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Did the New York Times suppress the results of its own investigation into Darwin’s scientific critics in order to promote a stereotype?

John G. West

New questions are being raised about the accuracy of the New York Times’ article on scientific critics of neo-Darwinism last week, spurred by an amazing admission by Times’ reporter Ken Chang that only a small minority of the scientists he interviewed actually fit his story’s stereotyped description of Darwin’s critics. While Chang’s story conveys the clear impression that scientists who support Discovery’s Dissent from Darwin statement are motivated by religion rather than science, Chang has now admitted in an interview that 75% or more of the scientists he interviewed did not fit this description. In other words, Chang and his editors selectively reported the results of their own investigation to convey the exact opposite of what they found. It turns out I was right to warn before the article’s publication that when it comes to the evolution issue, the Times’ motto should be “all the news that fits”!

Although published on the science page, last week’s New York Time’s article about the 500+ doctoral scientists skeptical of neo-Darwinism could have run on the religion page. Misleadingly titled “Few Biologists but Many Evangelicals Sign Anti-Evolution Petition,” the story focused much more on the supposed spiritual beliefs of scientific critics of Darwin than their scientific views. While reporter Ken Chang conceded in his article that “of the signers who are evangelical Christians, most defend their doubts on scientific grounds,” you couldn’t tell that from the rest of his article, which repeatedly implied that those on the list were motivated by religion, not science. The article stressed how “several said that their doubts began when they increased their involvement with Christian churches,” and again that “some said they read the Bible literally and doubt not only evolution but also findings of geology and cosmology that show the universe and the earth to be billions of years old.” Of the five signers of the statement quoted by Chang, four were presented in terms of their Christian religious beliefs. Two of the four (half) were depicted as Biblical creationists who read the Bible literally, while a third signer was quoted as finding encouragement from “scientific evidence that points to God.” Only one of the Christian scientists quoted (James Tour) was presented more in terms of his scientific views. The obvious impression conveyed by Chang’s story was that a majority of the signers based their objections to Darwin on religion.

But is that an accurate summary of what Chang actually found in his investigation? You be the judge.

In an interview with Discovery Institute’s Rob Crowther last Friday, a clearly uncomfortable Chang admitted that the overwhelming majority of those he interviewed were not Biblical literalists whose skepticism of evolution grew out of their religious beliefs.

In fact, when pressed as to just how many signers actually told him that “their doubts [about Darwin] began when they increased their involvement with Christian churches,” he admitted that it was only “up to a quarter or five” of the twenty scientists he interviewed. Hence, by his own admission, 75% or more of the scientists he interviewed did not say this.

Similarly, when asked how many scientists he interviewed were Biblical literalists who rejected the standard geological age of the earth, he admitted that only a “few” fit this description, which presumably would be even less than the five he cited previously.

Why, then, didn’t Chang clearly communicate in his article that the overwhelming majority of scientists he interviewed were neither Biblical literalists nor inspired to doubt Darwin through increased religious involvement? Presumably because that admission would have undermined the stereotype being pushed by the Times that scientists doubt Darwin only for religious reasons. It’s pretty obvious that Chang was assigned to write this story by editors who hoped to “expose” the supposed religious motivations of Darwin’s scientific critics. But when the Times’ investigation did not produce the results Times’ staffers clearly anticipated, they were faced with an embarrassing problem. If they reported the true results of their investigation they would add to the credibility of the many scientists who dissent from Darwin—something they definitely didn’t want to do. So they decided instead to present only those facts that fit their stereotype.

When grilled about the fairness of his story by Crowther, Chang insisted that his article was fair and accurate. He also backpedaled on the article’s insinuations that scientists critical of Darwin should be dismissed because of their religious beliefs. Referring to the scientists he interviewed, Chang conceded to Crowther that “fundamentally their doubts [about Darwinism] are scientifically based.” He further said that he did not mean to imply that the scientific views of scientists who are evangelical Christians should be dismissed because of their religious beliefs. Too bad he didn’t make these points plain in his article.

On a related issue, Chang did not want to tell Crowther why he only investigated the religious beliefs of the scientific critics of Darwinism and did not similarly investigate the religious (or anti-religious) beliefs of supporters of Darwinism. He instead referred Crowther to a posting on the New York Times website that he said would answer the question. In that post, Chang confirmed that although his article cited a list of scientists supporting Darwin, he neglected to interview any of its signers about their religious or anti-religious beliefs. “This article focused on Discovery’s petition and thus I did not interview evolution supporters,” he wrote defensively.

Well, why not? If the question of religious motivation is important for critics of Darwin to answer, why isn’t the question equally important to put to defenders of Darwin? And since Chang actually references a statement by scientists in support of Darwin in his article, why didn’t he didn’t he treat those signers with the same amount of scrutiny?

For that matter, what about Ken Chang’s own religious beliefs? If it is important for people to know about the religious beliefs of scientists who criticize Darwin, why isn’t it important for them to know about the religious beliefs of science writers who defend Darwin? When Crowther asked Chang about his own religious affiliation, Chang replied “I don’t want to answer that.” When pressed as to whether he was an agnostic, an atheist, or something else, Chang replied “I don’t think it’s relevant.” Of course, Change is right. His article ought to be judged on its own merits, not on his personal religious or anti-religious views. But why shouldn’t that same standard apply to scientific critics of Darwin? As I told Chang earlier, his double-standard really is “stunning hypocrisy.” If he and the Times genuinely believe that religious motivations are relevant for judging the credibility of scientific critics of Darwinism, then why aren’t the religious motivations of Chang and his editors equally relevant for judging their credibility? Apparently, those who work for the Times only believe in full disclosure for other people, not themselves.

I don’t want to be too hard on Chang. I credit him for honestly admitting the results of his interviews when asked, as well as for quoting my criticism of the Times’ double-standard on religious motivations as “stunning hypocrisy.” I think Chang tried to be professional in how he reported on this issue. But I also think he—and his editors—were blinded by their own bias in favor of Darwinism, a bias so deeply-ingrained that it prevented them from seeing how they were slanting the facts of their own investigation in order to perpetuate a stereotype.

Despite its bias, I am grateful for how Chang’s report highlighted the growing number of doctoral scientists who are skeptical of Darwinian theory. Since Chang’s article was published, more than 60 scientists have contacted us asking to have their names added to our statement, and the Dissent from Darwin statement has been downloaded or accessed from our website more than 175,000 times. The New York Times (and Ken Chang) have spread the word about the scientists who are skeptical of Darwin far more effectively than we could do on our limited budget.

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.