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WA Post Front Page Story Misleads, Misrepresents and Misses the Point

The Washington Post today published on their front page the latest in a series of drive-by reportings on intelligent design. Not surprisingly the reporter, Peter Slevin, sees this more as a political issue than a scientific issue. He’s much more concerned with how religious zealots may try to use ID theory in the political realm than whether or not peppered moths really rest on trees. Are Heaeckel’s embryo drawings less fake because the Post wants to make this a political issue? They’re missing the point, which is a scientific one.

I tried to get Slevin to focus more on the science than the politics, but he was determined to do a political piece. So he decided to come to Seattle and I encouraged him to interview both John West (see West’s blog about the interview here), our main policy person, and Steve Meyer as the director of the CSC and one of the main scientists involved in design theory. Slevin spent a day in Seattle and interviewed each of them at length. I sat in on the interviews and took notes myself, as well as helped to clarify certain issues when they came up.

The upshot is that John West spent nearly two hours with Slevin talking about the policy and politics of ID, and Steve Meyer spent equal time with Slevin and focused almost solely on what the case for ID is and how it is not an argument from ignorance as the Washington Post, and others, has persisted in defining it.

What does Slevin do? He does not quote John West at all. He does quote Steve Meyer — but he strings together different thoughts on different issues from different points in the conversation and presents them as if they are one single quote:

“It’s an academic freedom proposal. What we would like to foment is a civil discussion about science. That falls right down the middle of the fairway of American pluralism,” said the Discovery Institute’s Stephen C. Meyer, who believes evolution alone cannot explain life’s unfurling. “We are interested in seeing that spread state by state across the country.”

This is incomplete and out of context, and thus completely mischaracterizes our position and misleads the reader.

Notice that the quotes from Steve Meyer come under the subhead “Not Science, Politics.” That is Slevin’s slant — he starts off with the mistaken belief that ID is politics not science and so he crafts an article to fit that presupposition. In order to prove the point he simply misquotes his primary source.

I don’t remember Steve saying “It’s an academic freedom proposal” though he may have said something similar when the discussion turned to the case of Richard Sternberg at one point. (now that’s certainly political, I wonder why it wasn’t discussed here?)

In discussing the situation in Dover, Pennsylvania Steve told Slevin that it seems to him the two parties in the lawsuit — the school board and the ACLU — have a different agenda than Discovery Institute.

“They want to have a battle over the first amendment and we want to have a civil discourse about science.”

I know this is the quote because I’ve recently heard Steve deliver it hundreds of times in interviews. I know he doesn’t use the word “foment” and he is very specific about wanting “civil discourse.” So, that part is technically wrong.

The final two parts of that quote refer to Ohio. In conversing with Slevin Steve explained that the solution in Ohio did fall right down the middle and was one that most reasonable people could agree with, and we do want to see that spread to other states.

This mish mashed quote then is used to make Slevin’s point that the issue is politics, not science. But, that’s not how the interview went with Steve Meyer. Rather that interview was largely about science and less about policy, but policy is what Slevin wanted to show Steve talking about.
Slevin’s article has other misleading parts to it.

In Seattle, the nonprofit Discovery Institute spends more than $1 million a year for research, polls and media pieces supporting intelligent design.

The CSC budget annually is a little over $1 million, but only about 16% of that goes to “polls and media pieces supporting intelligent design.” The rest goes to research in the form of grants to scientists who are Fellows with the Institute. But Slevin phrases it in such a way as to make you think that all we do is media and public relations, which as director of such for the Center I can tell you is totally not true. (Trust me, I wish I had a million dollar budget!)

You have to get to nearly the end of the article though before that misstatement about our budget is corrected:

“The Discovery Institute devotes about 85 percent of its budget to funding scientists, with other money going to public action campaigns.”

Why wasn’t this just reported up front? Because it didn’t help the setup of the story that this is all about politics. If that were the case, our budget would be reversed.

Slevin finally gets around to what we think is an important issue — namely the success of Ohio’s adoption of an objective set of science standards and a model lesson plan that critically analyzes both the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian evolution. We have never shied away from talking about Ohio, and taking some credit for the adoption of a curriculum that didn’t cause an ACLU seizure and eventual lawsuit. But, the way that Slevin presents the issue makes it sound as if

Discovery engaged in some nefarious scheme, which is absolutely not true.

Meyer said he and Discovery Institute President Bruce Chapman devised the compromise strategy in March 2002 when they realized a dispute over intelligent design was complicating efforts to challenge evolution in the classroom. They settled on the current approach that stresses open debate and evolution’s ostensible weakness, but does not require students to study design.

Again, we’ve been open about our work in Ohio where we presented what we believe is a middle approach to education policy and one that most reasonable people agree with: Do not require the teaching of intelligent design, but instead require that students learn MORE about evolution including the scientific challenges to it. If a teacher wishes to discuss a scientific theory like intelligent design they should not be punished, but the theory should not be forced into the curriculum.

“Also, by deferring a debate about whether God was the intelligent designer, the strategy avoids the defeats suffered by creationists who tried to oust evolution from the classroom and ran afoul of the Constitution.”

We’re not deferring any debate — the question of “whether God was the intelligent designer” is a completely separate debate from that over how evolution should be taught in the classroom. Hopefully, Slevin and others will eventually figure this out.

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.