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Upcoming Article: Will the Washington Post be fair?

A few days ago Washington Post reporter Peter Slevin came to Seattle to interview me and Steve Meyer for an upcoming article about evolution, intelligent design, and politics. I suspect his story will appear soon. After the Post’s recent track record editorializing and reporting on the evolution issue, I must admit I was somewhat skeptical about talking with another Post reporter. As the interview started, I made a point of going into detail about the false and misleading statements in previous Post coverage. I also explained how the Post’s ombudsman (unlike the ombudsman at the Boston Globe) didn’t even bother to respond to a detailed complaint we sent about inaccuracies in one of the Post’s articles.

Like most reporters, Mr. Slevin appeared mild-mannered, fair, and genuinely interested in hearing our side of the debate. Despite his impeccable manners, however, some of his comments raised concerns. He mentioned he had read Time’s tabloid-style article about intelligent design, but he indicated he was disappointed because the article didn’t deliver on its promise to expose the “real” motives behind the design movement. He further said he had interviewed a minister in Kansas who thinks that attacking evolution is a way to win the culture war about gay marriage and presumably a host of other social issues. These comments made me wonder whether his report will ignore the substance of the policy debate over evolution and simply recapitulate the hackneyed Red State v. Blue State storyline being pressed ad nauseum by much of the major newsmedia. At one point, Mr. Slevin even wanted to know whether Discovery Institute is funded by the Unification Church! (We aren’t.)

Mr. Slevin’s interest in motives and funding seemed somewhat one-sided. While expressing lots of interest about the motives and funding of critics of Darwinism, he seemed uninterested in looking at the motives or funding of Darwinists. I doubt, for example, he ever asked Eugenie Scott whether her group receives funding from such left-wing groups as the Playboy Foundation (Eugenie, after all, once received an award from the foundation.) I also suspect that Mr. Slevin never asked Eugenie about why she is one of the original signers of a document called the “Third Humanist Manifesto.” Frankly, I don’t care who funds Eugenie Scott’s National Center for Science Education, or what her private metaphysical beliefs are. But it seems to me rather telling that most journalists are only interested in motives and funding on one side of this debate. I would prefer that journalists focus on the substance of the debate rather than side issues like motives and funding. But IF they are going to get into side issues, they ought to do so fairly and with an even hand. I stressed this point to Mr. Slevin, and I am curious to see whether he ends up being fair.

I am also interested to see whether Mr. Slevin’s article accurately communicates the following points I made during our interview:

  1. Discovery Institute does NOT favor requiring the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. We merely recommend that scientific evidence critical of neo-Darwinism be taught along with the evidence favoring neo-Darwinism. We think this is a common ground approach that the vast majority of Americans support. Moreover, we think it is a pro-science approach that will improve student learning about evolution by presenting evolution as a live discipline subject to critical examination rather than as a dead dogma that can’t be rationally questioned.
  2. There is no national movement to require the teaching of intelligent design in schools. What is being discussed in most states is simply the presentation of scientific evidence critical of Darwinian theory as well as scientific evidence favoring the theory. Thus, the Dover, Pennsylvania school district policy explicitly endorsing intelligent design is an exception (and Discovery Institute opposes the Dover policy).
  3. Reporters who are trying to be fair should cover how the debate over teaching evolution has played out in states like Ohio and Minnesota, not just lone school districts like Dover. Reporters seem preocuppied with filing stories that allow them to replay the stereotypes of Inherit the Wind, pitting supposedly intolerant fundamentalists against the enlightened defenders of science. As a result, journalists simply ignore public policy battles that don’t fit their preconceived stereotypes. The state of Ohio, for example, has adopted a science standard and a model curriulum promoting the critical analysis of evolutionary theory. But the national newsmedia have virtually ignored what is happening in Ohio, preferring to send their reporters to local rural school districts that they find easier to stereotype. One might think that an entire state adopting a different way of teaching evolution would be considered more newsworthy than the actions of a small rural school district. Not so, according to the major media. Why?
  4. The reason why the evolution issue is finally making inroads in the public policy sphere is because of a change in science, not politics: namely, there are a growing number of credentialed scientists who are openly critical of Darwinian orthodoxy. Mr. Slevin seemed to want me to say that the evolution issue has risen to the surface recently because of the religious right. I responded that religious conservatives have existed for much of American history, and they didn’t seem to get anywhere on this issue. The key difference today is the growing number of critics of Darwinism within science and academia. Thirty years ago mainstream university presses like Cambridge and Michigan State were not publishing volumes devoted to academic debates over Darwinism. Thirty years ago hundreds of doctoral scientists and science professors at American college and universities were not declaring their skepticism of the central mechanism of neo-Darwinism. If you look at places like Ohio and Minnesota that have adopted a more open-minded approach to teaching about evolution, you will find that they had scientists on both sides of their public policy debates. Even in the recent textbook disclaimer case in Georgia, more than two dozen Georgia scientists (including researchers at the University of Georgia and other state universities) filed a friend of the court brief summarizing various scientific controversies over neo-Darwinism that are well-supported in the scientific literature.
  5. If a reporter is going to talk about the strategy and tactics of the evolution debate, he or she should do this for both sides of the debate. Since Mr. Slevin was so interested in exploring the tactics of those critical of evolutionary theory, I urged him to be fair and talk about tactics employed by defenders of evolution as well. For example, evolutionists typically try to steer public debates away from science and onto religion. Rather than respond to the substance of policy proposals made by those with whom they disagree, they simply try to demonize their opponents as motivated by religion and thus unworthy of a response. This tactic of crying “religion!” is designed as a debate-stopper so they won’t actually have to answer the main points made by the other side. If evolutionists really want science classes to focus on science, not religion, why are they the ones who are always trying to inject the issue of religion into public debates over evolution?
  6. Reporters have an obligation to accurately describe intelligent design theory and how it is explained by its proponents. Intelligent design merely proposes that some features of the natural world are best explained as the product of an intelligent cause. This hypothesis is based on our investigation into the natural world, NOT on extrapolations to the supernatural. The design inference is based on both positive and negative evidence from within nature: On the positive side, we know from our own extensive experience of the natural world that intelligent causes are sufficient to produce certain kinds of highly ordered complexity (e.g., we know that an intelligent cause is capable of producing the computer screen you are now looking at). On the negative side, we know from our study of the natural world that non-intelligent causes seem incapable of producing the same kinds of highly ordered complexity. Based on this extensive evidence drawn from our investigation of the natural world, it is rational to infer that certain kinds of complexity are most likely the product of an intelligent cause.

Because of my past experience with the Post and certain other news outlets, I have to say I’m not optimistic that our side of the debate will be portrayed fairly and accurately in Mr. Slevin’s article. But hope springs eternal, and I would be happy to be proved wrong in this case. I liked Mr. Slevin, and I hope his article provides a fair picture of what our side of the debate is actually proposing.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.