fair, or “balanced”?

Some observers have commented that nothing new or noteworthy emerged from the November 19, 2008 session of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE).

Well, maybe this isn’t new, but I think it deserves notice:

Despite the overwhelming imbalance of testimony favoring standards that would support the teaching of real science in Texas, newspaper stories have managed to “correct” the imbalance by giving equal ink to “both sides,” thus giving the appearance that “both sides” were about equally supported by those testifying. This is a familiar problem with journalism in the United States today. Journalists routinely are condemned when their coverage does not present an even balance — even where no such balance actually exists.

Here, for example, is the AP story, as it appeared in the Houston Chronicle:

(Respecting copyright, I normally would not copy the whole text of an article. Usually, I try to quote just enough for readers to judge whether they want to click a link taking them to the original source. This time, however, the matter for public interest is the balance of coverage over the entire text, which readers can see only if the whole text is presented.)

I have emphasized in blue the parapraphs that report support for pro-science standards, and in red for paragraphs reporting support for standards that encourage anti-science teaching. As you see, they appear generally “balanced,” even though the balance in the testimony was maybe 8 to 1 in favor of real science, and unanimously from the scientists and science teachers. (The 8:1 estimate is reported by the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), and sounds about right from my listening to the 7 hourse of testimony, although I don’t know if anyone has actually counted.)

Activists line up to testify on science standards

By APRIL CASTRO Associated Press Writer © 2008 The Associated Press
Nov. 19, 2008, 5:19PM

AUSTIN — The debate on how to teach evolution in science classrooms heated up in Texas on Wednesday as the State Board of Education listened to public comments on proposed revisions to the state’s science curriculum.

The current curriculum requires students be taught the “strengths and weaknesses” of all scientific theories, wording that some say has been used to undermine the theory of evolution.

The proposal being discussed would change the language to say “strengths and limitations,” even though a review committee had recommended removing the reference altogether.

“Scientific theories are strong. They don’t have weaknesses,” Steven Schafersman, president of the advocacy group Texas Citizens for Science, told the board.

The board seemed in for a long evening as 89 people had signed up to testify on the proposal, which also suggests encouraging middle school students to discuss alternative explanations for evolution.

Gathered outside the board meeting, critics complained that talking of weaknesses and limitations of evolution allows for religion-based concepts like creationism and intelligent design to enter classroom instruction.

In order to educate the next generation “with the best science around … we must listen, not to a few political advocates, but we must listen to the consensus of most scientists from here and around the world,” said Arturo De Lozanne, an associate professor of biology at the University of Texas at Austin. “If we do not maintain high science standards in our schools we risk losing our scientific and technological edge.”

Federal courts have ruled against forcing the teaching of creationism and intelligent design.

In a survey of college biology professors released earlier this week, most respondents said they believe any focus on the weaknesses of evolution theory and on alternative theories would be detrimental to students’ college readiness and their ability to compete for jobs.

But, advocates of the curriculum proposal say not mentioning weaknesses of scientific theory cheats students out of complete information.

“This is just another attempt to stifle academic freedom and to ban any kind of free and open science inquiry on this issue,” said Jonathan Saenz, a lobbyist for the Texas Free Market Foundation, who planned to testify before the board.

Saenz criticized the survey of college professors because it was commissioned by the religious watchdog group, Texas Freedom Network, which has vocally opposed any attempt to dilute evolution instruction.

“The reality is this issue is about evolution and teaching strengths and weaknesses of evolution,” Saenz said. “It’s about science and teaching science right, regardless of what religious beliefs people have.”

The State Board of Education is expected to vote on the proposal next spring. A majority of members have said they are in favor of retaining the current mandate to cover both strengths and weaknesses of major scientific theories.

Standards adopted by the board will remain in place for the next decade.

The Houston Chronicle published this reporting by April Castro just as it was carried by the Associated Press (I checked on LexisNexis), so readers of the AP story nationally would get the picture presented here.

While it might seem that reporting “most respondents” to the survey were against detrimental standards should be in blue, I put that in red because it again distorts by signifying balance that is actually not there. Most voters picked Obama in 2008, most picked Bush in 2004, and most picked Gore in 2000. But in the survey that’s being reported in the AP story, 79.6% (vs. 15.5%) said that “Teaching ‘Weaknesses’ of Evolution Impairs College Readiness,” while 72% (vs. 16.3%) said that “Teaching ‘Weaknesses’ of Evolution Impairs Ability to Compete for 21st Century Jobs.”

Such reporting may be “balanced” in some artificially contrived sense, but at the cost of not giving readers a fair picture of the facts.

April Castro’s AP story was not the only one adhering to this pattern. A story by the Dallas Morning News reporter Terrence Stutz gives us a “balanced” sentence:

College professors, science teachers and pro-evolution groups urged the board to drop a rule that requires the strengths and weaknesses of Darwin’s theory to be taught in science courses, while conservative groups aligned with a sizable bloc of board members said the rule has worked well and hasn’t forced religion into those classes as critics charge.

followed by two sentences for each of two pro-science testifiers:

Andrew Ellington, a biochemistry professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was one of those warning that the state could become a “laughingstock” in the science community if it insists on watering down the treatment of evolution in science classes.

“At a time when Gov. [Rick] Perry has shepherded a landmark plan for cancer research and treatment, we cannot afford for the retrograde elements of the state board to foster teaching the equivalent of astrology to our students,” Dr. Ellington said.

Rabbi Nancy Kasten of Dallas, a board member for the National Council of Jewish Women, said a state rule mandating that weaknesses of evolution be covered makes science education in Texas “vulnerable to a wide range of speculative and subversive interpretation” – including non-scientific explanations such as creationism.

“As a member of a religious minority, I rely on the Constitution to ensure that our government and its institutions, including our public schools, serve Americans of all faiths and no faith,” she said.

and then two sentences on each of two advocates who favor “strengths and weaknesses”:

On the other side, Carrollton engineer Paul Kramer called on the board to retain the strengths-and-weaknesses rule for all scientific theories, insisting that its elimination would unfairly restrict debate among students on “untested and unproven” theories.

“One can only wonder if we crush free speech and debate in our public classrooms now, where will it end?” he asked, citing a parallel with Nazi Germany. He also presented the board with a document, “A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism,” signed by 700 scientists and institutions around the world skeptical of some of Darwin’s principles.

Mark Ramsey of Texans for Better Science Education accused “Darwinist activists” of trying to censor what Texas students learn about evolution.

“The State Board of Education needs to stand up for academic freedom and make sure that scientific inquiry is not expelled from our classrooms,” he said.

Finally, Stutz does add this:

Another recommendation calls for middle school students to “discuss possible alternative explanations” for scientific concepts.

The latter change brought sharp criticism from the progressive Texas Freedom Network.

“The new draft contains loaded buzzwords that evolution deniers have used repeatedly to launch phony attacks on evolution,” said network president Kathy Miller.

Not every article has adhered to this paradigm, however. Here’s from Dave Montgomery for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (one of those McClatchy newspapers, where they still try to practice journalism):

What they said
Testimony stretched into the evening Wednesday.
“Scientists overwhelmingly consider evolution to be established, mainstream science, and scientists have been crystal-clear in explaining that phony arguments against evolution are based on ideology, not science,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network.
Wendee Holtcamp, a freelance writer, drew a sharp reprimand from McLeroy when she accused the board of lying. “Are you willing to play dice with our children’s education as our nation’s science lead deteriorates?” Holtcamp asserted.
===
One of the few voices from the other side came from Paul Kramer, a Carrollton engineer, who said that more than 700 eminent scientists welcome the teaching of pros and cons about evolution. Not allowing debate over untested and unproven theories “seems out of place in a free society” and is reminiscent of book-burning in Nazi Germany, he said.

And, in a blog hosted by the Houston Chronicle, Gary Scharrer of the San Antonio Express-News provides a fair account of the overwhelmingly pro-science testimony. His first two paragraphs.

AUSTIN — Texas risks becoming a national joke if state educators insist on clouding the teaching of evolution, scores of scientists, science teachers and concerned residents Texans told the State Board of Education on Wednesday.

They pleaded with the 15-member board not to confuse public schoolchildren with a watered-down teaching of evolution by requiring teachers to teach the weaknesses or limitations of evolution.

Scharrer quotes Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science, for three paragraphs, and then has three more paragraphs on  Francis Eberle, head of the 60,000-member National Science Teachers Association, before observing that

Nearly 90 people signed up to testify before the board. By early evening, only one person embraced the weaknesses provision.

Are we there yet?
If you are still reading this long post, you could be thinking that a simple point has been hammered in here well enough now that there’s no need to go on. But the important point is yet to be made.The chairman of the Texas SBOE has already announced that the next time for public input, in January, will be limited to four hours, from 8:00 AM until noon.

And what will be a balance among the speakers testifying then? I think it’s a fair bet that the chairman and his anti-science allies will see to it that they come much closer to hearing two hours of testimony supporting the “strengths and weaknesses” (or whatever phrase they will have substituted then), and two hours from those supporting pro-science standards. So, next time around, the articles reporting equal testimony for and against the anti-science standards will in fact reflect the “balance” of the testimony then.

But this “balance” will have been achieved only by contriving a public hearing in which the true preponderance of opposition to the anti-science standards among scientists and science educators will not be heard.

And this brings us, finally, to the real important point: The kind of phony balance contrived either in the newspaper accounts, or in the public hearings themselves, merely foreshadows the phony balance that they seek to contrive ultimately in science classrooms, themselves. There, in the science classrooms, they want to require a balance between evolutionary biology and non-evolutionary biology — between the “strengths” and the “weaknesses.”

As Jonathan Saenz (identified in Castro’s AP article as “a lobbyist for the Texas Free Market Foundation,” without identifying this group as the Texas affiliate of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family) testified before the SBOE Wednesday:

So one of the things I think is key here — as an organization that works on Constitutional and First Amendment issues — the policy being advocated by some to only teach the strengths and not the weaknesses amounts to pure censorship in the classroom and the stifling of free speech and academic freedom. By teaching the students [only] the strengths, you’re only giving them half of the information.

Wait. Go back and look at that again. Let me repeat the quote, this time with added emphasis:

By teaching the students [only] the strengths, you’re only giving them half of the information.

This is what the chairman’s majority faction of SBOE wants to hear. In fact, if you listen to the testimony, you hear the Board members spending a great deal of time in dialogue with Saenz and the handful of others on that side of the issue, and taking their arguments quite seriously, while rushing the informed and cogent scientists like Andrew Ellington away from the microphone as quickly as they can.

And just so, they would have it, in the classroom.

But note this: There are “two sides” that actually exist in the political controversy over science standards — so it is possible to give equal time to “both sides” of this controversy in a public hearing; but there are not “two sides” in Biology regarding evolutionary theory — regardless of what Texas students might be taught in science classrooms — so there aren’t any “both sides” to get equal time in Biology class. You could limit the teaching of evolutionary Biology to only half of the class time, but then there’s not an “other side” in Bioscience to get the rest of the class time.

5 Comments

  1. Posted November 23, 2008 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Thank you thank you thank you!! This is a brilliant analysis that deserves much wider distribution. I’m going to link to it on my blog. You should consider posting it at Daily Kos and/or Texas Kaos – among other places. Send it to the various newspapers you cite here. They need to understand this issue!! Good work.

  2. Posted November 23, 2008 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Let me add one more thing. Most of the journalists did not even attend the hearing. They come to the press conference, and think that is “covering” the event! Sure sitting through 8+ hours of testimony may seem a “waste” of time but that is what Dave Montgomery did – who got the balance issue correct.

  3. Posted November 23, 2008 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    And thank you, Wendee, for your testimony.

    Unless I’m misremembering, you’re the one who got slapped down for saying that some Board members were lying.

    I expect you’ve spent some time since then thinking of other ways to say it when somebody states things to be true while knowing those things to be not true.

  4. Posted November 23, 2008 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Wendee comments

    Most of the journalists did not even attend the hearing. They come to the press conference, and think that is “covering” the event! Sure sitting through 8+ hours of testimony may seem a “waste” of time but that is what Dave Montgomery did – who got the balance issue correct.

    That’s part of a big problem with our media today. Basically, they are no longer invested in journalism. That’s why I wanted to acknowledge that Montgomery works for McClatchy. It’s been noted many times in the last eight years that their reporters seemed to be the only ones who got the story, beyond what was handed to them by Press Secretaries.

  5. Posted November 23, 2008 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    Yep that was me who McLeroy told that I wasn’t allowed to say the word “lying” – isn’t that somehow infringing on my free speech? So, actually I haven’t given it a whole lot of time thinking about other ways to say it. I think I’d say the exact same thing again – that they are guilty of willful deliberate deception, in other words lying. What they’re deceiving the public about is that their desire to add “strengths and weaknesses” or “limitations” is not motivated by religion. I think they were seriously uncomfortable by my calling them on it, because if they are genuinely devout in their faith, they know I was speaking the truth to them, and they are being deceptive when they spout some of their falsely naive comments like, “Nobody is trying to introduce religion here”) – It should have made them uncomfortable. I noticed some squirming – though that may have been my imagination. No one is perfect but when a devout Christian is called on a “sin” (lying) they should pay attention – they should ask themselves whether what is being said has truth to it. I think the problem is that they see their battle as a holy one, and so justifying the lies and deception. But that is not ok. Another theistic evolutionist, I believe a clergy, also said something about this matter. Anyway that is just my take as a theistic evolutionist :)


8 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Tony’s curricublog Tony Whitson’s blog on curriculum-related matters « fair, or “balanced”? […]

  2. […] the standards drafts, with “both sides” represented 3:3, reinforces the spectacle noted here and here of representing this as a two-sided controversy. That in itself is scandalous, since there […]

  3. […] the standards drafts, with “both sides” represented 3:3, reinforces the spectacle noted here and here of representing this as a two-sided controversy. That in itself is scandalous, since there […]

  4. […] Meyer is one of the six “experts” appointed by the Board to review the standards. As I pointed out here before, the six were apparently selected to falsely represent an even division (3:3) between two sides of a “controversy” over evolution. In other words, the Board was willing to subordinate all other aspects of standards review for the purpose of maintaining this illusion of a “balanced” controversy — an illusion that has been conveyed in press coverage. […]

  5. […] of the science. For more on this problem, see my post on coverage of the hearings in November: fair, or “balanced”? (At least this time the inevitable media coverage will reflect a real balance of viewpoints on the […]

  6. […] curricublog Tony Whitson’s blog on curriculum-related matters « fair, or “balanced”? Texas SBOE Science hearings Nov. 19, 2008 (with audio) […]

  7. […] is anything but balanced. I have documented multiple layers of such deceptive “balance” in press coverage of the Texas School Board hearings on their new science standards. Chris has analyzed this problem more broadly in “Blinded by […]

  8. […] I don’t know any better example of that than an article by the same April Castro, “reporting” on the SBOE hearings earlier on the science standards, which I analyzed closely in a post here, titled “fair, or ‘balanced’?“ […]

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