BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last May the Kansas State Board of Education held hearings on proposed changes to its curriculum standards, namely that evolution should be taught as a controversial scientific idea, not as a universally accepted one. Over three days, more than 20 witnesses, all supportive of the curriculum change, offered testimony that natural selection had both critics and competing theories, including intelligent design, and argued that students should learn about them all in biology class. Pro Darwinian forces sent no witnesses but rather an attorney who called for the dissolution of the hearings and played the role of cross examiner. In the language of the proceedings, he was the representative of, quote, "mainstream science" which effectively staged a boycott. If mainstream science can opt out of the debate, the mainstream media doesn't have that luxury. [NEWSCAST MUSIC]
REPORTER: Should intelligent design be taught alongside the theory of evolution? We'll have a special report and a debate -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And when the President weighs in, as he did on August 1st, saying that both sides ought to be properly taught, even a pseudo debate rises unambiguously to the status of news. The question for journalists is not whether to cover it, but how. Just last month, NPR science correspondent David Kestenbaum wrestled with the story, and he joins me now. David, welcome to the show.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So months ago on this show we had on the editor of Scientific American, John Rennie.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Mmm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he said that journalists make a fetish out of balance. In other words, if a source says X, reporters will inevitably get somebody else to say Y. And Rennie believes that this is very often inappropriate when applied to stories about science.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Well, I think we agree with that. I mean, if you take something like climate change, I think in stories what you'll hear is that the vast majority of scientists believe that humans are changing the climate and causing the planet to get warmer. And then the story might say something like there are some people who do disagree with that, and here's one of them. But you're trying to set the scale of both sides. One of the things I really like about covering science is that, you know, there is an answer. It's not like politics where anybody's opinion may have some merit. Any question that can be posed scientifically is something that can be tested and can be proven right or wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I feel humbled argu ing this with you, David, but the fact is there are things that are theories before they become fact.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: For sure. And, you know, it's your job as a journalist to say where each theory is. But, you know, evolution is as much of a fact as you [LAUGHS], as you get in the scientific world. That's an assumption in a lot of stories we do. Any story which discusses whether the Avian flu virus could evolve, jump into humans and maybe kill a lot of people, you don't say, you know, "If evolution is right." When you do a story about genetics and mentioning that humans and chimps share some 99 percent of a DNA, the line that'll come after that is "Because they branched off from the evolutionary tree relatively recently."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you reported a story recently on NPR about the debate between evolutionary biologists and advocates of intelligent design, many of whom believe that life is so improbably complex that there simply must be a creator. So was this a story that was full of minefields for you?
DAVID KESTENBAUM: It was, and we thought a lot about how to approach it. And the solution I had was that we should push the problem off [LAUGHS] onto the scientists and talk about why it was that the scientists didn't like to debate in an open forum - originally the creationists - and now don't like to debate the intelligent design people. And it became a discussion about how the mainstream scientific community had chosen to deal with something which they view as completely non scientific.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm reminded of a piece in The New Yorker a few months back by a science professor named H. Allen Orr. What he did was he took each of the various subgroups of the intelligent design theory and then explained why they simply couldn't hold water. This is precisely the sort of thing that I think a lot of scientists and perhaps a lot of science reporters wish that people wouldn't do because by talking about these theories you present them as if they offer a viable alternative to evolution, and they don't.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Yeah, we got e mails to that effect afterwards. I got some e mails from, I suppose who you might call, creationist types who said thank you for pointing out that the scientists don't like to debate us because clearly they're wrong. And we got e mails from people saying why didn't you stand up and defend evolution. We didn't want to get into that because, you know, we thought that raised it unfairly as something that deserved sort of scientific debate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, obviously, plenty of people out there need to have it explained all over again or else they will lend it the same sort of false equality that one might say the President did when he remarked that both sides ought to be properly taught. So don't you as a reporter have an obligation to explain evolution again?
DAVID KESTENBAUM: I'll tell you, there's a little piece of paper by my desk and it has stories to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
DAVID KESTENBAUM: And one is a three-and-a-half minute defense of evolution. I mean, one of the things that came up when I was doing that story is a scientist said well, look, it's just so hard to explain in, they said, an hour of a debate. And I thought, are you kidding me, an hour? And I thought, all right, well this is my job then, [LAUGHS] to try and find the greatest examples and jam them into three and a half minutes. So we'll see how it goes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Well, let's talk about this piece that you just did, with two primary sources, one a biology professor from Brown University who's squarely in the pro Darwin camp, and the other, a biochemist at Lehigh University who's a big proponent of intelligent design. So how did you structure the story so as not to lend a kind of he said/she said equality that Jonathan Rennie at the Scientific American says is inappropriate?
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Well, I think there's actually a nice little moment in that story. I'm talking to the intelligent design advocate and I say, so what's like being an intelligent design guy at an academic university.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: LAUGHS]
DAVID KESTENBAUM: And he goes, it's pretty lonely. [LAUGHTER] And, you know, he sort of - he laid it out there. You didn't need me to say, I've counted and there are ten million scientists on this side and five on the other. And I thought the real question behind this story, when you look at, as you mentioned, the case in Kansas, how the scientific community decided to deal with it or not deal with it. And in some ways I think that's more interesting than the back and forth of who's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The New York Times has recently run a multi-part series under the heading, "A Debate over Darwin." Do you think reporters run the risk of legitimizing what most consider to be pseudo science by giving it too much attention?
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Yeah. I do think that's a danger. And that's why we decided to handle the story the way we did. It's interesting, I've been reading some blogs by scientists who are unhappy with parts of the New York Times story. And then Kenneth Chang, who wrote one of them for the New York Times, has then been entering into a debate on the blogs with the [LAUGHTER], with the scientists saying, but look what I said in these thousand words of my story here. It's true the first paragraph says what you say, [BROOKE LAUGHS] but look at the rest of my story. And that's the hard part for journalists, is that people hear what they want to hear [LAUGHS] a lot of times, or people hear what they don't want to hear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [CHUCKLES] These poor science reporter - they ought to try covering the Middle East for a while.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David, thank you very much.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: You're welcome, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Kestenbaum is a science reporter for National Public Radio.