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.