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Pitt Post Gazette reporter resorts to stereotypes and clichés (sigh)

Last week Post Gazette reporter Bill Toland contacted me and said he was working on a story about the intelligent design issue in the Dover school district. He wrote in an e-mail to me: “I’m trying to avoid the usual pratfalls of science v. religion, ACLU v. Christians.” Later on the phone he reiterated this to me and we discussed the need for reporters to get beyond stereotypes and clichés and look at some of the real scientific differences between intelligent design theory and Darwinian evolution.

Toland said that he would be doing just that in his story and that he saw no need to rehash the same old religion vs. science angle that so often ends up as the main thrust of news reports on intelligent design.

I’m curious to know what Toland considers the “usual pratfalls” that he claimed he wanted to avoid?

His article in the Sunday Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a hodgepodge of stereotypes and old clichés. Not only did he not avoid pratfalls, he seems to have determinedly sought out and explored every old stereotype and trite simplification of the issue that he could cram into one opinion piece.

Let’s start at the beginning. The lead begins:

“The flap over “intelligent design,” the latest terminology behind the old theory that the universe and its organisms developed at the discretion of a supernatural creator, …”

Rather than report about something interesting — such as the vast difference between how some scientists critical of design theory use this definition and the definition used by scientists who support design theory — Toland merely adopts the definition of the ACLU and others as the defacto proper definition. It is not.

Furthermore, journalistic integrity requires that you attribute a claim such as this to the person or group that made it. Only critics of design claim this is the definition. Design scientists disagree.

Proponents define intelligent design as: “The theory… that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” Almost any design theorist Toland could have interviewed would have given him this definition if asked.

William Dembski describes intelligent design this way in his book The Design Revolution (2004):

“As a theory of biological origins and development, intelligent design’s central claim is that only intelligent causes adequately explain the complex, information-rich structures of biology and that these causes are empirically detectable. To say intelligent causes are empirically detectable is to say there exist well defined methods that, based on observable features of the world, can reliably distinguish intelligent causes from undirected natural causes.”

Toland spoke with John West, associate director of the CSC, who clearly described the real definition of intelligent design. The question is why didn’t Toland bother to cite West’s comments on this point? And why didn’t he bother to interview even one scientist who is an advocate of design theory? One of the foremost design theorists in the world, biochemist Michael Behe, is right there in Toland’s backyard at Lehigh University. One wonders why he didn’t make a local phone call to get a scientist’s perspective on intelligent design?

Toland then uses the term “intelligent design creationism,” unashamedly conflating a scientific theory with a religiously based assumption. He writes:

“Creationism, in the Judeo-Christian sense, is not the identical twin of the latest incarnation of intelligent-design creationism.”

In referring to intelligent design as “intelligent design creationism,” Toland reveals his bias, and the article’s agenda begins to become clear.

Toland simply accepted the terminology of anti-design critics and now reports it as if it is an undisputed fact. This is not objective, and it certainly isn’t good journalism. It is merely the use of his position as a reporter to attempt to sway the opinions of readers.

Eventually Toland gets around to implying that intelligent design theory is just a modern version of William Paley’s 18th century watchmaker analogy. He uses Paley’s own religious inclinations as the basis for claiming that in his view intelligent design falls afoul of the First Amendment. Although the article didn’t appear on the opinion pages of the Post Gazette — where it belonged — Toland repeatedly inserts his opinions, draws conclusions and reports them as if they were facts.

He goes on to pose his “chicken-egg question,” nothing more than the usual false dilemma of When did you stop beating your wife? So here’s his chicken-egg question:

“Does intelligent-design theory, because it doesn’t name its creator and isn’t attached to a particular religion, just happen to slip through that Supreme Court loophole, possibly allowing it into public school classes? Or is it the other way around — are modern proponents of intelligent design refusing to associate with a particular religion or god with the express purpose of wedging into lesson plans, hoping that if a curriculum is worded the right way, it will be immune to a court challenge?”

Darwinists are fond of setting up such dichotomies, each of which is impossible to answer except in a negative or defensive manner. Instead of arguing the merits of the science underlying intelligent design theory, they would rather frame rhetorical arguments that are nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

Sensing his word-limit approaching, Toland finally gets around to discussing “Of Pandas and People,” which is the design-friendly biology textbook which ignited the current debate in Dover, PA. Rather than go into a long commentary on the textbook, I will instead direct you to read the excellent “Note to Teachers” from the appendix of the textbook, written by CSC Director Stephen C. Meyer and CSC Fellow Dr. Mark Hartwig.

Finally, Toland writes:

“There is no denying that the intelligent-design theory — not to mention the creation science theory and its predecessors — has some following among serious scholars. But there’s also little doubt that America’s growing intelligent-design movement has gained much of its steam by attracting Christians, including many who believe in a literal Genesis, who want to use the neutral terminology to undermine evolutionary theory.”

Toland is really saying that there is nothing at all questionable about evolutionary theory, and that the only people who are skeptical are doubters solely because of a religious presupposition. Perhaps he was unaware of the more than 300 scientists who have signed the Dissent from Darwin statement? Or perhaps he assumes that every one of them is only skeptical on religious grounds? To write this he must be completely ignorant of the significant scientific challenges that modern biology has presented to Darwinian evolution. Or, he must want to keep his readers from knowing about the same. Which is it?

He continues:

“It is this union of some serious scientists and religiously motivated advocates that creates a controversy more complicated than one that simply pits science against religion.”

Again, this isn’t simply science vs. religion, which if you remember is something that Toland, when requesting interviews, claimed he wanted to avoid. This controversy isn’t being manufactured in some smoke-filled back room in the wake of the recent election. Toland, like others, implies that religious leaders feeling emboldened with the President’s reelection in November are now advancing intelligent design as a political strategy. The scientific controversy, the debate amongst scientists, so obviously predates the most recent educational policy discussions that it is ridiculous for Toland to suggest this. Again, you have to ask yourself whether he is simply uninformed, or does he have another agenda he’s pursuing.

Toland, in keeping his polemic completely imbalanced, wraps up his piece with a quote from Wesley R. Elsberry from the NCSE (who he reminds us is a “biologist,” lest we forget what real scientists think):

“The problem is, what they want taught as a controversy is not a scientific controversy. It’s a socio-political controversy. It belongs in a civics class.”

This is one of the most tired and threadbare reasons for not allowing any questioning of Darwinian evolution to go on in the classroom. It’s unfortunate that Toland didn’t follow through on the main objective of his article to “avoid the usual pratfalls of science v. religion, ACLU v. Christians.”

Instead he put together a tendentious and one-sided piece, not bothering to interview scientists or legal scholars who support intelligent design. He seems only to want to convince his readers that intelligent design is the same as creationism and that there is no significant scientific criticism of Darwinian evolution. Why does Toland do this?

Here’s the reason, from a critic of design theory no less. University of Wisconsin historian of science Ronald Numbers is critical of intelligent design, yet according to the Associated Press, he “agrees the creationist label is inaccurate when it comes to the ID [intelligent design] movement.” Why, then, do some Darwinists keep trying to conflate intelligent design with creationism?

According to Dr. Numbers, it is because they think such claims are “the easiest way to discredit intelligent design.” In other words, the charge that intelligent design is “creationism” is a rhetorical strategy on the part of Darwinists who wish to marginalize and discredit design theory without actually addressing the merits of its case.

Robert Crowther, II

Robert Crowther holds a BA in Journalism with an emphasis in public affairs and 20 years experience as a journalist, publisher, and brand marketing and media relations specialist. From 1994-2000 he was the Director of Public and Media Relations for Discovery Institute overseeing most aspects of communications for each of the Institute's major programs. In addition to handling public and media relations he managed the Institute's first three books to press, Justice Matters by Roberta Katz, Speaking of George Gilder edited by Frank Gregorsky, and The End of Money by Richard Rahn.