A pelinary panel on the second day of the World Conference of Science Journalists 2011 (WCSJ2011) discussed one of my favourite controversial issues: How should science journalists cover evolution?
The panel included the renowned Eugenie Scott, from the National Center for Science Education who has been active for many long years in protecting the education of evolution in US schools. She was joined on the panel by Elsabe Brits from DieBurger in South Africa and Valeria Roman from Argentina. Rounding up the panel was Salman Hammed , one of the people who have done the most research on evolution education in Muslim-majority countries and author of the Irtiqa blog.
I thought I’d curate here some of the amazing advice they shared which will be useful to anyone writing about evolution or discussing it, especially in religious communities.
1) Watch your language! Eugene argues that the language chosen by reporters can make a large difference. As an example, she suggests using the word ‘evolution’ rather than ‘theory of evolution’. In a science community the phrase theory of evolution makes every sense, but in a lay audience this is often argued to mean it is just a theory that still needs to be proven because there aren’t enough evidence for it. She also advises not to use the word “Darwinism” – because -ism usually refers to ideologies and has a bad reflection in the mind (take for example fascism, sexism, racism, etc)
2) Do not go into the narrative that pits religion against science in the context of evolution. Disband an acceptance of evolution from a refusal of religions. You can even cite examples of scientists or religious scholars who have no problem with their religious beliefs and the scientific evidence. Ever emphasizing this unnecessary conflict is not the smartest thing to do in a predominantly religious society.
3)Treat evolution like any other science story. That narrative neither makes sense nor has any necessity and does more harm than good when covering evolution in a religious community.
4) Find stories of evolution with a local angle. This makes it easier for people to relate to evolution and see it as something that is actually happening in the backyard rather than half the world away. Hameed gives the example of Pakicetus, a 50-million-year old ancestor of modern whales, which was actually discovered in Pakistan but did not get much coverage there.
5) Don’t try to use the word “missing link” even though it is always sexy. This conveys a wrong impression that scientists are missing a certain fossil to actually prove evolution happened. The truth is, every newly-discovered fossil of a creature we didn’t know of before IS a missing link. There is no need to hype a story unnecessarily.
6) Understand your audience. The context of evolution coverage would be vastly different depending on who you are talking to. For example, Muslims have no problems with an Old Earth theory so there will be no need to discuss a Young Earth for any reason. This can be different depending on other religions
Finally, if you are curious about the picture, it comes from a funny story that Hameed shared at the beginning of his presentation. Apparently, there was a religious fatwa (or edict) in Saudi Arabia a few years ago against Pokemon because the show encourages evolution.
Do you have other tips not covered here? Share them in the comments section!