The denial of evolution and evolution of denial

This post is cross-listed from its original site of publication, on the conference website for Science Writing in the Age of Denial. I blogged for the event and am sharing that content here as well. This session was led by Sean Carroll, about whom you’ll learn more in a moment and was titled “The Denial of Evolution and Evolution of Denial.”


Professor Sean B. Carroll

Sean Carroll’s discussion on the denial of evolution and other scientific concepts so piqued conference goers’ interest that they were willing keep the discussion going 25 minutes after they were supposed to be eating lunch.

Carroll, a UW-Madison geneticist and vice president for science education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, presented six categories of argument that make up what he called “A general manual of denialism.” He extracted the six categories from an article describing arguments specific to anti-vaccination but that can be broadly applied to many issues of denial. The six categories are:

  1. Doubt, directed at the actual science related to the issue.
  2. Doubt, directed at the personal motives and integrity of scientists. In this case, it’s not the data that is dubious (as it is in argument #1), it’s the people behind the data.
  3. Magnified disagreements among scientists, often credentialed but non-expert people holding a minority opinion fuel unfounded debate.
  4. Exaggeration of potential harm of the science in question, this is an unreasonable perception of the risk involved.
  5. Personal freedom, an issue that is framed as an infringement on personal freedom (e.g. a child should have the choice of whether or not to learn about evolution)
  6. Acceptance of the science in question would repudiate a key philosophical belief. Continue reading

A storied reporter’s Pulitizer-winning tale

Jeff Gottlieb stood in front of us holding a lined notepad with a spiral binding on the top edge. He had jotted key pieces of his story there: important numbers, engaging quotes and descriptive details. And by “his story,” I mean the entire saga of Bell. And let me tell you, it’s a ringer.

The Pulitzer Prize gold medal awardLast week Jeff, a Pulitzer prize winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times visited Madison. As he spoke to my journalism cohort, I hoped to hear a few reporting tips and what it felt like to bring down Robert Rizzo, the dishonest, exorbitantly paid city manager of Bell, CA. And in fact I got both of those things, but even better, I observed a master storyteller at work.

There are good stories everywhere Jeff told us. And that may be, but you need a storyteller to do them justice. Watching and listening to him lay out the details behind his Pulitzer quality work, it was clear that Jeff was just the person to capture audience attention. Continue reading

The rough-skinned yam: a tale of roots

My hand scraped against Jimmy Hudson’s cracked skin as I introduced myself. Jimmy is a vender at Madison’s Northside Farmer’s Market. This morning, he stood behind long tables of crisp vegetables from his 13-acre farm in Monroe, Wisconsin. When I stopped to chat, he taught me the difference between a sweet potato and a yam. I also learned his leather palm wasn’t simply the result of a season’s weeding.

“I’ve been gardening since I was six years old,” he explained. And that was the least of it.

Jimmy grew up in Arkansas, picking cotton. You can’t pick cotton unless you were born picking cotton he told me. It’ll poke you and cut you. He started picking when he was 6. Cotton kept Jimmy out of school at times. His labor was useful for his family, both to bring in cash and to tend their kitchen garden.

“I was too hungry. My dad told me I had to stay out of school sometimes because I ate too much,” he said. “I would eat half a pan of corn bread and a skillet of food big enough for a whole family.” One time, he ate 100 peaches in one day. Continue reading