July 6, 2010

Unfair Documentaries Are Still Unfair Even When I Agree With Them

If you were to watch this video without a critical mind, you'd probably wind up feeling outraged.
But as someone who has had his own thoughts and beliefs tested by countless documentaries and other media productions, and who later in life had a chance to see and even help make other kinds of media and presentations intended to persuade, I've got a little bit of familiarity with some of the tricks of the trade. So although the slant of the video favors a viewpoint I adhere to, I still find what is presented here slimy and dishonest. Not to defend the creationists in the video, but it is fairly clear to me that they are being presented in an unfair light.

First of all, the choice of Dayton, Tennessee as the locus for the filming is obviously a hardly random choice. In the opening segments of the clip, the narrator makes reference to Dayton's past, obviously talking about the Scopes Monkey Trial. The good people of Dayton were amazed that their stunt trial left them the laughingstocks of America, that they were portrayed as superstitious, backwards, and ignorant hillbillies because they were opposed to the teaching of evolution. Not only is that a true bit of history, but one which the teacher -- whose southern accent is thick and who is stereotypically obese -- seems to be quite conscious of.

One thing we don't know is how many science teachers there are at the high school in Dayton, Tennessee. Perhaps there is more than one and this one was picked by the producers for not only his attitude (the politically correct one for his area) but also for his physical appearance, which plays in to Eastern Seaboard and West Coast stereotypes about what people in the South are like. Being a West Coaster who lived in Tennessee -- not all that far from Dayton, and who made court appearances in Dayton at the Rhea County Court -- and who has carried around a few more pounds than he really ought to be carrying in both California and Tennessee, I'm somewhat sensitive to the subject. Yes, there are obese Southerners. There are obese New Yorkers and Californians, too. Plenty of them. Being fat doesn't mean you're stupid or ignorant. It means you're fat, and in our thin-centric society and with the biological pressures inherent in being human, that's punishment enough.

Nor is there any real reason to believe that the teacher is stupid or uneducated. He isn't shown teaching evolution; he is shown leading a classroom discussion of it. Now, it is probably true that he can't broach the subject without causing a discussion, and that's a real issue that the documentary should point out. And it's probably also true and fair game to point out that his students resist this knowledge, knowledge which he himself finds conflicts with his religious beliefs. So maybe it's even fair game to say that the teacher finds his religious beliefs at odds with the law and his own education, and we see him breaking the law (as it is portrayed) to reconcile that. Okay, that's fair game too.

But so what? It's not like his students don't know that the brand of Christianity popular in their area is at odds with evolution and has been since Darwin's time. It would defy belief to suggest that the students come in to his class tabula rasa and don't bring up creationism on their own. And when they do, the teacher would be doing a disservice to his students to not address the topic. Moreover, he has the personal freedom to worship as he chooses and believe as he chooses on his own time, and the academic freedom as part of his freedom of expression to teach the assigned subject matter in the way he thinks is best. What the state can do is tell him what to teach. There is no evidence in the clip that he did not lecture on or assign relevant and factually correct reading on the subject of evolution.

There is evidence that this teaching didn't take. Notice how the one student refused to even acknowledge evolution as a "theory" and said that it hadn't been "proved." This goes to a misunderstanding of what "theories" and "proof" are, and indicates a lack of critical thought in that she did not seem to think creationism needed to be "proved" in the same light in order to be a place where she could rest, intellectually. Notice also the acceptance of the "irreducible complexity" argument of intelligent design advocates, although there seems to be no evidence that the public school teacher had taught this theory to his students.

Then, there is the last student, who asks about racial groups within the human species. We should remember that he is a student and not a teacher; he is learning and hasn't yet mastered his material. He is also young enough to not yet have a complete comprehension of just how offensive his remarks really are, so we need to take that into account. So I would suggest you filter those dimensions of his remarks accordingly. What is odd is that he hasn't thought through that it's quite probably the case that white people evolved from black people, not the other way around, and white people and black people can have children together. These indicate a failure to understand ideas about evolution.

What we don't see and can't know are the contents hours of film and audio left on the cutting room floor. We get dozens of seconds of film from probably hours of class time captured on film; we get dozens of seconds of statements made by the teacher out of what is likely at least an hour of an interview. We don't get questions asked to the teacher during those interviews; we don't get remarks made by the filmmakers during the process that may have prompted the students to say things they might not have on their own.

Yes, at the end of the day, the students and teacher really said these things. Yes, there is what seems to be a reflexive resistance to the concept of evolution, one which is probably a roughly accurate depiction of reality. But the producers and editors of the film have nearly limitless discretion in framing their subject, in picking and choosing their evidence and placing it out of context if need be, and of gathering only the material they wish they like in order to make the point they want to make.

I think evolution should not get short shrift in high school classrooms, even in Dayton, Tennessee. I think students should be given a fair presentation of what evolution is. I'm not convinced that has not happened here, despite the best efforts of the producers of this biased documentary to convince me otherwise. At most, I might think that the teacher is a little bit half-hearted about teaching it since he doesn't believe in it himself. At the end of the day, the students who learn this material can only be charged with demonstrating that they've learned what they've been taught -- not that they agree with it.

The problem is not that kids prefer their comforting religion to cold science. The problem is that science is being taught in a cold, half-hearted, unconvincing way.

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