There She Goes Again: New York Times Reporter Blind to Evolution’s Pitfalls

Robert L. Crowther, II

New York Times science writer Cornelia Dean continues to misinform the public about the debate over evolution, and I think she does so deliberately.

First, Dean mistakenly refers to intelligent design as the “ideological cousin of creationism.” It is not. Second, she makes this incredible assertion without anything to back it up:

Although researchers may argue about its details, the theory of evolution is the foundation for modern biology, and there is no credible scientific challenge to it as an explanation for the diversity and complexity of life on earth.

I reported about Dean making this same bogus claim at the beginning of the year. Then she wrote that

There is no credible scientific challenge to the idea that evolution explains the diversity of life on earth.

It’s as if she cut and pasted that from her last article into her latest report.
So, I’ll cut and paste my original response, as well.

This claim turns on a profound ambiguity. What does “evolution” mean when asserted to be a “fact”? If it simply means changes in species over long periods of time, there seems to be little doubt the claim is true. If it means universal common ancestry (UCA), the claim is more controversial; reasonable scientific evidence exists both in favor of and against it. But, if “evolution” means UCA plus the Darwinian mechanism of unguided natural selection acting on ran-dom mutation–together giving rise to all the complexity and diversity of the living world–then “evolution” is certainly not a “fact.” There is very limited scientific evidence supporting this view, and powerful evidence against it. (Six Myths About Evolution)

There are numerous scientific challenges to Darwinian evolution. Scientific literature is full of them. Those familiar with the debate in Ohio will remember that Discovery Institute submitted the “Bibliography of Supplementary Resources” to the Ohio State Board of Education:

“These 44 scientific publications represent important lines of evidence and puzzles that any theory of evolution must confront, and that science teachers and students should be allowed to discuss when studying evolution. … The publications represent dissenting viewpoints that challenge one or another aspect of neo-Darwinism (the prevailing theory of evolution taught in biology textbooks), discuss problems that evolutionary theory faces, or suggest important new lines of evidence that biology must consider when explaining origins.”

As for whether or not evolution is the foundation for modern biology, like Dean I will turn to the National Academy of Science–specifically to Dr. Phillip Skell of the NAS, who has written on this subject extensively. Here’s what he wrote in the New Scientist last year in an essay titled “Why Do We Invoke Darwin? Evolutionary theory contributes little to experimental biology”:

I recently asked more than 70 eminent researchers if they would have done their work differently if they had thought Darwin’s theory was wrong. The responses were all the same: No.
I also examined the outstanding biodiscoveries of the past century: the discovery of the double helix; the characterization of the ribosome; the mapping of genomes; research on medications and drug reactions; improvements in food production and sanitation; the development of new surgeries; and others. I even queried biologists working in areas where one would expect the Darwinian paradigm to have most benefited research, such as the emergence of resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. Here, as elsewhere, I found that Darwin’s theory had provided no discernible guidance, but was brought in, after the breakthroughs, as an interesting narrative gloss.

Skell concludes by saying:

Darwinian evolution–whatever its other virtues–does not provide a fruitful heuristic in experimental biology. This becomes especially clear when we compare it with a heuristic framework such as the atomic model, which opens up structural chemistry and leads to advances in the synthesis of a multitude of new molecules of practical benefit. None of this demonstrates that Darwinism is false. It does, however, mean that the claim that it is the cornerstone of modern experimental biology will be met with quiet skepticism from a growing number of scientists in fields where theories actually do serve as cornerstones for tangible breakthroughs.

In spite of the New York Times‘s glowing record as a news outlet above reproach, I think I’ll side with the scientist over the science writer on this one.
What else does Dean have to report? Seemingly quite a bit, since apparently she is able to get inside the mind of one of her sources, Dr. Deborah Owens Fink.
Dean writes: “But Dr. Owens Fink, a professor of marketing at the University of Akron, said the curriculum standards she supported did not advocate teaching intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism.” Hmmm. I suspect that Owens Fink did not say that ID is the ideological cousin of creationism, but Dean wrote this in a way that you might think she did.
Referring to the National Academy’s official stand against ID, Dean writes, “But the academy’s opinion does not matter to Dr. Owens Fink, who said the letter was probably right to say she had dismissed it as ‘a group of so-called scientists.'” Did Owens Fink actually say the academy’s opinion doesn’t matter? Probably not. At best that is unclear, since Dean writes in such a way as to try to make us all privy to many things that Owens Fink thinks. But these are just assertions on the part of the reporter.
Am I nitpicking here? Yes, but for a reason. This is a perfect example of media bias in action. Dean has made her own views on evolution and intelligent design quite clear in the past. She is completely biased against intelligent design, and so her reporting on the subject has to be suspect.

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.