quite a number of generations for it to happen. In human history it is quite easy to see if you look at all the different dog breeds we have created in a few thousand years. I think if you look at a corgi and compare it with a great dane, and compare both with wolves, you can clearly see evolution as directed by humans at work. We consider them still the same species as we can in some manner mate them. But were they in the wild I doubt a chihuahua and a great dane would actually be able to mate.
    Similarly in nature species that separated a long time ago can still mate if pushed; for example zebras and donkeys.
    However, there are really stunning examples of adaptive laboratory change in the bacterial world. A long running experiment by Dr Richard Lenski, showed major adaptive changes in bacteria that actually needed a combination of two genetic changes, neither beneficial on it own, to happen. If you follow some of the links from his site you can probably get a run down of the experiments.

    http://myxo.css.msu.edu/index.html

  4. Dana,

    Sorry about my belated reply. I heartily agree with your parallels on politicians as “experts” and the twisted notion that government must run like a business. Thanks for that! And as a recovering journalist, I know well the demise of print journalism and the dumbing-down of broadcast. To be sure, upheaval in the news media (the economy, concentration in media ownership, Fox, the internet, the usual suspects) present challenges and create these deficiencies and context you mention. But if newspapers and magazines are indeed “going out of business hand over fist” — which, of course, they are — I’d rather show them the door than see them drag informed discourse with them to the grave. Let the new media rise from these ashes. And let’s force it to inform, to have civic courage. Jon Stewart described it well at the close of the rally yesterday (http://xrl.in/6l6n). The failing, compromised media is tantamount to the flow of money now tainting our elections. There’s a cancer of partisanship (even soft-core Fascism) growing on Washington. And there’s a virus in the news media. We can only hope that democracy survives the media’s evolution and transformation. I’m fearful it won’t. (Other than that, I’m having an OK day.)

  5. John Baur permalink

    Thanks to all for you well-mannered responses to my comment. I would like to make one additional point regarding the different examples of “evolution” that have been mentioned. These examples are actually the source of much of my frustration. Most people I’ve discussed the issue with point to these as examples of evolution. I contend they are “only” examples of natural selection.

    Specifically, there is the Grant’s work in the Galapagos (which I also have not read directly, but I did read “The Beak of the Finch”), the peppered moth situation and the guppies in Trinidad (also nicely discussed in “The Beak of the Finch”). I am not familiar with the E. coli experiments and haven’t had the time to look at them carefully.

    Each of the above is a good demonstration of how environmental pressures affect the frequency with which a particular characteristic is expressed in a population. So they are proof that natural selection occurs in nature, not just in gardeners’ pots and pigeon-fanciers’ coops. However, in no case is there evidence of a new characteristic emerging and being generally incorporated in a population.

    So the question becomes whether a demonstration of natural selection suffices to demonstrate the evolution does occur. I strikes me that this demonstration is necessary but not sufficient for proving that evolution occurs. Thus, based on that evidence alone I remained unconvinced that evolution was science.

    As I said before, though, Bryan’s point that the fossil record could provide disconfirming evidence is pretty persuasive.

    Thanks again,
    John

  6. This is one of the most lucid clarifications of evolution, and of the nonsense propounded by creationists, I’ve seen. I think you might be oversimplifying the journalists’ complicity, though. Journalism is up against three major problems that combine to make reporters bend over backward for unreliable sources – treating, for example, not only creationists as if they are scientists, but also politicians as if they are economists, or businessmen as if they are experts in government. Two of the problems are plummeting circulation, which creates a context in which audience reaction becomes more and more critical – if we lose much more audience, there won’t be any reporting at all any more, so there has to be tailoring to make sure there are readers. And plummeting circulation leads directly to reduced staffing, meaning fewer and fewer professional reporters (print, broadcast, whatever) are trying to cover all the news and having to do it quicker and, unfortunately, more hastily. And a third problem that is affected by the other two problems is an overcautious compulsion to get “all sides of the issue,” e.g., where a reporter working on a story about a new report on evolution hastily calls up a creationist for a comment representing “the other side,” and plugs it in, satisfying not only the journalistic need to “balance” the story but also the large number of readers who easily think themselves slighted or lied to when they don’t hear what they want, and cancel their subscriptions. I know a widespread response to these facts of journalism nature will be an indignant call for reporters to maintain their integrity no matter what; and most journalists do (Glenn Beck and his Fox News cohorts are not journalists – they’re actors playing journalists on TV), but there is an enormous pressure of reality: the simple fact is that newspapers, magazines and other news media are going out of business hand over fist, and you can’t pay your mortgage or feed your children on your integrity alone. Some are strong in their poverty, others are less so. I do not say journalists aren’t guilty of what you say, Bryan, only that their guilt occurs in a qualified context.

  7. Chris permalink

    Bryan, Great post and nice pictures! Having attended the biodiversity university I was happy to find your blog.
    John, for simple evolutionary change in an experiment you cannot really beat the work done on Trinidad Guppies.
    Below is a bit of a kids report about it, the original science was great but I do not have a link
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/sex/guppy/low_bandwidth.html

  8. Thanks, Paul. Yeah, I think from now on we ought to say “laws of evolution” or “laws of natural selection” — like laws of gravity. After all, even the Catholic Church is OK with evolution. And plenty of people were discovering evolution even before Darwin.

  9. Paul K permalink

    To John’s comment, I would say (although it seems unnecessary at this point, since he says he’s convinced) that there have in fact been examples of experiments we could conduct to test evolutions predictions, and a small number of examples where we have observed evolution (by Natural Selection) actually occurring. Take the latter first. The most famous example, which we’ve all read in our high school textbooks (but which most of us have forgotten it seems) is the peppered moth. In the 19th century, this moth (british I think) was predominantly white, helping it remain camouflaged on numerous birch trees. As the industrial revolution raged, pollution turned most of these trees sooty black, and in turn the peppered moth population went from a species of mostly white individuals to a species of mostly black individuals.

    To the point about testing predictions, remember that scientists were aware of evolution for a century or more before anyone even knew what DNA was. Fast forward to the late 20th century now. With the advent of DNA sequencing technology, scientists realized that Evolution PREDICTED something about the genomes of various species, that those which are more closely related evolutionarily should have similar genome sequences. Most strikingly, when this prediction was tested, we found that our own genome (homo Sapiens) was not only SIMILAR to the species we predicted was our closest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee, but in fact 99% IDENTICAL.

    One last point on the issue of the “theory of evolution.” You make a nice and thorough explanation of the use of the word theory, but I think the confusion actually arises because the term “theory of evolution” is used so often. Mind you, this is truly not because the idea of evolution is ‘just a theory’, but because Darwin’s THEORY of Natural Selection is rightly termed a “theory of evolution.” In other words, it’s a theory to explain the fact of evolution.

  10. John,

    Many thanks for your insights. I’ve not read the Grants’ research directly but I do believe Jonathan Weiner’s “Beak of the Finch” is a gold reference standard (and required reading) among books on evolution. There is some great evidence for observable evolution in action from Richard Lenski and lab at Michigan State University. They’ve followed 50,000 generations of E. coli. Incredible work: http://myxo.css.msu.edu/ecoli/overview.html . And here as well: http://news.msu.edu/story/6993/

    I admire your point on creation equally explaining what has been observed. And, yes, I like your observation: “Keeping in mind that the fact that creationism is not falsifiable doesn’t mean that it is false.” Science has no opinion on the existence of a supreme being. But, as you say, the key point is that creationism (aka intelligent design) isn’t science. (I was prepared to delve deeper into that in the blog post but, like you, wanted to avoid the flame war.) But we could indeed wander into a long discussion of whether the world was created in an instant (evidence is strong that it was) “in it’s current form” (evidence is overwhelming that it wasn’t). This can, of course wander into the realm of philosophy and metaphysics; my brain power is limited enough in terms of evolution, let alone those greater questions. But thanks!

    Bryan

  11. Laura,

    This is a great point. It’s really what motivated me to write in the first place. We’ll always have demagogues and creationists; that’s fine; I can accept that. Only now we have Fox, talk radio, the web, a failing educational system and a flood of corporate money propping them all up. I think this is what’s most distrubing to me. It tries my belief in the First Amendment.

    Bryan

  12. K-Lo permalink

    Brian,
    Your piece is illustrative and on the mark. Too bad it’s necessary in, what is this year, oh yea, 2010!

    I can’t help but get a little p-o’ed, however, that the goons frame the debate in such a way that intelligent busy people like you and me have to go back and explain what is, as you say, “fair, balanced, and undeniable” fact. You know what I mean?

    Goons: The sky is purple!

    Media: Goons say, “The sky is purple!”

    Rationals: “Actually, the sky reflects light in the visible spectrum, so….”

    Goons: “Elitist rationals wish to DENY the sky is purple and are working this very moment to force their chromatic agenda on our children. Will YOU stand by and let them control YOUR skyview?”

    Media: “What’s happening in Middle America, tonight, Bob?”

    “Well, Sam. Goons are rallying en masse singing chants of their new “Sky Is Purple” movement. Although some critics would say the sky is still blue, you can’t deny the energy in this crowd tonight,”

    “Fascinating, Bob, How many people are rallying tonight for the Sky Is Purple Movement?

    “Well, Sam, I interviewed the top rally organizer and he estimates the crowd at 7.2 million – says ‘unprecedented numbers of Americans are disillusioned with the Sky is ‘Blue’ conspiracy.’ Experts and and local police put it at ten thousand, but I don’t have time to fact-check. But wow, what a sight there is tonight with thousands of people chanting “The Sky is Purple! The Sky is Purple!”

    “That’s really something, Bob.”

    Meanwhile…you know what goes on in the dark.

  13. John Baur permalink

    Bryan,
    Thank you for this post. With one simple comment, you’ve clarified something I’ve been confused about. I consider myself to be reasonably intelligent (I have an undergraduate degree in engineering from MIT) and I’m not religious, but I’ve been of the opinion that evolutionary theory is as much of a religious belief as is creationism. Now I see that I was wrong.

    The problem, I thought, was that there is actually no experimental evidence that demonstrates the fact of evolution. (Processes may be demonstrated in the lab, but we’ve never actually seen something evolve by those processes). The evidence instead is purely observational. That is: we observe fossils, we observe them in different layers of the earth’s crust, we age them to different periods, we observe changes in the frequency of characteristics within populations, etc. But we never actually observe anything evolve (and I contend that the Grants’ study of the finches in the Galapagos fail to do so as well). As such, evolution is a logical construct that explains what is observed, but it didn’t really go beyond that. Furthermore, creation could equally explain what has been observed. (I’m sure you disagree with me on much of the above, but that’s not really the point and I won’t respond to any comments because I don’t want to get into a flame war.)

    Keeping in mind that the fact that creationism is not falsifiable doesn’t mean that it is false (for all any of us know the world was created an instant ago in its current form) it only means it is not science, you still make an important point: evolution is falsifiable. That is what I had not noticed. The lack of rabbits in the fossil record of earlier periods is important. So thanks for pointing it out.

    I’ve questioned a lot of people who claim that the evidence supporting evolution is overwhelming. These are people who I consider to be pretty bright, and no one could address my challenges, no one had been able to convince me that the belief in evolution was more than a faith. But you’ve done it with that one simple observation.

    Thanks.

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