May 13, 2002

Evolution Rerun to Backfire; New Poll from Ohio

By Mark Hartwig

This month and the next, PBS will be re-airing its Evolution series.

As you may recall, PBS originally ran the series in September. Co-produced by Clear Blue Sky Productions (CBSP) and WGBH Boston, the series was financed to the tune of many millions of dollars (I've heard estimates from15 to 35 million dollars). It was coupled to a much larger project that included an elaborate Web site, a comprehensive educational "outreach" program, and a HarperCollins companion book.

A leaked marketing plan made it clear that the producers expected great things. The plan included a major advertising blitz in newspapers and on cable TV, as well as a “third-party endorsement campaign” featuring such luminaries as Jane Goodall and Stephen Jay Gould. The producers also intended to “co-opt existing local dialogue about teaching evolution in schools.”

Their expectations were dashed, however, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. With America’s attention riveted on Osama and Company, the Evolution series tanked.

Word has it that the producers were pretty steamed over the failure. Before long they were canvassing magazine and newspaper editors across the country to see is they’d be willing to cover the series again if PBS re-aired it.

The result is that the series will re-air starting tomorrow, May 14. It’s not clear, however, that the program will do any better than it did the last time around. A good number of PBS affiliates have slotted it for the dead of night. (Check your local listings.)

One place where the series may have more of an impact is in the schools—where WGBH and CBSP are still pushing their materials. But it may not be the impact they want.

The series mixes such flagrant errors of fact with such blatant religious stereotypes, that showing it in schools will only accelerate movements across the nation to rewrite states’ science standards, mandating openness and fair play on the subject of origins.

The errors and stereotypes are well-documented in the Discovery Institute’s viewer’s guide and ARN’s PBS Web page. But one set of errors epitomizes the program’s shabbiness.

In the opening episode, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” scenes from Darwin’s life depict his critics as unthinking, religiously motivated bumpkins. The scenes might have been justified if they had depicted real events. But they didn’t, they were fabricated.

What’s worse, in defending the fabrications, historian James Moore, a noted Darwin biographer and advisor for the series, said, “Verisimilitude was not the aim but rather a story-line with character-development that, like other historical drama, would be consonant with authoritative scholarship.”

So why weren’t viewers told this up front?

If teachers show Evolution in their classrooms, it’s going to be Exhibit A in legislative and school-board hearings when parents argue the case for teaching both sides of the controversy.

The re-airing of Evolution is coming right on the heels of a new Zogby International poll from Ohio, where the movement to “teach the controversy” is in full swing.

Commissioned by the Discovery Institute, the poll shows that despite the negative stereotypes repeated ad nauseam in the press, Ohioans solidly back full disclosure when it comes to teaching origins.

According to the survey, 65 percent of Ohioans polled agreed with the statement, “Biology teachers should teach Darwin's theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it.” Only 19 percent thought that “biology teachers should teach only Darwin's theory of evolution and the scientific evidence that supports it.” Sixteen percent were either not sure or didn’t like either option.

An even larger number of respondents (78 percent) agreed that “when Darwin's theory of evolution is taught in school, students should also be able to learn about scientific evidence that points to an intelligent design of life.” Thirteen percent disagreed, and nine percent weren’t sure.

These numbers agree with those from a national poll conducted by Zogby last August.

In response to the poll, Lynn E. Elfner, chief executive officer of the Ohio Academy of Sciences, told The Columbus Dispatch, “Science is not a democratic institution. We don't make decisions on popularity, we make them on evidence. I'm not aware of any evidence against evolution . . .”

That line will not be an easy one to sell Ohioans, who happen to think they should decide what’s taught in their schools. But one point bears particular emphasis:

Virtually everyone in the intelligent-design movement agrees with Elfner that scientific decisions should be based on evidence. Where we differ is on what that evidence says. And that’s precisely where the debate should be. I can think of nothing more scientific, democratic or educational than that.

Next up: The Ohio state board of education may hold an important vote tonight. I’ll fill you in as soon as I can.

Wedge Update Supplement: May 16, 2002

Just a quick note to say that the Ohio state board of education did not vote after all. There's no official word on when a vote will be held. The ball is still very much in play.

Copyright 2002 Mark Hartwig. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 5.13.02

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