There was a fascinating moment on last night's "Hardball" with pugnacious center-lefty host Chris Matthews, which was covered (not all that accurately) by some right-wing media, and it is emblematic of what is wrong with most media coverage of alleged science vs. religion spats.

Speaking with GOP political operative Ron Christie about the views of presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, Matthews suggested that many Republicans have a problem with Gingrich's past expressions of support for the concept of global climate change, and he did so in provocative terms: "So the bad Newt, as you guys see it, is the one who believes in science?"

Christie took the bait, and apparently surprised Matthews by affirming that the thought global climate change is simply a hoax, put together by Al Gore and the like. It was a refreshingly straightforward expression of this view, which is often not expressed by mainstream Republicans in such fora....but also pointless, in that this only appeals to a particularly rabid fraction of your own base, and annoys a lot of independent voters.

There is, after all, a way for GOP types to have the middle ground, not casting their opposition to climate change policy as an outright rejection of the science, but merely a cautious and prudent response to a model which is not 100 percent certain. I don't hold with this view, but any dope can see that you instantly lose a lot of independents by indiscrimately trashing all the science and labeling it (incorrectly) a leftist hoax.

Anyway, Christie took the bait, and Matthews then made the connection a lot of mainstream media types continually fail to make: he asked Christie whether he believes in evolution. As NCSE has been saying quite a bit lately, the same knuckle-draggers who want to bring creationism into the public schools tend to be global warming skeptics, and they want to bring their version of "fair and balanced" climate science into the classroom.*

Christie responded that he was "feeling pretty good about evolution these days." That is, he's not opposed to it being taught and, by his flippant tone, doesn't see it as a big issue. Matthews pressed him, though: "Do you believe in it?"

I hate this. Properly speaking, scientific theories are powerful and useful models for studying the natural world. They are grounded in objective data, empirically-determined facts about the natural world. They contain truth, in the sense that they are honest and data-driven, and hold the potential to explain so many pheonomena. But they are not great Truths in a philosophical sense, principles that we must affirm with a statement of faith.

Evolution itself is a fact, and so is the reality of climate change. Evolutionary theory, on the other hand, is never a Truth, but simply the most useful and productive way of explaining how evolution occurs (largely through natural selection), and how evolutionary processes generate the diversity of adapations, and ultimately, much of the features on our world. Properly speaking, scientifically-literate people should accept some version of evolutionary theory as "the best fit" to the data we now have, and the most useful and productive way of studying life that we presently have. They should see that evolutionary theory contains many facts that are undeniable, not the least of which is that life has evolved. But you don't have to believe things like that, because "belief" implies faith in this or that. That populations evolve is trivially easy to demonstrate, and things like that are not beliefs, they are facts.

But, Matthews asked for belief, and so at that point Christie affirmed that he believed in a Creator, and (by way of temporizing) suggested that humans evolved from that Creator. (The transcript on the link above is muddled; listen to the video carefully, and you'll hear Christie use the word 'evolved', not 'fall').

In other words, Christie was dancing pretty close to the idea of theistic evolution, which seems to be the position adopted by both the GOP front-runners. Theistic evolution is not a scientific position, but a theological stance, and it is certainly not taught in the public schools. It is, however, the theological stance held in some form by the majority of voters in this country, and it is a theological stance that is consonant with some understanding of science.

Now, Matthews is certainly aware that a whole lot of the GOP base holds a different theological stance which is not consonant with science: young-Earth creationism, which (based on a literal interpretation of Genesis) see the teaching of evolution as an assault on the authority of the Bible. Consequently, they deny the very clear evidence for the age of the Earth and common descent, because it runs counter to their understanding.

Not exactly a news flash, but Matthews is also willing to do what a lot of media don't do: connect the dots between the "evolution-deniers" and "climate science deniers", who see claims about rising global temperatures as an attempt to undermine our fossil fuel-based economy, U.S. sovereignty, capitalism and their way of life, in general. These individuals tend to have a similarly-literal, black-and-white, unnuanced understanding of economics and politics, and are easily manipulated by anecdotal arguments that supposedly undercut the scientific consensus. Which is to say, that they are easily manipulated by the same sort of bad arguments that have been pushed for years by professional creationists. Thus, it's no surprise, if you scratch a "climate change denier", you'll often find an "evolution denier", as well.

So, that's what Matthews was getting at. I salute him for having the courage to connect the dots. However, his rough-and-tumble interview style often leads to people talking past each other, especially in the case where the person being interviewed is in another location. Impatient partisans + Noticeable lag in response time due to distance traveled = Mischief. In this case, Matthews is too quick to connect-the-dots between Christie's views on climate change and evolution. It's actually not clear from Christie's response whether he has any skepticism regarding the fact of evolution. Watch the video. As soon as Matthews heard the word "Creator", he in effect assumed that Christie was defaulting to something like young-earth creationism, and implied that those who hold such views were "troglodytes."

This allows guys like Christie to quickly invoke the mantra of "faith", and for right-wing bloggers to declare that Christie is some sort of anti-God bigot. But of course, Matthews, an observant Catholic, is not declaring war on religion. He's expressing his distaste for the anti-intellectual, knuckle-dragging set of the American public that would prefer to see their privileged belief systems substituted for real science. It would be fair to say that Matthews does "believe" in evolution, in a sense. He's no creationist, but that doesn't make him anti-God.

Unfortunately, the exchange really doesn't tell us what sort of creationist Christie is, or whether he is even an evolution-denier. A lot of this posturing could be avoided if commentators like Matthews would not frame acceptance of evolutionary theory as a belief system. That gives the real partisans on the other side an easy "out" on grounds of religious liberty. It would actually be better to draw out exactly what their views are, and watch them attempt to dance around details that might offend the troglodytes.

Here's an example of a longer exchange from Matthews with a legislator. Again, Matthews connects the dot, and he makes explicit a larger argument, which is that the GOP lacks credibility in science because of the rampant anti-science attitudes. But, again, he gives rhetorical cover for the pol by framing it in terms of belief:

*Speaking just for myself, I don't think climate science should be either politicized by either end of the aisle, nor do I think that the scientific consensus should be taught as fact. Rather, it should be seen as what it is: a set of possible models, well-supported by data, that indicate that human activity plays a role in shaping the climate, but which stops short of mandating any particular political or economic response.