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Unfortunate Evolution February 24, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Politics.
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On the cover of its November 2004 issue, National Geographic posed the question “Was Darwin wrong?”  But when you flipped to the article inside, the answer was printed in big, bold font: NO.  Even the main evolution page on Wikipedia doesn’t mention any controversy, and for all of the free encyclopedia’s faults, that’s saying something.  Yet just in time for Darwin’s 200th birthday, Gallup released a new poll showing that a scant 39 percent of Americans “believe in the theory of evolution.


That’s appalling.  This shouldn’t need explaining, but there is no substantive controversy about evolution.  There are still questions to be answered about some of its mechanisms and intricacies, but within the volumes of predictive, verifiable data we have gathered, there is not a single piece of evidence that refutes the theory.  And for clarification, that’s scientific theory, rigorously tested and tantamount to fact, like the theories of gravity and plate tectonics.  This differs from the colloquial “theory” you might use to guess how you made it home from the bar without remembering.  To paraphrase physicist Murray Peshkin, saying evolution is “only a theory” is like saying it’s “only science.”

Yet just last month, Dr. Don McLeroy (a dentist) led conservatives on the Texas Board of Education in a renewed crusade to wedge religion into the classroom at the expense of basic education.  This review of the state’s science standards will face a final vote next month, but similar battles have already been fought in at least ten states over the past decade, often buoyed by alarming levels of public support.  In Kansas, the most infamous case, teaching evolution was actually banned for two years.  Thank goodness we aren’t trying to pass any evolution legislation.

We are, however, expecting legislation on important science-based issues like climate change, and the outlook there is just as bleak.  In my first column this semester, I wrote about a May 2008 poll showing a partisan divide among Americans who understand that humans contribute to climate change.  A similar Rasmussen poll recently found that this rift has widened: now just 21 percent of Republicans acknowledge anthropogenic climate change, compared to 59 percent of Democrats.  As Stephen Colbert once said, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias” (video in this previous post).  So it is understandable that Republicans have not exactly championed our nation’s academic pursuits.  But an anti-scientific sentiment can have dangerous consequences, especially if it goes unchecked.

Watching the major congressional battles since this summer (especially on offshore drilling and climate change) I have noticed a trend: the national media, particularly on TV, have largely abandoned their watchdog role and have been covering these debates without substantive fact-checking as “he said/she said” stories.  Facts and fabrications have been placed on equal footing to avoid “taking a side.” The election was covered the same way.  But this is a terrible journalistic paradigm.

Balance is nice, but isn’t accuracy a more important journalistic value?  Calling out a politician for lying is not partisan, it’s the media’s responsibility.  Obviously it would be best if people just told the truth, but that’s not happening.  And the stimulus coverage was more of the same.

Media Matters analyzed twelve cable news programs’ coverage of the stimulus debate. Of the 460 guests interviewed, only 25 of them – that’s 5 percentwere actually economists.  No wonder the potential impacts of the bill were so vulnerable to political spin.  And  Think Progress found that savvy Republicans were only too happy to exploit this opportunity, appearing on cable news programs twice as frequently as their Democratic counterparts.  But one network took coverage to a new low.

The following may shock you, so brace yourself: Fox News has a Republican bias.  And last week, they were as tactful as a skirted starlet stepping from a limo.  On Feb. 10th, anchor Jon Scott put up a graphic showing the costs of the stimulus package that was copied verbatim from a press release by the Senate Republicans Communication Center, same damning typo and all.  “Fair and balanced” my Democratic donkey.  Kudos again to Media Matters for “exposing” such a blatant attempt to disseminate partisan propaganda as reporting.  But at least Fox had the courage to apologize – for just the typo (video thanks to Howard Kurtz).

Um, yeah...not so much.

Um, yeah...not so much.

Our country is being steered by a misinformed public and polarized politicians unrestrained by accountability.  Science itself is under attack.  These are complex problems with varied causes.  Yet they have one thing in common: objective media coverage could combat them all.

But that’s not going to happen.  Believe it or not, journalism is evolving.  With the expansion to the internet and growing popularity of blogs, niche news is on the rise. People seem to want their news told from their perspective, and media outlets will provide what consumers demand; Fox News, the Huffington Post, even Jon Stewart are thriving.  And with newspapers experiencing serious financial difficulties, the days of the objective reporter could actually be numbered.  If you think bipartisanship is a myth today, try to imagine it at the bottom of this slippery slope (a logical fallacy, I know, but the point stands).

I wish I could end this column with a solution, but I honestly don’t see one.  It would be comforting to believe that some omnipotent, not explicitly Christian deity was guiding this media transformation, but judging from its current trajectory, this looks like anything but an Intelligent Design.

A version of the post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.

The Youth Vote September 29, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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My fellow Young Americans: please vote.

The pundits have repeatedly prophesized the rise of the youth vote during the last few election cycles, but despite significant increases in participation, we have yet to become a game-changer.  Not because we can’t, but rather because we have chosen not to. 

According to the 2006 census, there are 29.5 million potential voters under age 24, and nearly a quarter of the American electorate is under the age of 30.  Yet youth voter turnout has been low over the last few decades, only recently reaching rates nearing 50%. Now, we did see greater participation during the primaries, but the youth vote still lagged well behind the other age groups.  Here on the campus of Duke University, only about 10% of registered students voted (so we’re looking at well under 10% of the student body heading to the polls). 

As a busy, active college student myself, I do not mean to suggest that all students are idle and uninvolved; students are engaged in communities around the country and the world.  Even on the national political scene, many thousands of students are currently working to exercise our collective power.

Groups like College Democrats of America and Young Republicans are thriving, and we are finally seeing presidential campaigns court the youth vote as a major demographic.   Well, we are really just seeing a campaign (singular) court the youth vote – only one of the remaining candidates has given us respect and responsibility in this election.  While I knew this intuitively, I wanted to see if I could quantify or justify my assertion.  This quest led me to some interesting statistics: there are 22 special “coalition” pages on Sen. McCain’s website.  While ‘Bikers,’ ‘Racing Fans,’ and ‘Lawyers’ get their own pages, students do not.  (I know the link is dead, that’s the point.)  Evidently to the McCain campaign we are not a demographic worth the time it takes to write a webpage.  Just to emphasize this point, Lebanese Americans (no offense to them), US citizens who trace their ancestry to a country with a population of under 4.2 million people within their own borders, are apparently of more importance to John McCain than all the students in our country (Lebanese or not).  And that’s utterly absurd.

So if we don’t get a page on McCain’s website, do we appear there at all?  A domain search on johnmccain.com for the word “students” returns just 671 hits.  The same search on barackobama.com returns 437,000 hits.  For those of you keeping score at home, that’s over 650x more hits on Sen. Barack Obama’s site.  And to add insult to injury, some of the first hits on McCain’s site aren’t even about students, they clarify Sarah Palin’s position on teaching creationism in schools (she’s for it and thinks that dinosaurs and humans coexisted 6000 years ago).  Just to give you a few more comparisons, allow me to present more domain search results from the McCain website:

  • “reform” – 6,800 hits
  • “maverick” – 587 hits + 2 more hits for the misspelled “mavrick,” inspired by my favorite sign from the RNC (below)
  • “lipstick” – 358 hits (more than half of the number of hits for “students”)
No well-dressed, wealthy republican adult left behind.

Bush's education legacy: apparently well-dressed, wealthy Republican adults were left behind too. Really, nobody at the RNC saw him or said anything?

But I digress.

Let’s continue to juxtapose McCain’s website with Obama’s.  The disparity in website student emphasis is due, in part, to Students for Barack Obama.  SFBO is the official student wing of the Obama campaign that, with the exception of a handful of Obama for America Youth Vote staff, is entirely student-organized and run.  It has been operating for well over a year now and has hundreds of chapters at universities, colleges, graduate schools, and high schools around the country.  This grassroots student network has been volunteering, canvassing, and registering voters throughout the nation.  On Obama’s website, students can find or start local chapters, ask questions, submit policy suggestions, download organizing materials, peruse student blogs, and even interact with each other other the campaign’s own social network, my.barackobama.com.  In the interest of self-disclosure, I have been and currently am involved with SFBO, but my own [considerable] bias aside, it is quite telling that our group has no counterpart in the McCain campaign.  John McCain has ceded the youth vote to the Democrats.  So let’s take it.

There is far too much at stake in this election to disengage from the process.  We need to realize that our government’s actions affect our lives even if we don’t pay attention.  Presidential elections are about far more than those two candidates.  Just look at the Supreme Court, where two liberal justices are poised to retire from the presently “balanced” bench.  Given the young ages of the conservative justices that Bush appointed and the life-tenures of the court, the next election could well determine the outlook of the Supreme Court for decades to come.  And so much, such as the fate of Roe v. Wade, hangs in that balance. The time for apathy has ended.

Or not:

…but seriously, it has.  New voter registrations are trending heavily in favor of the Democratic Party, and young voters are driving many of those numbers.  But registrations don’t win elections, votes do.  If you are registered to vote, go vote on November 4th.  Tell your friends to vote.  Nag them.  If you aren’t registered to vote yet, register online now, and then vote.  It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s so important.   Plus you get a neat sticker!



I got bored in class and ran a few more searches.  Enjoy:

  • The word ‘change’ appears 1.43 million times within the barackobama.com domain.  That’s only about 300,000 times fewer than the word ‘the.’  As Sen. Biden would be happy to tell you, that’s certainly not more of the same.
  • “GILF” appears only on Obama’s domain (4 times), but both domains are graced with the term “MILF.”  I find the ‘GILF vacuum’ on McCain’s site ironic given that Republicans are far more likely to consider Gov. Palin a grandmother yet, but that’s a whole different story.
  • “Palin” appears nearly 4x as many times on Obama’s domain than it does on McCain’s…whose base is this woman rallying again? (This almost certainly derives from Obama’s site being much more expansive and the fact that his supporters are more technologically inclined, but it’s still interesting)

Please feel free to comment with any other fun searches you can think of to run.  If you don’t know how to do a domain search, type “[keyword] site:[genericwebsiteURL]” into a google search bar.  

Ex) “hope site:barackobama.com”.