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For Darwin Day, Religion News Service Serves Up One Misstatement After Another


It's easy to see why many people distrust the mainstream media. It is not just that reporters often tell a story that seems inauthentic, at odds in a general way with reality as you experience it. Worse, when they report on a specific subject you know well, you find that not only are important "facts" incorrect -- which could be attributed to sloppiness -- but those errors conform to a pattern identical with the agenda of a particular partisan lobby group.

Case in point: A report by Kimberly Winston, national correspondent for Religion News Service, "Darwin Day notwithstanding, evolution debate keeps, well, evolving." Her theme is the evolving "tactics" of the "anti-evolution camp" in seeking to push "creationism in public schools."

By now I could almost write the rest myself. Nick Matzke and Barbara Forrest (both National Center for Science Education stalwarts), and Michael Zimmerman (Clergy Letter Project) are quoted, and I could all but write their comments for them as well. It's all predictable, misstatement by misstatement.

Winston begins:

In 2005, a federal judge ruled that "intelligent design" -- the idea that life is so complex it must have involved some sort of supernatural creator -- isn't science, but religion in disguise.

Science educators heralded the decision, and many thought it spelled the end of creationism in public schools.

They were wrong.

First, Federal judges get to rule on matters of law, not science or religion. Second, her definition of ID is not ours but that of our critics. Surely advocates of an idea get to decide what that idea says. Third, intelligent design is not the same thing as creationism. One is science, the other religion, making dramatically different claims about life's history.

Winston gets Darwin's birthday right:

This week, as scientists, educators and others mark Feb. 12 as International Darwin Day -- named for British naturalist Charles Darwin, who advanced the theory of evolution with his work on natural selection -- the anti-evolution camp is as active as ever.

But neither intelligent design nor Discovery Institute is "anti-evolution." The word "evolution" has several meanings, a couple of which are quite in line with mainstream ID thinking. Discovery Institute's aim is to protect teachers who supplement education about evolution with a fuller picture of the evidence in favor of Darwinian theory and the evidence that runs counter it. That isn't "anti-evolution," and it's not the same as teaching intelligent design in public schools, something we've never supported doing, either before or after the Dover decision to which Ms. Winston refers.

In discussing the academic freedom bills we do support, Winston writes:

Opponents have managed to pass laws that permit the teaching of "alternatives" to evolution in Tennessee and Louisiana; Oklahoma and Iowa are considering similar bills.

This is absolutely inaccurate. Winston puts "alternatives" in quote marks as if that word were included in the Tennessee and Louisiana laws. It is not. Teaching about the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian evolution is completely different from teaching about an "alternative" theory, like ID. The laws do not encompass intelligent design, which is not part of the public school curriculum anywhere, whereas the bills deal only with subjects that are part of the curriculum, like evolution. As for creationism, the laws expressly do not protect religious teaching, which is deemed out of bounds anyway by the Supreme Court. We've noted all of this many times over here.

Is our position isolated from, or in line with, public opinion? Winston says:

Meanwhile, Americans are conflicted on the subject. In 2015, the Pew Research Center found 65 percent of Americans agreed with the statement "humans evolved over time." But 31 percent reject evolution entirely, agreeing that humans have always existed in their present form.

Actually, on academic freedom Americans are hardly conflicted. The relevant polling data indicates that Americans are massively in favor of teaching about evolution in a balanced manner -- men and women, atheists and theists, Democrats and Republicans, old and young. It's the NCSE that is isolated, even as they seem to have the media in their pocket.

The good news is that Winston quotes Discovery Institute vice president John West accurately -- no great achievement considering that their interview was by email. It sounds as if she interviewed him after talking with Matzke and Forrest but, having been offered corrections on several points noted above, disregarded those and included West's comments merely for the appearance of balance:

Proponents of intelligent design say they have no agenda and are working to promote a scientific theory.

"Evolution is a constellation of lots of different questions and issues, and the peer-reviewed scientific literature is rife with disagreements about various parts of evolutionary theory," John G. West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, wrote in an email interview. "There certainly is a robust debate going on about the Darwinian mutation-selection mechanism and how much it can actually accomplish. If scientists can debate these questions in their science journals, why can't students study these questions in their science classes?

"The question of whether nature displays evidence of design has been one of the great and continuing questions in the history of thought and the history of science," West said. "Those who try to conflate this broader discussion of design with the narrower debate over creationism are either sadly ignorant of intellectual history or they are simply trying to avoid a discussion of the real issues."

I might say I was disappointed in the quality of Ms. Winston's work, but I'm too unsurprised for that. This is stock-in-trade for journalists who place their faith in the NCSE.

Image credit: © Jacek Chabraszewski/ Dollar Photo Club.