Judging “Judgement Day”

So, in case you missed the splashy banner ads that have been running here for the last week, NOVA ran a show about the Dover, PA “Intelligent Design” trial last night. You can find all manner of commentary on ScienceBlogs, for example here, here, and here.

I’m not as, shall we say, personally invested in the issue as many of my fellow bloggers, but this did look interesting to me, so I watched it last night (with occasional flipping over to the Syracuse basketball game). It was… pretty good. I doubt it would change anybody’s mind, in the unlikely event that any “Intelligent Design” proponents watched it, but it was a reasonably well done tv science documentary.

The vast majority of the show was devoted to the scientific case for evolution and against “Intelligent Design,” as befits a science show. This was split more or less equally between footage of scientists explaining the evidence supporting evolution and staged re-enactments of the trial itself.

The science stuff was really good, but the “re-enactments” were very odd. For some reason, they chose to stage the re-enactment in a room shrouded in black curtains, with only the judge, the lawyers, and the witnesses shown, so it looked a bit like the trial had been moved to Battlestar Galactica in order to ensure an impartial hearing. It was also very odd to be cutting back and forth between the real witnesses and lawyers talking about the trial, and dramatizations featuring actors who really didn’t look all that much like the people they were portraying. I realize that this probably makes it more compelling television, at least in the minds of the people who make these shows, but I wasn’t terribly impressed.

The Law & Order style framing graphics, and the faint imitation of the signature donk-donk noise from that show were a little gratuitous.

I thought that the best parts were the discussions with the scientists and teachers themselves, which did a good job of conveying the strength of the case for evolution, and the way that the science teachers were outraged by the actions of the school board. There was also some fun stuff with the lawyers for the plaintiffs, who had clearly had the time of their lives arguing this case.

The problem I had with the program was that it was trying to split the difference between being a science show and a news show, and ended up not being entirely satisfactory as either. The science bits were very good, but they felt compelled to make some nods in the direction of objectivity, and allowed plenty of time for responses from the defense. I thought, and I imagine most ScienceBlogs readers would agree, that these people came off as sort of sad and creepy, but I’m predisposed to believe that. I think that for somebody who didn’t already believe that “Intelligent Design” is a steaming pile of horseshit, I suspect that the air time given to the “Intelligent Design” proponents blunted the impact of the science. And there were a couple of human-interest interludes– the pro-evolution reporter with the born-again father, Matthew Chapman’s occasional commentary– that just felt like reflexive journalism, and distracted from the interesting story.

At the same time, though, they gave so much time to the science side of things, that they really buried some of the news stuff. They only skimmed lightly over the parts of the trial that dealt with the duplicity of the board members and the sham of a decision process. And the single most interesting piece of information, from a news perspective, was tacked on as a sort of afterthought: the judge in the case has received death threats, and he and his family are under round-the-clock protection by US Marshals. That should’ve gotten a lot more play than it did, but it was only mentioned briefly, in the last five minutes or so of the program.

Oddly, I think I would’ve preferred a more explicitly ideological piece. The filmmakers clearly sided with the scientists and teachers (as they should, because they’re right), but worked hard to add some token balance to the program. The thing is, I don’t think that anybody who supported the other side was watching, or would care, and I’m certain that the favor wouldn’t be returned were a religious organization to make a movie about the same case. As it was, the final product was kind of lukewarm.