Stick to the science

Even after 2 days of debates revealing the widely held view that science and religion can co-exist, journalists and scientists were still finding themselves challenged by creationist views on the last day of the “Darwin’s Living Legacy” conference in Alexandria (14-16th November 2009).

“If Adam and Eve were so beautiful, how can they be descended from monkeys?” a woman asked a panel of journalists at a session on evolution and the media. It is a question that has popped up repeatedly, despite numerous presentations showing that humans are not descended from monkeys but they do have a common ancestor. The misconception that Darwin’s theory points to monkeys as the ancestors of humans is still widely held in the Arab world, according to Adel Soliman, Head of the BBC World Service Arabic TV and radio station.

Soliman organised a televised debate during the conference, and included a geologist who is also a creationist, and who believes that the theory of evolution is incompatible with religious belief. Soliman felt that this would help to make the subject of evolution relevant to the Arab world, where “we’re looking at everything through a religious microscope”.

He told journalists attending the session, “We are not here to teach or proselytise, but to make debate and air all views and touch where people are concerned.”

However, other journalists disagreed with the idea of including creationists in media debates about evolution. “Creationism and evolution are not equal and opposite”, noted Elsabe Brits from Die Burger magazine in South Africa.

“If I was doing a story about astronomy I would not call up an astrologer for an alternative view, so I don’t need to include a creationist when I’m reporting about evolution.”

Instead, journalists should just stick to the scientific facts in order to communicate evolution to the public. Brits quoted a recent survey of perceptions of evolution among undergraduate students studying biodiversity, before and after classes on evolutionary science. The classes made no difference to the students’ religious views, but their acceptance of factual scientific information, such as the age of the earth, showed a 30 per cent improvement following the classes, according to Brits.

Sometimes the pressure to include creationists comes from editors – journalists then find themselves in a dilemma about how to make science stories sell. “I think that narrative and controversy are a central part of journalism and we have faced many times the problem of writing about evolution without controversy,” commented Alejandra Folgarait, a science journalist from Argentina. She continued, “I know creationism is not science but my editor wanted controversy. And I know selling is part of journalism.”

Mohammed Yahia, Science editor for Islam Online, stressed the need now for journalists to separate science from religion. “Religion plays a strong role in this part of the world, but we need to start looking at evolution from outside the religious context. We’re still framing it from one angle and we have not moved forward. Until you deliver the core message – which is what the science is about – you will not be able to move forward.

Yahia had described mistakes made on 2nd October 2009 by Al-Jazeera Arabic TV’s report about the discovery of a fossil known as Ardi, which a team of US scientists describe as an ancestor to both humans and apes. However, through what may have been language error in translating the original scientific paper and press release, Al-Jazeera reported wrongly that “Ardi disproves Darwin’s theory” by showing that humans are not descended from monkeys. The report continued stating that “the team’s work prove that “Humans did not evolve from monkeys” – thus reiterating the misconception that Darwin claimed humans are descended from monkeys.

Compounding the problem, the erroneous report was then repeated on various websites. “Al-Jazeera reaches more people in the Middle East than any other [media outlet],” noted Yahia. Led by Yahia, the Arab Science Journalists Association took the unusual step of getting the original paper and press release translated into Arabic, and made this publicly available, to try to dispel the misunderstanding.

Communicating Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Alexandria, Sunday 15 November 2009: An ape gradually changing into modern man is the most common image associated with evolution. ‘The Missing Link’ is probably the most overused phrase when significant fossils are discovered. At best both are inaccurate; at worst they are feeding the public evolutionary myths. This is the view of Elsabe Brits, a journalist at Die Burger Newspaper, South Africa who has banned both from her newspaper. But Elsabe is not just a stickler for accuracy; there is more at stake when reporting on evolution. ‘These images and phrases reinforce false ideas of evolution; evolution is not linear as the image suggests; creationists use the fact that there are missing links to suggest that the theory of evolution is unproven’. New Scientist comes in for heavy criticism from Elsabe for a recent and deliberately provocative cover that claimed ‘Darwin Was Wrong’. Of course the article itself was about the mechanisms of evolutionary theory not overturning it completely. But the cover was widely used by intelligent design and creationists to support their arguments. Science magazine receives praise for its detailed and accurate reporting of the discovery of Ardi. Although even the ‘exemplary’ presentation of the research by Science, could not prevent its misinterpretation by some journalists with Al-Jazeera claiming ‘Ardi Disproves Darwin’s Theory’.

With Darwin’s Theory of Evolution still being misrepresented in the media, how did Darwin’s ideas fare 150 years ago on the publication of ‘The Origin of Species’? Professor James Secord, University of Cambridge, UK has examined how the actual physical means of communicating in the late 19th Century were instrumental in the development and acceptance of Darwin’s theory. In Darwin’s day the increasingly mechanised Post Office enabled his frequent exchange of letters discussing his ideas (there are now 15000 recorded letters). This provided the key means by which he could develop his ideas and refine his theory of evolution. Once Darwin’s theory was published as the Origin of Species, the explosion in publishing alongside developments in transport enabled rapid distribution of such printed materials. However it was not Darwin’s book itself but reports of his ideas in the Periodical Press that led to the rapid and widespread dissemination of Evolutionary Theory. Professor Bernard Lightman, York University, Canada points out people are not passive receptors of ideas and those who reported on Darwin’s work in these periodicals, influenced the views of the reader. Darwin’s ideas were also presented at a time of great change and it is now hard to unpick whether the reception of his ideas were as much to do with reactions to the increasing influence of the western world rather than the ideas themselves. Lightman highlights a further factor, that something was quite literally ‘lost in translation’ of ‘The Origin of Species’ with consequences for its interpretation and acceptance in non English speaking countries. The picture of how the word spread on evolution and why in some cultures it was deemed far more acceptable than in others is complex. But what is clear is that the theory of evolution is still widely misunderstood even today.

Elsabe has developed her own guidelines for reporting on evolution, a kind of aide memoire for journalists:
Explain the basics – again
Debunk the myths and untruths about evolution
Use other disciplines – genetics
Refrain from using confusing graphics and widely used terms (creation, missing link, survival of the fittest, design)
Beware of creating confusing words
Give a short explanation of all terms
Give examples

Debate about Darwin and Islam raged over 100 years ago in the Arab World

By Julie Clayton

Journalists could be forgiven for thinking that this year has seen the first widely publicised debates about Darwin, evolution and religion in the Arab world. But the first media coverage in this region about Darwin’s ideas began over a century ago in Beirut, and it was surprisingly accepting of the validity of evolutionary theory, according to James Secord, Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project at the University of Cambridge, UK, speaking in a session this afternoon at “Darwin’s Living Legacy”.

At the same time that newspapers in the West were flourishing – thanks to the invention of the printing press, the Middle East was also enjoying the production of mass-circulation publications. And to illustrate the point, one of the original printing presses used in Egypt at the end of the 19th Century is now on display at the Biobliotheca Library, Alexandria, where the conference is taking place.

One such weekly periodical – the magazine for the intellectual elite in Beirut – was al-muqtataf (“the selection”), which in 1882 began publishing open debates about the relationship of Darwin to Islam. A typical entry (recently translated by Professor Marwa Elshakry at Columbia University in New York) reads “Whatever mistakes and missing links there are in Darwin’s theory or whatever errors were added to it, there is no doubt that despite these limitations, it now includes established truths and that it has given scientists many benefits and opened for them paths to [uncover] unsolved problems in a number of ways. And so it should be said that the just will be pleased with the truth wherever they see it and accept it as a gift from the Lord however it comes”. Contributors to the publication took different positions and interpretations of religious texts, some seeing no conflict with Islam, while others rejected Darwin’s ideas as “a tool of Western Imperialism”, noted Secord today.

Thus we find that the role of the media in communicating the debates between scholars and scientists has early roots in this part of the world.

A clash of cultures in Alexandria, also for journalists

By Alejandra Folgarait
alefolgarait@yahoo.com
Red Argentina de Periodismo Cientifico
www.radpc.org

Entrar a la Biblioteca Alexandrina es una experiencia emocionante para cualquier humano que valore el conocimiento. Pero hacerlo para debatir el legado de Charles Darwin, en un ambiente donde predomina la impronta musulmana en la vestimenta, las ideas y las relaciones sociales, es un acontecimiento absolutamente unico para un periodista.
Alrededor de 140 conferencistas entran y salen del enorme auditorio lleno de estudiantes con velos cubriendo su pelo. Personas de 30 paises se congregan al mediodia para almorzar en largas mesas donde la cocina egipcia se mezcla con la occidental. En esta “Babel”, llaman la atencion las diferentes lenguas y acentos. Pero, sobre todo, sobresale un nombre en comun, que funciona como una contrasenia de ingreso: Darwin.
El naturalista ingles nacido hace 200 anios no solo logro reunir en la nueva Biblioteca a cientificos y publico con creencias musulmanes, judias, catolicas, agnosticas y ateas. Darwin consiguio ademas que la mayoria de los presentes coincidiera en aceptar que ciencia y creencias pueden coexistir. Un autentico milago en tiempos de fundamentalismos biologicos y religiosos. O, tal vez, un compromiso politico, so british, para no molestar al pais anfitrion (Egipto).
Para los periodistas, la vedette fue la presencia afable del tataranieto de Darwin. El tambien naturalista Randall Keynes –hijo ademas del economista J.M. Keynes- revelo que es un digno heredero del gran Charles, ya que sigue paso a paso sus huellas por el mundo, mientras promueve la ensenianza de la teoria de la evolucion en escuelas y comunidadesa de Brasil, Sudafrica, Ecuador y –prometio- muy pronto en Argentina. “Convertirse en un explorador como Darwin –me dijo el sonriente Randall- es siempre possible”.
Las miradas de los periodistas cientificos que estamos cubriendo la Conferencia de Alejandria es similar respecto de la cientificidad de la teoria de la evolucion. Pero nuestras practicas son bastante diferentes, de acuerdo a lo que se escucho en una presentacion coordinada por la periodista britanica Julie Clayton, de WFSJ.
Un periodista de Turquia, Rustem ErtumAltinay, revelo las presiones que viven los editors y reporteros en su pais para no publicar notas sobre la evolucion.
Aunque el Islam originalmente tuvo una perspectiva evolutiva, la politica turca ultimamente ha asociado la evolucion con el ateismo y el comunismo, enfatizo Altinay La evolucion se ha convertido en una palabra “tabu” para los editores en un pais donde apenas el 30% de la poblacion escucho hablar de Darwin.
En cambio, Elsabe Brits aseguro que en Sudafrica no hay limitaciones para escribir sobre Darwin. Ella advirtio, no obstante, sobre el frecuente peligro de utilizar imagenes o graficos donde se desliza –erroneamente- que los humanos derivan del mono. Buscar una progression desde los simios al hombre –en lugar de hablar de un ancestro en comun- es falso y lleva a confusiones, segun la periodista cientifica.
Las preguntas que quedaron flotando son: Como informar sobre la evolucion sin traicionar a Darwin ? Como intentar “vender” noticias sobre fosiles sin hablar de “el eslabon perdido”? Como atraer a los lectores sin recurrir a algunas de las ideas que estan en el inconciente colectivo de cada sociedad, como “la supervivencia del mas fuerte” o “la descendencia de los monos”? Como evitar la polemica Darwinismo vs. Creacionismo considerados en un mismo plano? Es possible cuestionar a editores y publishers en momentos en que peligran nuestros empleos como periodistas?
Es un desafio. Reunirnos a intercambiar experiencias y debatir formas de desarrollar major nuestra practica es una de las maneras de mejorar nuestra profesion e informar adecuadamente a los ciudadanos. —-

Darwins Living Legacy conference opens in Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria, Egypt 14 November 2009.
Martin Davidson, Chief Executive of the British Council and Dr Ismail Serageldin, Director of the Library of Alexandria welcomed an international audience of over 500 scientists, science communicators and journalists to Darwin’s Living Legacy Conference at the Bibliotecha Alexandrina, today. The Conference, organised by the British Council and the Bibliothecha, marks the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary since the publication of his landmark work “On the Origin of Species by means of natural selection’. Over the next three days 140 multidisciplinary speakers from more than 30 countries will meet at the Conference to discuss a broad range of subjects from cutting edge research in genomics and epigenetics to debates on how best to tackle the issue surrounding evolution and education, faith and science.
Dr Fern Elsdon-Baker Head of the British Council Darwin Now programme, said: ‘Darwin has had an enormous impact on the world, and 150 years on, his work is still causing debate. “Darwin’s living legacy” provides an important space for dialogue which explores how Darwin’s ideas on evolution are still relevant to all our lives in the 21st century.’
Over 100 journalists are attending the Conference not only to report on the papers presented but also to take part in two debates on the media and evolution, scheduled for the closing day of the Conference. Journalists from Argentina, South Africa, Germany, China, Pakistan, and Canada are in Alexandria thanks to Travel Awards provided by the British Council in association with the World Federation of Science Journalists, along with many more local journalists from Alexandria, Egypt and other Arab nations.
The opening day of the Conference saw two debates recorded by the BBC for broadcast. Bridget Kendall, Diplomatic Correspondent for the BBC, UK, hosted a debate on Evolution and Faith in the 21st Century for broadcast on BBC World Service English on Saturday 21st November at 1806 GMT and online. Later in the day Hosam El Sokkari, Head of the BBC Arabic Network, hosted a special episode of the TV talk show Agenda Maftouha (Open Agenda), exploring the perceptions of Darwin’s theory in the Arab and Islamic world, and the interrelationship between science and faith. The show will air of BBC Arabic television on Friday 20th November at 19.10 GMT. Many contributors to these sessions expressed the view that religious belief can be reconciled with acceptance of the theory of evolution. This would seem the best way forward for encouraging dialogue about evolution between people of different faiths and cultures. “The fundamentalism we find in the religious positions poses a problem for the freedom of science. But if one goes on the offensive – saying that science has disposed of religion – that very aggressive scientistic attitude only feeds the resistance of the religious fundamentalist sectors”, noted John Hedley Brooke, President of the International Society for Science and Religion, UK.
“Darwin’s living legacy” runs until Monday 16 November. Noted speakers include Eugenie Scott [Executive Director of the National Centre for Science Education] Michael Reiss [Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education, University of London] and Annica Dahlstrom [Professor at the University of Gothenburg]. Key highlights include talks on:
(Not) remembering Darwin in the Darwin Year. Evolution, Politics and Media in Turkey
Clash of Species: The Evolutionary War between Man and Viruses
Evolution, Modern Science and Fundamental Belief Systems
Contemporary Attitudes towards Evolution in the Muslim World
Social and Cultural Impacts of Darwinism and Evolution: Darwin Clarified Why Mammals have 2 Sexes, New Science Sates it’s all in the Brain
The Evolution of Antibiotic Resistance in Bacteria is an Acute Public Health Concern

On a lighter note Alexandria has exploded with noise, cars, flags and firecrackers due to the 2:0 win against Algeria.

Sallie Robins and Julie Clayton

Cuba restricts international journalistic coverage on the Island

Cuban authorities prohibited the arrival to the Island of a group of journalists who have been selected to participate in a training workshop to cover the Global Forum for Health that will be held from 16-20 of November.

The international Media 21 journalistic organization in Geneva chose 15 journalists to attend the workshop and the forum.

Even though those reporters were already admitted to the forum and despite their request for a “journalist visa” (a document Cuban authorities requests in order to allow free journalistic work on the Island), just two of the professionals (from Haiti and United Kingdom) were granted the document. The representatives from Guatemala, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Spain, France, United States, Uganda and Uruguay did not.

During a telephone conversation Cuban authorities told Media 21 that if journalists tried to enter the Island with a tourist visa, they run the risk to be deported. So, because of that unexpected reaction from the Cuban government, the training workshop was canceled.