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Proof that the Media is Biased Against ID

We recently reported how New Scientist has exhibited an incredible bias against intelligent design and is encouraging scientists to attack ID using “the weapons of sound bytes and emotional arguments… deploy[ing] all the tools that are used to sell cars, [and] diet drugs…” But the best possible proof that the media is biased against intelligent design would be a cover article in one of the nation’s leading media journals instructing editors and reporters to limit and stifle the pro-ID viewpoint when reporting on the ID-evolution debate. Precisely such an article entitled “Undoing Darwin” was co-authored by Chris Mooney as the cover article of the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review just a few weeks before the beginning of the Dover trial in September, 2005.

When Darwinists complain about media coverage of ID, what they really are upset about is the rare article which simply gives the pro-ID viewpoint the time of day and offers more than unyielding praise of Darwin. For example, Jason Rosenhouse and NCSE staff member Glenn Branch wrote in BioScience that “A misconceived concern for balance frequently results in equal time being accorded to biologists and creationists, creating the illusion of scientific equivalence.” (from “Media Coverage of ‘Intelligent Design,’BioScience, Vol. 56(3):247-252 (March, 2006).) What Darwinists unambiguously desire in the media is imbalance, with an anti-ID bias and the limiting of pro-ID arguments and evidence in homage to the pro-Darwin position.

All ID-proponents desire is nothing more than what Chris Mooney, Jason Rosenhouse, and Glenn Branch oppose: balanced and unbiased media coverage. For more documentation of the media’s bias, read this excerpt from my response to Chris Mooney, “Whose “War” Is It, Anyway?: Exposing Chris Mooney’s Attack on Intelligent Design,” discussing his Columbia Journalism Review cover article:

In early September, 2005, just as Kitzmiller v. Dover case was approaching, Columbia Journalism Review published “Undoing Darwin,” which recommended nothing short of imbalanced and overall hostile coverage of the pro-ID viewpoint during the forthcoming media coverage of the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. This incredible article presented a call for journalists to become partisans in the debate over evolution and exclude a balanced or fair presentation of pro-ID arguments. It was co-authored by none other than Chris Mooney.

The article began by complaining that the media “tend to deemphasize the strong scientific case in favor of evolution and instead lend credence to the notion that a growing ‘controversy’ exists over evolutionary science.” The fundamental premise of the entire article is that “it is false” to claim there are scientific disputes against evolution. Again making misplaced reliance upon authoritarian political statements by scientific authorities, Mr. Mooney begins with the assumption that his position is correct, and that this fact should therefore define and govern journalistic coverage of this issue. He assumes that all critiques of evolution are “theological attacks that masquerade as being ‘scientific’ in nature” and encourages journalists to frame articles as such, to avoid lending “undue credibility” to non-evolutionary viewpoints. This is the same mindset we saw coming from those who attack ID-proponents in the academy: not only is intelligent design wrong, but ID-proponents do not deserve the opportunity to discuss their scientific views in a positive light.

Mr. Mooney complains that simply giving “balance” to the viewpoints in articles over intelligent design does a disservice:

Worse, they [journalists] often provide a springboard for anti-evolutionist criticism of that science, allotting ample quotes and sound bites to Darwin’s critics in a quest to achieve “balance.” The science is only further distorted on the opinion pages of local newspapers.

In other words, the fact that reporting is sometimes “balanced” is a problem: Mr. Mooney’s message is that media coverage is not “balance[d]” when one allows dissenters from evolution have their say by allowing the “pairing of competing claims”:

Even worse, such “balance” is far from truly objective. The pairing of competing claims plays directly into the hands of intelligent-design proponents who have cleverly argued that they’re mounting a scientific attack on evolution rather than a religiously driven one, and who paint themselves as maverick outsiders warring against a dogmatic scientific establishment.

Mr. Mooney thus suggests that it is inappropriate to “pai[r] claims” of ID proponents and evolutionists because it will make ID arguments appear scientific. To his credit, Mr. Mooney says that pro-ID voices should not be completely censored. But his article implies that the way to avoid the “pairing” problem is to diminish or weaken pro-ID arguments in articles, leaving pro-evolution arguments to have the louder microphone. Clearly he is not interested in a truly balanced presentation of the views.

Mr. Mooney again warns TV talk show hosts about the dangers of allowing pro-ID guests on their shows because “the adversarial format of most cable news talk shows inherently favors ID’s attacks on evolution by making false journalistic ‘balance’ nearly inescapable.” Can evolution not withstand this “adversarial format”? Or does Mr. Mooney not desire a truly fair presentation? What other solution could Mr. Mooney suggest other than limiting the pro-ID viewpoint from such venues? Mr. Mooney does suggest one clear solution: journalists should become partisans in the debate:

In short, to better cover evolution, journalists don’t merely have to think more like scientists (or science writers). As the evolution issue inevitably shifts into a legal context, they must think more like skeptical jurists.

In recommending that journalists behave as “jurists” who are “skeptical” of intelligent design, Mr. Mooney implies they should let their own prejudices influence their reporting. Under this journalistic philosophy, the court of public opinion is to be determined by the media. Since when is it the media’s role to determine the answers to complex social issues? This is not an issue where the public agrees with the position Chris Mooney thinks the media should advocate: — over 75% of Americans agree that “[w]hen Darwin’s theory of evolution is taught in school, students should also be able to learn about scientific evidence that points to an intelligent design of life.” But according to Mr. Mooney and other powerful players within the journalism establishment, journalists need to discard any notion of true objectivity and neutrality in order to protect the American public from pro-ID arguments. Do these pro-ID arguments pose the sort of threat to evolution that justifies Mr. Mooney’s conceded abandonment of the traditional journalistic principle of balance? Mr. Mooney seems to imply that journalists should become partisans in their coverage of intelligent design because the American people cannot be trusted to think for themselves.

Mr. Mooney even thinks that opinion pages should limit the space given to pro-ID viewpoints:

[On opinion pages], competing arguments about evolution and intelligent design tend to be paired against one another in letters to the editor and sometimes in rival guest op-eds, providing a challenge to editors who want to give voice to alternative ideas yet provide an accurate sense of the state of scientific consensus. The mission of the opinion pages and a faithfulness to scientific accuracy can easily come into conflict.

Mr. Mooney then complains that a local paper covering the Kitzmiller trial “recently print[ed] at least one” letter submitted by “a Christian conservative group.” The problem according to Mr. Mooney is that “many opinion-page editors see their role not as gatekeepers of scientific content, but rather as enablers of debate within pluralistic communities.” Since when are journalists the arbitrators of scientific dogma and not those whom the public entrusts to neutrally communicate and report the diverse viewpoints which exist into the public discourse? According to Mr. Mooney, it was a travesty that some papers covering the Kitzmiller case printed approximately equal numbers of letters-to-the editor in favor or against intelligent design. Mr. Mooney complained that this equal representation resulted in “an entirely lopsided debate within the scientific community [that] was transformed into an evenly divided one in the popular arena.” For Mr. Mooney, because the majority viewpoint in the scientific community is generally against ID, pro-ID voices should not be allowed to make their arguments fairly heard even in the public sphere–even if the public is overwhelmingly friendly to ID. Even those who agree with Mr. Mooney’s scientific position need not agree with his rhetorical strategy: ideas thrive by letting critics have their say and permitting intellectual freedom within the marketplace of viewpoints. If evolution is right, it can win the debates which Mr. Mooney does not want to see occur in the public discussion.

But Chris Mooney didn’t always complain. He praised an editorial board of a paper covering the Selman v. Cobb County case because it stated that “our science infrastructure is under attack from religious extremists” and “warned repeatedly of the severe negative economic consequences and national ridicule that anti-evolutionism might bring on the community,” thus adopting Mr. Mooney’s party line. He observed that most of the letters printed were against ID, and pondered if this “may suggest a community with different views than those in Dover, Pennsylvania, or it may suggest a stronger editorial role.” So in Chris Mooney’s eyes, a “stronger editorial role” is the limiting of viewpoints that conflict with the prevailing dogma of the scientific establishment, even when that viewpoint has high support from many letter-writers.

Mr. Mooney also praised the New York Times and The Washington Post because “the opinion pages sided heavily with evolution,” but he then scolded the New York Times because “a false sense of scientific controversy was arguably abetted when The New York Times allowed Michael Behe, the prominent ID proponent, to write a full-length op-ed explaining why his is a ‘scientific’ critique of evolution.” Does this imply that Mr. Mooney thinks that Behe’s singular voice explaining the scientific case for ID should have been wiped clean from the New York Times editorial page?

Mr. Mooney fears that “the unintended consequence may be that increased media attention only helps proponents present intelligent design as a contest between scientific theories rather than what it actually is — a sophisticated religious challenge to an overwhelming scientific consensus.” But if he is concerned about not helping a cause, then clearly he is interested in using the media as a tool to hurt it. This non-neutral behavioral recommendation raises a question: What right does Mr. Mooney or anyone in the media have to make judgments about this controversy which lead them to diminish and weaken the presentation of certain viewpoints? (As was previously documented, Mr. Mooney’s arguments that ID is not science are based upon fundamental misconstruals of the theory.) He concludes that “[in] such a situation, journalistic coverage that helps fan the flames of a nonexistent scientific controversy (and misrepresents what’s actually known) simply isn’t appropriate.” This assumes that there is no controversy. Mr. Mooney concludes with proscriptions for keeping the pro-ID viewpoint out of media coverage:

So what is a good editor to do about the very real collision between a scientific consensus and a pseudo-scientific movement that opposes the basis of that consensus? At the very least, newspaper editors should think twice about assigning reporters who are fresh to the evolution issue and allowing them to default to the typical strategy frame, carefully balancing “both sides” of the issue in order to file a story on time and get around sorting through the legitimacy of the competing claims.

Here Mr. Mooney’s recommendation for journalistic bias is stated explicitly: In short, Mr. Mooney thinks it is not appropriate to cover “both sides” of a dispute in a truly balanced or objective fashion even if this is “the typical” methodology of journalism. Indeed, he directly suggests that reporters who would employ such balance should not be assigned to report on evolution. According to his view, one side should not be given the same amount of air-time, size of print-space, or numbers of opportunity for rebuttal simply because it goes against the “consensus.” According to Mr. Mooney, such “balancing” isn’t appropriate. Mr. Mooney ends by stating that “the media have a profound responsibility — to the public, and to knowledge itself.” This sounds reasonable, but one would think this responsibility carries with it the duty to inform the public about the arguments promoted by both sides in a balanced fashion, and then let the reader decide. If arguments for evolution are so powerful, then doesn’t Mr. Mooney think they can win the debate?

(From Whose “War” Is It, Anyway?: Exposing Chris Mooney’s Attack on Intelligent Design)

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Chris Mooney