Thursday, August 04, 2005

ID rhetoric - Part 2: What's in a name?
I'm still grumpy about Bush weighing in to support Intelligent Design in an interview earlier this week. Isn't the whole point of him going on vacation supposed to be that he can do less damage to the country in Crawford than he can in Washington? Shouldn't he be out cutting brush in triple-digit temperatures or falling off a bike or something?

Here is part of Bush's statement on Monday: "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes."

Kevin Drum was good enough to use his Nexis account to locate these quotes from then Gov. Bush during the 1999 primary campaign.
The Washington Post, August 27, 1999:
Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said, "He believes both creationism and evolution ought to be taught.... He believes it is a question for states and local school boards to decide but believes both ought to be taught."

The Kansas City Star, September 9, 1999:
"I think it's an interesting part of knowledge (to have) a theory of evolution and a theory of creationism. People should be exposed to different points of view. Should the people choose in my state (to adopt a rule similar to Kansas') I have no problem" with public schools teaching both creationism and evolution.

Reuters, November 4, 1999:
Bush supports the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in public schools. Bush stated, "I have absolutely no problem with children learning different forms of how the world was formed." Bush believes decisions regarding curriculum should be made by local school districts.

I think there are two things to notice here. First, Bush is very good at staying on message. Over six years he has kept to the low-key "people ought to hear both sides of the story" theme. I call this the fairness tactic and I'll have more to say about it in a future post. What I want to look at today is the second noticeable point about his latest statement. He no longer calls it Creationism.

"Creationism" is a word that ID proponents do not like. It markets badly. Naming is, of course, an important part of any message strategy. By calling themselves "Pro-life" the anti-abortion crowd implies that their opponents are anti-life or pro-death. When ID proponents refer to their opponents by the terms "Darwinists" and the awkward "Evolutionists" they imply that evolution is an ideology, not a scientific theory. This makes it easier to dismiss and easier to make the claim that it is just a guess, no better than any other guess.

On the other hand, “Intelligent Design Theory” sounds very respectable and scientific, unlike “Creationism” that, along with its historical associations to the Scopes trial, also has that unfortunate –ism at the end.

Are these word games that serious? Unfortunately, yes they are. People who only pay casual attention to an issue are very susceptible to first impressions. That's the whole point of framing; establish a first impression that will serve as a framework around which the viewer will assemble any new information that you can't control. People filter information. If you can control the filters, most of the job of selling your product is done. It doesn't matter that evolutionary theory is not an ideology or that ID isn't science, once people are programmed to interpret them that way, it's almost impossible to change their minds.

I always refer to ID as Intelligent Design Creationism for three reasons. One, it is nothing more that "creationism in cheap suit," as one of the scientists who testified before the Kansas school board called it. Ever since the sixties, the strategy of religious opponents of evolution has been to dress their product up as science. Version 1.0 was called "Creation Science" and had its (unsuccessful) day in court in the early eighties. Two, it bugs them. In a debate, it never hurts to get under the skin of your opponent. Three, it muddies their message. Every time the words "Intelligent Design" are spoken, I want people to hear "Creationism." I want their minds to fill with images of Elmer Gantry, snake-oil salesmen, and flat earthers.

Words matter.

No comments: