Teaching Evolution

A blog devoted to teaching evolution, both in our schools and in our communities.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Lessons from the Stem Cell Debate

I was doing some research unrelated to evolution today when I came across something that, I think, illustrates how the media are complicit in the general misunderstanding of science that taints our society.

First, take a look at this August 10, 2001 piece from the CNN archive. In it, CNN gives ample time to Tommy Thompson insisting that 60 stem cell lines were available and viable for research, just as President Bush had said when he announced the federal policy on stem cells. "Are they adequate?" Thompson said at a Washington news conference. "The answer is a resounding 'yes.' They are diverse, robust and viable for research." Although the first paragraph acknowledges "some scientists' concerns about the viability for research," no scientist is quoted explaining those concerns. Instead, we get Thompson repeating the administration's talking points.

Is it any wonder, then, that the CNN piece concludes with a heading that reads, "Poll shows public support"? Well, of course the public supported Bush at first. The public got its information from places like CNN. And CNN didn't tell people the whole story. It wasn't until May of 2003 -- nearly two years later -- that National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni acknowledged in Senate testimony that "NIH support has helped increase to 11 the number of human embryonic stem cell lines that are widely available for all researchers."

So two years after Bush told the country there were 60 lines available for research, the director of NIH is bragging about an increase to 11 lines.

Sadly, I don't think Bush was lying when he said there were 60 lines available. I think he surrounds himself with science advisors who are so incompetent that they honestly believed there were 60 lines available.

And that brings us back to evolution. The people at the top in our government aren't very good at science. But they are very good at media spin. So I can forgive the folks at home who try to sort out information about evolution and can't. What I can't forgive is the way the press fails us all by repeating the talking points of political hacks instead of shedding light on science.


At 9:30 AM, Blogger dhodge said...

There has been a lot of buzz lately about how the press is failing to call out public figures for the misinformation and outright lies that they spout in interviews. Do you think that the problem has gotten worse recently or has it just gotten more coverage? If you think that it has gotten worse, do you think it's because journalists and news organizations have gotten lazy or because politicians and other public figures have gotten better at manipulating the system?

At 9:35 AM, Blogger MDS said...

As much as I criticize the press, my general impression is that journalism is better now than it used to be. I think the reason we see a lot more coverage of the press's failings is that the Internet and (to a lesser extent) cable news are giving more forums for press critics to share their criticism. I think the Internet has the potential to make the media a lot better, although it also has the potential to turn weak-kneed reporters into spineless transcriptionists afraid to write anything that might make them the subject of an e-mail campaign.


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