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Press Coverage of Darwin vs. Design Conference Reveals both Tolerance and Anti-ID Bias

The upcoming Darwin vs. Design conference at Southern Methodist University (SMU) has triggered controversy because some Darwinists are intolerant of discussion of ID taking place too close to their campus offices. When the DvD conference was held in Knoxville recently, the Knoxville News reported that an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, Michael Gilchrist, was so concerned that he “petitioned Oak Ridge National Laboratory to remove Darwin vs. Design from its technical calendar.” Gilchrist was quoted saying that “It is fine for people to think of these things, but it’s a problem when they present it as science.” It seems that for Gilchrist, he’s OK with any view about ID being promoted as long as it is not the view which says ID is a scientific theory. The press has been sympathetic to free speech rights to discuss this debate over Darwin and design, but it has simultaneously revealed its anti-ID bias and its tendency to distort the arguments of ID proponents in favor of its own view. For example, Dallas Morning News religion reporter Jeffrey Weiss expressed dismay at the intolerance of SMU science faculty:

Not only did the professors misstate the facts, most of the protesters took actions guaranteed to help their opponents. By calling for the university to cancel the event (which was simply not going to happen. Contracts had been signed.), the science profs turned themselves into would-be censors and the ID side into victims standing up for free speech and the free exchange of ideas.

But Mr. Weiss also revealed his own bias against ID:

[T]he ID side jousted with me over the use of one word, “supernatural,” using what I consider a sort of intellectual dishonesty that has nothing to do with whether ID is right or not, but makes many people suspicious of their point of view. … Their bottom line: To describe the designer as “supernatural” is to limit the identity or nature of the designer. And they don’t want to do that. I’ll use the ID side’s own strategy to explain why I think this is unfair word manipulation.

Perhaps Mr. Weiss does not understand the nature of scientific inquiry. Science only tries to answer questions which can be addressed via the empirical domain. We can look at the information in life and determine that there was intelligence behind it. But the information in the DNA encoding the bacterial flagellum does not tell you whether the designer was God, Buddha, Yoda, or any other designer. If you want to address the identity of the designer, you have to use methods other than science.

In contrast to what Mr. Weiss alleges, this is not some attempt to “manipulate” or be “dishonest,” because ID-proponents have consistently given the principled explanation that ID’s inability to specify the nature or identity of the designer stems from a desire to respect the limits of scientific inquiry. Moreover, ID-proponents are honest about their views on the designer, they just note that these views are their personal religious views and not the conclusions of intelligent design. Phillip Johnson gives a good example of this, writing: “[M]y personal view is that I identify the designer of life with the God of the Bible, although intelligent design theory as such does not entail that.” Michael Behe gives another similar example in his quote given below.

Other Pro-ID Scientists and Scholars Agree
Mr. Weiss quotes from “a book co-authored by one of the scheduled presenters at the SMU conference” talking about the design of the universe. However, when it comes to biological design, ID-proponents are clear that the empirical data alone do not determine the nature or identity of the designer. Charles Thaxton, one of the first scientists to adopt “intelligent design” in the early 1980s, stated:

I wasn’t comfortable with the typical vocabulary that for the most part creationists were using because it didn’t express what I was trying to do. They were wanting to bring God into the discussion, and I was wanting to stay within the empirical domain and do what you can do legitimately there.

The textbook Thaxton helped write explicitly bore out this approach:

Surely the intelligent design explanation has unanswered questions of its own. But unanswered questions, which exist on both sides, are an essential part of healthy science; they define the areas of needed research. Questions often expose hidden errors that have impeded the progress of science. For example, the place of intelligent design in science has been troubling for more than a century. That is because on the whole, scientists from within Western culture failed to distinguish between intelligence, which can be recognized by uniform sensory experience, and the supernatural, which cannot. Today we recognize that appeals to intelligent design may be considered in science, as illustrated by current NASA search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Archaeology has pioneered the development of methods for distinguishing the effects of natural and intelligent causes. We should recognize, however, that if we go further, and conclude that the intelligence responsible for biological origins is outside the universe (supernatural) or within it, we do so without the help of science. (Of Pandas and People, 1993, pgs. 126-127, emphasis added)

Other ID-proponents have consistently held this view:

“The most important difference [between modern ID and Paley] is that [ID] is limited to design itself; I strongly emphasize that it is not an argument for the existence of a benevolent God, as Paley’s was. I hasten to add that I myself do believe in a benevolent God, and I recognize that philosophy and theology may be able to extend the argument. But a scientific argument for design in biology does not reach that far. Thus while I argue for design, the question of the identity of the designer is left open. Possible candidates for the role of designer include: the God of Christianity; an angel–fallen or not; Plato’s demi-urge; some mystical new age force; space aliens from Alpha Centauri; time travelers; or some utterly unknown intelligent being. Of course, some of these possibilities may seem more plausible than others based on information from fields other than science. Nonetheless, as regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton’s phrase hypothesis non fingo.” (Michael Behe, “The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis,” Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2001), pg. 165, emphasis added.)

“By contrast, intelligent design nowhere attempts to identify the intelligent cause responsible for the design in nature, nor does it prescribe in advance the sequence of events by which this intelligent cause had to act. . . . Intelligent design is modest in what it attributes to the designing intelligence responsible for the specified complexity in nature. For instance, design theorists recognize that the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the remit of science. As Dean Kenyon and Percival Davis remark in their text on intelligent design: ‘Science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy.'” (William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, pg. 247-248 (InterVarsity Press, 1999))

“There is no ‘Made by Yahweh’ engraved on the side of the bacterial rotary motor–the flagellum. In order to find out what or who its designer is, one must go outside the narrow discipline of biology. Cross-disciplinary dialogue must begin with the fields of philosophy, sociology, history, anthropology, and theology. Design itself, however, is a direct scientific inference; it does not depend on a single religious premise for its conclusions.” (Thomas Woodward, Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design, pg. 15 (Baker Books, 2006))

In the end, Mr. Weiss wrote: “I say to the Discovery Institute: Twaddle!” and he constructed in his Dallas Morning News article his own definition of ID, one that proposes “a designer with the power to shape the cosmos.” But he still hasn’t explained how the DNA encoding the flagellum can, on a scientific level, tell you if the designer is natural or supernatural.

Reporters aren’t supposed to editorialize. They’re supposed to report. This presents a nice case study of how a reporter has imposed his own biases and misunderstandings upon the debate. For some unknown reason, Mr. Weiss refused to print the definition of ID coming from ID-proponents, so he created his own. That’s not reporting — that’s creative writing.

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.



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