In the media feeding frenzy on Sarah Palin in the last six days, some completely inappropriate and ridiculous questions have dominated the coverage I've paid attention to (which has consisted mostly of NPR, as it happens). Many of the questions getting major play would never be asked of a man, and some are actually illegal to ask at job interviews. But there have been a few genuine issues in the mix. I want to look at one that almost everyone reporting on it has gotten wrong, both in the mainstream media and on blogs (and it's taken me a lot of work to keep inaccuracies and misrepresentations out of her Wikipedia article).
It stems from a brief answer in a political debate when she was running for governor, which she was able to follow up on in an interview the next day. I have found exactly one source that details her response, although it doesn't actually include the exact wording of the question, exact wording that might actually be very important. Here is the exchange during the gubernatorial debate:
The volatile issue of teaching creation science in public schools popped up in the Alaska governor's race this week when Republican Sarah Palin said she thinks creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the state's public classrooms. Palin was answering a question from the moderator near the conclusion of Wednesday night's televised debate on KAKM Channel 7 when she said, "Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both."
I'd love to know what the question was, because I don't know what her answer means otherwise. Debate between both is a good thing. Both of what? The author of the article says creation science and evolution, but I don't trust a newspaper writer to be careful with important distinctions. Some people call intelligent design arguments creation science, despite there being a world of difference between the two categories. One is science done very badly. The other is a long-standing philosophical argument form that goes back to Plato and Xenophon whose current versions include a premise based on scientific fact but whose conclusion might be questioned, because it's an inference to the best explanation, and that sort of argument is by its very nature only probabilistic, and these particular arguments (depending on the version) can admit of alternative explanations that others will argue are the actual best explanation. So I'd like to know what they were discussing before I can interpret even her first sentence.
There's also an issue of what she means by teaching it. Does she mean (a) requiring it in the curriculum, (b) allowing teachers to include it in the curriculum, or (c) allowing teachers to discuss it if students happen to bring up the issue in class? The same article, which as I said is the only one a serious search could turn up from the time, goes on to describe her interview the next day, giving some much-needed clarification on the second issue. In short, she holds (c). (Unfortunately, it doesn't help very much on the first issue.)
In an interview Thursday, Palin said she meant only to say that discussion of alternative views should be allowed to arise in Alaska classrooms: "I don't think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class. It doesn't have to be part of the curriculum." She added that, if elected, she would not push the state Board of Education to add such creation-based alternatives to the state's required curriculum. Members of the state school board, which sets minimum requirements, are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature. "I won't have religion as a litmus test, or anybody's personal opinion on evolution or creationism," Palin said. Palin has occasionally discussed her lifelong Christian faith during the governor's race but said teaching creationism is nothing she has campaigned about or even given much thought to.
Later, after a discussion of the state GOP platform and the national issue, the article comes back to Palin:
Palin said she thought there was value in discussing alternatives. "It's OK to let kids know that there are theories out there," she said in the interview. "They gain information just by being in a discussion." That was how she was brought up, she said. Her father was a public school science teacher. "My dad did talk a lot about his theories of evolution," she said. "He would show us fossils and say, 'How old do you think these are?' " Asked for her personal views on evolution, Palin said, "I believe we have a creator." She would not say whether her belief also allowed her to accept the theory of evolution as fact. "I'm not going to pretend I know how all this came to be," she said.
So she's certainly not ignorant of contemporary evolutionary theory. She'd had long conversations with her dad about the various theories in play, which I'm guessing includes the debate between Dawkins and Gould but may well have involved a number of other issues. She also seems to have an attitude something like Sam Brownback's. He holds that (a) evolution is the view that results from the best science, (b) its denial seems like the result of the best biblical interpretation, (c) either might be revisable given better science or better biblical interpretation, and (d) he need not take a stand either way as a result. She doesn't quite go that far, but it sounds like it might well be that sort of view. Brownback took a lot of criticism for that, and while it's not exactly my own approach I do think the position is fairly reasonable but I'll leave you to look at my argument for that elsewhere.
Finally, the article ends with fuller quotes from all the candidates from the actual debate. Here is Palin's, which had been abbreviated in its first appearance:
"Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. "Healthy debate is so important and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both. And you know, I say this too as the daughter of a science teacher. Growing up with being so privileged and blessed to be given a lot of information on, on both sides of the subject -- creationism and evolution. It's been a healthy foundation for me. But don't be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides."
So something of her clarified position appeared in her debate
response the night before. Letting kids debate the subject was part
of her initial comment in the debate and thus not a revision of her
view later on when advisers might have told her to soften her stance or
something. Also, she does use the terms 'creationism' and 'evolution',
although both words notoriously can mean a lot of different things.
Creationism might be mere theism or creation science, but there are
lots of stages in between. Evolution might be speciation and common
descent, but it might be the denial of final causes and the insistence
on naturalism as at least one influential author uses the term, and it
might be a general phenomenon that includes the micro-evolution that no
creation scientist denies. Given that she puts them in opposition, that
narrows the range. She probably means to oppose ID and the denial of
final causes, or she's contrasting outright creation science with
speciation and common descent. Most of the people I'm going to cite
below assume the latter, and that may be more likely, but I think the
former is possible.
So compare how her view as I've looked at it carefully above given her actual comments with what has been presented in the mainstream media, critical blog posts, and Wikipedia in the last week:
On Friday, shortly after her announcement as McCain's pick for a running mate, Michael Paulson of the Boston Globe describes her as having "an openness to teaching creationism in the public schools" despite his willingness to give her exact quotes later in the article that present a weaker position than that makes it sound like. This first statement is at least very misleading, because it suggests that it will be part of the curriculum and even gives the impression that this would be taught without evolution entirely. But at least the article gives the fuller picture later on.
Also on Friday, William Yeardley, in a New York Times story, says, "She has supported the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, alongside evolution." The article then goes on to another item with no further discussion. This is certainly not helpful. It gives no sense of the view that she more carefully explained in her interview the next morning, but the only source I could find for the information about what she had said at the debate actually contained the next morning's clarifications too. Did Yeardley not read the whole article, or was he just presenting what she initially said because it makes her look more extreme? I have no idea, but neither would be good reporting. Unless he had some further source that I couldn't find, this is simply shoddy work.
On Saturday, Evan Thomas and Karen Breslau of Newsweek wrote, "Palin said during her run that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in schools." Again, this is incomplete enough to suggest something that's just plain false.
On Sunday Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times outright calls her a creationist. That's just unconscionably bad reporting. She explicitly refused to comment on that question when asked, saying she doesn't think we can know for sure how exactly it all took place. That's not creationism. It's agnosticism.
As for blogs, I'll give two examples from very popular blogs by academics, one from the right and one from the left. Late Friday night, Jim Lindgren of the Volokh conspiracy called her position a "ridiculous and embarrassing approach to creationism". Remember that all Palin said she supported was a discussion of it in class alongside the evolution curriculum if students happen to raise the issue. (And he didn't take his comment back once a commenter pressed him on his inaccurate assumption. He just said what he'd thought her position was and then asked if it was something else, when commenters had already pointed out that it was something else.) [Update: It took him over a week, but Lindgren has taken it back in an excellent, balanced post on the issue.]
On Sunday, Brian Leiter called her an ignorant yahoo and then supported this by referring to her "fondness for creationism". I don't recommend calling someone ignorant if you don't have your own facts straight. I haven't seen any indication anywhere that she has a positive or negative attitude toward creationism itself (in fact she refuses to answer the question), just that she doesn't mind if kids are allowed to discuss it in a classroom led by a science teacher who knows the issues well. I would expect most people who dislike creationism would like that to be allowable so they could be free to criticize it. It's not a crazy position at all and certainly indicates no indication of fondness for creationism.
I do want to give kudos to Dave G at Race42008 for getting it right, and he got it right as early as Saturday morning, after a couple of the mainstream news stories were out but before several others appeared. All he had to do, though, was look at the article and read what she said. So I shouldn't give him too high a level of praise for doing what any reporter or blogger should do before publishing a piece that attributes a view to someone.
The other place this has been an issue is in Wikipedia. As soon as I heard that she was going to be the nominee, I went to her article to fill out my understanding of her. I knew a fair amount about her, because her name had been floated as a possible VP pick as far back as late 2006. (It's pretty crazy for the mainstream media to act as if they'd never heard of her. She's been a regular topic on the election blogs for months now among those who have been speculated as potential running mates. I've seen her name turn up as often as Romney's and Pawlenty's, and no one else comes up as often as those three.) So I knew something about her term as governor and high populaity in her state, and I knew about her decision to carry her Down Syndrome child to term. However, I didn't know all the fine-print on positions that weren't part of what she'd specifically done as governor, and this was one of them.
I was surprised to see in her Wikipedia article that she advocated the teaching of both views side by side, because I had expected her to be a little more libertarian than that. Its description of her would have her requiring biology teachers to teach something that hardly any high school biology teacher actually believes. Well, I was right. That wasn't her view. I followed the link given in support, and it went to the same article from the actual time of that debate. So whoever wrote it had no excuse. They had the article that gave her actual view and either didn't read it carefully or deliberately misrepresented her view.
I edited the article to reflect her actual position a little better. Someone then created a separate article for her positions and removed my edited description from her main article. Someone else came along and saw it not there and gave the NYT misrepresentation with a link to that article. I edited it again to reflect her actual position and linked back to the original article, removing the NYT reference that adds nothing because it isn't an independent source at all. I left several notes in the discussion page to explain all this, but those got archived very quickly and are no longer on the main discussion page. The new statement later got removed again because of its presence in the positions article. But then someone added it again with something mostly ok (although I'm not entirely happy with the wording). It's been pretty annoying, to say the least.
It's shameful that something so unimposing as a willingness to allow a teacher to have an actual discussion of an issue students might raise in class can come to this level. It really makes me wonder if this is just uncarefulness and gullibility, complicated by a refusal to find actual sources, or if it's more deliberate as a way to spread the meme that this woman is extreme because of the real fear that many on the left have that her presence on the ticket will provide what McCain needs to pull ahead of Barack Obama. When people are claiming with zero evidence that her youngest son is actually the son of her daughter, I'm not sure if I can put anything past those who want to minimize McCain's benefit from choosing her.
On the other hand, most critics of intelligent design are grossly ignorant of what the arguments actually do and what those who put them forward actually believe, as I've taken great care to point out repeatedly on this blog. (For examples, see here, here, here, here, here, and here. And keep in mind I don't even think most ID arguments are very strong, leaving aside the fine-tuning version of ID that I think is much better.) So maybe this is just the same phenomenon that prevents otherwise very smart people who have earned a Ph.D. in philosophy or biology from using basic reading comprehension skills and a simple, introductory-philosophy level of analysis whenever these issues arise.