Opinion » Bill Cope


So many words, so little said


If you were watching Nova on the evening of November 12, you saw an elegant summary of Darwin's theory of evolution, interspersed with a history of the clumsy attempts to contaminate and sabotage the teaching of that science, as well as the depths of dishonesty to which agents of the Religious Right are willing to sink in order to warp the truth and foist their juvenile cosmology upon America.

But hey, whom do I think I'm talking to? Any regular Nova watcher would already know all that stuff, right? I think of it in terms of the old chicken/egg debate: Are you more sophisticated than the average tube glue because you watch PBS ... or is it a pre-established sophistication that drew you to PBS in the first place?

Anyway, for those Nova faithful who were either out of town that night or down with the flu, let me catch you up on what you missed. The episode of which I speak was called "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," and as its central theme, it detailed the story of what happened in Dover, Penn., two years ago when a handful of fundamentalist-frenzied school board members tried to install the Creation fable—currently operating under the alias "intelligent design"—as a scientifically viable alternative to Darwin's biology. The show was twice Nova's normal length, which allowed time to explain evolution in a way that even a caveman could understand it, expose the intelligent-design evidence in a way that even a teenager could see through it, and re-enact the decisive court proceedings in which a Rick Santorum-recommended, George Bush-appointed judge told the Creationism-pushers to, in effect, never bring their sneaky agenda to science class again.

The show was valuable in that, for anyone who watched it, it would have settled, conclusively, any lingering doubts as to the real motives of intelligent-design espousers and any lingering questions as to the authenticity of the dogma they espouse—thereby putting a resolution to one of the longest-running battles in the ongoing Culture Wars.

I emphasize ... for anyone who watched it.

That's the thing, isn't it? Whether we're arguing over the Culture Wars or the real ones over Iraq/Afghanistan way—or global warming or immigration or supply-side economics or whatever—it all comes down to who is paying attention to what.

So as I sat through "Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," wishing against all hope that the entire country was tuned in to the same program as I so that we could quit bickering over the origins-of-species question and move on to the next point of contention, I grew curious about what my fellow citizens might be watching instead. (I have one of those cable company remotes that enable me to scan what other channels have to offer without missing anything on the one I'm watching. It's as close to multi-tasking as I care to get.) Following is a partial list of Nova's competition at that particular time on that particular night: Bull Riding TV, Dancing With The Stars, Biggest Loser, two college football games and two college basketball games, Dan Abrams Live, Larry King Live, some crap on Fox, What's New Scooby-Doo, Hannah Montana, CSI: Miami, Real Housewives of Orange County, ECW Professional Wrestling, Dukes of Hazzard: Reunion! and the Jewelry television channel.

Those of you with cable will recognize that I started on Channel 3 and worked up to Channel 63, leaving out several home-shopping channels, Spanish language channels, cartoon channels, government-access channels, vintage sitcom channels, as well as all the premium movie channels. Everything I left out, of course—including shows on America's most haunted hotels, the world's something-est animals, how to pimp a motorcycle, the passing of cooking competitions and the drama of a home makeover—all these were also competing for attention with Nova, along with the Internet and its uncountable array of sites and blogs and links (roughly half of which will certainly tell you exactly what you want to hear) and any number of radio stations, podcasts, rented videos, periodicals to suit every taste and books to promote (or subvert) every side to every issue. Then there's all the text messaging and e-mailing and wi-fi-ing that was going on during that two-hour stretch—that two-hour period during which we Americans could have laid to rest, finally, an argument that's had the spittle flying almost back to when Charlie Darwin walked down the H.M.S. Beagle's gangplank and started putting what he'd learned on paper.

What a shame. Makes you wonder if anything will ever be settled again, doesn't it?

We hear it called the "Information Age," these times we are slogging through, as though it were one more step in Mankind's march to an improved future. But unlike previous Ages—Bronze, Iron or Industrial, when we knew without doubt whether a helmet was truly bronze, a sword truly iron, or a machine truly labor-saving—there are few ways to know whether any given bite of information is really true. Even the lies have a deep background of corroborating lies.

I can't know how many others saw "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial." My cable company remote doesn't (yet) have a button that shows me that sort of information, so I may have it all wrong. Maybe a vast majority of Americans actually did skip Dancing With The Stars and Biggest Loser that night because they have a genuine interest in informing themselves, especially on the most divisive issues, and maybe the matter of intelligent design has been settled—at least to the extent that most of us now agree it should not be taught as science. Maybe I have underestimated my American neighbors.

But I wouldn't bet on it. There are far too many alternatives to thinking available to modern Homo sapiens for much real thinking to be going on, and there is far too much information flying about for much of it to mean anything. To complicate matters even further, a recent poll (Zogby/Lear Center) indicates that 22 percent of conservatives refuse to ever expose themselves to views that don't coincide with their own. So we're back to the chicken/egg question: Are ignorant people that way because they listen to Fox News ... or is it a pre-established ignorance that drew them to Fox News in the first place?

I suppose our best hope is that most of the time, most of the people will prefer to know what's really true and what isn't, then tune out the Information Age long enough to hear it.