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South Carolina Reporting on Evolution Has Hits and Misses

Chris Dixon, reporter at the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina gets a hearty thank you from me for his recent reporting on the debate over how to teach evolution. This is in start contrast to the reporting from The State newspaper, which has steadfastly conflated intelligent design with critical analysis of evolution. In fact, The State newspaper reporter Bill Robinson has waged a one-man confusion crusade to make sure that his readers are completely misinformed about what it is that the state board of education is considering in regards to how evolution should be taught in South Carolina. (see here and here)

I am especially encouraged to see that Dixon allows proponents of intelligent design to actually define the theory of intelligent design themselves — as opposed to just reporting what critics and non-ID proponents claim it is.

In a debate filled with loaded terms, defining “intelligent design” is fraught with peril. In a 2002 article on an Ohio evolution debate, a New York Times reporter wrote: “In contrast to the biblical literalism of creationists, proponents of intelligent design acknowledge that the earth is billions of years old and that organisms evolve over time. But they dispute that natural selection is the sole force of evolution, arguing that life is so complex that only some sort of intelligent designer, whether called God or something else, must be involved.”

Although most intelligent design proponents agree that the universe is billions of years old, Crowther said there is not universal agreement on the source of the intelligence or the level of design.

“Intelligent design theorists argue in favor of design theory based on the recognition of things like the digital information in DNA and the complex molecular machines found in cells,” he said. “They do so because invariably we know from experience that complex systems possessing such features always arise from intelligent causes.”

While this is a big step in the right direction, and Dixon’s story is pretty fair overall, there are some factual errors in the story the do need to be cleared up. These first two are the most important.

1) Early on in the story Dixon writes:

“The institute has countered that it does not back intelligent design and only wants science teachers to “critically analyze” shortcomings in the evolution theory.”

This is not accurate. Discovery Institute definitely supports the theory of intelligent design. What I think Dixon has done is confuse our position on intelligent design as a scientific theory (we’re all for that) with our education policy position on intelligent design being required in classrooms (we’re not for that). Let’s go to our education policy statement — which I sent to Dixon.

“As a matter of public policy, Discovery Institute opposes any effort require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education. …”

“Although Discovery Institute does not advocate requiring the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, it does believe there is nothing unconstitutional about voluntarily discussing the scientific theory of design in the classroom. In addition, the Institute opposes efforts to persecute individual teachers who may wish to discuss the scientific debate over design in an objective and pedagogically appropriate manner.”

2) Later Dixon writes:

The Discovery Institute’s two speakers, von Sternberg and Keller, met Jan. 23 in Columbia to tell Education Oversight Committee members why South Carolina’s highly regarded science guidelines should carry critical analysis language pushed by Fair.

This misleads readers as to our involvement in South Carolina. Neither Dr. Sternberg, nor Dr. Keller, are Discovery Institute Fellows. We did recommend them to Sen. Fair when he called to ask if we had Fellows to speak. Specifically we recommended these scientists because of their obvious expertise in the relevant areas: Dr. Sternberg, a biologist with two PhDs in evolutionary biology, and many peer-reviewed journals to his credit; and Dr. Keller who has a PhD in biology, and who is experienced in writing and developing science curriculum. Discovery’s scientists were unable to participate because of teaching and research schedules, but we gave several names to Sen. Fair and he was able to have Dr. Sternberg and Dr. Keller there. While we helped make this connection, it is a misrepresentation of their affiliation to call them Discovery speakers. (Read Dr. Sternberg’s testimony to the EOC here.)

There are some other things I’d like to clarify as well.

Dixon also wrote:

“According to its spokesman, Rob Crowther, it now considers the state a main focus in its war over what it considers the rigid scientific dogma of Darwinism.”

I don’t believe I ever said that South Carolina is “a main focus” for the Institute. We have lots of different things we’re focusing on of which this is just one. No offense to South Carolina intended, but it just isn’t our most important focus right now.

Dixon’s statement about our position in Ohio also is inaccurate. “The fellows argued that scientifically valid challenges to Darwinian evolution should be sufficient reason to include intelligent design or at least criticism of evolution into science curriculum.” Actually, we have always opposed mandating intelligent design in science classes in Ohio, and our scientists argued that challenges to Darwinian evolution should be included, but not intelligent design theory. ID had been proposed by others in Ohio for possible inclusion, but we publicly said that was not the right approach. Stephen Meyer even wrote an op-ed in the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2002 clearly explaining our policy position.

Dixon reports a quote from Martha Wise that is both wrong and misleading.

“”What it’s been is the evolution of terminology,” Wise said. “A little wedge here, then in Kansas, South Carolina, Utah, and all over the United States. That’s Discovery’s modus operandi.”

First, neither our position, nor how we describe it has “evolved.” We have been completely consistent, and Wise’s statement is simply an attempt to disparage us in the eyes of her constituents.

Her comment makes it sound as if we are the driving force behind all of this. Not so. We did not initiate anything in any of these state.. We were contacted by board members in Kansas and South Carolina and asked to provide information, or recommend scientists to speak about challenges to Darwinian evolution. In Utah we had no involvement whatsoever, other than to comment on it occasionally on here at Evolution News & Views.

In my discussions with Dixon I explained that this is typically how these things come about. We are often finding out about what is going on only when someone calls us, or when we read about it in the newspaper. We have never had a plan to go into specific states and try to influence their standards, and we’ve never attempted to do so proactively. We have only ever become involved when requested by legislators and/or policy makers, and always as a part of the processes currently set in place.

Dixon later writes:

Although the Discovery Institute publicly said the Dover board’s intelligent design language was too strong, it sent two of its most prominent fellows, Michael J. Behe and Scott Minnich, to argue the case. Behe is the author of “Darwin’s Black Box,” a book that makes a scientific case for intelligent design.

Actually, we did not send Behe and Minnich. They were asked to be expert witnesses (not fact witnesses directly supporting the defense) by the defense attorneys. They accepted on their own behalf as scientists, and we supported them in their testimony as to the science of intelligent design. They did not comment on the veracityof the facts of the case, as far as I know, but rather delivered testimony in regards to the theory of intelligent design and their own scientific research related to the theory.

“I think what cross examination revealed is that behind some fancy terms like ‘irreducible complexity’ and a whole lot of writing, there is really nothing going on scientifically with ID, ” Rothschild said.”

Obviously Mr. Rothschild is mistaken, and we disagree with him completely. But so do many in the mainstream scientific community. Cambridge University Press thought there was enough of a scientific debate to commission the leading scientists on both sides to present articles for a book, “Debating Design” that was published in late 2004. Michigan State University Press did likewise by publishing “Darwinism, Design and Public Education” and in addition to the leading scientists on both sides, they included legal views from prominent legal scholars and law professors, again from both sides of the issue. There are other books like these, which all indicate that there is very lively and serious debate going on in the scientific community, whether Mr. Rothschild wants to believe it or not. There is a lot “going on scientifically with ID” that Mr. Rothschild either isn’t aware of or doesn’t want anyone to know about.

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.