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Washington Post’s Absent-Minded Reporter?

John G. West

In a blog post a couple of weeks ago, I wondered aloud whether the Washington Post’s Peter Slevin would fairly report on our lengthy conversation about public policy battles over evolution. Well, Slevin’s article is out, and now I know. In my previous post, I listed six main points from our interview and asked whether Slevin would accurately convey the points. Slevin basically ignored most of what I told him (in fact, I’m not even quoted in the story). Instead, he misleadingly stitched together some quotes from my colleague Steve Meyer all the while ignoring most of what Steve told him as well. (See here for a discussion of how Slevin mischaracterized Steve’s comments.) As I indicated earlier, I liked Slevin. He seemed like a nice guy. But I don’t like his one-sided reporting. True, he does make clear that Discovery Institute is NOT trying to require the teaching of intelligent design. But that’s about the only good thing in his lopsided potpourri of stereotypes that completely ignores the substance of the science education controversy and only delves into motives and funding on one side of the debate. If you want to see just how slanted Slevin’s report is, please read my previous blog post. Here I want to focus just on one point, because it relates to the central claim of Slevin’s piece.

Slevin tries to assert that the the evolution issue is gaining traction now because of the forces of the so-called religious right. He takes this talking point straight from the mouth of Eugenie Scott at the NCSE, whom he quotes in his article. What Slevin neglects to report is Discovery Institute’s response to Scott’s assertion. When Slevin asked me about this, I pointed out that the religious right has been around for a long time, so that really doesn’t explain why scientific criticisms of evolution finally seem to be gaining traction. What is different from the past is that today there are growing numbers of scientists at American academic institutions who are challenging evolution for scientific reasons. As I explained in more detail in my previous blog:

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 legitimate scientific controversies over neo-Darwinism well-supported in the scientific literature.

Now, then, why didn’t Mr. Slevin present our view on this point? Why did he simply adopt Eugenie Scott’s spin as his own point of view for his article? Even in a slanted article, aren’t readers entitled to hear the response of both sides to the central claim made by the article?
Perhaps this wasn’t a case of bias. Perhaps Mr. Slevin simply forgot what I said or took poor notes during our interview. You might think so if you read his comments in an online discussion about his article earlier today. In answer to a question about why critics of evolution have been gaining “traction” recently, Slevin responded:

Peter Slevin: …As for the traction, that’s a very good question, one worth a long essay.

If you asked Rev. Terry Fox, I think he would say it is because large numbers of people doubt, as an act of faith and belief, the explanatory power of evolution.

If you asked the Discovery Institute’s Steve Meyer, I think he would say that evolutionary theory leaves too many riddles unsolved, and that science is poking holes in it.

There is a strong political component, as I suggested in the story, but there is much more to be said.

Hmm. Slevin speculates here about what he thinks Steve Meyer MIGHT say to this question, but he neglects to reveal what I DID tell him in answer to this question! Again, perhaps Mr. Slevin is absent-minded and just forgot. Except that Discovery Institute sent Slevin a copy of my blog post reiterating this point, and he later responded that he had received the message and hoped that he had avoided some of the “pitfalls” I warned about. Slevin’s response makes it sound as if he had actually read my blog post before finishing his story—which again raises the question as to why he did not even allude to my answer. Might it be because my answer didn’t fit his predetermined storyline? You be the judge.

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.