Monday, April 10, 2006

Tiktaalik And The Gospel Of Judas

You know, it's a mainstay of conservative rhetoric that the US media has a "liberal bias". And there are a lot of good arguments both for and against this talking point. But in the last couple of weeks, it's become quite apparent that the US media knows just where it's bread is buttered.

Let's first look at the Gospel of Judas. Here's part of what National Geographic has to say about it:

The Gospel of Judas gives a different view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, offering new insights into the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Unlike the accounts in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in which Judas is portrayed as a reviled traitor, this newly discovered Gospel portrays Judas as acting at Jesus' request when he hands Jesus over to the authorities.

It was copied out around 300 AD, and apparently written before 180 AD. That puts it reasonably close to some of the youngest books of the canonical Bible, although not quite on par time-wise with most of the New Testament.

Still, the media had a field day with this announcement. I watched a ten minute segment on CNN's Headline News channel the day NG went public. Ten minutes of coverage every half an hour for an entire day, with an interview with a representative from National Geographic. The New York Times Online has seven separate articles and op-ed pieces about it, at least one of them in both the National section and the Science section. What puzzles me is this: the article questioning the gospel's authenticity is the one in the National section but the one announcing it's very existance is in the Science section.

Shouldn't those be reversed? I could see how it's existance might, by some stretch of the imagination, be of national interest. After all, the bulk of the country is Christian, and this speaks to a Christian belief, or at least it appears to do so. But honestly, shouldn't its authenticity be of scientific interest first, last and always? Whether the nation believes it or not has nothing to do with its historical authenticity.

Because I can assure you, this discovery isn't going to change the bulk of American Christianity's beliefs one iota. If Judas was a traitor or not is irrelevant to the central belief of Christians, isn't it? As one acquaintance of mine put it, "Jesus came to Earth to die for us. It was inevitable. It doesn't matter if Judas betrayed Christ or followed his wishes. The end result was the same. He died on the Cross." I honestly can't see the rest of America's Christian community straying far from that thought, especially once the Robertsons and Falwells get their public relations engines going.

But notice how much attention the Gospel of Judas is getting in the media. All the major news outlets have covered it to one degree or another, most of them extensively. National Geographic, supposedly an organization dedicated to furthering human knowledge, created a two hour special on it. It seems to be on everyone's lips. And ultimately, it's not going to affect things one way or the other very much at all.

Contrast that with the discovery and announcements about Tiktaalik roseae. Wikipedia has this to say about this new fossil:

Tiktaalik generally had the characteristics of a fish, but with front fins featuring arm-like skeletal structures more akin to a crocodile, including a shoulder, elbow, and wrist.

I had to go to Wikipedia because that's the site with the most information that I could find. The official site is a little skimpy on details. I would imagine it's a funding issue, but I don't know.

A quick search of the NYT Online shows one article and one op-ed piece. The op-ed piece actually downplays the discovery of Tiktaalik. The only broadcast talk about it that I've heard was a quick mention on Real Time with Bill Maher and a ten minute segment on Penn Jillette's FreeFM radio show. You can at least download that clip from his show's website here.

And some of you out there might say, "So what?" And for most scientific discoveries, I'd agree with you. Most things scientific are of interest only to scientists and technologists. The gee-whiz factor is usually pretty low for, say, the discovery of the Laotian rock-rat. At least to the average person.

But Tiktaalik is a little different. You see, scientists have been predicting the existance of this huge beastie for quite some time, using that central tenet of biology: Evolution. This discovery is truly a vindication of the predictive powers of the Theory of Evolution. It should be trumpeted as a huge success for science in general, and evolutionary theorists in specific.

But it's not being talked about. Why not?

Could it be because we have a President who's so scientifically clueless that he endorses Intelligent Design? Contrast that with Senator Joe Biden on the aforementioned Real Time with Bill Maher, where he categorically denied the Evolution-doubters. And I don't think anyone can honestly say Joe Biden is the most liberal Democrat on the block.

Could it be that we have a Congress that's looking more and more at science funding as a place where they can cut back to keep tax cuts going to the wealthy?

Could it be (and here's where my money's at) all the major news outlets are money-making concerns and they know where their bread is buttered? Could it be that that buttered bread has an image of Jesus, or the Virgin Mary, or some other religious craziness, imprinted on it somewhere? CNN is ultimately a product of Ted Turner's vision, for goodness' sake! How could it not pander to the religious right in this country? They employ Nancy Grace! She believes psychics help solve crimes!

It's a sad state of affairs, but it's inevitable. As long as politics is linked to religion in this country, science and rational thinking in general are always going to get the short end of the stick. And in the long run, that's going to ruin us, financially, socially, politically and militarily. It's already begun. It's probably already too late. But the best we can do is try to oust these conservative idiots and get the US back on track.

It won't be easy, especially when institutions of learning are putting so much effort into the "Gospel of Judas" discoveries out there and virtually ignoring the Tiktaalik roseae types of things yet to be found.


Blogger Ranson said...

Congrats! You made PZ's cut!

12:35 PM  
Blogger Zeno said...

I think there's another factor, too. Tiktaalik is a science story, and people aren't interested in science. At least, that's what most journalists believe (perhaps because they're not interested in it themselves), and that strongly shapes the news coverage. Religion, on the other hand, permeates the culture and a large majority of the population pays at least lip service to some flavor of it.

I once apprenticed with the science writer for a major regional newspaper. His actual science background was minuscule, but he was responsible for all the science and health news that appeared in the paper. He approached his task by interviewing health and science professionals and trying to translate their responses into everyday language. He was pretty successful at this and would ask questions in different ways to get the angle he felt he could use. In the absence of any science knowledge himself, however, he was completely dependent on what others told him. I made myself useful for a while during my time with the newspaper because I could pick up on more of the technical language with which the scientists were comfortable and do more of the translation myself, instead of coaxing it out of the scientists.

This lack of depth means that a major science story like Tiktaalik ends up reduced to a wire service story on a new "missing link" and that will be all most media outlets will use. Since the reporters don't understand what a big deal it is, their readers and viewers and listeners won't ever know it either.


10:17 PM  
Blogger Coralius said...

So if we had people with real science background as science writers for news services, then we'd get better coverage?

Makes sense to me.

We need more Sanjay Guptas!

12:20 AM  
Blogger peter said...

Zeno and Coralius: spot on. The same disease exists in the British media: science coverage struggling to get a short news story, far less a decent feature, arts reviews, by contrast everywhere. Science gets a look in when the story impacts on humans: Tiktaalik did. Pure science, although exciting, nah. Makes hacks' brains ache.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Coralius said...

And that's a shame, especially in light of what going on around both Mars and Venus right now. I get positively giddy when I think about all the new information that going to get sucked up by the Venus and Mars missions. And don't even get me started on New Horizons!

3:07 PM  

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