Why journalists can’t help but put “evolution is wrong” in their headlines

I regularly read “The Guardian”. They normally have a pretty decent science coverage, but the latest article entitled “Why everything you know about evolution is wrong” outraged me enough I felt the need to talk about it. The article starts simply enough, referring to the burgeoning science of epigenetics, and how some researchers are finding genes that become expressed due to environmental factors can effect subsequent generations. So far so good. However, at one point in the article the author jumps completely off the deep-end and begins to suggest this now proves evolution by means of natural selection is under scrutiny, and natural selection might not be a real force at all. All of this stems from a book he read that seems to have convinced him in some way something fishy must be going on in the world of evolutionary biology.

The book in question is called “What Darwin Got Wrong“, and is written not by biologists (a good start, right?), but rather by a philosopher of the mind and a cognitive scientist. Their central argument is nothing more than a simple language trick: they claim in order for natural selection to do its “selecting for”, there has to be intentionality (meaning a kind of willpower to make the selection happen at all). If this sounds completely idiotic, it’s because these guys have no idea it isn’t nature “selecting” anything; species who have a reproductive advantage in their specific environment will have more offspring and suffer from less predation, and that it turns means their particular genes will be more abundant. So really, the only thing the two authors manage to do is try and attack the language framework of evolution (and fail miserably), and find their insight so brilliant they think they’ve disproved natural selection.

Now, as far as the motives behind journalists publishing such literary rot is concerned, it’s simply to gain recognition; rather than come up with novel ideas, it’s easier to tarnish or question the discoveries of people that are smarter than you. And because of the resistance of many Americans to accept his scientific contribution, Charles Darwin is the easiest target. You don’t see many journalists tackling the fallibility of the ideas of men like Einstein or Heisenberg in mainstream media; going up against these scientific geniuses is a Herculean effort in comparison, and not likely to generate much attention from anyone.

At the end of the day, journalists want their articles to be read, and with evolution still a hot button issue in the US, if the title of your article seems to suggest it’s wrong, you’ll get your audience. Even when that’s not the motivation, many journalists believe the truth in any story can only be discovered if you present both sides of the argument equally. This isn’t at all how a scientific truth is discovered at all (for instance, I don’t need to know about creationism to know anything about evolution); science is not a democracy, and nobody votes on whether a particular theory is the right one or not. It either works or it doesn’t, and evolution works. Until more journalists understand there really is no story here other than “more idiots undermine one of the most tested scientific theories in history”, this kind of shit will keep happening.

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