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Dover Soul

It isn't usually the cases that don't make it to the Supreme Court that get the coverage, but the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District decision, which ruled that Intelligent Design is a form of creationism and thus cannot be mandated in school curricula, has inspired at least two, soon to be three, full general-interest books. The case has also proven a durable fuel for blogs on both sides; the decision, though legally binding, has far from resolved the tooth-and-nail conflict between Intelligent Design advocates and scientists. And, as seen in the analyses of those who covered the event, the ruckus raises systemic questions about how we can talk about issues when we talk about issues in America.

It's obvious that Edward Humes, author of "Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul", is solidly in the science camp. He highlights the shortcomings of claims made by members of the Discovery Institute, the originators and proponents of Intelligent Design, and the overtly but denied religious agendas of its legal supporters, even as he praises the research and presentations done by the plaintiffs' witnesses and lawyers. Gordy Slack, who wrote “The Battle over the Meaning of Everything: Evolution, Intelligent Design and a School Board in Dover, PA", has said in public interviews that despite a religious family, he also was rooting for science. And Lauri Lebo, the author of the upcoming account of her tenure as the lead local reporter for the York Daily Record (the book is tentatively titled "The Devil in Dover: Dogma vs. Darwinism is Small-Town America"), wrote to me that "I knew one side was lying," even as she strove for objectivity.

Humes noted that a large part of the American psyche craves fairness above all, and this desire to be fair has lead to an almost post-modern equal privileging of viewpoints -- for example, the thought that a "debate" between ID and evolution would be a great way to present the issue.

But Humes's insight is that a debate is also a poor place to present science, which usually works through a startled move forward, a question that leads to setbacks and reconsiderations, refinements and the desire by its practicers to challenge. That tempering leads, as actual scientists know, to stronger, more complete understandings, while admitting that the key is that we know we don't know. Science is the opposite of truthiness.

In contrast, the very appeal of ID is that it's not far from "in your heart, you know it's true." And that plays well in a debate, as anyone who has watched American politics knows. (Multiple journalists on scene wrote how ID proponents, from the relatively innocent Dover school board members to the creators of ID literature, all stumbled and were stumped when quizzed about the details of the theories they promoted.)

It's sad that this is how most American media look at all questions. Prop up an extremist from one side and another from the other and the two will average out, goes the thinking. But this most often leads to unchallenged bull being thrown left and right, with no fact check in sight.

"Somewhere along the way, both the public and many journalists have gotten confused over the issue of objectivity," Lebo wrote. And Nick Matzke, a witness for the plaintiffs also wrote that "a theme in those two books and in most of the serious journalistic coverage of Kitzmiller v. Dover has been exactly the issue of 'what is objectivity?'"

Lebo said that "I have a responsibility to inform people as to what happened in the courtroom. It's a responsibility I take quite seriously. While that meant giving voice to both sides, it also meant sifting through all the information.

"Here's the truth: the vast majority of what I observed in court on any given day pointed to the utter vacuousness of intelligent design. Now, if I went back to the newsroom and, in the interest of appearing to be an objective unbiased reporter, pulled from my notes the best quote from the parents' attorneys and the best quote from Dover's attorneys and used them to present the story as evenly balanced, then I would have been essentially lying to readers. By not providing context, I would be creating the impression that intelligent design is legitimate and that there is a real controversy over evolutionary theory within the scientific community. How does that help a reader reach an informed well-reasoned opinion?"

It's a good question.

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