Once Upon a Time - Evolution News & Views

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Once Upon a Time

As noted in a previous post, Time's recent article about intelligent design reads more like an editorial than a news report. Here is an itemized list of some of the ways Time slanted and misreported its story:

1. Although a major focus of the story is whether intelligent design is science, Time doesn't bother to quote any scientists who support the theory. It's not because Time didn't interview any of them. Jeffrey Ressner told me that he had interviewed biochemist Michael Behe. But Time didn't quote him. Why not? Perhaps Behe didn't fit the preconceived stereotypes of Time's reporters? Or were they afraid that citing a professor of biological sciences at an American university might undermine their effort to stereotype design as a religious crusade?

2. According to Time:

The intellectual underpinnings of the latest assault on Darwin's theory come not from Bible-wielding Fundamentalists but from well-funded think tanks promoting a theory they call intelligent design, or I.D. for short.

Actually, "the intellectual underpinnings" of intelligent design come not from any think tank, but from the biologists, biochemists, physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, philosophers, and other scholars who have developed design theory. When Discovery Institute started its program on intelligent design in 1996, many of the leading scholars supportive of design were already writing and researching in this area. The theory of design predates any involvement by a think tank. Time does its best to obscure the fact that the chief proponents of ID have been academics from a variety of scientific fields.

3. According to Time:

Their basic argument is that the origin of life, the diversity of species and even the structure of organs like the eye are so bewilderingly complex that they can only be the handiwork of a higher intelligence (name and nature unspecified).

No, the basic ID argument is that some features of the natural world are best explained as the product of an intelligent cause rather than an undirected cause such as natural selection and random mutation. And design theory doesn't claim that science can tell you whether that intelligent cause is a "higher intelligence" or not. I discussed these points with Mr. Ressner, and I even sent him a fact sheet providing additional explanations. But it doesn't appear to have mattered. In addition, the underlying argument for design in biology is not that certain things are too complex to be produced by the Darwinian mechanism, but that in our experience of the real world, intelligent causes supply the best explanation for certain kinds of structures. From our own experience, we readily observe that certain kinds of complex and information-rich systems are typically produced by intelligent causes. When we see Mt. Rushmore, for example, we know that an intelligent cause is sufficient to explain its existence, while an unintelligent process of wind and soil erosion probably isn't. Based on our own extensive experience of the natural world, intelligent design argues that certain features of the natural world are best explained as the products of intelligent causation.

4. Time rewrites the history of the Kansas evolution battle in 1999:

Kansas is a key flashpoint in this struggle. Back in 1999, a conservative state school board attempted to downplay the importance of Darwinism by removing from the required statewide science curriculum references to dinosaurs, the geological time line and other central tenets of the theory. Evolution, they argued, is "just a theory" and should not be favored over other theories, such as I.D.

Time inaccurately conflates proponents of design with creationists. The 1999 effort to downplay dinosaurs and geological time by the Kansas Board of Education was organized by supporters of creationism, not proponents of ID. (Indeed, during this first evolution battle in Kansas ID biologist Michael Behe wrote an article critical of the approach adopted by the Kansas Board in the New York Times.) I explained to Time's Jeffery Ressner that ID proponents were not behind the changes proposed in Kansas in 1999, but Time's writers apparently didn't want to let facts get in the way of their pre-scripted story.

5. Moving on to the current controversy in Kansas, Time states:

while a curriculum advisory committee kept the science standards intact, a group of conservative educators is again trying to weaken evolution's place in the classroom.

Time presents the current Kansas debate as a battle between the state's "curriculum advisory committee" and a "group of conservative educators." This is a strange way to describe what is going on. The "conservative educators" referenced by Time are in fact eight members of the same curriculum advisory committee. In other words, the debate over how best to teach evolution is occurring within the curriculum committee itself. Was Time afraid to report this fact lest it seem to legitimize the debate? Notice too Time's lopsided use of ideological labels. The educators favoring teaching scientific criticisms of Darwin's theory are labelled "conservative" while the other members of the same committee are not given any ideological label. Time also says that the educators are trying to "weaken evolution's place in the classroom," but their actual proposals would end up providing students with more information about evolution, not less.

6. Time's version of "fair and balanced" is further on display in its description of Discovery Institute Fellow George Gilder, who is characterized as

a Nixon speechwriter turned technology evangelist (TIME in 1974 called him the U.S.'s "leading male-chauvinist-pig author")

George Gilder has been the best-selling author of highly regarded books on a wide array of topics. His insights and predictions about new technologies are avidly sought after. Yet Time writes dismissively of him as a "Nixon speechwriter" (think crook), a "technology evangelist" (think televangelist), and a "male-chauvinist-pig author." Perhaps Time's reporters thought these putdowns were light-hearted, but when is the last time they described a highly regarded liberal thinker with such one-sided demeaning language? Again, this is Time's idea of an even-handed news report?!

7. Time's slanted reporting continues by distorting what I said...

Putting God in the classroom is clearly illegal, but Discovery Institute strategists believe that even a push for I.D. might run afoul of zealous judges--as it has in Georgia. So the institute advocates that schools should continue teaching evolution but also present what West calls "some of the scientific criticism of major parts of the theory."

The wording here is biased and misleading. Time claims that a concern about "zealous judges" is behind Discovery Institute's opposition to requiring the teaching of intelligent design. This is a serious distortion of what I told Time's reporter. The primary reason we oppose requiring the teaching of intelligent design is because it is a relatively new theory, and we think the focus right now should be on promoting the debate and discussion of ID in the academic community among scientists and other scholars. I made this point very clearly to Mr. Ressner. But Time does not quote it. Instead, it focuses on a minior comment I made responding to a point brought up by Ressner himself. It was Ressner, not me, who suggested that Discovery's position was somehow motivated by a concern about judges. It now appears that Mr. Ressner wanted to get me to provide him with a soundbyte that would confirm what he already planned to have me say. Even so, I did not say that a concern for zealous judges was the reason we didn't want to require the teaching of design. I did say (in response to his question) that although we think intelligent design is perfectly constitutional, who knows how certain judges would rule on the issue. But, again, my main point--which Time ignored and refused to print--was that we think the focus should be on promoting a vigorous debate about design in the academic community.

8. More slanted writing:

Take the eye. I.D. theorists say it could not have evolved bit by bit because a bit of an eye has no survival value; it would never have been passed on. Biologists see it differently. They say, for example, a primitive, light-sensing patch of skin--a forerunner of the retina--could help animals detect the shadows of predators.

Time says the debate over whether the eye could be produced by the Darwinian mechanism is between "ID theorists" and "biologists." That's an interesting distinction, since many of the academic supporters of ID happen to be biologists. In addition, debates over whether the Darwinian mutation/selection mechanism is sufficient to explain complex structures go far beyond supporters of ID. A number of biologists and other scientists who do not support ID are just as critical of the claims made about the creative power of natural selection acting on random mutations. As for whether Darwinists have really explained the origin of complex structures such as the eye, Time's correspondents should read this article.

9. At the end, Time ties everything together in a nice, neat package:

A look at where the Discovery Institute gets much of its money and at the religious beliefs of many scientists who support I.D. makes it reasonable to suspect that Scott's assertion is correct: intelligent design is just a smoke screen for those who think evolution is somehow ungodly.

More of Time's version of "fair and balanced"? Time asserts that "intelligent design is just a smoke screen for those who think evolution is somehow ungodly." The supposed evidence for this view? "[T]he religious beliefs of many scientists who support ID." Religious people support ID, therefore ID must be nothing more than religion. QED. This nonsensical conclusion exposes Time's double standard as well as its shoddy logic. Many of the most vocal defenders of neo-Darwinism are avowedly anti-religious. Does that mean that evolution is simply a "smoke screen for those who think that science disproves the supernatural"? Of course not. Regardless of the anti-religious motives of leading Darwinists, the theory of evolution can be discussed on its own merits as science. But the same holds for intelligent design theory. Just because supporters of design may hold religious beliefs (as do the vast majority of the American public), that does not make intelligent design inherently religious.

Frankly, the most frustrating thing about reporters who parrot the tired line that "ID is religious because religious people believe in it" is their hypocrisy. When discussing critics of neo-Darwinism, these reporters think motives trump everything else. When discussing defenders of Darwin, however, the issue of motives suddenly becomes all but irrelevant. The fact that leading Darwinists such as Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, Barbara Forrest, and many others are avowedly anti-religious is regarded as a non-issue. As I told Time's Jeff Ressner, I think motives should be irrelevant to this discussion. The focus should be on the science. But if reporters are going to talk about motives, I told him, they ought to be even-handed about it. Of course, they aren't--and that includes reporters at Time. By writing about the perceived metaphysical views of only one side of this debate, Time's reporters have put their own ideological views on display.

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