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In the Public Interest? ProPublica Misrepresents Intelligent Design and Discovery Institute Policy

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In a recent article on Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos (confirmed yesterday), Annie Waldman at ProPublica delves into intelligent design -- and in the process misrepresents design theory and Discovery Institute.

She starts by describing intelligent design as a "more nuanced outgrowth of creationism," and then says that Discovery Institute's Briefing Packet for Educators advocates teaching ID under the guise of "critical thinking." That's wrong on both counts.

Intelligent design, unlike creationism, restricts itself to scientific evidence and the rational inferences that can be drawn from that evidence. It does not base its conclusions on the Bible or any other sacred text.

ProPublica, which claims to offer "Journalism in the Public Interest," insists that "[w]ithin this movement, 'critical thinking' has become a code phrase to justify teaching of intelligent design." Ms. Waldman then brings Discovery Institute in:

Advocates have contended that presenting intelligent design side-by-side with evolution, also known as "teaching the controversy," would enhance the critical thinking skills of students and improve their scientific reasoning. Indeed, a briefing packet for educators from the leading intelligent design group, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, walks teachers through this approach.

"In American public education today, the status quo teaches evolution in a dogmatic, pro-Darwin-only fashion which fails to help students use critical thinking on this topic," the report states, adding that teaching "the controversy" can help students "learn the critical thinking skills they need to think like good scientists."

John West, vice president of the Discovery Institute, said that the implication that "critical thinking" is code for intelligent design is "ludicrous."

"Critical thinking is a pretty foundational idea supported by lots of people, not just us," said West in an email, adding that he also thinks "critical thinking should apply to discussions of evolution."

Discovery Institute does NOT advocate pushing intelligent design into public schools. Waldman cites our Briefing Packet, but she seems to have skimmed over our science education policy, which is in that document. It notes:

As a matter of public policy, Discovery Institute opposes any effort to require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education. Attempts to mandate teaching about intelligent design only politicize the theory and will hinder fair and open discussion of the merits of the theory among scholars and within the scientific community. Furthermore, most teachers at the present time do not know enough about intelligent design to teach about it accurately and objectively.

Instead of mandating intelligent design, Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in textbooks. It believes that evolution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues. In other words, evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can't be questioned.

Teaching intelligent design is not the same as teaching criticisms of evolution. An argument for design requires making a positive case -- starting with observations of what human designers create (specified complexity) and examinations of where we find specified complexity in nature.

Furthermore, science standards in Kansas and Ohio, mentioned by Ms. Waldman, did not call for teaching intelligent design, but rather critical analysis.

Waldman also quotes Greg McNeilly, identified as a "longtime aide to DeVos and an executive at her and her husband's privately held investment management firm." He says regarding Mrs. DeVos:

I don't know the answer to whether she believes in intelligent design -- it's not relevant...There is no debate on intelligent design or creationism being taught in schools. According to federal law, it cannot be taught.

The claim that intelligent design is against federal policy is false. Perhaps he was referring to Kitzmiller v. Dover, a court decision involving design, but that applies only to the Middle District of Pennsylvania. For more on Kitzmiller, see our book Traipsing into Evolution: Intelligent Design and the Kitzmiller v. Dover Decision.

Teaching the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolution is different from teaching ID. Let me give you a couple examples of what critical analysis might look like:

  • Evaluating whether natural selection acting on random mutation can account for all life we see around us. This is an important discussion right now in the scientific world -- in fact, at the November Royal Society Conference, "New Trends in Evolutionary Biology," theoretical biologist Gerd Müller noted that natural selection has a hard time accounting for phenotypic novelty and complexity. The conference provided a forum for proponents of the Modern Synthesis and the Third Way of Evolution to discuss questions about evolutionary mechanisms.

  • Learning about various proposed scientific scenarios for the origin of life. This includes discussing the code-first model (most prominently, RNA world), the metabolism first model, and the protein-first model. As the 2007 Priestley Medalist George M. Whitesides has noted: "Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea."

A quality science education teaches students accurate, up-to-date information. But it does more than that as well: It teaches them to think critically about science.

Scientific inquiry is fostered, not suppressed, by teaching topics, such as evolution, that are still under debate by scientists. No one expects high school biology students to solve the origin of life dilemma in the classroom, but by tracing the research and arguments of scientists in the field, they learn about approaches and methods of science that can only be beneficial to them in the future -- inside or outside the lab.

Critical analysis does not entail any discussion of religion. ProPublica's insistence to the contrary showcases a bias, common in the media, against any presentation of valid criticisms of neo-Darwinism. That's not in the public interest, and certainly not in the interest of students.

Photo: Betsy DeVos, by Keith A. Almli [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.