When I was a debater in high school, our rounds were timed very carefully. Each side was allotted equal time to present arguments, cross-examine opponents and prepare evidence. This balance was crucial, as any excess would provide the unfair advantage of additional chances to persuade or refute.
High school debate is not alone in its fanaticism with equal time; politicians demand it every election season and I doubt that Lloyd Carr would sit idly by if, on Nov. 19, Ohio State is gifted a few extra timeouts. In general, we feel that the right thing to do in any situation involving opposing sides or ideas is to provide both parties equal time to make their case, whether that involves arguing or tackling.
Ninety-nine times out of 100, I am going to agree. But in certain situations, and especially when the period of discussion is limited, equal time is not the right thing to do.
Enter the intelligent design “debate.” Readers looking for a critique of the finer points of ID should track down a copy of Daniel Dennett’s recent essay on the topic. This is well-worn territory, and I cannot think of any critique to lodge against the specifics of ID that has not already been registered.
I am more concerned with the broader issue of whether or not ID deserves to be covered with the same depth and attention as evolution. In other words, should ID be given equal time in media coverage? I would argue that in the case of evolution versus ID, equal time is a profoundly incorrect course of action, as it can lead to the dangerous assumption that because the two sides receive equal time that they must, in some way, merit equal consideration.
Case-in-point: a recent article in The New York Times (In Explaining Life’s Complexities, Darwinists and Doubters Clash, 08/22/2005). The arguments regarding ID and evolution were presented in superb balance, with each several-paragraph assertion by one side countered with a reply of almost equal length by the other. The result: To someone uninitiated in the study of evolution, it would be easy to read that article and feel that evolution and ID were on relatively equivalent footing.
I doubt very much, based on the content of columns by both The Times’s staff writers and by guest columnists, that the paper was giving equal time because it thinks that evolution and ID are equally valid. Rather, I would guess it is simply trying to appear unbiased in its coverage, striving for the ever-so-noble goal of journalistic balance.
But part of what makes science so great is that it allows you, even encourages you, to be unbalanced in your treatment of ideas, so long as – here’s the really important part – you have good data to support your inclinations. The alternative – “unbiased” consideration of the variety showcased in the science section of The Times – may ruffle fewer feathers, especially when the issue is as charged as that of evolution versus ID, but at what cost?
Imagine applying this unbiased consideration in your everyday life, with something as simple as your keys. I have eight keys on my key chain, each of which performs a very specific task (apartment, mailbox, car ignition, etc.). In time, I have accrued evidence about what each key does. Every time I use this knowledge, say by picking the right key to use in my ignition, I avoid the tedious task of having to test all eight keys each time I want to drive somewhere.
Now let’s say that someone comes up to me one day, gives me a key I have never seen before and tells me that 1) this new key will start my car and 2) the key that I had previously been using to start my car doesn’t actually work. He provides no or limited evidence to back up his assertion. Should I give equal consideration to both keys the next time I go to start my car?
Of course not. The only way to equivocate the keys, because the new one has no evidence in its favor, is to discard a significant amount of evidence I already possess about my old car key. And why should I be willing, with scant evidence to the contrary, to dismiss all the past times that my key worked? I probably shouldn’t be.
But wait – isn’t this how advances in science happen, by weighing alternative explanations and exploring the validity of new assertions? Well, yes and no. Of course science is in part driven by opposing hypotheses, and many of the more memorable moments in the history of science are associated with revolutionary findings that required the modification or disposal of long-established theories.
But alternative explanations need to have at least one, if not both, of the following two things in their favor before they should be taken seriously: They should unify presently disparate theories and empirical findings OR explain all of what a current theory explains and some of the things it cannot. And whichever condition it satisfies, the new explanation had better be supported by data – good data – lots of good data.
Again, using the key example, if the same mysterious locksmith presented me with a key that he claimed would open both my front door and my mailbox, I would be tempted to test the key. If it could indeed do both, then I would be wise to discard my separate door and mailbox keys in favor of a simple, common key that could do both equally well.
In the same vein, I could be presented with a new key that would purportedly start my car and – unlike my old car key – did not have the nasty habit of getting stuck in the ignition every third time I used it. Again, I would require some sort of evidence to support the claims surrounding this new key, but if the assertions proved true I would be foolish not to adopt the new, better-functioning key.
But at the end of the day, ID accomplishes neither of these tasks. It does not unify, it does not exceed and to date, it offers no data to the contrary. Providing equal time for the discussion of evolution and ID is like thinking equally about opening your front door with either your house key or a sandwich. But at least when the sandwich doesn’t work, you can eat it.
Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.